Unveil the glory of California’s Pacific Coast Highway
Few American roads are as iconic – and none are as splendidly diverse – as the Pacific Coast Highway of California. The stretch from Los Angeles to San Francisco boasts fascinating history, boutique wineries, atmospheric towns, majestic coastlines, and towering redwoods. Plus, it’s bookended by two of the world’s great cities. Read on to learn more about the biggest highlights…
The Pacific Coast Highway is a dazzling introduction to the incredible bounty of California’s coastline, and it genuinely does have something to offer every kind of traveler. Cities range from charming Spanish colonial (Santa Barbara) on the one hand, to downright glitzy (Hollywood and Santa Monica) on the other. There’s nature aplenty, not least in Big Sur where the mighty redwoods meet the splendidly rugged coastline with loads of history (Hearst Castle is epic) and culture (Pinot Noir anyone?) too.
Our most popular PCH itinerary starts in Los Angeles before meandering slowly north to San Francisco. It makes sense for this blog to follow the same 430-mile trajectory.
Hit the glamorous beaches of the City of Angels
Los Angeles needs little introduction. Ever since the glory days of Hollywood in the 1920s, it’s been the place of pilgrimage for everything showbiz. But your main focus here will be visiting two of LA’s most famous Pacific Ocean beaches – on your own bicycle!
Bohemian Venice Beach boasts an irresistible 1.5 mile stretch of silken sand and an-always bustling boardwalk of fire-eaters, strongmen, and some seriously good skateboarders – for almost 50 years, Dogtown (as Venice is known locally) has been the epicenter of global skate culture. Nearby Santa Monica Beach, with its white sand, emblematic pier, and historic beach house, is probably the most iconic of all LA beaches. In addition to the swimming, there’s always loads to do in Santa Monica – take a rollercoaster ride, learn to ride a Segway, or munch on a sumptuous blueberry and (almond) cream crêpe…
Soak up gorgeous Santa Barbara’s languid Spanish charm
Less than a hundred miles from the hustle and bustle of LA, you enter a world of trailing bougainvilleas, palm-fringed beaches, and terracotta roofs. The gem of the California Riviera was settled by the Spanish in 1782, and the famous Mission Santa Barbara was established four years later. History buffs will love exploring the Presidio (the town’s oldest colonial building) and the elegant Mission – it remains the state’s oldest functioning church – which was rebuilt after a devastating 1812 quake, and boasts a handsome courtyard and some fascinating Chumash artwork.
But laidback, luxurious Santa Barbara is also home to some of the best shopping and dining opportunities on either coast. Quintessential State Street cuts an elegant, pedestrian-friendly swath through town, and its palm lined sidewalks hide a hidden gem for every kind of shopper. From big brand names to boutique designers and fiercely-local artisan markets, every trip down State Street is a new adventure.
How to: Do Santa Barbara in style
If there’s one place to splurge on your PCH adventure, this is it. Santa Barbara is cheek to jowl with fabulous accommodation, but there is none more legendary than the Belmond El Encanto. Ever since its 1918 construction, European-inspired El Encanto has been a haven of sophistication perched high up in the Santa Barbara hills. Sample fabulous local wines and locally-sourced seasonal cuisine (featuring cheeses from Ellie, Belmond’s resident heifer!), relax in El Encanto’s state-of-the-art spa, and sleep it all off in a secluded California Craftsman room.
You can also find gastronomy to suit every palate in Santa Barbara, but if we would recommend one place it would be the intimate, family-owned Jane Restaurant in the heart of the Theater Art District. Located in a historic Spanish building, Jane specializes in fresh hearty meals like an ‘all natural, in-house roast turkey Cobb salad’ and the decadent ‘fettucine with homemade lamb sausage.’
Explore the backroads, vineyards, and castles of small-town California
Leaving Santa Barbara and following the PCH north, you’ll drive through a rural wonderland that takes you back to a time when the California coast was still a rugged and untamed paradise. Before long, you’ll be surrounded by the rolling vineyards of the up-and-coming Central Coast wine region which is fast establishing a reputation for Pinot Noirs that are almost as dazzling as the coastline they hail from. (Your SA Expeditions’ guide can assist in unearthing some fantastic sparkling wines, Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Syrahs too.)
After a day to remember, you’ll come to the picture-perfect town of Cambria, whose splendid coastal aspect is matched only by its sky-high property prices. At once bucolic and chic, there are few more appropriate places to rest up ahead of tomorrow’s exploration of enigmatic Hearst Castle, the truly palatial clifftop home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919 and 1947, La Cuesta Encantada (as Hearst preferred to call it) is an ostentatious celebration of excess, featuring a main dwelling modeled on a Spanish cathedral and an over-the-top hilltop swimming pool to rival Vegas. Although Hearst and his castle were famously satirized by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, the seminal film about a miserly and reclusive tycoon, the man himself was actually closer to a West Coast Gatsby, famous for his lavish parties. (Unlike Gatsby, he despised drunkenness.)
Drink in the spectacular nature and scenery of Big Sur
After your early morning brush with American royalty, you’ll drive one of the most awe-inspiring stretches of road anywhere on the planet, hugging precipitous bluffs and fording gaping canyons on intricate marvels of engineering. Big Sur is the majestic meeting point of two California icons: the mighty Pacific Ocean, and the towering Giant Redwood. A place where waterfalls plunge hundreds of feet into the breakers, and the stars are your streetlights.
After arriving at your Big Sur lodging – choose between an idyllic lodge and an unforgettable glamping experience – you’ll have time to explore your majestic surroundings on foot. To uncover the secrets that lurk in the permashade of the world’s tallest trees, and be humbled by a coastline that is, at turns, brutishly powerful and indescribably delicate.
Take a literary detour to Steinbeck’s Monterey
As soon as you pry yourself away from the majesty of Big Sur, another mesmerizing stretch of road awaits. As you make your way towards San Francisco, we strongly suggest stopping off in Monterey, home to one of the most important and storied aquariums in the country, and also the unforgettable backdrop for John Steinbeck’s comic classics Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat. We’ll let him tell you why:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen’ and he would have meant the same thing.
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
Eat the cherry on the top in intoxicating San Francisco
I can’t believe I’m about to try to distil the city that has it all into one measly paragraph... What started off a sleepy mission town in 1776, became one of the world’s busiest ports during the 1849 Gold Rush. Ever since then, the City by the Bay has been pushing the envelope, fending off quakes and the Great Depression to become the financial capital of the West, and playing host to revolutions enacted by the Beat generation, the hippy movement, gay-rights activists and – much more recently – the Silicon Valley tech boom.
Your exploration will take in all of this cultural diversity – visiting the charismatic hoods of Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Marina – but it’ll also showcase San Francisco’s barely believable natural splendor, with a cycle tour over the Golden Gate Bridge and a spectacular sunset cruise back across the Bay. Once you’ve got a taste of San Francisco, we can guarantee you’ll come back for more…
Have we convinced you yet? To embark on the drive of a lifetime, check out our eight-day Pacific Coast Highway expedition. Whether you make the journey behind the wheel of your own rental car or in a chauffeur-driven vehicle, it’s an experience that will stay with you forever. This coastal adventure dovetails really nicely with our eight-day Mountains, Deserts and Moonscapes adventure.