Highway 1, which runs almost the entire length of the California coastline, could hardly have been more aptly named, as it’s often cited as the number one driving experience in the USA.
The All-American Road (an official designation that effectively treats it as a tourist destination in its own right) starts just south of Los Angeles and finishes in Mendocino County, more than 650 miles north.
I’m not a fan of driving for driving’s sake - getting from A to B is generally all that counts when I’m behind the wheel - but Highway 1, which is also rated among the most scenic drives in the world, is definitely an exception.
Not only are the coastal views often incredible, but there are plenty of fascinating places to stop and explore along the way. So if you’re hitting the road in California then there might be a quicker way - via Route 101 or Interstate 5, both of which stay inland - but there's definitely no better way to get from many A’s to B’s in the Golden State.
Actually, scratch that, there is a better way - in a convertible Ford Mustang. I saw dozens on the road as I tootled along in my rather more conservative hire car, wishing I’d been a bit more extravagant in my choice of vehicle.
I picked up Highway 1 just north of Santa Barbara and followed it to San Francisco, stopping off at a number of places en route. But I’m getting ahead of myself - or was it those Mustangs getting ahead of me? - as I started off in the lovely city of Santa Barbara, beautifully located right on the coast beneath the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Without wishing to cast aspersions or tempt fate, if you’re ever going to get into trouble with the law, this is the place to do it. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, built in 1929 in Spanish Moorish style with a fabulously ornate staircase and 25-metre clock tower, is so beautiful that defendants are likely to forget they’re even in the dock.
The city is packed with Spanish colonial-style buildings and red tile roofed-buildings, with its Mediterranean architecture and vibe earning it the nickname ‘Riviera of the West’.
The moniker also partly reflects what an easy, Mediterranean-type place it is to explore on foot, particularly the downtown and seafront areas - which I ambled around throughout my two-day stay. I also hopped on a whale-watching trip in the Santa Barbara Channel where the disappointment of catching only a brief glimpse of a blue whale’s back was partly compensated by a delicious mahi-mahi sandwich and beer back at a café on the harbour.
After a couple of relaxed days in Santa Barbara I ventured out on my first trip on Highway 1, heading for Pismo Beach, a place that’s held a place in my conscious for years, courtesy of a certain 'wascally wabbit'. I remember Bugs Bunny regularly trying to burrow his way here - complete with sunglasses, deckchair and cocktail - but invariably ending up in some frosty alternative, typically exclaiming: “I knew I shoulda taken a left turn at Albuquerque”.
Highway 1 passes right through the heart of Pismo, so after a 90-mile drive my navigation was a no-brainer - I just had to turn left at Main Street. The old-fashioned seaside town is roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and depending on your perspective, is either retro cool or starting to look its age - it was undoubtedly in its pomp when those Looney Tune cartoons were made in the 1940s and 50s.
That said, the beaches, streets and restaurants were all busy when I visited, proving that - like Bugs - it remains popular to this day. The biggest queue of all stretched round the block from the door of Splash Café, a surf-shack style restaurant just along from the pier. I joined it, and the wait to be served was more than worth it for the best clam chowder I’ve ever tasted.
The sunsets were also among the best I’ve ever seen, a timeless attraction for a destination with an apparently timeless appeal.
Highway 1 briefly heads inland north of Pismo, before returning to the coast at Morro Bay and hugging it all the way to Monterey, the views getting more and more spectacular with every passing mile.
The most stunning section is around Big Sur, which I reached after a detour to Hearst Castle, the one-time residence of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, an eccentric millionaire often assumed to be the inspiration for the cult movie 'Citizen Kane'.
His former home (he called it ‘The Ranch’) is an incredible 165-room hilltop property set on 127 acres of land near San Simeon, and is a shrine to excess, with every room a treasure trove of art and artifacts, many of which Hearst collected during his regular visits to Europe.
Largely based on a Spanish cathedral, the castle opened in 1919 after decades of construction work, and its grounds contain an array of statues, villas, Roman baths and more, many with views across the hills to the coast.
Fascinating and bewildering in equal measure, the castle is now a National Historic Landmark and one of California’s top tourist attractions, and I was definitely as bemused as amused by the whole thing.
The next section of my journey was a less disputable affair, as the area around Big Sur contained the most impressive section of the drive so far, offering spectacular views of the rugged coastline and its magnificent cliffs and towering redwood trees.
Sadly as the driver I was forced to enjoy some of the views vicariously through the regular exclamations and “wow”s of my passenger, as I was too busy negotiating numerous hairpin bends (‘switchbacks’) and keeping an eye on the oncoming traffic. Pulling off to stop and enjoy the views is therefore an absolute must along this stretch, especially near the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, a ridiculously photogenic arch bridge just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood was once the mayor.
I was unable to make his day by dropping in, as time was tight and my target was the popular tourist spot of Monterey. My flying visit largely involved checking out Old Fisherman’s Wharf and its resident harbour seals but I saw enough to know it’s a place I need to return to, not least to visit the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and the plethora of bars and restaurants I spotted while exploring the former fish packing plants of Cannery Row, made famous by author John Steinbeck.
Highway 1 skirts around Monterey Bay as it heads north, passing Moss Landing, gateway to one of the largest wetlands in California, en route to Capitola, a cheery little seaside town brimming with brightly-painted houses, shops and restaurants.
I made this my base to explore nearby Santa Cruz, the birthplace of surfing in the mainland US (there’s a museum to prove it) and a funky beachfront town with loads to see and do. The wide-ranging attractions include the west coast’s oldest boardwalk amusement park - where even the new rides have been made to look old - and the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, a narrow-gauge steam railway that winds its way between towering redwood trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
I rattled my way through the trees on ‘Dixie’, a 105-year-old steam engine originally used on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad before enjoying a quieter, closer look on a lovely walking trail that lets you get up close - and in one case inside - the incredible trees, some of which date back almost 2,000 years.
The final leg of my journey was an 80-mile drive along the coast to my final destination of San Francisco. This section of the highway is almost mundane after the dramatic scenery around Big Sur, but any coastal drive is a treat for people who live in the landlocked Midlands, so I made the most of it all the same, even hopping out to snap some photos of Rockaway Beach at Pacifica.
From here it was an easy hop into San Francisco, which is easily my favourite city in the US. And i'm not alone - it was voted best city in the US by Condé Nast Traveler magazine for 16 years in a row.
The ‘City by the Bay’ is a brilliant place to visit, with a range of attractions and iconic sights familiar to millions.
The list of highlights is as long as the invariably fog-covered Golden Gate Bridge (8,981 feet/2,737m, as it happens), and includes the largest Chinatown in the US, Fisherman’s Wharf (where the main catch is tourists), the historic island prison of Alcatraz and the California Academy of Sciences and a stunning natural history museum in Golden Gate Park.
I also loved hanging out in the hippy area of Haight-Ashbury and touring the bars of North Beach, where the beat poets used to hang out, and where I’m sure I was served a beer by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
Not surprisingly the city offers an amazing choice of eateries, from tourist traps - ice-cream at Ghirardelli’s, clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf (worth it for people-watching alone) to locals’ favourites such as the food trucks that pitch up at various locations and sell the most fantastic array of street food - I was especially taken with my lobster salad roll from the Lobsta Truck.
Another important food recommendation in this part of the world is In ‘n’ Out Burger - a brilliant fast food chain and a Californian institution not to be missed. Two words are all you need here: “double double” - if you like burgers I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
The same goes for a road trip on Highway 1, which is an experience not to be missed and undoubtedly one of the best holidays I've ever had.
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