USA Road Trip: Chapter II – Highway 1
Chapter II of our adventure is about us driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the iconic Highway 1 for a lot of the journey. We were up and about early, not because we were still time zone adjusting, more like excitement. As we walked down Powell Street for the final time, on the way to Alamo to pick up our rental car, we stopped off at Lori’s Diner for breakfast.
The car we’d booked was a convertible (Ford Mustang or similar). Amanda would have liked a Chevy Camaro in yellow, just like Bumblebee from Transformers, but it was indeed a Ford Mustang in white. I drove it back to the hotel to load up the cases, which had been one of my concerns given the size of the two new ones we’d bought specifically for this trip. We got one in the boot, along with my backpack and Amanda’s handbag, but the second case would have to go behind the front seats. The easiest way to load it was to drop the soft top and heave it in, using the seat belts to secure it as best we could. Then we were off…
Personally, I find driving in America pretty easy, but it does take a while to orientate yourself back into driving on the wrong side of the road and to get use to the car and its controls. Doing this whilst in the heart of a major city is much harder than picking a car up from an airport and jumping straight onto a freeway, but we managed.
We joined Highway 1 on the outskirts of Santa Cruz (map ref. 1) and headed for our first stop in Monterey. The London Bridge Pub (map ref. 2) was next the marina and served up a couple of nice sandwiches. The wind was very strong and had a biting coldness to it, so our walk around the area was limited, but the restaurants on Fishermans Wharf all looked good. Back on the road, the next scheduled stop was Bixby Bridge, but there were a few pull in stops to appreciate the stunning views and take pictures.
Bixby Bridge (map ref. 3) was completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, the concrete span, one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, soars 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. One look at the canyon’s steep and crumbling cliffs, and it’s obvious that building the bridge could not have been easy. It’s a beautiful location and extremely photogenic. It’s reputedly on of the most Instagrammed features along the Big Sur coastline.
The roads along this stretch of the coastline were brilliant, not for the fainthearted, and the Mustang and the driver (me) absolutely loved it. The only downside to being the driver was that appreciating the views had to come second to keeping the car on the tarmac. I pictured myself as Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious movies…can you see the resemblance?
Our next stop was unplanned, but highly recommended. The Big Sur River Inn (map ref. 4) was a rest stop, store and restaurant, with overnight accommodation in wooden lodges. It was tranquil, beautiful and totally amazing. We grabbed a drink and sat on wooden seats actually within the river, soaking our feet.
After a short stop for water and a toilet break, I couldn’t get the car started. I was pressing the brake pedal and starter button, but the damn display just said press the brake to start…I am doing you stupid thing! Amanda tried and, after initially no joy, the engine finally jumped into life…phew!
The last unscheduled stop was a roadside turnout where you can view hundreds of elephant seals near San Simon (map ref. 5). Again, the wind stopped us spending too long watching the seals basking in the sun, but it is well worth adding to your itinerary if you are ever fortunate enough to drive Highway 1.
We pulled into Cambria and our overnight destination, El Colibri Hotel & Spa (map ref. 6), around 5pm, checked in and headed straight to the outdoor jacuzzi for a soak. We walked into town for some food shortly after a beer in the hotel bar and it was a good job we did, as everywhere closed down at 8pm! Cambria is very quaint, almost manufactured, but very quiet in April.
We checked out of the hotel around 10am and loaded up the ‘beast’. Amanda was driving today and the first stop was the gas station across the highway on the outskirts of Cambria. Once full, we headed South down Highway 1 towards our first stop of the day…Pismo Beach. The journey was easier and less twisty than yesterday which helped Amanda get in tune with the car. Some people hate being a passenger, but not me, I enjoy being driven and Amanda is a very good driver.
As we hit the city limits of San Luis Obispo we joined US Route 101, which is the main dual carriageway along the West Coast of California.
Pismo Beach (map ref. 1) is a medium-sized town, with housing rising into the hills and hotels, shops, bars and restaurants along the beach front. The dominant feature is a large pier which is primarily used for fishing and only has one shop on it, renting out fishing tackle and selling snacks and drinks. Either side of the pier are vast areas of lovely sandy beach. Surfing is also popular when the conditions are right as there were three hardy souls braving the cold water as we looked on from above on the windswept pier. We grabbed brunch at Brad’s Restaurant before continuing South.
As Highway 1 does not hug the coastline on the next section, we decided to continue down US Route 101 for some higher speed fun and some legal undertaking as well as overtaking. Our next scheduled stop was Santa Barbara (map ref. 2).
Neither of us had done any research on Santa Barbara, so as we rolled into town we headed to the Tourist Information Centre for advice. We were given a map and were pointed in the direction of the Courthouse. Santa Barbara clearly had a Spanish flavour to its architecture, with white walls, impressive arches and red tiled roofs. The Courthouse was the biggest example of this architectural style, with its tiled flooring, wall murals and large clock tower. It was slightly surreal seeing an official public building in such a style. It is clearly in use as at least one of the courtrooms was in session, with worried faces sat on the benches outside its entrance door.
We wandered around the area, with map in hand, looking at many of the other red tiled buildings. You certainly do not get local council buildings like this in Scunthorpe! As we were stood on a street corner studying the map, an old gentleman stopped to ask if we needed any help. He had a very well to do English accent and explained he’d lived in America for 40+ years, had married an American lady and had brought his kids up as Americans. He also spoke about the heritage of Santa Barbara, explaining that the dominant architectural themes are the Spanish Colonial Revival and the related Mission Revival style, encouraged through design guidelines adopted by city leaders after the 1925 earthquake destroyed much of the downtown commercial district. What a lovely guy.
We left Santa Barbara behind, heading to our next destination which was scheduled to be Malibu. As we still had to find a hotel for the night, whilst Amanda was driving, I started the search on www.booking.com. After weighing up options in Ventura, Malibu and Santa Monica, I booked a place in the latter as this had always been the ideal scenario provided we could find somewhere of reasonable quality at an affordable price. More on this later. So I updated the sat nav with the hotel address and we continued down US Route 101.
Unfortunately by changing the sat nav destination it also changed our planned route. Rather than dropping off US Route 101 and back onto Highway 1 after Ventura the sat nav had us continue along the dual carriageway. Amanda picked up on the error (my bad) just in time to allow us to take a connecting road (map ref. 3) back towards the coast and Malibu. As it was a minor road, it also gave Amanda her first taste of some nice mountain switchbacks.
Malibu (map ref. 4) was a little disappointing as I’d expected to see some massive celebrity homes, but all we saw was some impressive heavy duty gates and security systems. I’m sure the properties that sat behind these barriers were stunning, but we’ll never know. Malibu Beach was cool though, with a mammoth stretch of sandy beach and crashing waves…a surfer’s paradise.
We finally rolled into Santa Monica (map ref. 5), our overnight location, with plans for a nice steak, a bottle of red and a walk on the famous pier. First things first though, we had to find the place I’d booked and get checked in. The name of our accommodation was Cal Mar Suites and although it was in a brilliant location and had a review score of 7.7 it was disappointing, especially as this was the most expensive accommodation on the trip so far. It was a series of suites that had previously been residential apartments. The suites were arranged in two tiers around a very small pool, with parking beneath each suite. Our room had a living area, with sofa’s, a table and a small kitchenette. The bedroom was a good size, with a kingsize bed, large TV and ceiling fan (no A/C). The bathroom was fairly standard with the shower over the bath. It was a suite, but it was tired, in need of some serious TLC, a little fusty and with dubious security. We decided to stay…just!
We had our steak and red wine at Del Frisco’s Grille, which was delicious and highly recommended. We sat outside, but needed the heaters on as the temperature dropped as quickly as the sun. After eating, we walked down the Santa Monica pier. It was getting late and the funfair rides had closed, but it was still a lovely stroll and very romantic. We popped into the arcade and put a few quarter’s into the American equivalent of our 2p machines and dubbed the place Skeg-Monica.
We headed back to our hovel, sorry hotel, and drifted off to sleep safe in the knowledge that if intruders broke in during the night we’d be alerted by the noise of them tripping over the objects we had placed in front the doors and windows!
This part of our trip, the true Road Trip, was brilliant and so much fun for so many different reasons. I had looked forward to this for so many years and it did not disappoint one little bit. Would I recommend it…yes. Would we do anything different…yes. We would recommend splitting the journey into three sections at least, with overnight stays in Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Santa Monica (but not at Cal Mar Suites).