Helen Wright discovered the joys of the open road when she took a car journey through California, plotting a route through the rolling valleys of wine country to the precipitous cliff edges of Big Sur and the movie-star magic of LA.
Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes around 10 hours, but if there was ever a road where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s the Pacific Coast Highway. Arriving in San Francisco for 11 days on the road, we’ll make our way from its bohemian north to the glamour of the Hollywood hills, experiencing the ultimate all-American drive.
“If ever there was a road where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s the Paciﬁc Coast Highway.”
Helen Wright, travel and lifestyle journalist
Before hitting the highway, we have three days to explore San Francisco. Our base, the whimsical Hotel Caza, is the epitome of NorCal cool, complete with complimentary bicycles so we can start exploring. Don’t be put off by the ‘city of hills’, the hotel is rolling distance to Fisherman’s Wharf and from here you can cycle the relatively flat waterfront to the Golden Gate bridge. It’s most beautiful in the morning when the sea breeze has blown in a light fog that hugs the bridge as the sun threatens to burn through. A Big Bus Tour is a more relaxed way to see the sights. Make sure to hop off at the Presidio Tunnel Tops – this recently opened urban park has stunning views across the bay.
Toast your trip
The fun really starts when we collect our clichéd, but utterly gleeful, Ford Mustang Convertible, which will be our steed on the open road. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with the wind in our hair, we drive an hour north to the fragrant Napa Valley, following a trail of pink and gold grapevines. Stay at The Westin Verasa Napa for the stylish outdoor pool and Michelin-starred dining. If you have no idea where to start among the hundreds of wineries, head to Oxbow Public Market, which has a gaggle of relaxed tasting rooms. Before you leave, swing by Gott’s Roadside diner for a cold shake and a juicy burger, made strictly from locally sourced ingredients. It’s classic Americana done properly and the result is delicious.
Hitting the road
The road to Yosemite National Park flaunts its curves, winding through the forest with the wind flickering between the trees. Undoubtedly, it’s some of the most sublime scenery on earth with waterfalls, sequoia trees and vertiginous granite peaks dominating the landscape.
There is no better place to get out and stretch your legs. The mighty granite monolith El Capitan is instantly recognisable and makes a fabulous backdrop for hikes in the valley.
From here, we set the Mustang free on a four-hour drive to the coast, heading to the rugged Monterey Peninsula. One of the world’s best spots for whale watching year-round, Monterey Bay has a choice of local boat tours ready to take you out onto the water.
Back on dry land, wander the historic district of Old Monterey and find picturesque streets lined with 19th-century buildings that now mostly house galleries, boutiques and tea rooms. The Monterey Bay Inn is set high on the cliff overlooking the National Marine Sanctuary and all rooms come with balconies and binoculars.
Heading south, Mother Nature leads the way as we cruise along Highway One with a face full of sea mist and two hands on the wheel. The 110km of spectacular coastline has plenty of viewpoints where you can stop and breathe in the ravishing views. At Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we spot a humpback whale in the calm blue distance.
Look straight down and the water is angrier, whipping into a froth as it crashes against the rocks. A moment of watching the hypnotic waves bouncing and spraying into the air and you realise it’s not angry at all, just free and joyful to be on this wild and undeveloped coast – very much like we are.
After all that rugged beauty, the road takes us to manicured Santa Barbara. Dubbed the American Riviera, the city is set between the Santa Ynez Mountains on the left and golden beaches to the right. In between, Spanish Colonial Architecture dazzles white and terracotta in the sun.
A taste of the high life
The A-list has been flocking to Santa Barbara since the 1920s and you’re more likely to spot a celeb here than in Hollywood these days. Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are among the elite to call Santa Barbara home, and you can get a glimpse of their lifestyle at Riviera Beach House, a boutique hotel in the centre of town.
Just a couple of sunny hours south, the road passes the windblown cliffs and sandy beaches of Malibu and down to the palm tree-lined oasis that marks our last stop, Los Angeles.
The Garland is a stylish mid-century resort in North Hollywood, where you can lounge by the pool pretending to be a coquettish ingénue or take a deep dive into the making of your favourite movies on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.
With the convertible still parked outside, we couldn’t resist a drive down to Santa Monica Beach for one last cruise alongside the Pacific before the sun went down. Sure, it’s quicker to make it down south on the interstate, but Highway One is the best detour you’ll ever take.
Browse more epic road trip ideas here or talk to us to start planning your own tailormade driving adventure.