Written by Andy Jechow
Road trips are a sort of passion of mine. In the same, impassioned way I approach a plate of tres leches, at least. However, when I was younger, road trips were a grueling exercise in family bonding that felt much more like family bondage.
Trapped in the car for hundreds of miles, at least one member of the traveling party would need to use the restroom every 30 minutes or so. I would strain, in vain, to hear whatever film I was watching on my small portable video player with its poor audio. Inevitably surrendering to the tiny machine, I’d attempt, without success, to read the lips of Jodie Foster in the alien thriller “Contact”. What are you trying to tell me, Jodie?
When I grew somewhat older, and was out of the clutches of my family’s road tripping purview, I discovered that life on the highway can be a surprising amount of fun, particularly when traveling with an affable, less incontinent group of friends. One of my first real road trips was on one of America’s most famous routes: the very scenic Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. Hugging the coastline from Los Angeles through San Francisco, the two-lane road offers some of the best vistas you will ever see on four wheels. If you are interested in a near death experience, you can also follow the route on bicycle.
What originally was a group of 4 or 5 on our planned Californian road trip was eventually whittled down to my Spanish friend and me. Less bathroom stops and more legroom, it would seem. After already having to weasel our way into renting a car as under-25s, we arrived at the car rental kiosk at LAX to learn that it would be impossible to rent a convertible, what was originally guaranteed. This gave me the rare opportunity to use a phrase I have wanted to employ for some time: “I need to speak to your manager”. And had the man at the desk been fluent in English, I’m certain it would have made a sizable impression on him.
Fortunately, less than 15 minutes later, we hit the streets of Los Angeles in the silver Mustang convertible. And less than 24 hours after that, we were northbound on Highway 1 out of Los Angeles.
Driving through Malibu in the early morning, surfers began to pull up in the parking lots that dotted the route, waxing their boards, or whatever it is surfers do. Eventually, the Pacific became visible only through narrow gaps in the endless row of houses that lined the beach.
We had both brought our iPods for the trip, and I had created a playlist filled with the most pertinent songs I could muster. “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas, “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie, and The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” were par for the course. If a song did not agree with my Spaniard friend’s musical palette–and there were many–he would voice his opinion by unceremoniously hitting “next” until a suitable song was found. And, as a result, I occasionally feigned losing control of the car, when next to a cliff, as my own form of protest.
We made our way to Santa Barbara where brunch was served at the Biltmore, a Mediterranean-inspired oceanfront hotel built in 1927 and, since the late ‘80s, a Four Seasons hotel. After a filling lunch on the patio overlooking the ocean, we resumed our travels. The next destination: San Simeon.
For the following 2 or 3 hours, we encountered rolling hills with sundried grasslands to the east and the increasingly turquoise Pacific to our west.
I selected many of the detours on the trip based on some of my favorite films, including “The Birds”, “Citizen Kane”, and “The Parent Trap” (both the Lohan and the Mills versions). Our next stop would be one such detour.
It’s difficult to describe Hearst Castle, also known as San Simeon, the name of the nearest municipality. I had presumed, prior to my visit, the structure would be just as real as Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World, with all the plaster and fiberglass you could ever want. What I found was of an entirely different breed. A hybrid of Spanish and Italian architecture, the castle, with its cathedral-like main house, is mostly comprised of wood and stone sculpted and carved hundreds of years ago (in some cases, thousands of years), and shipped by the castle’s late owner, William Randolph Hearst, from their distant European homelands to sun drenched San Luis Obispo County. Spared no expense!
The beauty of the approach to the hilltop castle is hindered somewhat by having to go by bus with a horde of fellow tourists. The result, however, is a hilltop devoid of a sea of vehicles. You are met, upon arrival, by a dreary-looking concrete stairwell that leads you to the upper level. One of the many peculiarities of the castle is the lack of a grand staircase of any kind. Jack and Rose would likely be unimpressed by this omission.
The more peculiar elements of the castle, including the long abandoned polar bear exhibit, do not overshadow its more glorious components, especially its pools. The Roman Pool, a cavernous indoor area beneath the tennis courts, flirts between eerie and tranquil. The vibe is half ancient Roman bath house, half Chamber of Secrets.
As we depart San Simeon, heading northward still, “Daydream” by The Lovin’ Spoonful plays on the radio. My Spanish friend notes he was conceived to this song.
An hour later, we approached McWay Falls, worth a short stop and hike down the (more or less) level path to see the waterfall plunge out onto the beach. It’s a fairly good place to have a “whoa” moment.
Onwards northward. “Cecilia”, by Simon & Garfunkel, plays as we cross the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, its lonely single arch providing one of the better photo op locations on Highway 1.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, or simply “Carmel”, is a special town, and worth a stop to explore, for the sprawling white sand beach, the pedestrian-filled main street with its many shops, and the forested residential areas, many hosting fairy tale houses fit for a Hobbit or wood nymph, or both, if that’s what they’re into.
Arriving to San Francisco after nightfall, we made our way to the holy land of organic and Californian cuisine that is Chez Panisse in neighboring Berkeley. Long considered one of the best restaurants America has to offer, the establishment did not disappoint. The restaurant also boasts, in its upper level, a café that provides the same quality food in a more casual setting (which is also far easier to book).
A little more than an hour north of San Francisco lies Napa Valley. The home of some of the best wineries and restaurants in the world (hosting the only Michelin three-starred restaurants west of Chicago), Napa Valley is perhaps best known as the home of Hallie Parker and Annie James, late 20th century humorists.
We had lunch at Auberge du Soleil, a hillside hotel with commanding views of the valley. Below us, on the lawn, the staff prepared the seating for an imminent wedding. Row after row of chairs were fitted with hot pink cushions. Approximately 10 minutes later, the staff returned, replacing the pink cushions with white ones, apparently rethinking the Pepto Bismol-inspired color scheme.
The following day we made our way, as part of our final side trip, to Yosemite National Park, around 4 hours east of San Francisco. I would recommend against attempting the visit in a day trip, like we did, if only to increase your chances of seeing one the park’s resident bears. Once in the valley, the short drive to the Tunnel View will afford you one of the best panoramas you will ever encounter.
The Alwahnee, a grand, rustic hotel in the center of Yosemite Valley, provides the only luxury accommodations on site. Many aspects of the hotel were used in set recreations for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, including the fireplace, chandeliers and red-and-black elevators (used in one of the film’s more famous scenes).
On our return to San Francisco, bear-less but buzzed from the slight sunburn of a short hike in the park, we developed a hankering for the renowned In-N-Out burger. The young woman taking our order, donning a traditional burger server hat, plied us with their hotel pool-flavored “five-times-filtered water”. The burgers, however, were top notch, and free of the paper wrap that squishes so many of its bovine brethren at competing fast food chains.
Our one remaining destination: the airport.
Approaching the terminal, moments from the end of a 1,000-mile long journey, “Drive”, by Ziggy Marley, appropriately played once more. With a contented sigh, I soaked in the last of this great song, and roadtrip, but not before the Spaniard clicked “next” on the music player, just one last time.
– If planning a side trip to Heart Castle, book online in advance, especially in warmer months. Really, just book everything in advance.
– To make the Los Angeles to San Francisco stretch of the roadtrip a multi-day journey, stay at the Post Ranch Inn, perched on a cliff high above the ocean, for the best views and service in the area.
– Traveling southward (San Francisco to Los Angeles) rather than northward will provide your passenger(s) and probable photographer(s) with the better view while on the coastal routes. Your driver’s view, when traveling this way, will also not be obscured by oncoming traffic.
– To avoid pneumonia and second degree sunburn, don’t be too hesitant to pull your convertible over to put its top back on, especially before entering one of the long stretches of the road high in the mountains with nowhere to stop.