When our favourite sports team the All Blacks confirmed they were playing Ireland in Chicago, we jumped at the opportunity for a Roadtrip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the way. A route we had wanted to drive for a long time.
Day 1: Los Angeles
Our adventure starts in Los Angeles after another superb Air New Zealand flight. After picking up our rental vehicle at LAX (thankfully a very easy and quick process for the tired traveller), our destination for our single night in Los Angeles was the Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood. Our room was incredibly spacious – possibly the most spacious experienced in the USA to date. The location of the Hotel was very convenient to Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Hills. We spent our afternoon shopping at the Beverly Center (10-15 minute walk from the Hotel) and marvelling at the Halloween decorated apartments and houses in the surrounding streets.
For dinner, I had pre-booked (using OpenTable) at the fabulous and much talked about Pump Restaurant (owned by Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump). An easy 10-minute walk from our Hotel, the restaurant did not disappoint regarding atmosphere and ambience. Tables are positioned outside in garden-like surrounds and lit by candlelight, making for a romantic evening. The service was friendly. The food was ok. We were not blown away by our meals, but as an experience would still recommend. Our waiter listed the many celebrities he has served while working there so if celebrity spotting is your thing, this is a location worth checking out.
We spent the rest of the night exploring the ghoulishly decorated bars along the Sunset Strip.
Day 2: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara
The morning of day two saw us do a quick explore of nearby Beverly Hills and the Mulholland Drive area (25mins drive from West Hollywood) and its sprawling collection of luxurious mansions. You can get quite a good view of Los Angeles from high up on Mulholland. Breakfast was at the boutique Nesmon Cafe on Ventura Blvd.
From Sherman Oaks, it was now on to Malibu. Being a Friday, we were determined to leave the Los Angeles area by midday, a call that worked in our favour as the traffic was excellent.
Taking the 405 back down into Santa Monica, we were then able to get onto the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive to Malibu took approx. 45 minutes. As it is quite difficult to get a decent view of the many houses famously stacked along the Malibu coastline, we were told by locals to have lunch at Duke’s as it had one of the best views. We were not disappointed. Getting a seat at the bar, looking straight out to the ocean was a spectacular way to enjoy our lunch. Add incredibly friendly staff, delicious Calamari and passable fish taco’s, Duke’s Malibu was a great recommendation for a break from the drive north.
After a quick look around the Malibu Country Mart, it was time to continue our journey north. The city of Santa Barbara is approx. 1:30hrs drive from Malibu. After leaving the Santa Monica mountains to our right, we pass through the relatively flat cities of Oxnard and Ventura. Oxnard houses the largest deep water port between Los Angeles and San Francisco, important for trade with Pacific Rim countries. Oxnard is also home to a large Naval base.
As the afternoon was getting on, we decided to continue to Santa Barbara.
Our chosen accommodation for Santa Barbara was the Days Inn on Castillo St. We have stayed at Days Inn hotels before and been perfectly happy, particularly with the price. The room was basic but spotless and had all we needed for our night in Santa Barbara. The beachfront is an easy 10-minute stroll from our hotel and features a large pier – Stearns Wharf – with an impressive view of the nearby marina, distant oil rigs (see image below) and a stunning sunset.
While there were eating options on the pier, we chose to have dinner at the Enterprise Fish Company on State St. Being a Friday night, the atmosphere here was lively and the food fresh, tasty and generous in serving size. I struggled to get through my Fish & Chips meal. Our highlight was the wine we chose, a Sanford “Flor de Campo” Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County). A delightful drop and enjoyable low to mid-priced dinner experience.
Day 3: Santa Barbara to Morro Bay
Our third day was a beautiful Autumn Saturday morning, so after a quick drive around some of the more affluent suburbs of Santa Barbara like Montecito (Oprah Winfrey has a home here), we decided on having breakfast on State St before heading north.
Joe’s Cafe was our chosen destination and delivered a pretty authentic diner experience with an incredibly attentive waitress and endless cups of coffee. The cafe boasts being the oldest restaurant in the city (since 1928) and appears to be a favourite with sports-mad locals and the like. My All American Breakfast was a very affordable $US8.95 and was delicious.
On the advice of locals, we decided to leave the coastal route of the 101 and take the 154 via the San Marcos Pass, Lake Cachuma and Santa Ynez. Lake Cachuma is an artificial lake created by the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River. In the month we visited, the lake was approaching low levels not seen since the construction of the Dam in 1953. The entire surrounding area was extremely dry. A large campsite exists on the south shore of the lake.
After a 3-hour drive including a lunch stop in Santa Maria (famous for its many vineyards), we arrived at the coastal city of Morro Bay.
Our day three destination of Morro Bay was a recommendation from a friend who had stayed there and loved it. As well as an artificial harbour constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Morro Bay is home to a 576ft high rock that dominates the waterfront. Originally this rock was surrounded by water, but the Northern Channel was filled to make the harbour. Morro Rock is one in a series of volcanic plugs that stretch in a line inland called the “Nine Sisters”.
Morro Bay also features a spectacular breakwater protecting the harbour from the ocean. The US Coastguard regards the entrance to this harbour as one of the most dangerous in the USA. Unfortunately the day we visited the breakwater, the waves were quite low, only infrequently crashing over the rocks.
Our accommodation was at the Harbour House Inn (formally a Days Inn which caused some initial confusion when locating). Our room was a good size, and the hotel centrally located with an easy 5-minute walk to the harbour front bars and restaurants. After unpacking, we walked to the nearby markets which run every Saturday. The markets were a great way to sample some local food, including some delicious Brittle and Caramel Popcorn.
After the markets, we wandered to the harbour front where there are many eating and drinking options. We chose an outside seat overlooking the harbour at the Libertine Brewing Co. Our view was incredible, including swimming and sunbathing seals, kayakers (trying to avoid the seals), returning fishing vessels and the iconic Morro Rock. We even experienced an almost eery period where an intense sea fog rolled in, blanketed the harbour, then cleared to reveal the setting sun.
Our afternoon quickly turned into a epic night of live music, craft beer and meeting new friends. I can now say that I am a big fan of Bluegrass music. As it happened, there was a Halloween costume party that night that provided for great hilarity.
Day 4: Morro Bay to Monterey
Our first stop on our journey to Monterey was admittedly to service two well earned Morro Bay hangovers. The Sea Shanty in Cayucos was our chosen destination for a much-needed breakfast. We did not have the highest of expectations but were perfectly happy and somewhat revived for our travel north!
Approx. 45-minutes from Morro Bay is Hearst Castle. Designed by architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle after being a residence for newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart was opened to visitors in 1958. During its heydey, Hearst Castle hosted the Hollywood and political elite. Tickets to visit the mansion Can be purchased at the Visitor Center. Visitors travel by short bus ride to the estate.
Unfortunately for us, the start to day four featured low cloud and rain. We decided on a quick visit to the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, then continued our journey. Not far up the coast is an entertaining Elephant Seal viewing point. Large, smelly, snoring, sneezing, snotty groups of Elephant Seals. More entertaining and interesting than one might imagine!
After leaving the Elephant Seals, we thankfully drove through the last of the rain system revealing a beautiful coastline. There is a scenic Light Station at Point Piedras Blancas for those keen on photography. We were now finally heading north to Big Sur.
What exactly is Big Sur you might ask? Don’t worry, before this trip, we were somewhat in the dark also. Big Sur is a largely undeveloped region of California coastline (approx. 177km) where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise steeply from the ocean. The drive includes six spectacular concrete arch bridges, the biggest being the Bixby Creek Bridge. Big Sur is touted as one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. I would agree that it is beautiful and expansive, However, I would ask those voting to also visit the South Island of New Zealand.
We encountered quite mixed weather for the duration of our drive, but if anything this enhanced the drama of some of the scenery. Let’s just say, unless I’m on a tropical island, I struggle a little taking photographs when there is not a cloud to be seen!
McWay Falls is an absolutely must stop location. The falls drop 24m (80-feet) into the ocean below.
There are many places to stop for lunch etc. throughout the Big Sur drive including, Salmon Creek Falls, Gorda Springs, Willow Creek (featuring a panoramic view of Big Sur), McWay Falls, Coast Gallery & Cafe at Lafler Rock and many more food and accommodation options in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park just south of the Bixby Creek Bridge. The state park portion of the drive features spectacular Redwood Forest.
We arrived late afternoon at our final destination of Monterey. Monterey is famous for being the location of the exclusive Pebble Beach Golf Course (amongst several other very good Links courses), Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. Cannery Row is the site of a number of now closed sardine canning factories. The last cannery closed down in 1973.
Once again, we were staying at a Days Inn. Located on Abrego St, the Hotel was an interesting 20-minute walk to Fisherman’s Wharf via the town center. As well as the being the home-base for several Whale Watching Tours, Fisherman’s Wharf offers the hungry tourist many restaurants to choose from. Fresh seafood being the common ingredient. We dined at the Paluca Trattoria, famous for its Fish & Chips, Calamari, and Clam Chowder. The waiting staff were exceptionally friendly and offered an insight to the Monterey area and its attractions.
Day 5: Monterey to San Francisco
A visit to Monterey would not be complete without visiting at least one of the fabulous Golf Courses near Pebble Beach. After a winding drive through forest, viewing an eclectic collection of homes, we arrived at the Poppy Hills Golf Course for breakfast. While not the exclusive Pebble Beach Links course that has hosted five US Opens, Poppy Hills was still an impressively manicured location and provided a delicious breakfast to fuel us for the last leg of our journey to San Francisco. The Poppy Hills course offers a far more attractive Green Fee than the nearly $US500 per round fee charged at its more famous neighbour!
Our next stop, approx. 45-minutes north of Monterey was Santa Cruz. As well as being home to California’s oldest Amusement Park (since 1907), Santa Cruz is regarded as one of the world’s best locations for surfing. No less than 11 world class surf breaks are located here. We spent a good hour watching surfers catch quite decent, bronze coloured waves on the Indicators break off Steamer Lane. The discolouration is due to an algae bloom or “Red Tide”. There is also a Surfing Museum nearby, housed in a historic lighthouse.
From Santa Cruz, it was an approx. 2-3 hour drive to our final destination of Clayton, San Francisco. Clayton is a neighbourhood located near the foot of Mt Diablo State Park. Being late afternoon, this portion of the drive was the heaviest in terms of traffic, and included missing an off-ramp adding at least 30-minutes to the journey! It was refreshing to see that heavy highway traffic is not isolated to our home city of Auckland.
I would recommend researching traffic flows and plan driving times thoroughly if considering this wonderful drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. While we were very lucky, it is easy to see how quickly traffic can build up in the main centres. Our plan each day was to have left our current location by lunchtime – this worked well in Los Angeles given it was a Friday.
I will not forget this journey. We met many interesting and fantastically friendly locals along the way and witnessed breathtaking and diverse scenery. Look out for the next portion of our trip – San Francisco and onwards to Chicago where we got to celebrate the Cubs win the World Series! Talk about great timing…