A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
You can drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a day or fly in an hour. But rather than rushing down the freeway or hopping aboard an airplane, drive leisurely along the coast between these two metropolises and enjoy the quaintness of Carmel, the charm of Santa Barbara, the splendor of the Big Sur coastline, the opulence of William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle, and the fun of experiencing a bit of Denmark in Solvang. Also intertwined in this itinerary are stops to appreciate a piece of California’s colorful heritage-her Spanish missions. This routing roughly follows the footsteps of the Spanish padres who, in the 1700s, built a string of missions (about a day’s journey apart on horseback) along the coast of California from the Mexican border to just north of San Francisco. Today many of these beautiful adobe churches and their surrounding settlements have been reconstructed and are open as museums, capturing a glimpse of life as it was lived by the Spaniards and the Indians in the early days of colonization.
Recommended Pacing: We recommend a minimum stay of two or three nights in San Francisco, affording two full days for a quick introduction to the city, and definitely more time if your schedule allows. San Francisco is a beautiful city and there is much to explore and enjoy. Besides the large chain hotels there is a number of smaller quaint hotels and even some charming Bed and Breakfast Inns. From San Francisco, if you take the direct route, you can easily drive to Carmel in about three hours. However, located just south of San Francisco is the Año Nuevo Reserve, where you can observe the enormous elephant seals in their natural habitat. It takes several hours to walk around the secluded beaches where the seals congregate, so if you want to visit the reserve en route to Carmel, we recommend an early start from the city. Plan on at least two to three nights (or again, if possible, more) in the Carmel, Pacific Grove, or Monterey area. One day can easily be devoured exploring the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, and the wharf. Another full day is needed to drive the Seventeen-Mile Drive, walk the spectacular Point Lobos State Park, visit the beautiful Carmel Mission-and we have yet to even discuss shopping in downtown Carmel! Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey are famous for their Bed and Breakfast Inns and wonderful small hotels. From Carmel, you can drive the dramatic coastline of Big Sur and on to Santa Barbara in four to five hours, but plan to overnight in Cambria if you want to include even just one of the tours of Hearst Castle and visit the artists’ town of Cambria-it’s too much to do in one day. From Cambria you can go directly to Santa Barbara or tarry for a couple of days and explore the wine region around Paso Robles. Santa Barbara is a beautiful, charming city with an expanse of lovely beach. The central coast of California has quickly given rise to some of the finest Bed and Breakfast Inns and small hotels from which to tour wineries and see the sights of this magnificent region. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t plan at least two nights in the area before continuing on to Los Angeles.
Weather Wise: San Francisco and the coast are often foggy during June, July, and August. The farther south you go, the earlier in the day the fog burns off. The northern California coast is cool and rainy during the winter. In southern California the weather is warmer year-round and traditionally less rain falls during the winter.
When you ask travelers around the world, “What is your favorite city?” many times the answer is “San Francisco.” And it is no wonder: San Francisco really is special, a magical town of unsurpassed beauty-spectacular when glistening in the sunlight, equally enchanting when wrapped in fog. But the beauty is more than skin deep: San Francisco offers a wealth of sightseeing, fabulous restaurants, splendid shopping, and a refreshing climate.
There are many large, super-deluxe hotels in San Francisco and we recommend a marvelous selection of small, intimate inns. Study our various recommendations to see what most fits your personality and pocketbook. Be advised that hotel space is frequently tight, so make reservations as far in advance as possible.
A good way to orient yourself in San Francisco is to take a half-day city sightseeing tour (brochures on these tours should be available at your hotel) and then return to the destinations that most catch your fancy. If you like to study before you arrive, there are entire guidebooks devoted to San Francisco and the Visitors Bureau will send you an information packet on what to see and do (San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, 900 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94101, www.sfvisitor.org, 415-391-2000). To keep you on the right track, the following is an alphabetical listing of some of our favorite sights.
Alcatraz: Wreathed in mystery, the often fog-shrouded island of Alcatraz lies in the heart of San Francisco Bay, a scant mile and a quarter from the sights and sounds of downtown. The site of the first lighthouse on the west coast, in operation since 1854, “The Rock” has since been used as an army fortress and a jail. The latter, supposedly escape proofed by the icy-cold waters and dangerous currents of the Bay, was home to criminals deemed “incorrigible” by the Federal penal system. Numbered among its inmates were Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Access is by ferry from the San Francisco waterfront. Trips run daily but are extremely popular and should be booked well in advance (contact TeleSails, 415-705-5555, www.telesails.com). The island is now under the control of the National Park Service and ranger-guided and audio-assisted tours provide a fascinating insight into the island’s history, as well as affording spectacular views of San Francisco and its bridges. Be sure to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes and warm clothing.
Cable Cars: You cannot leave San Francisco without riding one of the colorful trolleys that make their way up and down the breathtakingly steep city hills. Rather than touring by cab or bus, plan your sightseeing around hopping on and off cable cars. You can travel easily from the shopping district of Union Square past Chinatown and the “crookedest street in the world”-Lombard, and on to the Ghiradelli Square-Fisherman’s Wharf area. For a behind-the-scenes look at this charmingly antiquated transit system, visit the Cable Car Museum at the corner of Washington and Mason Streets. Here you can view the huge cables that pull the cars from below the streets and a historical display that includes the very first cable car.
California Palace of the Legion of Honor: has a spectacular setting on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the ocean. One of the original castings of Rodin’s famous Thinker welcomes you to the San Francisco replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris where Napoleon first established his new government. A self-guided audio tour is available to steer you through the galleries, which include one devoted to medieval art (there’s a ceiling from a 15th-century Spanish palace), a British gallery with paintings by Gainsborough and Constable, and 19th- and 20th-century galleries with their popular works by Monet, Renoir, and Picasso. Located at 34th Avenue and Clement Street. (415-750-3600, www.thinker.org)
Chinatown: Just a few short blocks from Union Square you enter beneath the dragon arch (at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue) into another world with street signs in Chinese characters, tiny grocery stores displaying Chinese vegetables and delicacies, apothecary shops selling unusual remedies, spicy aromas drifting from colorful restaurants, older women bustling about, and the surrounding hum of unfamiliar phrases. Of course, the streets are jammed with tourists and locals and there is a plethora of rather tacky, but fun-to-explore souvenir shops. Don’t limit your exploration of Chinatown to the main thoroughfare of Grant Avenue: poke down the intriguing little alleys and side streets. Plan a visit to 56 Ross Alley, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Down another alley, at 17 Adler Place, is the Chinese Historical Society of America-a small museum portraying the story of the Chinese immigration. The Chinese Cultural Center (415-986-1822, www.c-c-c.org), housed in the Holiday Inn at Kearny and Washington streets, offers fascinating docent-led heritage and culinary walks affording a glimpse of the “real Chinatown.” It also has a wonderful small museum offering an ever-changing schedule of exhibits.
Coit Tower: Coit Tower, located at the top of Telegraph Hill, is a relic of old San Francisco and fun to visit-not only because of the great view, but because its story is so very “San Francisco.” The money to construct the watch tower, which resembles the nozzle of a fire hose, was willed to the city by the wealthy Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a volunteer fireman (or should we say firewoman) who dearly loved to rush to every blaze wearing her diamond-encrusted fire badge. A mural on the ground floor provides a vivid depiction of early California life.
Fisherman’s Wharf to Ghiradelli Square: This portion of the waterfront is very popular with tourists. Pier 39 is lined with New England-style shops; nothing authentic, but a popular shopping and restaurant arcade complete with street performers and a beautiful two-tier carousel. Pier 39 is also home to a new aquarium and some very boisterous and amusing sea lions (415-981-7437, www.pier39.com). Pier 41 is where you purchase tickets for the popular excursion to Alcatraz (see listing). Fisherman’s Wharf, where fishermen haul in their daily catch, has long been a favorite with tourists. It is difficult to find even the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf behind all the trinket-filled souvenir shops and tourist arcades, but look carefully and sure enough, you will see the colorful fishing boats bobbing about in the water at the waterfront between Jones and Taylor Streets. Nearby, Fish Alley, a small pier extending out into the harbor, affords a good view of the fishing fleet and the aroma of fresh fish mingling with the salty air. At the corner of Leavenworth and Jefferson The Cannery, formerly a fruit cannery, is today an attractive shopping complex. At the foot of Hyde Street Hyde Street Pier is home to the Maritime Museum’s fleet of historic ships, several of which can be boarded and explored. Our favorite is the Balclutha (1886), a three-masted merchant ship typical of the hundreds that came round the Horn to San Francisco. Inspect the comfortable captain’s quarters and cramped crew’s quarters and exhibits of nautical gear. Just beyond the Hyde Street Cable Car turnaround lies Ghiradelli Square, a lovely brick building that used to house the Ghiradelli chocolate factory, now a complex of attractive stores and restaurants. The ship-shaped building in Aquatic Park (in front of Ghiradelli Square) is the land base of the Maritime Museum, full of displays on the history of water transportation from the 1800s to the present, including marvelous photos of old San Francisco. (415-447-5000, www.nps.gov/safr)
Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point: San Francisco’s symbol is the Golden Gate Bridge with its graceful orange arches. The visitors’ viewing area on the San Francisco side offers stunning views (if the fog is not in) and access to the pedestrian walkway across the bridge (2½ miles round trip, wear warm clothing). At the base of the Golden Gate Bridge’s south pier, Fort Point, built in 1861 as one of the west coast’s principal points of defense, provides a fascinating insight into military life during that period. (415-556-1693, www.nps.gov/fopo)
Golden Gate Park: You will need to take a bus or taxi to Golden Gate Park, but don’t miss it. The park encompasses over 1,000 acres, so large you really cannot hope to see it all, but many attractions are located near one another. Wander through the traditional Japanese Tea Garden and enjoy tea and cookies Japanese-style at the tea house (415-752-1171). Across the road from the Japanese Tea Garden, the Arboretum features landscaped gardens of many countries and regions including their indigenous plants and flowers. Art lovers head for the adjacent De Young Museum whose copper cover roof rises above the trees. It’s modern architecture is as impressive as its splendid collection of paintings by American artists and art of the native Americas, Africa, and the Pacific (415-863-3330). Off John F. Kennedy Drive, you can also visit the Rose Garden with hundreds of species of roses in every color and where, for the price of an almond, you’ll have bluebirds eating our of your hand. A little further east and open year round is the beautifully renovated Conservatiory of Flowers housing many tropical flowers including a gorgeous lily pond. The 12,000 square-foot Victorian greenhouse is the oldest existing glass and wood conservatory in the United States. If you are hungry, you might want to consider the Beach Chalet, a restaurant on the ocean side of the park near the Dutch Windmill. The menu offers good, modern American fare matched with their list of brewery selections. The building once served as the changing rooms for Ocean Beach. On the first floor are beautifully restored murals of San Francisco in its early days and guests enjoy unobstructed views of the surf from tables by the second-floor expanse of window. (415-386-8439)
Crooked Lombard Street: Lombard is an ordinary city street-except for one lone, brick-paved block between Hyde and Leavenworth where the street goes crazy and makes a series of hairpin turns as it twists down the hill. Pretty houses border each side of the street, and banks of hydrangeas add color. Start at the top and go down what must be the crookedest street in the world: it is lots of fun. The Hyde Street cable car makes a stop at the top of the hill and from here you can easily walk down to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Mission San Francisco de Assisi: This mission at Dolores and 16th Streets is frequently referred to as the Mission Dolores. If you are interested in Californian missions, you will find a visit here worthwhile. It was on this spot that San Francisco was born when Father Francisco Palou founded his mission here in 1776. At one time this was a large complex of warehouses, workshops, granaries, a tannery, soap shop, corrals, Indian dwellings, and even an aqueduct. Today, all that is left is the chapel and next to it the garden where gravestones attest to the fragility of life. Although small, the chapel is beautiful in its simplicity with 4-foot-thick adobe walls and massive redwood timbers. (415-621-8203)
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA): A cylindrical, striped turret rising from blocks of red bricks gives a hint of what lies within this futuristic building at 151 Third Street. To help you appreciate the exhibits, an audio-cassette can be rented in the lobby to guide you through the museum’s permanent collection of abstract expressionistic paintings and avant-garde photography. Even if you are not a fan of modern art, you will be awed by the building’s interior: the space soars upwards from the lobby for five stories to a broad catwalk that runs below the cylindrical glass skylight (415-357-4000, www.sfmoma.org). Just across the street from the MOMA lie the Yerba Buena Gardens and Galleries. The gardens are an oasis of tranquility where a broad expanse of grass leads to a cascading sheet of water-a perfect place to relax and people watch. The galleries offer changing exhibits that showcase the San Francisco Bay Area’s cultural diversity. On the top floor, encircled by windows and a spectacular view of the city skyline, is an ice-skating rink. (Open daily 1 pm to 5 pm and evenings with some limitations. 750 Folsom Street between 3rd and 4th, 415-777-3727, www.skatebowl.com.) Just round the corner (678 Mission Street) a turn-of-the-century hardware store houses the California Historical Society with its bookstore and changing exhibits of photographs, paintings, and objects documenting California’s growth and change. (415-357-1848, www.calhist.org)
Sausalito and Tiburon : An enjoyable excursion is to take the ferry from Pier 43½ in San Francisco to Sausalito or Tiburon, small towns just across the bay full of intriguing shops, art galleries, and wonderful restaurants. As a bonus, en route you enjoy gorgeous vistas of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. For information call the Red and White Fleet at 415-673-2900, or visit their website at www.redandwhite.com.
San Francisco Theatre: For theater buffs, San Francisco offers an excellent variety of entertainment. Most theaters are located in the heart of the city within walking distance of Union Square. In addition, San Francisco has fine opera and ballet. The San Francisco Visitors Bureau (415-391-2000, www.sfvisitor.org) can send you a packet with information on what is going on. You can also call the “hotline” at 415-391-2001 for a recording of all current events.
Union Square: In the center of the city sits Union Square, hallmarked by a small park around which tower deluxe hotels and fancy department stores. Do not tarry too long at the “biggies” because just beyond the square lies every specialty shop imaginable from department stores to any number of designer boutiques. The Crocker Galleria at 50 Post houses collections from top names in international design and many fine specialty stores and restaurants.
Union Street: Union Street (between Laguna and Steiner), lined with lovely restored Victorian houses, offers a wonderful variety of quaint gift shops, elegant boutiques, beautiful antique stores, small art galleries, excellent restaurants, and a multitude of intriguing little shops hidden down tiny brick-paved lanes.
It’s a three-hour drive south from San Francisco to Carmel taking the scenic Hwy 280 to San Jose and Hwys 17 and 1 on to Carmel. But rather than head directly to Carmel, we suggest you meander down the coast, following the contours of the spectacular coastline, enjoying a number of sights en route-a journey that will deserve a couple of days.
Leave San Francisco to the south on 19th Avenue and take Hwy 280 south (direction San Jose) for 20 miles to Hwy 92 which you take west to Half Moon Bay. Turn left on Half Moon Bay‘s Main Street. Park just across the bridge and visit Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel Store, an authentic country store selling saddles, rabbits, chickens, animal feed, and farm implements. Poke your head in the variety of shops, restaurants, and art galleries that line the street. Leaving Half Moon Bay, continue down Main Street and join Hwy 1, the coast road, to the south of town.
If it is anywhere approaching a meal time, 17 miles south of Half Moon Bay, take a detour into Pescadero to Duarte’s Tavern famous for its artichoke dishes and fresh fish. Founded in 1894 it’s a local landmark. (650-879-0464, www.duartestavern.com)
Thirty miles south of Half Moon Bay is the Ano Nuevo State Reserve, home to elephant seals whose huge males with their trunk-like snouts reach a whopping 6,000 pounds. From mid-December to the end of March park docents conduct a 3-mile round-trip hike to the breeding grounds of these car-size mammals. Reservation lines open in October for the following season (800-444-7275). If you are not able to book several months in advance, call the park directly at 650-879-2025 and they may be able to advise you if last-minute tickets are available. We have, in the past, secured tickets by arriving at 8:30 am and queuing at the entrance booth for tickets for tours that day. Outside of the breeding season obtaining permits to view the seals (there are often also a great many sea lions in residence) is not a problem: tickets are issued on arrival and you follow the well-marked path to the distant beach where the seals are found. Outside of the breeding season, the best time to visit is during July and August when the juvenile males return to molt.
Ten miles south of Año Nuevo you come to the cluster of houses that makes up the town of Davenport. Fronting Hwy 1 is the New Davenport Cash Store, which sells everything from handmade jewelry to local pottery and whose restaurant offers a varied and healthful menu with excellent soups and tasty vegetarian dishes. (831-426-4122)
Downtown Santa Cruz, 11 miles south of Davenport, was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake, but a newly revived Pacific Avenue exhibits all the laid-back charm the town is noted for, with outdoor cafés, a variety of shops and galleries, and numerous street performers. Years ago this busy seaside town, with its bustling Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and amusement park bordering a broad stretch of white-sand beach, was a popular day trip for workers in San Francisco. The rides include a heart-stopping wooden roller coaster and a wonderful old-fashioned carousel.
If you enjoy riding trains, you can take the old-fashioned diesel that departs from the boardwalk twice a day during the summer months for the 60-minute ride to Felton. Here you board an old steam train of the Roaring Camp Railroad, a train that winds up into a redwood forest. The train leaves several times a day from its main station in Felton (except on Christmas) along narrow-gauge tracks built to carry lumber out of the forest.
The conductor tells stories of the old days as the train circles up through the trees, making a brief stop at the “cathedral,” a beautiful ring of redwoods that form a natural outdoor church, before heading back to the depot. It is possible to take a picnic with you, alight at the top, and take the next train back. Call for schedules and directions: 831-335-4400.
Leave Santa Cruz heading south on Hwy 1 and travel for about 20 miles to Hwy 129 where you head east. Continue on the 129 for approximately 16 miles through small farms and rolling hills to San Juan Batista and its most attractive Mission San Juan Batista. There is far more to see here than just an old church, for an area of the town has been restored to the way it was 150 years ago with the mission as its focus. Facing the square is the restored Plaza Hotel, now a museum where tickets are sold for admission to the attractions in the park. The focal point of the sightseeing is, of course, the mission, but do not end your touring there. Directly across from the mission is a most interesting house, nicely restored, and furnished as it must have looked many years ago. Adjacent to this is a blacksmith’s shop and stables where there is a colorful display of old coaches. Next door to the Plaza Hotel is another home now open as a museum with period furnishings.
Follow Hwy 156 west for a couple of miles until it merges with Hwy 101 going south to the Monterey Peninsula. As you pass through Prunedale, begin to watch for signs indicating a sharp right-hand turn on Hwy 156 west to the Monterey Peninsula. Along the way, fields of artichokes dominate the landscape as you near Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world. When you begin to smell the sea air, stay in the left lane following signs for Hwy 1 south to the Monterey Peninsula. As you approach Monterey, dunes lining the sweep of the bay come into view.
The main sightseeing attractions in Monterey are in two areas: the old town and the marina, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. A bayside walking and biking path runs from the Marina beside Cannery Row to the Aquarium and beyond to the adjoining town of Pacific Grove. A fun way to explore Monterey is to rent a side-by-side tricycle near the aquarium and pedal to the Marina.
Kayaking lets you enjoy another perspective of Monterey-looking back at the town and gorgeous beaches from the bay. Open-deck kayaks make the sport easy even for the inexperienced and paddling out amongst the seals and otters is quite memorable. We rented from A B Seas Kayaks of Monterey and found owner Geoff Hand and his team to be very helpful and accommodating. All equipment, loose-fitting rain gear (although plan on getting wet), life jackets, and instruction are included in the rental price. Geoff has generously offered any of our readers a 20% discount on the three-hour package if our guide is presented. A B Seas Kayak is conveniently located at 32 Cannery Row, on the coastguard pier. (831-647-0147)
In Old Town Monterey a 3-mile walking tour links the restored buildings of early Monterey. The old adobe structures are interesting and a sharp contrast to the bustle of nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, a quaint wooden fishing pier lined with shops and restaurants. At the end of the pier huge sea lions vie for the fish cast off the fishing boats.
Cannery Row, once the center of this area’s thriving sardine industry (the fish are long gone) and brought vividly to life by John Steinbeck in his novels featuring Doc and the boys, is now filled with small stores and tucked into an old warehouse are some outlet stores. The premier attraction in Monterey is the adjacent Monterey Bay Aquarium with over 200 galleries and exhibits. The centerpieces of the Aquarium are the huge glass tanks that showcase the underwater world of the local offshore marine habitat from the diverse tidepools to the multitude of life in the Monterey Bay: one tank is populated by huge sharks and colorful schools of fish while another contains a mature kelp forest teeming with fish. Other exhibits include; playful otters and seahorses. The Outer Bay exhibit, a vast tank of water representative of the outer ocean, brings a new dimension to the Aquarium and leaves the visitor with a memorable impression of just how little is known about that massive body of water. (www.montereybayaquarium.org, 831-648-4888)
Monterey is all hustle and bustle (especially in summer) and it is nice to continue on to the neighboring, much quieter town of Pacific Grove. To reach Pacific Grove, follow the road in front of the Aquarium up the hill and make a right turn onto Ocean View Boulevard, a lovely drive lined on one side with gracious Victorian homes and splendid views of the sea on the other. Besides being an affluent residential community, Pacific Grove is famous for the Monarch butterflies that return faithfully each October and cluster in the grove of trees next to Butterfly Grove Inn on Lighthouse Avenue.
Carmel lies just a few miles beyond Pacific Grove and there is no more perfect way to arrive than along the famous Seventeen-Mile Drive, which meanders around the Monterey Peninsula coastline between the two towns. The route is easy to find as the road that leads to the “drive” intersects Lighthouse Avenue and is appropriately called The Seventeen-Mile Drive.
The Seventeen Mile Drive loops through an exclusive residential area of multimillion-dollar estates and gorgeous golf courses. Because the land is private a toll per car is levied at the entrance gate, where you’ll receive a map indicating points of interest along the way. The scenic drive traces the low-lying shore, passes rocky coves where kelp beds are home to sea lions, sea otters, cormorants, and gulls (remember to bring your binoculars), and meanders through woodlands where Monterey pines gnarled by the wind stand sentinel on lonely headlands. Along the drive is the famous Pebble Beach Lodge and Golf Course, site of the National Pro-Am Golf Championship each January.
Carmel-filled with Hansel-and-Gretel-style cottages nestled under pines and surrounded by flower-filled gardens-is one of California’s most appealing towns. Tourists throng the streets lined with appetizing candy shops, beckoning bakeries, a wonderful selection of restaurants, enticing boutiques, pretty gift stores, and attractive art galleries. The picturesque combination of fairy-tale cottages and a sparkling blue bay makes Carmel so very special. Its main street slopes gently down the hill to a glorious white-sand beach crested by windswept dunes. Just south of town is the Carmel Mission, established in 1770 by Father Junipero Serra. Beautifully restored and fronted by a pretty garden, the mission was Father Serra’s headquarters. It is from here that the stalwart little priest set out to expand the chain of missions. A small museum shows the simple cell in which Father Serra slept on a hard wooden bed. The church itself, with its Moorish tower, star-shaped window, and profusion of surrounding flowers, has a most romantic appearance.
Carmel has another very special attribute, it is completely dog friendly. The whole town welcomes them and caters to them in every way. Not only do many hotels accept dogs of all sizes, but some even have a packet of doggie treats tied with ribbons awaiting their canine guests. When you take a walk, you find the beach abounds with dogs happily romping beside their masters. When you go shopping, you discover pet boutiques displaying an unbelievable assortment of items: raincoats, bonnets bedecked with flowers, jeweled collars, booties, umbrellas, goggles, hand made sweaters, and sun visors. Browsing through the shopping arcade, you find a whimsical stone fountain with a dog’s head. Cool water cascades into three pools, all set at the perfect height for a thirsty pet. A favorite pet friendly restaurant is Forge in the Forest whose dog menu includes mouthwatering items as the Quarter Hounder (for the hound with a hankering for beef), Hen House Chicken Strips (grilled and sliced boneless chicken breast), Hot Diggity Dog (an all beef kosher dog for your dog), and the Good Dog (eight ounces of grilled New York steak for that very, very good dog). If you want a night on the town without your pet, hotels have a list of pet sitters.
Located just south of Carmel on Hwy 1, Point Lobos State Reserve is, in our estimation, the premier place to enjoy the California coast. A small admission fee entitles you to day use of the park. Walk along the coastal trails and venture down wooden steps to secluded sandy beaches. Rocky coves are home to sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters. Between December and May migrating gray whales surface and dive offshore. Bring your binoculars and head for Sea Lion Point and the headland on Cypress Grove Trail, the best places to see the whales. Walking trails and picnic areas are well marked and the times of guided nature walks are posted at the entrance gate. (831-624-4909, www.ptlobos.org)
Believe everything you ever read about the beauties of the Big Sur Coastline: it is truly sensational. However, hope for clear weather, because on foggy or rainy days an endless picture of stunning seascapes becomes a tortuous drive around precipitous cliff roads. (In poor weather, you may wish to take the inland route to Cambria by following the picturesque Carmel Valley Road east to Hwy 101 where you then head south. When you come to Hwy 46, turn west. The road intersects with coastal Hwy 1 just south of Cambria.) As you drive south on Hwy 1, you have an indication that you are approaching Big Sur when you see the road sign “Hill Curves-63 miles,” which is exactly what the road does as it clings precipitously to the edge of the cliff. While the road is quite narrow, there are plenty of turnouts and opportunities for taking photos.
If you have plenty of time, you might want to consider a very scenic 10-mile detour east off Hwy 1 following the Old Coast Road through beautiful redwood groves and country ranchland. To access the Old Coast Road, turn left just before crossing the dramatic span of Bixby Creek Bridge. You’ll be on your own for most of the journey and the road will deposit you back on Hwy 1, across from the entrance to the wonderful Andrew Molera State Park. Allow approximately one hour for the adventure, and be aware that the road is not passable after heavy rains.
If you opt to remain on scenic Hwy 1, you will find its passage dramatic over the much-photographed, long concrete span of Bixby Creek Bridge. A few miles later, the rocky volcanic outcrop topped by the Point Sur lighthouse appears. About 40 miles south of Carmel is the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with its camping facilities and many miles of hiking trails among coastal redwood groves. (831-667-2315)
If you choose only one place to stop along the Big Sur drive, make it Nepenthe, about 3 miles south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Nepenthe is a casual restaurant, with a ’60s-style decor, perched on a cliff high above the ocean offering unsurpassed views (on a clear day) of the coast to the south (831-667-2345). Below Nepenthe, The Phoenix Shop has a wonderful selection of clothes, artwork, books, and gifts (831-667-2347). Interestingly, at the heart of the complex is a cottage that Orson Welles bought for his then wife, Rita Hayworth.
Another stop along the way where you can gain a closer view of this magnificent coastline is at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The parking area is to the left of the road. Leave your car and take the short walk leading under the highway and round the face of the cliff, which overlooks a superb small cove with emerald-green water and a white-sand beach. From the rocky bluff a waterfall drops directly into the ocean and the restless sea beats against a craggy point. After the Ragged Point Inn, the bends become less frequent, and as the cliffs give way to the coastal plain, the driving becomes less arduous.
After the road begins to flatten out, watch for Hearst Castle impressively crowning the coastal hills. In 1919, William Randolph Hearst commissioned California’s famous architect Julia Morgan to design a simple vacation home atop a hill on his estate overlooking the California coastline. Twenty-eight years and $10,000,000 later, he moved to Los Angeles and left his 100-room retreat, La Cuesta Encantada (the enchanted hill), which has never been completed. Hearst Castle continues to delight its millions of visitors: next to Disneyland, Hearst Castle is the most popular visitor attraction in California.
The number of visitors allowed on the hill during any one day is limited, so it is essential that you make reservations in advance. Hearst Castle is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Several different one-hour and forty-five-minute tours are available. Also from September through December, Hearst Castle offers at weekends a magical evening tour and program with a holiday theme. The castle is decorated for Christmas and the staff, dressed in appropriate and wonderful costumes, play the roles of William Hearst and his entourage of friends as they bring history alive. The evening tours are tremendously popular and must be booked well in advance. If traveling with children, inquire also about the special summer children’s programs. Tickets for all tours are available for purchase up to eight weeks in advance. (800-444-4445, www.hearstcastle.org)
Plan on arriving at the visitors’ center at the foot of the hill at least half an hour before your scheduled departure, as the tours leave with clockwork-like precision and do not wait for stragglers. If you arrive early, you can browse through the small museum located next to the departure depot where groups assemble by number for their turn to be taken up the hill by bus. Here you also find an IMAX Theater which shows a special documentary of Hearst Castle.
Of the daily tour programs, Tour 1, the overview of the castle, is the one recommended for first-time visitors. You walk through the gardens to the main house, La Casa Grande, to tour the rooms on the lower level. The sheer size and elaborate decor of the assembly room where Hearst gathered with his guests before dinner sets the opulent mood of this elegant establishment. In the adjoining refectory Hearst and his guests dined in a re-created medieval banquet hall-the bottles of Hearst’s favorite ketchup on the table seem rather out of place. In the theater a short home movie of Hearst and some of his celebrity friends gives you an idea of life at the castle during the 1930s. A feeling for the opulence of the guest accommodation is given as you tour the guesthouse, Casa del Sol.
Tour 2 views suites of bedrooms, the kitchen, and the swimming pools. The indoor Roman pool has over half a million Italian mosaic tiles, vast amounts of gold leaf, and took over five years to complete. Tour 3 visits the guest wing of the castle, a guesthouse, and the pools. Tour 4, offered only in summer, does not go into the main house, but focuses on the estate’s gardens.
From the Hearst-San Simeon State Historical Monument it is just an 8-mile drive south to Cambria. Cambria was once a whaling station and a dairy town that shipped butter and cheese to San Francisco. Now the main town lies away from the coast and encompasses two streets of art galleries, gift shops, antique stores, and restaurants.
Leave Cambria and the coast traveling east on 46 through the Santa Lucia coastal mountain range. We have always considered that Hwy 46 affords one of California’s most beautiful drives through gorgeous stretches of farmland and lush, gently rolling, golden hills covered with oak trees and vineyards, and it is now the best route to explore the burgeoning Paso Robles Wine Region. Once known for cattle ranches and grain fields and historically as a mineral springs resort area, the Paso Robles region has a rich history of winemaking and grape growing-the first grapes were introduced to the region by Spanish conquistadors and the Franciscan missionaries and wine was produced in 1797 at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcángel. Approximately 13 miles inland from Cambria you begin to see farmland give way to row-upon-row and acre-after-acre of vineyards.
(Note: If you have the luxury of time, detour off Hwy 46 west on two separate roads to discover some of California’s most beautiful scenery. Santa Rosa Creek Road offers a lovely ramble through pristine countryside to the back side of Cambria (approximately a 35-minute drive) and Old Creek Road is another charming drive (about a 20-minute trip), taking you by Whale Rock Reservoir to the beach city of Cayucos.)
Spend a few days here and you will enjoy not only drives along scenic, rural, uncrowded roads-most of the wineries are open for tasting (most are free) and a few offer self-guided tours. Clustered just off the 46, still on the outskirts of Paso Robles, are several wineries: Summerwood is beautiful and Castoro is a must for tasting. Castoro Winery also hosts concerts throughout the year. Other wineries not to miss are Dover Canyon Winery, Grey Wolf, Midnight Cellars, Dark Star Cellars, and Fratelli Perata. Lone Madrone Herb Farm is also a delightful stop to pick up herbs and gifts for house and garden.
To combine wine tasting with a drive through stunningly scenic countryside, take Vineyard Drive from the 46, traveling to the north, winding through the hills that were once home to Mennonite dairy farms, grain and nut farms, and cattle ranches. Venture on to two of the most picturesque wineries, Justin and Carmody McKnight. Stroll through Justin’s lovely gardens and sample their award-winning wines. From Justin Winery head over to Carmody McKnight Estate Wines, an 1800s farmhouse with a pond in front, and enjoy your wine tasting while overlooking their gardens. A number of signs will tempt you off the main road down local roads to many family-run wineries. Follow Adelaida Road back to the heart of downtown Paso Robles.
Before continuing over to the east side of town to visit a number of the region’s larger wineries, take some time to explore historic Paso Robles. The Carnegie Library in the center of the town park is home to a wonderful collection of local history and a Western Art Gallery. Not far away is the Pioneer Museum and there is also the Estrella Warbird Museum, which houses a collection of WWI and WWII military fighter planes. You will be thrilled to discover the many antique shops and winery tasting rooms. History is being embraced with the opening of mineral spas. River Oaks Hot Spring and Spa (located 3 miles east of town off Hwy 46 east) offers massage, facials, and therapeutic mineral baths in a serene lakeside setting.
To continue wine tasting, head out from Paso Robles on Hwy 46 east to many of the area’s larger wineries. Martin-Weyrich has a feel of Tuscany and a wonderful gift shop and tasting room. Eberle Winery offers picnic baskets made to order with advance notice. Enjoy your picnic on their deck, sample award-winning wines, and take time to tour the Eberle caves. Meridian Vineyards has lovely gardens, a great tasting room, and a gift shop. Don’t leave out Tobin James, with its real western-flavor tasting room, great hospitality, and award-winning wines. Follow your wine map, but don’t miss Wild Horse Vineyards in Templeton and be sure to explore country roads like Neal Springs in this “El Pomar” area. The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance have a brochure, tel: 805-239-8463, fax: 805-237-6439, or visit their website at www.pasowine.com.
From Paso Robles travel south on Hwy 101 the short distance on to San Luis Opispo. If you want to visit every mission en route, when you reach San Luis Obispo take the Broad Street exit and follow signs to the Mission San Luis Obispo, which lies at the heart of this bustling, charming college town.
About 10 miles south of San Luis Obispo, Hwy 101 returns to the coast where you take the exit for Hwy 1 and Pismo Beach, a 12-mile arc of white-sand beach backed in part by dunes. This is the home of the famous Pismo clam, which has unfortunately in recent years become rather scarce. As you travel south on Hwy 1, views of the beach are blocked by apartments and motels, but do not despair: 2 miles south of town, leave the freeway by turning right into Pismo Beach State Park. After paying the entrance fee, pass quickly over the soft sand. Once your tires hit the well-packed, damp sand, your way feels more secure as you drive along the beach, paralleling the crashing waves. From this vantage point you can really appreciate the beautiful sweep of this white-sand bay. While it is possible to drive about 5 miles south on the beach, the auto exit ramp lies 1 mile to the south.
Leaving Pismo Beach, follow Hwy 1 south passing flat, wide fields of vegetables and eucalyptus groves through Guadalupe, a rather poor agricultural town. The road becomes a divided two-lane road as Hwys 135 and 1 merge. After passing the gates of Vandenburg Air Force Base (on the approach to Lompoc), take a left turn onto Mission Purisma Road, which leads to Mission La Purisima Concepcion, founded in 1787 and now carefully restored and maintained by the state park system. A self-guided tour offers you the opportunity to see how the Indians practiced mission crafts such as leather working, candlemaking, and building. The simply decorated church with its sparse furnishings, rough floors, and stenciled walls is typical of Spanish and Mexican churches of the period. One of the nicest aspects of La Purisma Concepcion Mission is its lovely setting-deep in the countryside amidst rolling hills and flower-filled meadows.
Leaving the mission, follow signs for Buellton, which has the redoubtable fame of being the home of split-pea soup-you come to Craigellachie just before Hwy 246 crosses Hwy 101. The menu has more to offer than soup, but it is still possible to sample a bowl of the food that put this little community on the map.
From Buelleton it is just a short drive into Solvang, a town settled originally by Danish immigrants, which has now become a rather Disneyfied version of how the perfect Danish village should look-a profusion of thatch-like roofs, painted towers, gaily colored windmills, and cobblestoned courtyards. The shops house a plethora of calorific bakeries and fudge and candy stores interspersed with lots of nifty-gifty Scandinavian-theme craft shops. Interestingly, a large portion of the town’s residents truly are of Danish descent. Even if you are not a shopper, Solvang warrants a bakery stop.
Leave Solvang and rejoin Hwy 246, following signs for Santa Barbara. This is another gorgeous region of horse ranches and neighboring vineyards. The towns are small, charming and country-western: Santa Inez, Los Olivos, Ballard-all with a main street, a few charming shops and restaurants, and the ever-present horse and feed store.
Just outside Santa Inez, Hwy 246 merges with Hwy 154, which takes you through the heart of this beautiful landscape and the lush green valley gives way to hills as the road climbs through the mountains up the San Marcos Pass. Rounding the crest of the pass, you see Santa Barbara stretched out below, hemmed between the mountains and the sea. The red-tile roofs and abundance of palm trees add an affluent look to this prosperous town. Santa Barbara is one of California’s loveliest cities. The homes and public buildings show a decidedly Spanish influence and make such a pretty picture-splashes of whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, and palm trees snuggled against the Santa Ynez Mountains to the east and stretching to blue waters of the Pacific to the west.
A pleasant introduction to Santa Barbara is to follow the driving tour published by the Chamber of Commerce. You can probably pick up a brochure at your hotel or by calling the Chamber of Commerce at 805-965-3023 or www.sbchamber.org. The route is well marked and gives you an overall glimpse of the city as you drive by beaches, the wharf, the old downtown area, and affluent suburbs. The brochure also outlines what is called the “Red-Tile Walking Tour,” which guides you through the town’s beautiful streets. It takes discipline to stay on the path as you pass the multitude of shops filled with so many tempting things to buy. The highlight of the tour is the Santa Barbara Courthouse, a magnificent adobe structure with a Moorish accent. You definitely must not leave town without visiting the splendid Mission Santa Barbara, which is located at the rise of the hill on the northern edge of town. This beautiful church with two bell towers faces a large park laced with rose gardens. As in many of the other missions, although the church’s main purpose is for religious services, a museum is incorporated into the complex with examples of how life was lived when the Spaniards first settled in California.
When your allotted stay in Santa Barbara draws to a close, it is a little less than a 100-mile drive to the Greater Los Angeles area. The vast Los Angeles basin is crisscrossed by a network of freeways, which confuses all but the resident Southern Californian. Frustrating traffic jams during the morning and afternoon rush hours are a way of life. Therefore, plot the quickest freeway route to your destination and try to travel during the middle of the day in order to avoid traffic. Los Angeles does not offer a wide selection of inns, but there are many attractive, modern hotels where you can stay. The Greater Los Angeles area has an incredible wealth of places to visit and things to do. Sightseeing suggestions are described in the Leisurely Loop of Southern California itinerary.