Three Days Along the Pacific Coast Highway

Writer Jeramy Pritchett takes a convertible on a summer drive from Venice Beach to Monterey—and rediscovers one of America’s classic road trips.

I grew up in Los Angeles but have lived in South Florida for the past 20 or so years.  So, when a recent trip back to my hometown left me with three days of free time I decided to take what is widely touted as one of America’s best road trips and to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Santa Barbara, Big Sur and Carmel.

The route was along California’s State Route 1. It is an often precariously perched highway that starts in Southern California’s Orange County and which runs north along the rugged coastline, passing eventually through San Francisco (and across the Golden Gate Bridge) before it ends in Northern California’s Mendocino County. The most anticipated section, however, is the section from Venice Beach up through Carmel, and with the keys to a convertible in my pocket, it was solidified: That’s what I would do. This road trip was a chance to clear my head and take in the epic scenery along the way.

Day 1: Venice Beach to Santa Barbara, 87 miles

If you wake up early enough you can catch a lone soul working out his style at the usually crowded Venice Beach Skate Park. This eclectic beach town is known for a sub-culture that has reached celebrity status. It’s a place to spot the now-iconic roller-skating guitar player Harry Perry and to walk along hipster central Abbott Kinney Boulevard, named after the original real estate developer who sought to build a “Venice of America.” Today the street is home to eclectic shops, great restaurants, and even an office for Google.

To get the morning started and fuel my road trip, I walked over from the beach to my favorite coffee place in the world, Intelligentsia.  Located smack in the middle of Abbott Kinney Boulevard, it is the place where you might catch a glimpse of Tim Robbins, Ian Somerhalder, or any of the other local celebs. The baristas are all dressed as if they just appeared in a music video for Mumford & Sons—slicked hair, facial scruff, and vintage-inspired clothes.

Tip: To fuel your morning departure, try Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Espresso, then, fully caffeinated, make sure to get on the road before 8:30 am or you will face serious bumper-to-bumper traffic, even on the weekend.

Intelligentsia coffee in Venice Beach
A barista at work at the very hip Intelligentsia coffee house (©Jeramy Pritchett)
After charging my batteries I headed out on the not-so-open-road that is Main Street, ready for the Pacific Coast Highway. From here, you’ll head north into Malibu, where you’ll gaze upon the spectacular houses built beside the ocean and try to guess which star lives in each (Cher’s house is a large yellow one standing by itself.) You’ll also pass the famous Moonshadows restaurant, a classic celebrity hangout in its own right (Mel Gibson’s infamous run-in with the law occurred after a late night here). Before you leave town, pause for a moment at Pepperdine University, a gorgeous campus situated above the Malibu Bluffs, facing due south into the Pacific Ocean.

The oasis-like pool of the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara
The oasis-like pool of the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara (©Four Seasons)
From Malibu, it was back onto Hwy. 1 for me, with about an hour and a half of more mesmerizing scenery through towns like Oxnard and Ventura to my overnight stop in Santa Barbara at the Four Seasons hotel. The resort still has its old school Hollywood charm, now blended with modern touches. After checking in, I walked across the street to take in the sunset and for a swim in the Olympic size swimming pool, and I could imagine Clark Gable and Betty Davis swimming laps in the same pool.

When I am on the road, I love to leave the hotel and wander into town. I’ll find a seat at a good bar, order some food, meet the locals, and learn about the area from the mixologist on duty. In Malibu, my destination was Harry’s Bar.  With a plate of fish and chips (excellent) in front of me along with one of the bar’s Mean Tai cocktails (also excellent; it is Harry’s version of the Mai Tai), the bartender reminisced about how Santa Barbara was in the good ole days. Soon, friendly patrons chimed in about with their own recollections, their memories having been shined and polished over the years.

Day 2: Malibu to Big Sur, 241 miles

Breakfast might be the most overpriced meal at any resort, but I have to admit that it’s nice to be served in bed. When I finally hit the road, I had the car’s convertible top down, and was soon glad I had remembered to bring a jacket. No matter the season, riding along the Pacific coast can at times be a chilly experience.

In between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, there is a small gas station that looks more like a stagecoach stop than a store. The fuel is pricey in typically PCH fashion, but what really distinguishes this place is that it doubles as a wine store. And although it doesn’t advertise the exceptional wine selection on its signs, inside you will find a wall of wine that is filled with some of the hardest-to-find California cabs, pinot noirs, and red zinfandels. Make sure to look behind the first row; some of the best bottles wind up hidden. The wine prices are great and the family staff at this low-key gas station and wine shop will help you pick one to match your tastes.

Elephant Seal Beach on California Hwy. 1
Elephant Seal Beach on California Hwy. 1 (©Steve Walburn)
About 40 minutes north of Morro Bay, just after you’ve passed the Hearst Castle, look up from the twists of Hwy. 1 and you will see cars parked on both sides of the road. This is your cue to find a spot for your own car and walk over to the ocean. You have arrived at Elephant Seal Vista Point. Join the other drivers at the overlook where you’ll find everyone busily snapping away with cameras and smart phones. While many of the seals will be lazily sleeping through the day, the vantage point allows you to get quite close, and even see seals frolicking.

Tip: One of the best times of the year is during the winter; the baby seals are typically around in January and February.

From there north, it’s a spectacular view north to Big Sur, and around almost every twist and turn for the next two hours will be yet another epic photo opportunity. Don’t try to rush this section of the road; drive slow, make stops, and take a lot of pictures—but most importantly take it all in.  The combination of the mystic blue water of the Pacific flanked by jagged cliffs and skyscraper-size redwoods makes this section of California’s coast one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Dramatic scenery of California's Big Sur area
Dramatic scenery of California's Big Sur area (©Steve Walburn)

In the heart of Big Sur is Ventana Inn and Spa. I would normally say don’t waste your time with staying at a property on this route that isn’t directly beside the ocean, but this place on the eastern side of the PCH is truly special. The hotel’s strong use of natural materials creates a rustic-yet-modern setting among the oasis-like gardens and the stunning property. The rooms carry through with the vision; sitting rooms have fireplaces, and a private deck becks with a hammock—and if you’re lucky, a hot tub.

After a long day’s drive, I checked in close to sunset and was lucky enough to have a family of deer appear outside my deck. I uncorked a bottle of California wine I had purchased at the gas station wine store, and ordered some room service.  The filet was cooked perfectly and the accompanying asparagus had just the right crispness and light seasoning.  I relaxed with a small fire burning in the hearth and fell asleep in the four-post bed, dreaming of another day on the PCH.

Day 3: Big Sur to Monterey, via Pebble Beach, 44 miles

The next day I struggled to leave the comfort of my bed. I walked down to the lobby restaurant for breakfast.  The waitress brought by French press coffee and told me about the resort, about the hiking path that loops the property and how the Ventana Inn has two heated pools—one for adults and kids, and another that is clothing optional.

Ventana Inn and Spa balcony
In Big Sur, the Ventana Inn and Spa embraces nature, from the lodge-style decor to the nature paths on the property. (©Jeramy Pritchett)
Over a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, a vibrantly blue-colored bird sang to me (and begged my crumbs). It was the start of another perfect California day, and after breakfast, I found that the waitress was right; the path around the property was good for some exercise—just the right amount for a vacation—and incredibly scenic, occasionally offering views of rare flora and fauna. A very fortunate traveler might even luck upon a sighting the endangered California condor—or depending on the season, the Pink Ice Plants.

After my walk I visited the luxurious spa for a much-needed massage, and the hour-long session was just what the doctor ordered before I hit the road again.

My massage therapist happened to be born and raised in the area and pointed me nearby for lunch at Nepenthe. It is the quintessential type of Pacific Coast restaurant—situated right on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

From the restaurant, I walked down the trails to get a good view of the sea life and found my eyes upon an otter playing in a protected cove. He disappeared below the waters and just as I thought I had lost him, he came up with a small fish.  The trees in the area seem to hang off the cliffs as if suspended by invisible lines tied to the sky. I could have stayed here all day taking in the enormity of my surrounding and peaceful play of the little otter, but I had an agenda. Just an hour up the road from Big Sur was a stop I wanted to make at one of the holy sites of the golf world: Carmel, Calif.

Pebble Beach golf course
A holy site for the golf faithful, Pebble Beach (©Jeramy Pritchett)
As the PCH reaches Carmel, take Ocean Avenue West and drive down to the beach where you’ll find ample parking just steps from the sand. The beach is the kind of active, strolling beach where you’ll find people walking and playing with their dogs. Head north along the beach and enjoy the ocean breeze. In the distance you will see the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course; the beach ends under the shadow of this famed championship-level course, where a round of golf will cost $525 per person (and sometimes, you’ll need to book a year in advance).

Tip: For daring golf fanatics only: From the northern end of Carmel’s beach you can actually climb a small hill and pull yourself up to stand beside the fairway of one of the Pebble Beach holes. For a moment, you will have stood upon what golfers consider some of the most holy soil. Leave the course as you found it and quietly slip back down to the beach.

Pebble Beach Lone Cypress
Icon of the Pacific coast, Pebble Beach's "Lone Cypress" (©Jeramy Pritchett)
The last part of my PCH trip almost didn’t happen, because after all the beauty I had seen already, I wasn’t sold on paying a $10 toll to cruise the famed 17-Mile Drive that’s located within the private community of Pebble Beach, just south of Monterey, Calif. I was wrong.  The houses are amazing; the views are spectacular, and gazing out upon a rocky precipice to the “Lone Cypress,” an oversized bonsai that has become the symbol of Pebble Beach, was itself worth the price of admission and the perfect emblem of a road trip up the rugged and elegant ribbon that is the Pacific Coast Highway.

Tip: The toll is refundable if travelers eat at one of the restaurants in the private Pebble Beach community.