Definitely an iconic tick for that ever-growing travel bucket list; The Pacific Coast Highway in a Ford Mustang convertible.
On our way to the Southern Hemisphere we thought why the hell not. We needed to stop somewhere and decided it’d be wise to get a bit of sun and heat before hitting mid Winter in New Zealand. Plus I am ashamed to say that I have never been to the US and although this would be just a tiny dent in this huge country, it was at least start.
This post is for any budding road trippers out there, I have written an overview of what we did over 5 days in California with a summary of key tips for ‘trip planning’ at the end. It’s ended up being quite a long one so apologies if you ‘drop off!’
Day 1: Flying London to Los Angeles
We arrive on Sunday evening and after getting some tips from friends who have recently done a similar trip, I am eager to get to the car rental desk to make sure we secure our Ford Mustang. (see tips and tricks section). After spending a good 20-30 minutes trying to work out how to turn the car on without a key (yes – we are used to the slightly less modern car), we were on our way.
Now we only had one night in LA, mainly as we had heard from a number of people not to hang around if we were short on time as there were better places to see. With this in mind we were leaving in the morning so can’t really say we have any solid information on LA. We did a bit of drive time through the city (paid hommage to the Fresh Prince and Hollywood) but we were both so tired it’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I can however highly recommend Park Cienega Motel. Great price, clean rooms with everything you need, Wi-fi, parking and the rest. Just what we needed without having to pay through the roof prices which can be easily be done.
Day 2: LA to Santa Barbara to Lake Cachuma
First stop Santa Barbara. A well known spot on the Californian coast-line, surrounded by the Saint Ynez mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, nick-named the ‘American Riviera’.
And it really is a lovely spot; from the tall tropical-fell palm trees that line the roads to the beach-side feel and Mediterranean architecture. The locals are rightly proud of where they live and the ladies in the tourist information centre really were some of the most enthusiastic and lovely people that I had spoken to in a while.
In a nutshell;
- Stroll along the beaches in between the piers and embrace the great outdoors watching people out and about on paddle boards, kayaks, sailing boats. If you have time get out there on the calm inviting waters!
- Re-boost your energy without breaking the bank at On the Alley with some yummy seaside picks or of you’re wanting something bit more high profile with a proper sea view try Chucks or Santa Barbara Fishouse
- Visit the Santa Barbara Country Courthouse – it’s still in use and is a beautiful building with a great view of the terra-cotta rooftops and the town
- Visit the Old Mission which was originally founded back in 1976 as the 10th Mission out of 21 californian Missions. Get a 45min/1hr guided tour or just enjoy the gardens
- Wander through the main shopping streets and take in the Mediterranean ‘joie de vivre’
- If you’re into tree appreciation visit the Moreton Fig tree – it’s the biggest (I think) in the US – well this is what we were told in the information centre
- Finally hats off to the guy with the impressively decorated camper van in the car park opposite the visitors centre!
We could have easily spent another day here to see all the sights and sample even more of the atmosphere but unfortunately we were on a slightly reduced timescale…
…next stop, about a 40 minute drive away was Lake Cachuma set back in the hills towards Saint Ynez. We decided to head to a campground in the mountains as we would be getting lots of coast time on our drive. It was great driving up the winding roads, taking in the dramatic change of scene. It was a Monday and the campsite was pretty quiet, although they did say if it was the weekend booking would be advisable. The camping area is huge and I was amazed at the thought of it being full but they do like their RV’s over here. Luckily for us we had the pick of the park and chose a spot over looking the lake. The signs of the drought here are sadly very visible. Pontoons that presumably used to dip in to the waters edge are now completely high and dry with the water just a distant view away.
It was a lovely spot to walk around nonetheless and set up for the evening with a good old rustic bbq; steak, salad and beer, not forgetting some marshmallows to finish it all off.
Day 3: Lake Cachuma to Pismo Beach, Madonna Inn, Hearst Castle, Elephant Seals and the Big Sur…
As the descriptor suggests today we achieved a lot – one of those days where you have few plans but it ends up working out pretty well. Aim of the day was to camp somewhere along the Big Sur and preferably on the beach if possible just to mix it up a bit. We were up fairly early and got everything packed up before hitting the road in search of breakfast
These are the top picks of what we packed in to Day 3….
- Off we cruised to Pismo Beach and the Old West Cinnamon Rolls cafe; its popularity was confirmed by the queue winding onto the outside pavement. As a lover of cinnamon, big thumbs up from me. Serious sugar high and not the my usual breakfast choice, but they do say, when in Rome…
Powered up by sugar and caffeine we checked out the beach but unfortunately the clouds and infamous Californian fog had rolled in and so the sea wasn’t looking so inviting. On a good day I believe there are lots of activities available and probably has more of a buzz at the weekend and during holiday time. That coupled with its classic seaside town feel definitely makes it a worthwhile place to stop… even if just for a cinnamon-sugar re-charge!
- Madonna Inn – Our Californian book had picked this out as an entertaining stop en route through San Obispo Louis and a good place to pick up some homemade cookies (yes more sugar!) Set back from the main road and surrounded by mountains this place oozes ‘fun’ and sweeps you away into an enchanted world. Of course it is slightly tacky and touristy but I loved the magical feel of the place and unashamedly would put it on my list of places to stay; from the caveman to the buffalo themed room, this Inn really does capture your creative imagination. We wandered the public areas, took a double-take at the glitzy dining hall, sampled the men’s waterfall urinal, found Beast another shirt of awesomeness and bought a couple of cookies to ward off the Cinnamon Bun sugar crash.
- We’d read a bit about Hearst Castle and as we were road-tripping with minimal planning we didn’t book ahead for the full tour. We did however drive up to the entrance area and observe the magnificence of the castle from afar while getting a bit of historical background. Fascinating story and am sure it would have been a very worthwhile tour – I couldn’t really get a good photo of the castle so have used a couple of images which I have credited… certainly looks pretty grand!
- Up the coast just 15 minutes and a personal highlight; Elephant Seals View Point Those of you that know me, know that I am a sucker for anything animal related. And this did not disappoint. I could have spent hours just watching the impressive bodies of blubber basking in the sun (and a good way to prepare myself for Adam’s beach antics), every now and then making an extensive effort to move a few metres before collapsing once again.
- Big Sur drive time – What a fantastic road (road geek alert), twisting and turning against sheer towering cliffs on one side and a never-ending coastline on the other. The sun was shining, top (of the Mustang) was down and we embraced seeing hundreds of fellow Ford Mustang roadtrippers along the way.
- Evening was drawing in and we had already been ‘rejected’ from one campsite on the beach (Limekiln State Park) which was our original plan. We drove onto another recommendation, Pfeiffer Big State Sur Park however as we approached we saw the fateful NO VACANCY sign. Perhaps we should have taken advice and booked. Luckily Adam’s charm wooed the lady and we managed to pick up one of the cancellation plots. Another night of camping and this time set within a forest of Redwoods. We had time for an evening swim in the river before building a fire to sit around and heat up our basic style camping food from the small shop; baked beans and chilli alongside a chilled beer (dinner of champions some might say).
Day 4: Big Sur to Santa Cruz
Top of our list was to get some beach time and preferably a bit of surf – very much beginners at this sport we’re always keen to improve and pretend we’re better than we actually are! Today’s plan was to head to Santa Cruz for the night with a few stops on the way.
- Breakfast stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea was a great shout. We stumbled across Katy’s Place. A buzzing cafe with a great menu from waffles to pancakes to granola and quite the place in Carmel to head to. Big thumbs up from us! The town was pretty sleepy when we were there but we definitely felt the aura of a classy, creatively inspired town with heaps of personality. The weather wasn’t great, so the much-talked about beach wasn’t so inviting,for a morning swim and instead, we drove around the narrow streets and appreciated the fairytale-style architecture of some of the houses and shops…A full overview of these cute little houses can be seen here:
- As we continued to drive along the coast the Californian fog came rolling in from the sea and with this a quite impressive temperature drop of 11 degrees…
The fog stayed for much of our drive around the well known Monterey Peninsula, ‘17 Mile Drive‘ where you get to see Pebble Beach Golf Course and a few other sites along the way. There’s a small toll charge of $10 but it’s definitely worthwhile.
- Monterey Aquarium – we had decided in advance, amongst mixed pieces of advice, that we would make the stop to visit the aquarium in Monterey. We both just quite like the underwater world. It also gave us an excuse to stop in Monterey for a bit to get a little taster of the town. The aquarium itself was pretty impressive – it was expensive as these tourist attractions are – but the large fish tanks were great along with the innovative jellysfish section and of course the sea otter feeding time was as entertaining as expected. The town had the classic tourist seaside town feel which while isn’t for everyone was great for a quick drive-through stop.
- On towards Santa Cruz and accommodation – again we hadn’t booked and campsites aren’t so easy to come across in close proximity to Santa Cruz. After trying a couple of campsites, Manresa State Park and New Brighton State Park, both of which were full, we decided to admit defeat and part from our beloved tent for the night. We headed into Santa Cruz, found a bar with Wi-fi for a beer and a quick booking.com search. Without a problem we booked Capri Motel which was conveniently located a short walk from the main pier where we headed for evening drinks and food. Our meal was more beige than a bread selection platter! All foods seemed to find the batter machine and while the clam chowder (served in a bowl made of bread) was very tasty, I think the carb heavy hit of food mixed with the odd beer took it out of us and we were ‘zombied’ and ready for bed before too long.
Day 4: Surfing Santa Cruz and San Fran
Whatever the conditions we were going to ‘surf’ and whether this meant just sitting on a board in the water or a casual paddle it didn’t matter! We’d decided to maximise our beach time here for the day and then head into San Francisco early evening.
- First stop brekkie in Zachary’s restaurant. Here the focus is on homemade, classics with a varied and impressive menu (and free coffee refills)…I can confirm the sourdough pancakes with maple syrup and bacon were top notch.
- Surf time – we hired wetsuits and boards from on Cowell beach and although it was slightly overcast to start the sun soon enough broke through the clouds. As for waves – well they were there – small and intermittent but more than enough for us to have a good couple of hours in the water. It was busy and as a popular beginners area the etiquette is very much ‘free for all’ on the waves so no fear about getting on the wrong side of the locals.
After soaking up the rays it was time to head off to the bright lights of San Fran, we were sad to leave the beach of course but had a dinner date to get to, set up very kindly my MissLauren Locke!
San Francisco baby – After experiencing the tourist attraction drive of Lombard road (actually pretty hairy) we had a quick turnaround in our room at Rodeway Inn Civic Centre (a cheaper option with basic accommodation but benefits of a car park) before we headed out for a bite to eat at a very cool Italian place, called Delarosa. We Met Mandi (Lauren’s friend) who also so happened to be meeting up with another friend of hers that she met previously travelling. He was, as coincidence would have it, from Auckland and it was great to meet a future ‘beer’ friend!
Day 6; Grand Finale Friday
Continuing the theme of strapped for time, we had given ourselves less than a day to ‘do’ San Francisco. Obviously this is not enough time but we soaked up the San Francisco vibe walking through the city to the North Beach area and along to the Golden Gate bridge – it wasn’t far after all – or at least we didn’t think it was, having slightly misinterpreted the map which later we found to say NOT TO SCALE we realised why so many people were on bikes. Anyway it made for a very good walk although unfortunately not enough time to cross the bridge.
For coffee and wi-fi needs I can recommend Flywheel Coffee Roasters – ideal for last minute booking of extra baggage and general fight admin.
So although it was brief we still had a taster of the city and at least have many a reason to return! Even if only to bike across the bridge and get a ride on the old Trams in the city. For now however the Californian roadtrip had come to an end and it was time for us to hop along a few more time zones to our new home in Auckland.
Yes it was epic – just as it is written in all the journals. We fitted a huge amount into a fairly short time frame and as always wish we had just that little bit longer to do more. I suppose it just means we’ll need to go back some time.
Tips and Tricks for your trip
- Car hire – we did ours through Miles Car Rental pick up from LA/drop off at San Francisco and got a Ford Mustang for 6 days at a very reasonable price, and a lot cheaper than other sites. It is worth noting that when you book it says Ford Mustang convertible or other. This means that you may end up with another convertible brand or if particularly busy there is the chance they have to down-grade your order. We arrived on a Sunday evening and there were plenty of Ford Mustangs around but if in doubt try to get to the front of the car hire queue, just in case!
- Camping -As you may have guessed…it is preferable to book campsites if thats what your planning. You often can’t book them online unless it is more than 2 days ahead. Do a bit of research to see how established the campsites you’re headin to are. The larger, amateur-friendly sites tend to have small shops on-site with ice, wood and other necessities, but for food you’ll need to pick stuff up before hand. The more rustic sites won’t have any such shop so you’ll need to be organised.
- Try not to need petrol along the Big Sur stretch. There is one old cafe and petrol station with 2 pumps but the cost of fuel here in 3 times the normal going rate- the old man in the shop kindly advised us to just fill up the bare minimum.
- It was chilly! We were there 2nd week July and I was very happy to have warmer clothes for the evening and a hoody for the day time when the fog closed in. It seemed to be there most mornings and then burnt off throughout the mid morning.
- ESTA – I nearly forgot (as we also nearly did before flying) you’ll most probably need to fill in a form online to get your ESTA which allows you into the US. If not you may find yourself stuck at the airport.