Join me on an epic road trip of California’s Pacific Coast — from San Francisco all the way to Los Angeles.
In this California Article You Will Discover:
- Awesome Wineries
- Classic California Beaches
- Out-of-the-Way Destinations
- Hollywood Icons
- And more!
I love a road trip. So does my wife. I drive, she navigates and reads magazine articles aloud. It’s a good partnership. And earlier this summer we put this collaboration to the test on an 800-km roadie from San Francisco to L.A. (Only one argument!)
We flew from Vancouver to San Fran, spent our one-year wedding anniversary in Napa Valley and headed south along a coastline so full of interesting destinations we could have stretched it out over a month.
Arriving late Friday night in San Francisco saw us crashing out at the Chancellor Hotel — a heritage boutique hotel near Union Square that I can’t say a bad word for. We allotted ourselves one full day in the Bay City, which is not enough time. Pier 39 (touristy and overrated); The Castro (fun and colourful); Haight District (my favourite, but a bit scruffy) — we wore down some boot leather that day.
It was Fog City for dinner, located near Pier 27 on the waterfront. It’s a relatively new restaurant that is deserving of all its acclaim. This was one of the most enjoyable dining experiences we’ve had — and we feasted like Caligula. A dozen oysters? Of course! Bottle of Napa wine? Yup. Whole chicken? You got it! My only regret is that we overdid it a bit, and left us a tad “wined-out” as we headed to Napa the next day.
OK. I lied. We headed straight for the vineyards. Stag’s Leap is the best. It’s not often we drink wine from $250 bottles, but hell, it was our anniversary.
We also visited Hagafen Cellars (nice whites, mediocre reds) and Darioush (one of the most stunning) — but between the quality of the wines and the engaging sommelier who taught us more in 15 minutes than I’d learned in 15 years, Stag’s Leap was a step ahead.
Dig this: we had our wedding reception in a town called “Coombs” on Vancouver Island, BC. Then, on our anniversary, we drove into Napa Valley (a place neither of us had been before) and immediately saw “Coombs Street” running through town. Weird, right? I know!
After a stopover in Gilroy — Garlic Capital of the World — we were officially on our Central Coast Road Trip. We hit the Rocky Creek Bridge and it begged us for a photo — though this 80-year-old, gorgeous stone bridge is just one of several similar along the trip — before we careened into the most hilariously twisty highway I’ve ever driven. Oh, and if you’re afraid of heights, you might want to take take the Interstate. One-hundred-metre cliffs with no guard-rails tend to unnerve the acrophobic.
Carmel is a town regarded for once having Clint Eastwood as its mayor. It’s also just about the cutest little ‘burg you ever did see. Its Comstock-designed English cottages seem fit for Hobbits of the Shire. There are puppies everywhere, as the town is famously pet-friendly. It has no house numbers, street lights or parking meters — and high-heels shoes are technically illegal. It walks the line between authentic and contrived, but never crosses it. And its whitesand beach is a taste of the epic shorelines we’d encounter for the next week (though you’re still in NorCal, the water is, um, brisk). If there’s a nicer place to watch the sun set in California, I’d like to see it.
Nearby, towns like Pacific Grove and Monterey have their own charms. The former is a fine place to dine — try the Beach House at Lover’s Point — the latter is most famous for its aquarium and suits families well (candy shops and kid-friendly restaurants). Both are only about 15 minutes from Carmel, which is by far the nicest place to stay. (Try the Lamplighter Inn.)
Monterey County is well-regarded for its Pinot Noir. I embibed that night at the Beach House; it complemented the ciopinno well. In fact, all along the Central Coast, wine is abundant and top-shelf. After starting off in Napa, we quickly realized you don’t have to pay Napa prices to be a wino in California. The central coast is the better bargain.
Monterey Bay Aquarium was recently rated the World’s Number-One Aquarium by TripAdvisor. I see no reason to contest. Best of all? No whales. You can enjoy this one guilt-free.
Located about dead-centre on the Cali Coast, Pismo Beach remains one of our favourite stops. As we watched the sun set from Pismo Pier, after touring the area on beach cruisers and strolling the farmer’s market, my wife pointedly remarked, “This is what the Beach Boys were singing about.” It’s a beach town the way you want one to be: accessible, funky, relaxed. It’s what Santa Monica should be, but isn’t. And the locals are — colourful.
We stayed at Dolphin Bay Resort, which ranks near the top for Best Accommodation of the Trip. Located on a bluff with an endless Pacific view, it is only a five-minute drive to the Pismo waterfront, and the rooms were bigger than our apartment back home. (Sad but true. Oh, Vancouver!)
In the Santa Ynez Valley, near the town of Santa Maria, our wino-ing really took off again. This is Napa Incognito; known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Of the dozens of wineries in the region, we chose Cottonwood Canyon, where the eccentric Normal Bekos gave us a tour of his wine cave and poured glass-after-glass of delicious vino, some straight from the cask. Then, on to Presqu’ile — a fancy-pants winery built with Texas oil money and featuring a patio so nice we could have spent the whole day.
When we arrived in Buellton, we were immediately assured that the town is so much more than just its “World Famous Pea Soup.” (I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’d never heard of Buellton before this trip, let alone its pea soup.) But I did discover two interesting things — one, the film Sideways was shot here, which explains why Napa Valley had looked nothing like we thought it would. And two, Neverland Ranch is just 10 minutes away. We drove to the Michael Jackson Shrine at its stone gate, realizing we were one-day late for the fifth anniversary of his death. Needless to say, there were odd-duck Jackson fans milling about en masse.
Ventura is the jumping off point for visits to Channel Islands National Park. Never heard of this park? You’re not alone. Despite being within 100 km of 18 million people, it’s one of the least visited national parks in America. We jumped a ferry for the nauseating, rough and tumble one-hour ride to the islands and were blown away. We spent the day in sea kayaks, exploring the world’s largest collection of sea caves. You can even camp there — though it’s pack in, pack out and has zero services (the way I like it!). Check out the video I shot HERE.
Oxnard, Ventura’s sister city, was full of surprises. The first of which was its existence, as I’d never heard of it. We went stand-up paddleboarding, which saw us get scary close to some sunbathing sea lions, then had a delightful Italian lunch at La Dolce Vita. The beaches here offer perfect shore breaks for surfers — and they were darn near empty when we took a look.
If you like Bugattis — and who doesn’t — Oxnard is where you need to be. The Mullin Museum is full of ’em. The private collection of Peter W. Mullin, this sprawling, two-storey showcase features rare Italian cars from the early to mid-1900s, as well as memorabilia from Bugatti bicycles, boats, planes and even vintage Louis Vitton luggage. So basically, you can see how the other half lives.
An hour after leaving Oxnard, we were in the smoggy metropolis of Los Angeles. We decided to stay in Santa Monica, but discovered that it doesn’t matter where you stay in L.A. In this city, you’re always a half-hour from where you need to be.
Travel tip: if you don’t have a car in L.A., you’re screwed. We spent the first day driving to all the classic spots — and even taking in a studio tour at Warner Brothers, which unfortunately focussed too much on The Big Bang Theory, which is the worst show on TV and its ever-increasing popularity is nothing short of baffling. But, we got to visit the set of Central Perk (Friends) so it was worth it.
L.A. is a funny town. Love the beaches, hate the highways. Maybe I need a local to show me around, as we were just winging it. I like walkable cities, and my god, L.A. is not that.
We would eventually take in two studio tours — WB and Paramount. Both were suitably different, with WB focussing on TV and their exhibit of Batman memorabilia, and Paramount centred on motion picture production. We saw Angie Harmon at Paramount, which was cool (my second-favourite Law & Order Assistant D.A.). If I had to pick one of the tours, I’d have to go with Paramount. Dammit, all that Big Bang Theory crap was just too annoying. Why do people watch that show?
We spent three nights in the Santa Monica Motel, which was clean. (Yup, that’s all I can say about that.) My Los Angeles advice: choose a hotel near where you plan on spending your nights. During the day, you’ll be driving everywhere anyway, so location matters little. Given that you’ll want a beer or two at day’s end, it’s best to be within walking (or taxi) distance of your bed. Some other L.A. highlights were the delightfully gaudy Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach and an out-of-nowhere delicious vegan lunch at Crossroads.
Eleven days can go by really fast. Especially when you’re on the move. On our last night, strolling Venice Beach, we looked back on the week that had passed in such a blur. Standouts? Pismo Beach, Carmel, the wineries of Santa Ynez Valley and Channel Islands National Park. Surprises? Napa Valley is really expensive. Highway 1 is insanely twisty. Avocados are very cheap. Let downs? We cracked the window of our rental car. No A/C at the Santa Monica Motel. Fucking Big Bang Theory.
Next time, we’ll take a VW Westfalia and a surfboard. Or maybe a tent and some bicycles. Next time, we’ll take two weeks. Or three. Next time, we’ll start further north and finish at Mexico (or maybe keep on going). The only thing that’s sure is there will be a next time.