It stretches from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, hugging the dramatic western coastline nearly all the way. Towards the south, it’s more gentle, featuring some of the more famous beaches and beach towns in the country: La Jolla, Santa Monica, Malibu. The dramatic cliffs of Big Sur interrupt for a mind-numbingly beautiful stretch before the white sands of Monterey and the surfers of Santa Cruz.
I’d seen parts of this before. I’ve driven along parts of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to locals) before, once during a visit to San Diego and a few times along the stretch from the northern part of Big Sur to San Francisco and a few miles of Marin County just north of San Francisco. The switchbacks, the open beaches, the steep cliffs falling to crashing waves below, the creeping fog – this highway is a national treasure, one that has inspired many excited drives and composed many vacations.
PCH was the part of my trip I was initially most looking forward to; back then, I knew little of the grandeur of the Southwest, and I still don’t know much about the northwest or the northern Rockies. But I’d had a taste of Highway 1 before, and I couldn’t wait to tackle a much longer stretch of it this time around.
It began that Saturday morning. I put on the Beach Boys. I left Redondo Beach relatively early on a sunny day, stopping first for a mediocre breakfast a few miles north in the LA suburb of Venice Beach. The beach itself was nearly empty, it being only 10 am, but the street along it was a mad scene: people selling things from artwork to masks, incense to charms. People wanted you to rent a bike, people wanted to tell you your fortune. And in between all this ruckus, one man sat on a mat and meditated.
Breakfast at a beachside café was mediocre – too greasy and tasteless – and took far too long. I wished I’d just walked around more instead. I tried to avoid the street scene on the way back towards my car by walking along the beach but the only other path was a constant stream of bicycles, and walking on sand isn’t something you do when you’re in a bit of a hurry.
I drove through Santa Monica and along uninterrupted stretches of sand. Malibu’s beachside mansions and celebrity inhabitants were more important than keeping the highway along the coast. Past Malibu, civilization grew a bit more sparse, the scenery returned somewhat closer to its spectacular natural state. The highway later turned back inland towards the ordinary towns of Oxnard and Ventura; my next stop was Santa Barbara.
I stood in line at an ordinary looking small restaurant behind a UCSB student and her parents. The place was painted mostly white with green accents. The line moved slowly past a window where we looked in to see people turning dough into tortillas and cooking all kinds of meats and vegetables on the hot surface. This was La Super Rica, a tacqueria and Mexican restaurant made famous by none other than Julia Child. I ordered the Super Rica Especial without much clue as to what exactly it was, but on the recommendation of some exiting the restaurant. I badly wanted an horchata but was wary of the milk in it (I can’t handle lactose) so I went with a root beer. After a few minutes of anxious waiting and defending the table I’d secured, my number was called and I got my hot mess of a plate. Three tortillas were hidden under a mixture of melted cheeses, sliced pasilla (a kind of sweet pepper) and marinated pork. I dug in. An impressive combination, it was, and I actually ate the peppers (an accomplishment for me) but I wasn’t blown away by the pork and the cheese wasn’t sharp enough to not fade into the background. I was so full at the end that I forgot my root beer at the table.
I drove around in Santa Barbara, seeing a lovely downtown with lots of shops and boutiques and coffeehouses (and quite a lot of people), and up the shallow hill to the Mission Santa Barbara, a 200 year old white and pink structure with classic archways, tiled roofs and a breathtaking chapel inside.
After that, I left PCH for a diversion into the Santa Ynez mountains and the rich wine-growing regions of the valleys. A steep climb up a two-lane road led to the hills above Santa Barbara and beautiful views of the town and ocean below. Then the road crossed the mountain into a spectacular valley with a large lake framed by mountains. Vineyards started to appear, rows of grapevines hanging from wires. I stopped at one just off the highway called Roblar, where a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a bold Syrah were among the standouts during my tasting. I strolled around the vineyards for a few minutes before returning to the road, which continued inland along miles of vineyards.
My only return to the coastline came in the evening at Pismo Beach, the only beach in California which allows vehicles right onto the sand. I walked along the dunes and down to the water where seagulls didn’t seem to care about the chilly waves. The air had gotten colder and heavier and the wind was blowing steadily by now, but the sun, starting to set, lit up the scene in shades closer to red.
I spent a few minutes wandering along the beach. It had been a lovely first day along PCH.
View pictures from PCH here.