California road trips
By Lauren Jarvis – October 2019 – 7 minute read
A dusky sheen of rose and gold dusts the dark-chocolate mound of Morro Rock, as two squeaking streaks of quicksilver break the surface of the glass-smooth sea.
They twirl and play, back-float and groom, cuddle and crack clams, before slinking towards my kayak, nibbling at my paddle, and diving with a splash between the yachts moored in San Luis Obispo’s Morro Bay.
Highway number one
Magical experiences, like this close encounter with these impossibly cute sea otters, abound along California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Stretching over 600 miles, Highway One was established in the 1930s and is one of the world’s most famous scenic drives, taking in stylish beach towns like Carmel-By-The-Sea and Santa Barbara, rugged cliffs and towering redwood forests at Big Sur, wildflower-covered coastal trails at Point Lobos State Reserve, surfing meccas like Huntington Beach, and two of the U.S.’s most exciting cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Travelling straight through, the PCH is a 10-hour drive, but you’ll need at least six days to stop and take it all in, staying at a choice of historic inns, luxury beach resorts, Spanish colonial residences and hip urban hotels along the way.
An iconic road trip deserves iconic wheels so I pick up a convertible Mustang at San Francisco International – one of the new Hertz American Collection cars – and prepare to drive the American dream with a playlist of American classics to match (nothing says ‘road trip’ like Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run).
But whether you’re cruising California’s west coast in a camper van, a Honda or on a Harley, an unforgettable journey through epic landscapes, fascinating history and authentic Americana awaits.
South of San Francisco, Santa Cruz buzzes with surf and skate culture, and I explore the classic boardwalk of The Lost Boys vampire-movie fame, with its mighty Giant Dipper wooden rollercoaster and the historic Looff Carousel.
Driving on to the fishing town of Monterey, boat tours offer thrills of the wildlife-watching kind, with grey and humpback whales, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, turtles and harbour seals flourishing in the marine-protected waters and off-shore kelp forests of the bay.
Summer fog rolls in as I drive Big Sur and cross the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, adding intrigue to a place already steeped in bohemian, Beat-author legend.
Its wild cliffs, waterfalls and beaches have lured artists and authors including Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, who honoured one of America’s longest stretches of untamed coast in his 1962 novel, Big Sur.
Take it slow
In San Luis Obispo County, or ‘SloCal’ as it’s known thanks to its laid-back vibe, the sun reappears to drench the adobe walls of Mission San Miguel Arcángel, one of 21 Spanish missions established by Franciscan priests in California and aimed to convert the indigenous Native American Indians to Christianity.
Founded in 1797, the restored mission is now a U.S. Historic Landmark and serves as an an emotionally charged stop between exploring SloCal’s accessible elephant-seal rookery at Piedras Blancas, ziplining over vineyards at Santa Margarita, exploring the historic, arty towns of Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande, and kayaking with the sea otters of Morro Bay State Park.
Sundowners overlooking the sweeping strand of SloCal’s Pismo Beach tempt me to stay, but on a road trip you keep rolling – and the PCH has plenty more shores to surf, swim and strut. This is the stomping ground of The Beach Boys, after all. In the City of Angels, I stroll Malibu, one of the world’s most famously sought-after stretches of sand, and choose the gazillion-dollar beach house I’ll buy when I’m famous (everyone’s an actor in L.A., right?).
Heading south, I roll into Huntington Beach, California’s ‘Surf City’, to catch a wave and try a yoga session overlooking the sea, before joining a sunset cruise around Huntington Harbour, and roasting S’mores (a marshmallow and chocolate biscuit sandwich) around a fire pit overlooking the ocean.
On the last night of my road trip I return to Los Angeles, take the car back up to Mulholland Drive and look down on the twinkling lights of La La Land, as a light rain falls from an inky sky.
California is home to myriad stars; drive the PCH and you’ll find they’re not all found in the mansions of the Hollywood Hills.
Californian Road Trips
Desert Escape – Los Angeles to Palm Springs: After exploring LA, head out to the desert oasis of Palm Springs, just a couple of hours from downtown. Soak up the pool-party vibe and check out the mid-century modern architecture, then drive on to explore the magical landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park and the wild west movie-set of Pioneertown.
Alpine Adventure – Sacramento to Lake Tahoe: Breathtaking mountain vistas and gold rush treasures await on this drive. In Tuolumne County, wander historic Groveland and Jamestown’s bygone-era shops and cafes, then celebrate the golden age of steam at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Stay in Sonora and walk the alpine trails around Hetch Hetchy reservoir and Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, before driving on to North Lake Tahoe for a tranquil cruise on the lake from Tahoe City.
Northern Explorer – San Francisco to Crescent City: Head north from the ‘City on the Bay’ to discover a wonderfully wild coastline and solitude. Stop at Point Reyes National Seashore to see whales, wildflowers and rare Bishop pine forests.
Next, enjoy the galleries and cafes of Mendocino, then drive the 31-mile-long Avenue of the Giants, lined with 2,000-year-old trees, before hopping in a kayak to spot marine life around Trinidad Bay. Explore the Redwood National and State Parks, which protect half the world’s tallest trees, and search for gems on the beach at Crescent City, home to California’s northernmost lighthouses. For more ideas, see visitCalifornia.com/road-trips or hertz.co.uk/p/american-road-trip-planner.
LAX is undergoing a multibillion-dollar modernisation programme, including a new 12-gate concourse and improved connectivity and transit services.
Los Angeles will see 11 new hotels opening in the next two years, including The Hoxton, The Godfrey Hotel, and The Wayfarer DTLA.
In Huntington Beach, the Hyatt Regency, The Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton hotel and The Kimpton Shorebreak Resort are all completing multi-million-dollar expansions and renovations.
Greater Palm Springs has two new hotels opening in 2020 – The Andaz in Palm Springs and Hotel Indigo in Coachella.
San Luis Obispo’s first spa hotel, Hotel Serra, opened this year with 65 rooms, a pool deck and edible garden, while Vespera on Ocean, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel, opened on Pismo Beach.
The Westin Anaheim Resort opens in summer 2020, close to Disneyland Resort, with four restaurants and a rooftop lounge bar.
The new luxury Santa Monica Proper Hotel opened in June with 271 rooms. The Westin St. Francis in San Francisco recently opened a new Wellness Center and Spa, with state-of-the-art cosmetic technology.
Jurassic World – The Ride opened this summer at Universal Studios Hollywood, complete with groundbreaking tech and larger-than-life dinos.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened this August at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, with themed shopping and dining and the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood now offers the chance to go behind the scenes of The Big Bang Theory with three sets from the TV show.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open on L.A.’s Miracle Mile in 2020, with six storeys of galleries, exhibition spaces and film theatres.
Where to book it
From America As You Like It you can offer your clients a week’s holiday from £1,640pp, with convertible Mustang car hire and flights. One night at San Francisco’s Hotel Kabuki, one at Monterey’s Spindrift Inn, one at the Shore Cliff Hotel in Pismo Beach, one at Santa Barbara’s Harbor View Inn, two at The InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown and one at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach.