The Pacific Coast Highway is a legend in itself, almost as infamous as Route 66. Towns like Malibu, Santa Barbara – where the rich, famous and beautiful live – to further up the coast the highway clings dramatically to the cliffs along Big Sur.
I stopped off at Malibu, hoping to do some celebrity spotting. I idly wandered around a mall, but was disappointed not to see Jennifer Aniston shopping for dog food but discovered dark chocolate fat-free yoghurt which more than made up for it! The tide was in but I found a beach further down which still had a strip of sand. The weather wasn’t conducive to stripping down to my bikini, and there were only a few people, seagulls and surfers out. Turning back towards the path I stopped to take a photo of a garbage bin which had a picture of London on it, which tickled me, and Sam Trammell of True Blood came strolling down the path, clad in a wetsuit with a surfboard tucked under his arm. Flummoxed, I quickly hid my camera (I didn’t want to be the crazy lady taking photos of garbage) and flashed him my sauciest grin, hoping desperately that I didn’t have dark chocolate fat-free yoghurt between my teeth. He grinned back devilishly, and the world stopped for a minute as we briefly locked eyes. Unfortunately he didn’t a) drop his surfboard, sweep me up in his neoprene clad arms and whisk me off to his Malibu mansion to be his eternal sex slave, or b) drop his surfboard, produce an expensive diamond ring, sink to one knee and propose. Instead he kept walking past me down to the ocean. Still, he’s one of my favourite characters on the show (also I think the whole he-can-turn-into-an-adorable-dog thing is kinda cool), looks as gorgeous in real life as he does on the show AND and he is a celebrity! Tick!
Next stop was Santa Barbara, a stunning town with a gorgeous beach, Mediterranean-like weather, palm trees, golden sands, and Spanish architecture, nestled at the foot of the Santa Ynez mountains. Its proximity to LA means a fair few celebs have houses here, including John Travolta and his pal Oprah Winfrey. I only had a night here, long enough to check out one of the local bars in the evening and have a stroll along the seafront in the morning. I picked one of the bars recommended by the God of LP (Lonely Planet), and discovered there was a small fundraiser being held there, due to a gang-related killing earlier that week. The money was going towards the funeral. I was sat at the bar with a beer, as one young man started crying and saying how many of his brothers had died and he was only 25 years old (I assumed he meant his friends rather than actual blood kin), and everyone got very emotional. As a Brit, it was sort of like being in a Mark Wahlberg movie and we are notoriously not comfortable with public displays of emotion, and I just grinned nervously, sipped my beer and wondered about the stupidity of it all. I mean, everyone knows that gang violence is rife in America. If the guys don’t like it, why do they perpetuate it by carrying guns? Why do they shoot or stab (as in this case), other young men? It just takes a few people to say ‘no, that’s not the life I want’ and others will fall into place. I felt sorry for the guy who was upset and of course the guy who died, but everyone has a choice. Being young and Latino does not mean you have to prove yourself by stabbing someone, and if that’s the kind of people you know, stay away from them. I hoped the guy at the bar had learned a lesson from his friend’s tragic death: thing is, somehow I doubted it.
Like most coastal Californian towns, Santa Barbara has its boulevards of designer shops, restaurants, parks, beautiful people, and homeless. Homeless people are everywhere in California, understandably drawn by the decent weather. It seemed like a cool place to chill out for a few days, but after taking some snaps of the pier it was time to throw the suitcase in the car and head further up the coast.
This is really where the weather started to change and become decidedly cooler. Coastal California is renowned for its fogs. It’s also renowned for bush fires, so I was getting a little concerned as I drove for miles through what appeared to be smoke, however I couldn’t smell anything, or hear sirens, or even determine where the source of the fire might have been. It dawned on me that despite being the middle of the day this was fog. The road wound along pretty beaches with cliffs and thousands of wildflowers of every colour, then into pastureland, then back out to the ocean again. I steadily made my way towards Big Sur, stopping overnight in the pretty little town of Cambria.
Only a few miles from Cambria is Hearst Castle. A sprawling estate set high on a hill with fantastic view over the coast, it was built and owned by newspaper tycoon and eccentric William Randolph Hearst. Work started in 1919 and completed in 1947, designed by the architect Julia Morgan who kept up marvelously with Hearst’s strange requests. Hearst was a fanatic medieval arts collector, attending several of the auctions that were happening in America at that time as the market was saturated with treasures flooding out of Europe post WWI. Entire rooms were designed around particular periods in history, he even incorporated medieval ceilings, cupolas, doors and balconies into the house. Hearst called it “La Cuesta Encantada”, or The Enchanted Hill. It had a fully functioning zoo complete with polar bears, and zebra wander the hills amongst the cattle to this day (it remains a working ranch). During the ‘20’s and ‘30’s heyday several celebrities frequented the castle and invitations were held in high prestige, those among them were Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bob Hope, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Dolores Del Rio, and Winston Churchill. After Hearst’s death in ’51 the family bequeathed the estate to the State of California, and it has over one million visitors a year. It’s hard to resist the temptation to dive into the Neptune Pool – an unbelievably sumptuous swimming pool decorated with Roman arches and statues. Hearst Castle is a Californian must-see. I wanted to surreptitiously move my stuff in and never leave! There are 4 tours, you’d need a day and a half to really do all of them. The guides recommended Tour 2, and it was pretty thorough even though we only touched on a small section of the mansion, you see Hearst’s office and bedroom, the library, the kitchen, the indoor pool and several guest bedrooms. Tours take an hour 45 mins.
The coast here is home to several hundred elephant seals, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing these animals up close in all their stinking, blubbery, bad-tempered, farting glory, then this is the place. The rugged coastline is perfect breeding conditions, and you should visit in the evening, when they all sleep together in a massive puppy pile, and during the day when they are frolicking in the waves like playful submarines!
The whole of California is simply bursting with wildflowers, and the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway is a pleasure. Spring is definitely the time to visit if you want to see this phenomenon. Purples, pinks, yellows and blues are as far as the eye can see. Add the dramatic coastline of rugged cliffs and pounding surf, you get an idea. If you are looking for sunshine and somewhere to sunbathe though – well, go to Mexico. If you want to surf, then you’ve hit the jackpot!
There had been several landslides and part of Hwy 1 was closed going in the Big Sur direction, so I made my way inland and up to Monterey, so I could backtrack down Hwy 1.
Monterey is near Carmel, and if you’ve heard of Carmel you may be a Clint Eastwood fan. He was Mayor for several years and still lives there. Carmel is a tiny town, expensive to stay in but with some quality restaurants. Monterrey is only a couple of miles away and has several budget options: guess where I stayed?! Monterey is also quite beautiful, with a fisherman’s wharf, an attractive downtown tourist area full of refurbished warehouses, sea lions frolicking and barking in the waves or sunbathing on rocks, and a decent nightlife. It’s a naval town, and chatting ‘locals’ tend to be navymen and women from all over the country. The best place to drink is the Crown and Anchor – a decent British pub in downtown Monterey.
The following day I backtracked down Big Sur. This is a stretch of coastline where the Santa Lucia mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean. The road is cut into the winding cliffs, and as you twist and turn the Pacific crashes below you providing stunning scenery, and there are plenty of places to pull over for photo ops. There are a few lodges and restaurants along its length, interspersed between the national forests. I wish I’d had more time in the area, there’s a lot of hiking trails (I did a couple of short hikes) and I didn’t even make it down to one of the beaches as it was so windy the rangers were advising against it! The highlight was the waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns National Park – an 80 foot waterfall that falls directly into the ocean which is one of the few places in the world that this happens. Bixby Bridge is gorgeous, too.
Photos of Hearst Castle and Big Sur can be found here: