It doesn’t take long to understand the bucket-list potential of California’s seminal Pacific Coast Highway. As the road purrs north, from star-spangled Hollywood to fog-trimmed San Francisco, via the coastal communities of Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz, it shifts a gear – from rear-mirror views of soft-sieved beaches to those of box-ticking redwood forests and barn-to-bottle vineyards. When you’re lucky enough to be in the middle of it, this is the kind of road that makes you feel you need more time. At least, that’s how I feel.
My head is spinning; I need a refuge from the schizophrenic pace of Los Angeles. So between writing assignments – one on Laurel Canyon’s music scene, and the other on Beverly Hills’ couture culture – I hit the road. North is my only destination.
My trip, not in a roaring Cadillac but in a nondescript rental, begins as all A-grade road trips should: in bright Golden State sunshine, with the golden-hour harmonies of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations playing on the radio.
I start cruising north in the late morning, to Santa Barbara (above), where soon, a tangle of colonial Spanish architecture and bougainvillea fill the windscreen. Across the highway, I see Franciscan monasteries and an echo of Napa-style wineries, but the real joy is in glimpsing the chi-chi riviera lifestyle. It is refreshingly un-LA.
For my second day on the road, I cruise along the winding Big Sur coastline that inspired America’s road trip patron saint Jack Kerouac’s literary classics On The Road and Big Sur. While Kerouac wasn’t the first man to drive such roads, he was the first to describe how life-changing and impossibly rich they could be.
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And as I push north, I savour the highway’s hallmarks, passing McWay Falls, a silver veil of canyon-to-cove mist, and then crossing the cliff-edged Bixby Creek Bridge (main photo). One of the world’s tallest single-span concrete bridges, it remains a soul-stirring expression of the coast’s history, particularly when seen on approach from the south.
North from here is Carmel-by-the-Sea (above), where art galleries stand toe-to-toe with boutiques owned by bohemians who meditate by the big blue sea. Then comes beachy Monterey and Salinas, where yet another American writer, John Steinbeck, spent time at – in fact, his Depression-era novel Cannery Row is set in Monterey.
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Finally, I arrive at the fabled Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a kaleidoscope of fairground rides and all-American eye candy. This is California as it should be, I think. Spirited, a little kooky, and served with an irresistible side of hot dogs, popcorn and a hazy sunset a la those seen in surf movies.
In the soft glow of evening, making a last-minute U-turn instead of heading to San Francisco feels like just the right thing to do.
Essential pit stops along the route
The Beach Boys Historic Landmark
This must-visit for fans of The Beach Boys commemorates the Wilson boys’ childhood home.
The ultimate detour for oenophiles is to Napa Valley, some 96km north of San Francisco. Though wildfires ripped through the vineyards last autumn, life has returned to normal for the majority of vintners.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
If you have time for only one of the historic monasteries in Santa Barbara, pick Old Mission Santa Barbara, which was founded in 1786. Join a guided tour of its beautiful church, mausoleum and roughly 5ha garden for insight into the community of Franciscan friars.
National Steinbeck Center
For more on Nobel-winning author John Steinbeck, pull up at this museum in Salinas. It’s home to exhibits, one-of-a-kind artefacts and first-edition books.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
This colourful boardwalk was the backdrop for the 1980s vampire classic The Lost Boys, starring Kiefer Sutherland.
– TEXT BY MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTOS: VISIT SANTA BARBARA, VISIT CARMEL BY-THE-SEA, THE NATIONAL STEINBECK CENTER, 123RF.COM, ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.