The classic 380-mile Pacific Ocean coastal drive, along scenic Highway 101, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, takes you through Carmel and Santa Barbara, and along a dramatic Big Sur coastline. You can stop along the way to see many attractions – highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle.
Begin your journey with a tour around Los Angeles’ affluent Rodeo Drive to see how the movie stars live, then after a dose of glamour and glitz head for hip Venice Beach for a spot of people watching. Continue on to Santa Barbara, where you can tour the city’s spectacularly beautiful Wine Country, go for a hiking or biking tour, visit the many beautiful gardens or relax on the beach. Moving north you pass through the predominantly Danish town of Solvang, where draft horses pull an authentic Danish streetcar through the town.
You may be ready for a stopover by the time you reach St Luis Obispo, which has a delightful downtown area known as Mission Plaza, set alongside a creek, with the beautifully restored mission nearby. If you’d like to experience over-the-top kitsch, stay at the 109-room Madonna Inn at with its thematically decorated rooms. Next day you could drive to Prismo Beach, bordered by the Oceano Sand Dunes, where you can actually drive your vehicle onto the beach. Just up the road at Simeon you’ll find the Hearst Castle with its 165 rooms. Don’t miss the Billiard Room or the Celestial Suite indoors, or the magnificent surrounding formal gardens, modelled after gardens in Spain and Italy.
The Big Sur Road and Monterey
From here, the road winds along the coastline, with breathtaking views of the surf below on the left, and the Big Sur Mountains rising to 5,000 feet on the right. Take your time, as the road has many blind corners. Around Carmel, you can visit some of California’s old Spanish missions. At Monterey, spend some time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the United States, and one of the best in the world. It’s packed with marine exhibits, displaying more than 550 different species. The Outer Bay exhibit features the marine species found in the waters of the eastern Pacific.
The final leg of your classic drive takes you through Santa Cruz, where a long-established surfing culture inspired movies (such as Gidget) and the music of artists like The Beach Boys. Surfing fans might like to stop at the Surfing Museum and visit the beach to see if the surf’s up.
Arriving in San Francisco, one of the most visited cities in the US, with its famous bridge and steep hills, is always a buzz. You should do all the touristy things like ride a cable car, visit bustling Chinatown, and walk along Fisherman’s Wharf, where any number of restaurants might tempt you. Try to take the ferry trip to Alcatraz, for a glimpse of the old penal system, and you’ll understand why no prisoners escaped this harsh, isolated institution. A walk around the huge Golden Gate Park is an arboreal and floral delight and the perfect ending to your classic drive.