Almost one year ago, three of my favorite people and I flew across the country, crammed ourselves into a convertible and drove the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to Santa Cruz. We lifted our itinerary from my dog-eared copy of National Geographic Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips. Both the book and numerous other guides online recommend driving from south to north for the best views, so that’s just what we did.
Our first night we stopped in Santa Monica to enjoy dinner with my Uncle Lucien at a seaside restaurant before settling in Santa Barbara for the evening. Traffic was pretty bad from San Diego onward but given the mess that Washington, DC metro traffic always is, it was not more than we could handle.
The next morning we were up early and ready to take on the Pacific Coast. We spent a bit of time touring the Santa Barbara Mission (known as the Queen of the Missions) in the morning before heading out onto Highway 101 and it was a great little start to our morning. The Mission features a beautiful expansive courtyard (perfect for weddings!) and some fantastic murals and tile inside the buildings.
View of the Santa Barbara Mission
I’d read a lot about Lompoc and it’s abundant flower fields. I got everyone on the trip (Jonathan and our friends Suzanne and Penny) excited about the flowers and giddy with anticipation over the amazing floral displays that were sure to come. So of course when we got there nobody local (we asked several people) seemed to even know what the “famous 19 mile flower drive” was and our efforts to find the fields on our own were finally rewarded with just a few patches of color. I don’t know why, but my flower viewing excursions are ALWAYS disappointments. Granted some of it comes down to not passing through at the scheduled peak flower time (we were at Keukenhof three weeks before the main tulip blooms and at the Portland rose garden one month before the roses appeared) but even when we come in the “right” season we seem to have problems. I once arranged an entire itinerary for Mt. Rainier around peak wildflower bloom only to have a freak cold winter delay the flowers to a week past our visit; likewise a bitter cold winter last year kept the Going to the Sun Road closed 10 days beyond our visit. Is this me complaining that God doesn’t bend nature to my travel schedule? Yeah, I guess it is.
Lompoc Flower Fields
Most unusual stop on our trip? Definitely the Madonna Inn. This place is unbelievable in its décor and as a bonus it serves up fantastic cake. There is a waterfall in the men’s bathroom and of course we all snuck in to take a look at it once Jonathan gave us the all clear.
We made a pit stop stop in Morro Bay for lunch and ate at Rocca's Surf Shack which was really really good. From the restaurant we had a great view of Morro Rock – the sad crumbling remains of a massive ancient volcanic.
I was very surprised as we drove through this part of California to find the landscape is very southwestern in appearance - think NM with parched brown fields of grass, sparse trees, and high heat. I guess I was expecting it to be green and beautiful like San Francisco.
We drove through the cozy little town of Cambria before our afternoon excursion to Hearst Castle. Everything I know of the Castle – the beautiful pools at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas modeled after the originals at the Castle, the glimpses of the gardens on television documentaries, etc – promised a breathtaking residence. The gardens, pools, and exterior architecture of the Castle are in fact just as amazing as the hype. You can even see all the way to the sea from the hillside. But the interior of house? It’s awful – a garish mishmash of clashing art and cultural artifacts that have no business being curated together. It’s tacky, it’s dark, it’s depressing. I was so disappointed in the interior design.
Hearst Castle Exterior
That evening we stayed at a roadside motel in San Simeon and one of the best parts of our stay was the chance to run early the next morning along the Pacific Coast Highway before returning to the motel for breakfast. It was quiet, peaceful, and the views of the ocean were lovely (just don’t look the other way or you’re staring once again at the ugly brown barren grassland).
After breakfast we climbed back in the car (we were pretty good about rotating drivers every 4 hours and man was it ever windy in the backseat with the top down) and headed for the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast. Here I was in heaven. I could have stayed for hours just watching the seals play but we had more sights waiting for us further up the road.
The seals! The seals!
We stopped at Ragged Point Scenic View before arriving at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take a closer look at McWay Falls (it’s the only waterfall that drops straight into the Pacific Ocean).
Scenes along the Pacific Coast Highway
Further up the road, the Carmel Mission was waiting. I was so lucky here at the Mission to catch the end of a wedding and get a great shot of the bride and groom for my bridal collection (I collect pictures of brides that we’ve captured in the moment from our travels around the world). The Mission is a lovely attraction in its own right, with gardens in the courtyard and a historic interior. It was dedicated in 1770 and served as the headquarters for Northern California.
Our next stop was a little town I fell head over heels in love with: Carmel-by-the-Sea. So many adorable boutique culinary shops, so many great restaurants. Trivia: Clint Eastwood served a term as mayor here.
We took a vote and unanimously decided to drive the Pebble Beach scenic road before packing up and heading to Santa Cruz for our final stop on our Pacific Coast Highway Tour. It’s a $10 toll to drive the road but well worth the fee as stretches of it run right through pine and cypress forests and then along the shoreline where sea lions and otters are abundant.
The Lone Cypress Tree
We got into Santa Cruz pretty late in the evening and met up with my friend Asher for dinner and a tour of the Beach Boardwalk. We had so much fun and the highlight of the evening was riding the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and now a designated National Historic Landmark. It was a fantastic ride and I can’t wait to go back to Santa Cruz and ride it again.
We spent the night in nearby Milpitas and then zoomed back down to San Diego via I5 the next morning in time to catch our flight home. If you get a chance to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, here’s my advice:
1. Give yourself at least 2 days to drive it as we did (even more if you’d like more time to see the Monterey aquarium or head up further to San Francisco).
2. Hearst Castle - it’s still worth a visit for the gardens, but skip the house and save your money.
3. Make sure to make time for Carmel by the Sea. Absolutely the perfect little village.