Touching down on the tarmac late in the late afternoon at the expansive LAX we collected our belongings and uBered our way to the nearby Jucy Rentals where we took charge of what was to be our home for next three nights – a mighty fine albeit cosy, four birth Toyota Estima.
By the time we had stocked up on essentials, (namely water, US SIM cards and Reece’s peanut butter cups) it was peak rush hour as we battled our way north out of the City of Angels. Destination that evening was under 100 miles away in Santa Barbara, traffic aside we had, more by luck than judgement, timed it to perfection as we jumped on Route 1 at Santa Monica and took in a famous West Coast sunset as we cruised past ‘Ginger’ Rogers beach, Malibu and the edge of Point Mugu state park before merging on to the 101.
Two hours later we were parked up in Santa Barbs, it was too late to see much there so we found a bustling Mexican – the type that’s full of locals, filled ourselves up on quesadillas, nachos and Guac then jumped back in the van and cruised another 30 minutes up the road to our researched pit stop for the night – a glorified lay-by. There was a nice amount of other vehicles around in that it felt safe but was not too noisy. It’s not an encouraged camp sleeping spot and one that police can move you on from, but we took the low risk and all was good for us to grab a good eight hours.
Day two greeted us with glorious sunshine as we rejigged the bed, put our cases away and beelined to the quirky Danish town of Solvang. A gorgeous, memorable town, you cannot walk a hundred yards without tripping over a bakery and it was Paula’s Pancakes that we decided to fall in to for Breakfast. The lederhosen clad clan of staff were so friendly, as were the local-boy farmers fuelling up the day. The pancakes were calorific and tasty, and the coffee flowed freely. With its numerous vineyards close by, cellar doors in the town, windmills to view and year-round Christmas shops to peruse we could have stayed there for a day or two alone but unfortunately, we were on a schedule.
Back on the 101 we passed through Santa Maria jumping back on to Route 1 at San Luis. Just North of San Simion we stopped at Hearst Castle and museum, a fabulous looking place built in the roaring twenties by Randolph Hearst, an eccentric magnate, early years Hollywood producer and later a political candidate. We took in the museum but opted out of the additional tour to the opulent castle.
Seal beach just a wee bit further north was the accidental next stop, following the brown tourist signs on a whim as it wasn’t much of a detour at all. To see a mile-long beach with barely a square inch of sand visible due to the jovial elephant seal mums and pups was quite incredible.
‘Sealfies’ taken it was onward on the most exciting part of the drive. The next 90 miles from Seal Beach to Carmel took in the famous Big Sur National Park and with it its plentiful breath-taking sights, hundreds of bends, left, right, up, down, tunnels, iconic wrought iron bridges constructed in the 1930’s by chain gang prisoners, water falls, crevices and glorious albeit almost eery beaches. With the radio not really working much, vistas aside, entertainment was provided by the human jukebox that is Lucy Westend West. We had medleys from Abba to the Spice Girls via Hamilton, Disney and Queen.
We arrived in the affluent Carmel for a late lunch. A beach side city with a very arty culture, galleries galore lining the colourful streets. We stopped for lunch at a gorgeous Italian looking place for a memorable veggie chilli. The houses in the town had character in abundance, each deferent to its neighbour. Despite only spending a few hours there, the city really captured a small chunk of our hearts. We walked on the beach, wondered the streets and didn’t panic one bit in the twenty minutes it took us to relocate the van.
It was decision time as we left Carmel our hearts wanted us to stick to the coast as we had Michael Kiwanuka’s haunting Big Little Lies theme playing, the next stops would’ve been Monterey and then on to Santa Cruz on Route 1. Unfortunately, time was not on our side so we cut east, back to the 101 looping around San Jose, destination Oakland to off-hire the Camper Van. Monterey will have to wait for next time.
Ultimately we did the bulk of this drive in a day and a half but it could be so easily spread out over four or five days, there’s a lot to see, so many sights and many towns each with their own character. And that’s just the middle, the start and end cities whichever way you do it are their own entities. More recently we were fortunate to spend almost a month in San Fran. We were in a camper van but a car and hotel combo would be just as easy as there are plenty of cities along the way.
The Must Sees:
Santa Monica – grab a juice a walk the pier
Solvang – a slice of Europe in the middle of California
Seal Beach north of San Simion – Jaw dropping gentle giants
McWay Falls – Incredible dose of mother nature visible from the road
Bixby Creek Bridge – because I’m both an engineer and a Big Little Lies fan
Carmel – The place to be for artists young and old