I have had the pleasure of visiting beautiful, sunny California several times in the past. My best adventure was definitely the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, along the Pacific Coast Highway. With windows down, hair blowing in the wind and Beach Boys tunes blaring from the stereo; it just doesn’t get any better.
San Francisco can be an article, all by itself, but for now I will focus on the drive, and the sights you pass along the way. I should mention, before you start heading south, make a small detour and visit Muir Woods, located about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park, a national monument, is filled with massive redwood trees, which are quite scarce due to past logging practices. Beautiful trails make walking among these giants an informative treat, and the history just jumps out at you. The tallest tree is 80 metres (260 feet) and most are between 700 and 800 years old.
From Muir Woods, I headed south along the coast, stopping at Pebble Beach. Navigating the 17 Mile Drive, takes you along some fantastic golf courses, including famed Pebble Beach. Book well ahead if you want a tee time, because even at $500 ($US) there is still a long waiting list. The drive also takes you along the Lone Cypress tree, which at 250 years old, has become a symbol for the area.
Only a few minutes from Pebble Beach is the historic town of Monterey. It was made famous by John Steinbeck in his novels of the recession, using the Cannery Row landmark as a setting for his famous novel by the same name.
My next stop, as you head south along the Pacific Highway (route 1) was the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. With no shortage of restaurants, shops and wineries, this coastal town is filled with culture and shopping opportunities. The gem of the area is definitely the 400 acre Point Lobos State Reserve, with a rocky coastline, sandy beaches and blue lagoons, making this a nature lover's paradise.
I continued south, en-route to San Simeon, driving past Big Sur and some of the most amazing vistas on earth. With the Santa Lucia Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, this area has been seen in hundreds of films, because of its narrow, somewhat treacherous, driving along the coastal highway. The drive is safe (as long as you stay within the speed limits), and the scenic lookouts and usually spectacular weather, make you want to stop at every turn to photograph and capture the post card view.
Another place which makes this adventure worthwhile, is a visit to San Simeon, and Hearst Castle, the enormous estate of publisher, William Randolph Hearst. When you enter the property, you suddenly come face to face with deer, zebra and a variety of wildlife at what was once the world's largest private zoo. The ranch, which Hearst inherited from his father, covers 250,000 acres, with 40 km (25 miles) of beautiful California coastline.
The 'Castle' is a bit of a misnomer, but at 65,000 square feet, it is a magnificent mansion. The Estate was the inspiration for the famous Xanadu mansion in Orson Welles’ popular film, Citizen Kane. A thorough tour will show you most of the Castle's 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, and a movie theatre.
My favourite part of the entire estate is the Neptune swimming pool. Built in the 1920's, this 30 metre (100 feet) pool is the focal point of American opulence during the Art Deco era. The world may have been suffering from a recession, but inside the walls of Hearst's home, there was no sign of any poverty.
Hearst spent $6.5 million on the house and another $3.5 million on artwork to fill the place, and that was during the recession (the castle was built between 1919 and 1947). Today the property is valued at $200 million. You cannot drive the Pacific Highway without stopping at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, but be sure to prebook your tickets, well in advance, especially during the summer months, when tourism is high.
I continued trekking south to my next stop, the Danish town of Solvang. Once you park your vehicle and walk to the town square it seems as if you have been transported to Scandinavia. Even the name means Sunny Field when translated from Danish. The city was first started in 1911 by a group of Danish immigrants, and today it has been transformed into an extremely picturesque town, built in the style of Denmark of old. There is a windmill, and a replica of Copenhagen's Round Tower or Rundetårn. There is even a reproduction of the Little Mermaid statue, which serves as a tribute to Danish author, Hans Christian Anderson.
If you wish to avoid Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, is one of the loveliest cities in the South Western United States. Upscale houses and plenty of shopping districts, make this a great end point for your adventure. Most people, myself included, continue on to L.A. with all its kitschy tourist hangouts, but that’s another article.
When it comes to timing, I would suggest spending the first night in Carmel, the second around San Simeon, and the third half way to Santa Barbara. The scenery is unbelievable, the sights are amazing, and the adventure is breathtaking. Make a point to visit California, the way it was meant to be seen.