Nathan here, back in the saddle again. Hold on tight — this is a long one.
If you Google “Best Road Trips in the US”, driving the Pacific Coast Highway tops almost every list out there & for good reason. It’s something Heather & I have always wanted to do, but since our focus over the last few years has been international travel, we didn’t think it would come so soon. Cue the La Jolla wedding bells for my good friend Max & his (now) wife Caitlin. With a good excuse to visit San Diego for a weekend, we decided to add on a week & see the rest of the coast while we were at it. And the planning began!
In order to truly experience the PCH in such a short time, we had to organize our trip very strategically beforehand. There were a couple of things we had to keep in mind while planning:
We were using our yearly companion passes we receive through our Delta AMEX card which meant we had to fly into & out of the same airport -- not ideal on a trip down the coast. We landed on LAX as the best bet.
The entire reason we were going to California was to attend a good friend’s wedding in La Jolla at the tail end of our trip.
So here’s what our trip looked like in a nutshell: We drove from LA north all the way to Napa (hitting lots of spots along the way) & then turned around & headed south to LA + San Diego, ending our trip in LA to fly back to Atlanta. If you’re busy trying to calculate how many hours of driving that is -- spoiler alert -- 42 hours. LOTS of bonding time with my very chatty and talented car-pool karaoke other half. We even crossed off two bucket list items off including driving the “most scenic route in America” (Heather) and participating in an indescribably entertaining hour of television, a microcosm of our entire economic system--a capitalist utopia, where consumers are rewarded for their persistence, market acumen, and intrepid spirit…come on down because… The Price is Right (you know who that was for). Overall, this was the trip of a lifetime & we couldn’t recommend it more.
Travel Dates: November 4-12, 2017 | Trip Length: 9 Days
We hopped off the plane at LAX (hey old miley!) & from there we took the shuttle to the Sixt rental company (which is my new favorite rental car company for many reasons - great price, nice upgrade policy and they looked the other way when I returned a curb-inahilated rim). Heather insisted on a convertible, so convertible we rented & I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. From LA we immediately headed out of the city to the coast.
Affluent and ritzy coastal town with big homes, blue skies and tasty seafood.
STAY: We made a day-trip out of Malibu and didn’t stay the night - which I would recommend, especially if you have as full of a schedule as we did.
Cruise: This will definitely be a theme of the trip. Cruising with the top down on the Pacific Highway is an activity in itself and not just a means of getting somewhere. The road winds so close to the water and the cliffs that is was tough for me to maintain my lane at times. You also pass so many incredible houses along the way, it continually keeps you guessing who lives there. I always assumed it was Tony Stark (I’ll be real surprised if that last sentence makes it past editor-in-chief Heather).
Beach Walk: After grabbing lunch, we walked directly across the street to stroll on the beach & dip our toes into the Pacific. Look both ways - lots of Lambos zipping around.
Malibu Wine Safari: Had we enough time, this was on H’s list. Wine tasting in a safari van through Saddlerock Ranch & Vineyard. Book early as tickets sell out far in advance.
EAT: We pulled off the road and had lunch at the famous Malibu Seafood. I had heard the hype and Heather has been there before and raved. Naturally, I was skeptical. BUT, it was a great view and pretty solid stop for fresh seafood dining. I’d go again and would recommend.
Heather wanted to check out Malibu Farm -- a farm-to-table restaurant on the pier but we didn’t have a lot of time. It looked right up her alley though.
Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs with a historical + upscale feel.
STAY: Echoing what I said above: we had a very tight schedule with many sights to see and places to go. We stopped through Santa Barbara for a few hours & to enjoy the sunset, but pushed on & headed north.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse: This was our first stop and it was a great starting part. We parked the car and walked from here to the Wharf and back. The courthouse also has a top level terrace with a panoramic vantage of the whole town. This way we could get our bearings & plan our next move.
Santa Barbara Downtown: This area is sandwiched between the courthouse and wharf & it’s packed with shopping + restaurants. This is a great place to stop in and do some supervised browsing or grab a bite to eat.
Stearns Wharf: The Wharf was the highlight of Santa Barbara for me. We spent pre-sunset at the Deep Sea Tasting Room, home of Conway Family Wines, sampling local varietals of rosé. At sunset, we moved to the otherside of the dock for a dinner of clam chowder and watched as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
EAT: We needed some clam chowder and we needed it fast, as Heather had not fed since Malibu and when the sun went down it turned chilly by the water. We had plans to go back to a restaurant downtown but elected to grab a quick bite on the top deck at The Harbor Restaurant. It turned out to be a great view and the food was delicious. Recommend.
Harbor town with a New England-feel made famous by John Steinbeck (or Big Little Lies for our millennial readers). Serves as the perfect home base for exploring Carmel, Pebble Beach + Big Sur.
STAY: There are times when Heather’s IHG hookup does the trick and times when it absolutely crushes it -- definitely the latter in this case. We stayed at The Clement Monterey, which is a premier property for IHG built over the harbor with tons of coastal charm and situated right on Cannery Row. Highly recommend.
Fisherman’s Wharf: Monterey is a pretty quiet town with not too much to see/do. But, we walked the wharf at the end of Cannery Row to see the Big Little Lies cafe (Paluca Trattoria) and to check out all of the seals in the harbor. (Little did we know this would be child’s play compared to the seals we would see in San Diego a few days later).
Cannery Row: This waterfront street is filled with shops + restaurants.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: This tops the all of the lists of things to do in Monterey, but as mentioned before, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Monterey — mostly used it as a home base. If you have time, check it out.
EAT: There always seems to be a night on our trips when we plan to go to one restaurant and when we get there - have second thoughts and end up eating comfort food. That was our night in Monterey. We ate at a tex-mex restaurant over the water. Anddd it was delicious.
Earlier that day before heading down the coast we did have a delightful pre-planned brunch at a former factory that now serves fluffy omelettes & pancakes. The eatery was called First Awakenings. We dined in the courtyard with the birds and the breeze. Just delightful.
Nestled between Monterey and Carmel, Pebble Beach features four renowned Monterey golf courses and three acclaimed resorts. Possibly the most scenic strip of real estate in the whole state of California.
STAY: Ha. Maybe one day. For now, we drove through it.
17-Mile Drive: This stretch of road, I’d say between 15-20 miles (ha!), hugs the coastline as it winds around the coast passing famous golf courses along the way. There is a toll ($10.25 cash only - unless you only have seven bucks and beg the attendant until the line backs up and allows you to pass) to enter the area, which serves as the gated community for the Pebble Beach Resorts. After paying the toll, you recieve a handy map with the long list of places to stop and things to see. Some notables include the Lone Cyprus and Pescadero Point, ending at The Lodge at Pebble Beach with sweeping views of the 18th hole fairway & greens.
Pebble Beach Golf Course: Site of the 2019 US Open and home to possibly the most iconic hole in golf is the last stop on the drive. The course is open to the public and free to go check out the 18th green and lodge, but over $500 to play. It was quite a site, I would love to go back eventually and unintentionally hit about a dozen balls into the Pacific.
EAT: Grab a bite to eat at The Lodge at Pebble Beach.
Quaint beach town with fairytale-like cottages and miles of beautiful coastline.
STAY: We just spent an afternoon here,but there did look to be some charming Airbnbs and boutique hotels to stay at.
Wander: There are so many cute shops & restaurants here that we spent the majority of our time just walking up & down the streets, ducking in whenever H wanted to take a look around. Make sure to check out the Cottage of Sweets for a quintessential Carmel photo opp.
Caraccioli Cellars: This downtown wine tasting room was a nice place to stop and sip some local vino while getting out of the sun. We did the six wine flight & Heather swears the 2010 Brut CUVÉE is the best sparkling wine she’s ever had.
EAT: Lots of little cafes to stop into (La Bicyclette), but we pressed on.
Rugged stretch of coast with a narrow, winding, seaside two-laned roadway boasting amazing cliff and ocean views, along with iconic bridges and national parks.
STAY: There are plenty of cabins & “glamping" options here, but we stayed in Monterey.
Bixby Bridge: Measuring over 120’ over the ocean below and spanning over 300’, Bixby Bridge is quite an architectural feat and stunning to see in-person.
Pfeiffer State Park: A giant park in Big Sur with over one thousand acres of redwoods. Known as the “mini Yoseimite”. Note that there’s no beach or ocean access in this park.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Not to be confused with Pfiffer State Park, this is the home of McWay Falls & 300’ Redwoods over 2500 years old.
McWay Falls: The infamous 80’ waterfall onto a beach. Park & walk along the well-marked trails. All of the views are amazing, but the views get better as you move along the trail. There is no access onto the waterfall beach below which is a bummer, because do go chasing water falls - I always say.
Phiffer Beach: Not to be confused with Pfeiffer State Park or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (are they serious?) is a gorgeous, unspoiled (probably because it’s not popular with tourists) beach of purple sands & dramatic off-shore rocks. We went right at sunset & would highly recommend. Thanks to our friends Jackie + Mike of Tamburo Travels for this tip!
Nepenthe: This top-of-the-cliff bar/restaurant was the cherry on top of the day-trip. We stopped in before sunset for a snack and a show. The views were amazing and we even saw a few whales pop up as we were sipping our beers.
EAT: The Big Sur Deli seems to be everyone's recommendation and it was where we ate, but I think that’s because it is one of the only (quick) options. It was a half grocery - half bar establishment serving sandwiches and sides. It was okay. Very convenient.
Coastal city home to the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatrez and Full House.
STAY: We couldn’t get Heather’s employee hook-up for the InterContinental Mark Hopkins because Salesforce’s big annual event, Dreamforce, happened to be occuring during our stay. The city was so crowded, that our Airbnb ended up giving away our rental to a higher bidder (what?). We ended up jetting north to Napa after our day of exploring.
Lombard Street: This steep and crooked street is a crazy site and even crazier to drive.
Ghirardelli Ice Cream: Mmm mmm mmmmm. Just thinking back to this overpriced and long-lined milkshake makes me crave another. Heather has been to SF quite a few times & always has to stop for a milkshake. Worth it.
Golden Gate Bridge: Fun fact: the big famous red bridge is a toll-road. I didn’t know this and got a hefty fine from the municoal magistrate. Make sure you’re prepared. Other than that - awesome site and incredible to drive over - a few times.
Ocean Beach: The larger of the beaches in San Fransico, good for relaxing, but if you’re short on time or value a good view of the Golden Gate - I would recommend Baker Beach (below).
Baker Beach: Hands down, the best view of the GGB can be found here. Heather had a photo session with our friends Kate + Caleb at sunset while I held purses.
Pier 39: Tourist hot-spot, but a great place to walk around with sea lions, waterfront dining, street performers, live music and shopping. Walk along the water until you get to fisherman’s wharf and check out all of the piers and sights along the way.
EAT: We had lunch at Bar Boccee in Sausalito, right across the Golden Gate, and I couldn't recommend it more. Heather had been before with a local friend and had to go back. Views & food on point.
Napa / Sonoma
Famous American wine region known for its hundreds of hillside vineyards producing full-bodied reds and crisp whites, so says Heather.
STAY: We stayed at the Hotel Indigo Napa Valley and it was in a great location, but didn’t have the same charm and local flair as most Hotel Indigos. It was pretty obvious that it was a Best Western convert.
DO: Lots of wine drinking. Below are the four vineyards we made reservations at - which I recommend and 3 or 4 seems to be a good number to visit in a day.
Beuhler Vineyards: This vineyard and tasting room is up the hill and I don’t think they get many visitors. They were a little bit surprised when Heather called to make a reservation. BUT, it was our favorite. The wine maker, who was the founder’s grandson and nursing a helluva hangover, let us try all of their best wines and walked us through the whole making/bottling process. When he found out it was Heather’s birthday he gave us a free bottle of reserve wine to take home. Would absolutely recommend. Scenic views and solid wines.
Frog's Leap Vineyards: This tasting room has a Joanna Gaines-high-end-farm-chic atmosphere with large pours and an insightful tasting process. We spent time walking around the grounds after our tasting. I would definitely recommend.
Cakebread Vineyards: This vineyard is probably the most well known of the four that we visited - they’re in the Olive Garden, but are sensitive when brought up. The ambiance, education and atmosphere were great, but unless you’re really into a buttery chardonnay, skip it.
Rutherford Hill Winery: Heather intentionally scheduled our tasting at Rutherford last - was it because she knew we’d be several bottles in and a bit rowdy? Nope, coincidence, anyone who knows her, knows she is all about sunsets. Being higher up on the hill with a fun outdoor area with clear sightlines of the valley - Rutherford was the perfect spot to be for sunset. The wine and story of the vineyard was also pretty darn good. Unfortunately H wouldn’t know about the wine because I drank her tasting - pourer’s instructions.
EAT: We started our day with a heavvvvy and delicious breakfast at The Fremont Diner - technically in Sonoma, but a pretty close drive and worth it. After a few bottles, we grabbed lunch at the famous Oakville Grocery, which was overpriced but tastey and convenient. We grabbed dinner at Allegria which was a great spot. Was it the atmosphere of being in a renovated classic marble-architecture bank? Almost running into Dennis Quaid? Or the copious servings of Italian food paired with all day wine drinking? All of the above.
City of Angels, bad traffic and Hollywood.
STAY: We stayed at the Hotel Indigo Los Angeles Downtown - right across the street from the Staples Center, and it was a really neat hotel with a lot of local influence, but given the opportunity to do it again - I would rather stay outside the city, somewhere like Santa Monica, because All I want to do is have some ...
The Price is Right: Highlight of the trip for me. It’s crazy being there in person, with all of the lights and excitement. It is nothing like it appears on TV — much smaller and faster-paced and more exciting. You have to get there early and it takes hours & lots of “interviews” to actually get in and we didn’t get to “come on dowwwwn” - BUT, it still was a fun, surreal experience. We heard an insider rumor that if you book a group of 8+, that they automatically call someone from your group.
Santa Monica: This was my second favorite part about our time in LA. Santa Monica Pier was a bit touristy but it was fun to walk around. There was just a more laid back feel in SM, plus the beach was riiiight there and the restaurants/bars were a lot of fun. Especially The Bungalow which we hit after dinner with a college friend of mine one night.
Venice Beach: We hit VB early in the morning with breakfast at Egg Slut, then we strolled the boardwalk to take in all of the crazy characters. H had to stop into Show Me Your Mumu…& I held her purse.
Hollywood Sign: Got to do it. Little underwhelming in person and actually pretty difficult to get to, but pretty neat to see it in real life. Pro Tip: the best viewpoints are on the drive up to Griffith Observatory and a good place to park is at Griffith Park.
Griffith Observatory: Primarily acts as a giant telescope and exhibit, but it’s best feature is an incredible 360 degree view of Los Angeles. Definitely worth the trek, parking battle and sea of selfie sticks.
Sunset Blvd: Talked about in numerous 90’s jams and really amazing to drive down with the top back in the rented ‘17 Camaro. We weren’t not listening to Sheryl Crow (double reference I know - but she’s my girl).
Rodeo Drive: You want to see Bentley’s and Gucci stores? Heres your strip. We played the Pretty Woman theme song the whole time - just fitting.
Hollywood Stars: Fun to walk around and see all of them. It’s equally as fun going into all of the shops and seeing the ridiculous things for sale. Park and walk to the Dolby Theatre where there’s probably a movie premiere.
EAT: We ate dinner one night at Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica - definitely recommend. But - the best dining experience was at In-N-Out. Yes I know, everyone says that, but it is an experience at this point and the burger was mmm good. Our last night in town we contemplated getting another Double-Double, but we ended up getting a poke bowl - which has been the catalyst for eating bowls numerous times a week ever since - transformative.
Close to Mexico naval harbour town with beautiful weather and beaches that always stays classy.
STAY: Shocker - we stayed at an IHG hotel. And it was splendid. We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express La Jolla. It was close to the water and in the action of everything in La Jolla and we got a lot of compliments on our Camaro. Recommend.
Scripps Pier: Speaking of a a great Instagram spot - this eye-catching, inception-like pier in La Jolla was quite a site. Thats all I have to say about that.
Torrey Pines / Gliderport: Not only a world-class golf course, but also a park with incredible public views. Heather and I spent a couple hours frolicking around the cliffs and taking boomerangs of the hang-gliders above.
Sunset Cliffs: Look at the sunset pic above - look at it. All you need to know. Other than get there early and drive up and down the coast to find that great spot. And don’t fall off the cliff, the waves are rough and rocks aplenty.
Ballast Pointe Brewery: Atlanta has some banging breweries, but the west coast ain’t bad either. With limited time, we decided to go with the more infamous spot at Ballast Pointe. It was a restaurant/brewery combo that had a cozy patio to lounge on. The sour beer selection and variety was impressive paired with the ambiance of the crashing waves in the background and planes flying directly overhead set the mood.
La Valencia Hotel: This infamous pink hotel was a Heather must-see and we checked it out on the way to La Jolla Cove.
La Jolla Cove: The best place to play with sea lions and/or seals. I could never tell the difference, until Heather educated me. Sea lions are brown, bark loudly, "walk" on land using their large flippers and have visible ear flaps. Seals have small flippers, wriggle on their bellies on land, and lack visible ear flaps. Now you can’t say you left without learning something - because I know you didn’t know that.
Advisory: These pinnipeds are aggressive and charge when mocked. I know from experience.
EAT: Two recs to mention here: Carnitas’ Snack Shack which was pier front on the Embarcadero and George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. The shack was a great casual lunch spot with tastyyy tacos and George’s was the perfect rooftop option to indulge a bit.
And THAT, is how you do the California coast in the least efficient way possible. But if you need to burn a Delta companion pass like we did this may be the perfect route for you. We had the best time exploring the PCH & hope life takes us back one day.
Until next time,