At Josh's urging we did a road trip from Santa Cruz to San Simeon on Highway One. We hopped on the route just south of San Francisco and drove down the coast, meandering through the peaks and ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. We are no strangers to winding coastal routes. We've driven on the shores of the Atlantic in Ireland, hugged the Adriatic coast near Dubrovnik, and precariously hung on the cliffs of the Amalfi coast. Yet, Highway One surprised us with its grandeur. The expansive views of the ocean, the loud roar of the high surf crashing on rugged rocks, the treacherous incline of the cliffs, and the pristine, untouched mountains took our breath away, many times.
Like a piano concerto, our trip started gently as we made our way to Monterey. We visited Cannery Row, home of the now defunct sardine canning factories made famous by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name. It is a touristy town with a colorful fisherman's wharf and lots of restaurants to boot. Monterey holds a special spot in the literary universe but the terrain was nothing to write home about.
The crescendo of the route began when we drove south from Monterey the next morning.
Our first stop was Camel-By-The-Sea. Home to artists, poets, and writers, Carmel caters to a constant influx of tourists with an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants, and homes amidst ancient and mangled trees.
In Carmel, there is an arcane law that prevents people from wearing shoes with heels more than 2" for fear they may trip on the uneven pavements and sue the city. I'll happily defy this law to see houses that once inhabited my childhood fantasies!
South of Carmel is the Big Sur coastline where massive cliffs drop into the ocean and leave you in awe of the violent geologic events that delivered this legendary sight. The road winds through narrow gaps in the mountains, taking our breath away as we come around tight corners into sun-filled scenes of the ocean. We took turns at the wheel because the driver could focus on nothing other than the road ahead. There are few signs, no guardrails, no shoulders, only drops.
Our next stop was the famous Bixby Canyon Bridge. Built in 1932 on a budget of 200k, this is one of the most photographed sights on the west coast. If you are a Big Little Lies fan, this will be familiar from the opening credits.
Next up was Nepenthe, a restaurant south of Big Sur with spectacular views of the cliffs and ocean. Nepenthe is a drug that banishes grief. When we got to the restaurant, the anxiety from the winding road disappeared instantly as if Nepenthe was wafting in the air we breathed. The restaurant architected by Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, is made of Redwoods and blends into the cliffside seamlessly. While we waited for our table, we were mesmerized by the views of the ocean holding the sun and the trees caressing the clouds.
Going south from Nepenthe, we stopped at several overlooks to take pictures that now look like paintings to me. This area is heavily protected so that visitors can pass through but not make it a destination. Without these laws, I have no doubt the coastline would have been a string of shopping centers, hotels, and towns. In the end, it delivers what it promises - one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, if not the best.
When a cliff offered us a path down towards the water, we carefully made our way as far as we could go and then we were dwarfed by the crashing waves where the clear blue water turned into white foam as the gentle sea rose and fell on the rocks. The rhythmic sounds of the waves brought relief from the craziness of our daily lives.
In between the sheer cliffs and the vastness of the ocean, the highway took us inland through the highs and lows of the Redwood and Pine forest. The road was narrow with no shoulders. The only way to take a pic was through the windshield. We saw a few inns, mostly small and rugged cottages with a few rooms.
As we neared San Simeon, the highway ran through a valley with small cliffs on the right which Tarun and I named "Small Sur". Seven miles north of San Simeon, we stopped at a seal rookery. Elephant seals come to this beach twice a year, first to mate and then to molt. We stood in silence, marveling at the giants laying still in the sun, chuckling at the lone seal curling up to scratch its side, and sighing at the pup grunting for its mother. We could have stayed here forever but for the blustery wind that threatened to blow us over.
We stayed the night in San Simeon, population 462. Fire pits by the ocean became a gathering spot for hotel guests. Three families hung out at one of the pits. Our homes, destinations, culture, and political persuasion differed, yet we had jovial conversations on sports, fossil fuels, fracking, congestion, regulation and whatnot. We reluctantly turned in when the fire started to die and we felt the chill. Highway One offered one helluva drive, indeed. Memories from this trip are etched for a lifetime and we will be longing to come back here sooner than later.
Monterey, San Simeon, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara are all worthy spots for staying the night on Highway One and 101. San Simeon is the only tiny town among these, giving you a different experience altogether. Consider staying at The Cavalier Inn or Sands by the Sea - both on the beach side in San Simeon. If you have motion sickness, be sure to eat light and sit in the front while driving on Highway One!