With sun-drenched coastlines, cosmopolitan cities, sun-baked deserts fantastic food and fresh mountain air, California has it all – and with a welcome as warm as the weather, it’s no wonder that America’s Golden State has been a popular holiday destination for so long. Whatever you’re looking for in a holiday, whether you’d like to drive down the coastal Route 1 with the wind in your hair, fancy feasting on fresh seafood or want to go wine-tasting in Napa, you’ll find it in California – and all packed into an area the size of Sweden! Having recently returned from a three-week self-drive research trip, our resident California expert, Kim, shares her favourite memories of the southern part of her California self-drive holiday and why the Golden State is so much more than just Hollywood and Disneyland…
Driving through Big Sur
You can read as much as you want about this iconic drive along 90 miles of Californian coastline, but the truth is, you need to experience it to believe it. Roughly defined as the raw and remote route along Pacific Highway 1 between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon on the Central Coast, Big Sur is the ultimate Californian road trip complete with dramatic cliff drops, rocky coves, foamy surf, iconic bridges and towering tall redwood trees. This is California untamed – and the first glimpse of the craggy coastline is an absolutely unforgettable moment!
Take your time to drive safely and experience photo opportunity after photo opportunity as you wind around cliff-skimming bends, through green mountains to the east and the thundering Pacific to the west, with each picture more beautiful than the one before. After taking a token tourist snap at Bixby Bridge, I stopped at the infamous Nepenthe for lunch in a clifftop restaurant. Try and bag a seat along the counter if you can and take in the breathtaking views – and after a good feed, wander down to The Phoenix Shop below with its distinctive clothes and gorgeous jewellery for a spot of retail therapy.
Dramatic clifftops done, venture off-road for the secluded coves, parklands and waterfall trail at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (I’d recommend parking on the road and walking in). The half-mile trip through the park ended with stunning views of the 80-foot McWay Falls, one of only two waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunges directly into the ocean. Although I didn’t personally have time to visit, another notable landmark is the Point Sur Light Station, the only complete 19th-century lighthouse complex open to the public in California. As you head back to the car, be sure to keep a lookout for wildlife on your drive as well: look up to see endangered California condors, North America’s largest birds, or scan the swells for migrating whales or sea otters floating among beds of kelp.
Cruising along the Central Coast
I’d then recommend dipping off Route 1 to pay a visit to opulent Hearst Castle for the European ceilings, Roman facade and shimmering indoor pool – and if you have the time, a visit to the Piedras Blancas Seal Rookery 10 minutes south of San Simeon is a must. Here, you’ll find elephant seals that can reach over six metres long – a truly magnificent sight and a highlight of the trip for me! I then continued my route along the coast through the utterly charming San Louis Obispo County, stopping first at Cambria, an absolute gem of a town. Here, I caught a sunset on the beach before heading to the Sea Chest for dinner. Open since 1975, it’s a Cambrian institution – the queues to get in speak for themselves!
The next day, I made my way to Morro Bay, a haven of natural beauty, with its distinctive ancient volcanic plug known as Morro Rock which rises 576 feet from the ocean. With pretty seafront shops, a working harbour and lots of great fish restaurants serving fresh crab, clams, cod and juicy oysters, it’s impossible not to fall for Morro Bay’s charm – and I was even lucky enough to see a family of sea otters including a Mum with a baby who paddled into the marina! Morro Bay is fantastic for wildlife too – dubbed one of the country’s best places for bird watchers, make sure you look out for peregrine falcons nesting on Morro Rock. And there’s a whole host of other activities too, from boating, kayaking and surfing to golf, hiking and biking.
Just 30 minutes down the highway, I drove on to the classic beach town of Pismo Beach. Here, you can stroll along sandy beaches, visit the historic 1,200-foot-long pier, promenade along the boardwalk, or even try your hand at fishing before feasting on a lunch of creamy clam chowder. Personally, I fancied something a bit more energetic so decided to try my hand at dune buggying on the beach in a four-wheel ATV – such fun! If beach buggies aren’t for you, head to Butterfly Grove instead where, each year, thousands of Monarch Butterflies flock to the beach and cluster in the Eucalyptus trees. It’s not all seafood and sweeping coastlines here, though: foodies will love the weekly San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market. Every Thursday you’ll find delicious barbecue ribs, artisan bread, local honey and sweet organic peaches which you can wash down with a craft beer – just take my advice and make sure you arrive hungry!
Pottering around Palm Springs
If you choose to experience the hustle and bustle of LA as part of your California self-drive holiday, a few days in Palm Springs afterwards is just the tonic. The Rat Pack lived, loved and played here – and it doesn’t get any better than that! A breath of fresh air, it’s completely different from the City of Angels, and you’ll feel relaxed as soon as you arrive. There are nine areas to Greater Palm Springs, with the oasis of Palm Springs situated in the arid Coachella Valley. With its year-round sunshine, world-class golf facilities and indulgent spas, the living here is certainly easy, and it’s the perfect spot for a wonderfully relaxing holiday. Here, the streets are lined with palm trees and offer a variety of boutique shops to explore, art galleries to potter around and museums to browse at your own pace.
I decided to go on an architecture tour to get to know the area, before heading to the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, the world’s largest rotating tramcar. 10 minutes up in the rotating tram cars and you feel like you’ve entered a completely different world, with snow and fresh air like something out of Narnia! The tram cars rotate slowly as you ascend 1 ½ miles through the Cino Canyon, offering dramatic vistas of the valley below. I chose to head back down to town, but if you fancy you can make a night of it at the tram’s Mountain Station: there’s a choice of two restaurants, viewpoints abounding, and it’s also the starting point for exploring the Mount San Jacinto state park and its 50 miles of hiking trails.
Not a fan of heights? No problem; Palm Springs also puts you in prime position to visit the natural wonders of the region too. Visit the Indian Canyons just minutes away, carved out by floods over millennia, and also nearby is the iconic Joshua Tree National Park. Just a 50 minute drive through mostly wilderness, this portion of the Colorado and Mojave deserts features thrilling terrain to clamber up and over – it’s a hiker’s paradise and definitely one to tick off the bucket list!
Finishing my drive in San Diego
I flew out of San Diego, a city I fall more in love with each time I visit. In fact, San Diego calls itself ‘America’s Finest City’ – and I have to say I agree! Situated on the border with Mexico and known as the birthplace of California, it’s about as southern as California gets. The Mediterranean climate coupled with some of the region’s best beaches make it a year-round destination, but you’ll also love the village-like communities and waterfront wildlife here. San Diego has truly got something for everyone, whether you’re a sun seeker or wildlife enthusiast – there’s the zoo, Legoland and the museums of Balboa Park, plus a buzzing Downtown, beautiful hikes for all, more than 60 beaches and America’s most perfect weather – phew!
I headed to Cabrillo Point for amazing views over the whole city below. From here, you can go on to explore the original lighthouse, before paying a visit to Balboa Park with its 1,200 acres of gardens, museums and performing arts venues. Or if like me, you love the coast, you won’t be disappointed with San Diego’s 11 kilometres of coastline. I was even lucky enough to spot dolphins playing in Mission Beach! In the evening, I headed downtown to the achingly cool Gaslamp Quarter, with its tempting eateries and buzzing bars. It’s incredibly safe and has one of the lowest crime rates in America, which meant I could soak up the vibrant atmosphere and still feel perfectly safe as a woman travelling on my own.
The drive down the central coast to South California is one of the most iconic self-drive routes in the world – and quite rightly so! From dramatic cliff tops to sweeping beaches and buzzing cities to laid-back living, all served up with a friendly Californian welcome, whatever type of holiday you’re dreaming of, California won’t disappoint. Ready to start your American adventure? Contact me and the team today to start planning your California self-drive holiday – we’re absolutely bursting with ideas and will be more than happy to help!