California Part III: Pacific Coast Highway

After our tour of San Francisco, we rented a car and set off down the Pacific Coast highway for a multi-day road trip. I can honestly say, I was most looking forward to this portion of the trip, and it definitely ended up being my favorite of the time spent. California is a truly beautiful state, the coastline is so dramatic and rugged – incomparable to the mostly flat east coast. A few years back, a friend and I, on a whim, did a similar road trip up the coast north of San Francisco and I was blown away by the scenery – it reminded me of my time in Australia and felt worlds away from the United States I had known thus far. Ever since, I had been looking forward to returning, specifically to drive south this time and see Big Sur. As I’ve mentioned before, we had little set plans for this leg of the trip and did not reserve all of our hotels in advance, as we wanted to be spontaneous and let the road guide us along the way. We did however, have a suggested, but not concrete, itinerary in mind and we did also book one night at the Lucia Lodge in Big Sur – mainly because Big Sur was my top priority destination and research told me it tended to book up quickly, as lodging options – specifically quaint coastal cottages overlooking the Pacific – were few and far between. SO, after picking up our car at the airport, we set off on Monday with no place to be until Lucia on Tuesday evening.

We got off to a bit of a slow and bumpy start, after a slight hiccup at the car rental facility (I suppose, at times, there’s something to be said for advanced reservations after all – inventory was extremely limited and the last minute prices were astronomical). But we finally found a deal that suited our needs and wallets (and no, unfortunately, it was not a Mustang convertible) and were soon headed south down the coast – only to be met with that famous San Franciscan fog.  Despite the online weather predictions, and our high hopes, we were not able to escape the fog for a good portion of our Monday drive, obscuring those beautiful coastal views I had so been looking forward to. But if there’s one thing we can never control, it’s the weather, and so we made the best of it.

First stop was breakfast at Breakers in Rockaway Beach, Pacifica – a quaint seaside town just south of San Francisco. Continuing south we drove on to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Monterey, and finally settled for the evening in Carmel-by-the-Sea.



Quick hike through Big Basin
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park


Cloudy Day in Monterrey – I want wine, not prickly pear lemonade

Carmel-by-the-Sea was my favorite of our stops that day. It’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint town along the Pacific, filled with shops and restaurants with a distinctly European storybook feel. Thatched cottages with decorative window displays line quiet village streets; inns and cabins with private courtyards are found all along the shoreline; storybook homes with handmade details and quirky architecture surround the main village square. I could have spent days meandering these picturesque city streets, window shopping and sampling treats from the many bakeries, cafes and coffee shops – but, alas, we only had time for an overnight stay. We found a great last minute hotel deal at the Carmel Village Inn, walking distance to the city square, and enjoyed an evening exploring town before a late night meal at the highly rated, festive and energetic Mediterranean restaurant, Dametra Cafe. It was a great end to a fun day of exploration – the only thing missing for me was a sampling of some local California wine! (Note to self – vacationing in California wine country… while pregnant… as a wine lover… was difficult at times).

Tuesday morning we woke up to clear skies, grabbed some locally roasted coffee and breakfast from the Carmel bakery and continued on to Big Sur. As this portion of the Pacific Coast highway is famously the most beautiful, we were beyond thankful that the fog had parted and we were able to take in the scenery. Big Sur is a region in central California consisting of roughly 90 miles of rugged coastline from Carmel to San Luis Obispo County. It is the longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States and has been described as a “national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development”. For us, the word we kept using to describe the views ahead of us was ‘dramatic’. For miles we marveled as we drove winding turn after winding turn of endless cliffs and coast. With plenty of time to soak in the region, we moved slowly, stopping often for photo opportunities, as we made our way south over the Bixby Bridge and through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. We stopped for refreshments and to dip our toes in the river at the Big Sur River Inn, and watched the tide come in at Julia Pfeiffer beach before breaking for lunch at Nepenthe.


Across Bixby Bridge
Big Sur River Inn
Hanging at Pfeiffer Beach
Paul enjoying a beer at Pfeiffer Beach
At peace and watching the waves roll in at Pfeiffer Beach

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in the Big Sur area, Nepenthe is a must stop. Situated high in the cliffs, this outdoor eatery offers absolutely stunning views of the Pacific Coast. The menu is casual, as are the outdoor tables – though the scenery is anything but. After an enjoyable lunch and even more time spent staring out at the ocean, we headed to McWay falls, which is accessed by a short hiking path off the highway to a scenic overlook.

Cocktails and mocktails at Nepenthe
McWay falls
McWay falls



Leaving the falls, we continued south to Lucia, arriving at the lodge with just enough time to get situated and watch the sunset from our ocean front cabin.

Our cabin at Lucia Lodge
View from the cabins
Sunset at the lodge


The Lucia lodge was an enjoyable stay – it was quiet, so my advanced reservation was definitely not needed, despite their website threats. The on-site restaurant was nothing to write home about (literally), but the views from the cabins were perfect – and that’s really what we came for. An early evening at the lodge was followed by an early morning wake-up, as we hit the road before sunrise on Wednesday, aiming to make it the 275 miles to Santa Monica by Wednesday afternoon. Sunrise as we drove along the coast was a breathtaking experience, and the day was spent primarily driving, with the highlight most definitely being the elephant seal beach in San Simeon. I love seeing animals in their natural habitat – to me it’s way more special than visiting an aquarium or zoo. We arrived in the morning and were lucky to find HUNDREDS of elephant seals sleeping, fighting and playing along the beach.

Driving into the sunrise
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Leaving the elephant seals, we continued on down the coast, as the landscape slowly changed from the dramatic cliffs and mountains of Big Sur to more flatlands further south near Los Padres National Forest. We watched our cell service return – Big Sur has virtually no cellular signal anywhere – and knew we were re-entering civilization as we drove quickly through the coastal towns of Morro Bay, Pismo beach, Santa Barbara and Malibu, before coming to our final resting place in Santa Monica.

The next few days were spent finalizing our plans to explore the Los Angeles area – more to come!

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