California’s Highway 1, known endearingly as PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), is a bucket list journey for travelers around the globe – and for good reason. It’s home to dramatic seascapes of waves breaking against jagged cliffs, redwood forests that bring to mind Tolkien’s Middle Earth and small towns that are as intriguing as their eclectic mix of inhabitants. Although the route spans over 650 miles, the stretch we’re journeying through on Destination Regency is one of the most picturesque, historic and was the most challenging to build. Finished in 1937 and first known as the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, the stretch of Hwy 1 between San Simeon and Carmel demanded serious engineering and multiple bridges. The grand expanse of Bixby Bridge, built in 1932, is worth the trip alone. One of the most beautiful legacies of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, the route was known for a long time as Roosevelt Highway in his honor.
Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, PCH was my go-to for getting out of the city. My girlfriends and I would load the car with camping gear and hit the road for space, fresh air and nature. I later took my husband on this trip for his 30thbirthday. Today, I’ve traded sleeping bags for the luxury of a Regency RV, but the undeniable lure of this magical stretch of California is still the same. Since I couldn’t possibly cover the entirety of Highway 1 in one post, we’ll kick things off just north of Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara County:
If a luxury RV site is what you have in mind look no further than Ocean Mesa RV Park where a heated pool, spa, loads of hiking trails, a posh convenience store, beachside views and all the amenities await you. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, the nearby El Capitan State Beach Campsite offers a beautiful spot for beach swimming, fishing and surfing at a fraction of the cost.
From El Capitan State Beach, Highway 1 dips inland for a bit, but don’t despair. The little town of Lompoc is a charmer in its own right and is home to some of the most extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path wineries in California! As a matter of fact, Destination Regency will be doing a whole article on Santa Barbara County wines in the future. In the meantime, here are 3 of the must-stop wineries to visit near Highway 1 in Lompoc.
Tyler Winery, just off Highway 1, offers some of the most compelling, old-world style examples of Pinot Noir in California. Owner and winemaker, Justin Willett, strives to deliver a terroir-driven sense of place in every glass. His minimal intervention and respect for the purity of fruit as well as the land succeeds in capturing wines that have the near-impossible nuance of Burgundy with a more affordable California price tag!
Foley Estates was one of the first wineries I ever visited in California and their wines are just as lovely today (over a decade later and a sommelier certification under my belt) as they were the first time I tasted them.
Sanford Winery & Vineyards is a well-deserved legend in the Santa Rita Hills of California. After a tour in Vietnam, Richard Sanford returned home and teamed up with Michael Benedict to craft their first astounding vintage in 1975. The team first brought Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to this special pocket of California and many winemakers would follow in their footsteps. The combination of diatomaceous earth (fossils from an ancient sea bed) and cool, coastal fog result in a wine appellation that’s truly the greatest in California for Burgundian varietals (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). A stop at Sanford will deliver history in a glass as well as one of the most memorable wine experiences in the country. If you only stop at one, make it Sanford!
An hour’s cruise north, through rolling hills, will give way to sparkling, azure waters over Pismo Beach. A classic California beach town, Pismo Beach garnered fame early through its massive Pismo Clams, which makes it an ideal spot to grab a cup of clam chowder. The recently restored, historic pier, spanning 1200 feet, is a prime spot for a stroll and a spectacular view. If you’re in town between October and February, be sure to check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove while you’re in town.
Journey another half hour up the coast to Morro Bay, the self-proclaimed Gibralter of the Pacific, where Morro Rock, a giant, volcanic plug, rises almost 600 feet out of the ocean. Considered by the Audubon Society as one of the best birdwatching spots in the country, it is also home to sea otters and other enchanting creatures. The Embarcadero is a waterfront street that offers local-owned shops and restaurants with a view. If you’re in the mood for seafood, check out The Galley Seafood Grill or Dutchman’s Seafood House for fish so fresh it’s just hit land.
Whether you’re a fan of history, architecture, old Hollywood or just beauty, the next stop has it all! One of my favorites and well worth the hype, Hearst Castle is a mandatory stop. William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon and inspiration for the classic, Citizen Kane, built Hearst Castle with architect Julia Morgan between the 1919 and 1947. She was California’s first female architect and this monumental undertaking is a jaw-dropping showcase for her talents. With 165 rooms and over 120 acres of gardens, pools, terraces and splendor, Hearst Castle is one of the most impressive private residences ever built in the country. Today’s it’s a state park and open to the public with the price of a tour.
What’s truly special about Hearst Castle? Well, ceilings, doors, art, tapestries and countless architectural features were culled from historic sites and castles all over Europe and installed in Hearst Castle. “W.R.” was something of a compulsive collector and his home on the hill was built to accommodate a horde on par with the Vikings of old. The libraries and their extensive collection are enough to steal the hearts of bibliophiles the world over. The dining hall was actually used as the inspiration for designing Hogwarts great hall in the Harry Potter films. To top it all off, the castle hosted the Hollywood glitterati and political elite of the day. Hearst often flew people out for masquerade balls and they touched down on his own private landing strip. If these walls could talk…
San Simeon Creek Campgrounds are a mere 5 miles south of the turn-off for Hearst Castle. This RV park serves as an ideal stopping point for the night if you plan to do one or more tours at the castle. Each site has a fire ring, picnic table and water spigots. The campsite offers restrooms with flush toilets and coin operated showers as well as a dump station and water fill-up facility.
On your journey up highway 1, just 4.5 miles north of Hearst Castle’s turn off, are San Simeon’s Elephant Seals. Throughout the year, 17,000 elephant seals make landfall on the rocky sands to breed, give birth and molt. An amazing sight, there’s usually a docent ton site to answer questions. Either way, make the stop and watch these adorable creatures from the boardwalk just a few feet from their habitat.
Just 11 miles north of Hearst Castle lies the quaint little town of Cambria. This is an ideal place to grab a quick breakfast and even shop around before hitting the road for Limekiln and Big Sur. A few recommendations for breakfast or brunch are:
Cambria Café, a local favorite, serves up traditional American breakfast as well as Mexican favorites like huevos rancheros.
Creekside Gardens is a local haunt that offers great corned beef hash, Dutch pancakes, legit omelets and a patio that’s thoroughly relaxing and laid back.
The French Corner Bakery lives up to its name with buttery croissants, crusty baguettes and fresh tarts. Take a loaf of freshly baked bread for your journey ahead! They serve breakfast, lunch and brunch and their fabulous coffee is poised to set you on the road with pleasure.
Limekiln State Park
Just an hour fifteen up the road, Limekiln State Park is a magical spot nestled above the Pacific beneath boughs of giant redwoods. This park does not accommodate RV camping, contrary to numerous conflicting sources. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite hiking and picnicking spots along PCH. Hiking through the coastal redwoods will take you up to the lovely Limekiln waterfall and a wonderful beach rests below in a shallow cove. The most fascinating feature of the state park though is the historic limekilns. Back in the late 1800’s, limestone was excavated nearby and processed in massive kilns then shipped up to San Francisco to accommodate the massive building boom going on in the city back then. The incongruous old kiln ruins set amidst the grand old redwoods is truly something special and definitely warrants a stop. If you are looking to call it a day after Limekiln, Kirk Creek Campground, also a state park, does accommodate RVs. Their site is nestled on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Each individual site boasts a picnic table, fire ring and a dazzling view of the ocean. From here, Big Sur is just a short, scenic drive away.
Author Henry Miller once described Big Sur as, “the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look.” It’s one of the most isolated and visually striking spots on the planet, which is why artists like Miller, Keruoac and Hunter S. Thompson all journeyed to this little redwood mecca by the sea to soak up inspiration, serenity and nature to write. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it. But one thing is for sure, within 24 hours beneath the towering pines, your spirit just starts to soar. If relaxing amidst a real-life Lothlorien isn’t enough, there’s plenty to do.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park abounds with hikes and ample beauty. Within the park, the quick hike to Mcway Waterfall,an 80-foot drop to the beach sand below, is just over half a mile, but it’s views will leave you breathless. For a more adventurous hike, the Ewoldsen Trailis a good 6+ miles, but it traverses ancient redwood groves, trickling streams as well as canyon and ocean views. Pacific Valley Bluff Trailis an easy stroll, but its continuous coastal views is one of our favorites for the scenery. Sand Dollar Beachis a must-do in and of itself, but the quick 3/4-mile trail to the sands is as stunning as the destination. Partington Cove Trailwill charm history buffs and nature lovers alike. The loading point for tanbark around the late 1800’s, the 1-mile trail takes you through the original 60-foot tunnel and deposits you onto a beautiful, sheltered beach cove.
Henry Miller Memorial Library opened its doors in 1981, a year after Henry’s death. Perched beneath towering redwood trees, the rustic little cabin serves as a library, event center and just a fun, little cultural oasis in the middle of the seaside forest. You can grab a free cup of coffee and just read awhile or show up for a random poetry reading or film screening. Check out their events schedule or just show up, browse the memorabilia and buy a book penned by a once-Big Sur local.
Although Sand Dollar Beach is Big Sur’s largest beach and is a must, Pfeiffer Beach is remarkable for its unique, purple sands and is well worth a visit as well.
Food & Libations:
Nepenthe has to be the most famous place to dine in Big Sur. The food is straightforward, California fare and is pretty good. But the ambiance is what brings people to their door again and again. Situated on a high bluff overlooking Pacific waves crashing over jagged cliffs, Nepenthe serves its guests out of a charming mid-century home designed by Rowen Maiden, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students. Owners Bill and Lolly Fassett once remarked when they bought the site in 1947, “no individual can own it; it belongs to everyone,” and so it does.
Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn securely rests at the pricier end of the Big Sur spectrum with prix-fixe meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nevertheless, it’s easily the most inventive and delicious meal you will eat in town. So, if you’re up for a splurge, give them a whirl and book reservations ahead of time.
Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant is a charming stop for a quick artisan pastry and cappuccino, but it’s also an enchanting restaurant in its own right. Their salads are inspired. Their vegetarian entrée of butternut squash, maitake, king trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms with haricot verts is fabulous enough to make a steak lover give up meat! And their Duck confit pizza – get outta town! Yes, please!
Big Sur River Inn is, without question, a tourist spot. With that said, where else can you soak your feet in a stream underneath grand redwoods while noshing on traditional American fare or sip a cocktail from the comfort of your very own Adirondack chair? Totally kitchsy and totally worth it! They’ve been a local-owned institution for a hundred years.
For nightlife, my ultimate favorite is the Maiden Publick House. They don’t have a website. They don’t advertise. It’s the ambiance, local live music and their extensive “beer bible” that keep locals beating a path to their door year after year.
Big Sur Taphouse is another worthy contender when it comes to cold beer on a good patio. They also serve a healthy smattering of well-executed pub food if you’re so inclined.
Fernwood is my favorite place to stay in Big Sur. I’ve camped in my own tent, their cute yurts and have stayed in my Regency RV there as well. They offer water, electricity and a dump station (for a fee). But it’s the property itself that really works for me. They have a nice little convenience store, an espresso bar, a pub and wonderful hiking trails. All of the sites I have ever stayed at are nestled beneath massive redwoods and streams run throughout the property. It’s incredibly picturesque and definitely worth the money, in my opinion. I do recommend reservations as they fill up very quickly.
The enchanting drive from Big Sur to Carmel is stunning, but the most striking sight is that of Bixby Bridge. Just after you pass the bridge, heading north, there is a turnabout where you can stop for a look or even a photo op. It’s a mere 25 miles, but the trip will take a good hour of driving the stone-lined switchback roads along the coast. Carmel and Monterey are right next to one another and serves as the final stop of the journey north.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is arguably the most enchanting town in California. Although movie stars and billionaires have homes there, the vibe is far from stuffy and the character is without rival in the golden state. Carmel Village is architecturally quaint and manicured to look like a fairytale, but more in the old world authentic sort of way as opposed to Disneyworld. Flower boxes line the picturesque cottages and landscaping abounds. Shops are locally owned and charming, food is marvelous and the weather is the temperature of Spring for most of the year. Honestly, this is one of the most romantic little towns in the country. Much of this can be attributed to architect, Hugh Comstock, who built several fairytale cottages throughout the village, 21 of which are still standing. Close to 100 art galleries showcase their wares in the charming hamlet. And one of the world’s finest golf courses, Pebble Beach, falls within the town limits. We’ll leave you to seek out what you love about Carmel, but here is our short list of favorite eateries.
Porta Bella is the spot for your Italian fix. Not only is the food worthy of the mother country, the ambiance fits the bill as well. Wild Mushroom Risotto, Lamb Ossobucco and Pappardelle Bolognese are only a few of the offerings at Porta Bella and everything on the menu is authentic, delicious and celebrates everything Italian cuisine does well.
La Bicyclette is pure, old world charm inside and out. With a dynamite wine list, a relaxed and quaint atmosphere and a staff that makes every patron feel at home, this little gem is perfect for a casual lunch or a lovely dinner. Their Rainbow Beet Salad with Truffled Goat Cheese is even better than it sounds. The wood-fired pizza is topped with the most thoughtful ingredients you can possibly imagine. And the Sole au Beurre Blanc, with local artichokes, would have delighted the palate of Julia Child herself.
Casanova’s, like the great lover of old, steals my heart every time I return. It is simply one of my favorite restaurants on the planet. If the legendary Gnocchi Casanova or the Vol au Vent (puff pastry with chicken and wild mushrooms) are not enough to make you think you’ve died and gone to culinary heaven, the venue alone will sweep you off your feet. One of the most romantic restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in, the climbing vines and cobblestoned patio will transport you to the South of France in an instant. Their special occasion Van Gogh room actually boasts the table that Van Gogh frequented at his favorite haunt, Auberge Ravoux, in France. The wine list rivals the best in the country and the dirt-floored cellar itself feels like one of a genuine French vigneron. The staff, the food, the wine and the setting come together to deliver one of the most special dining experiences imaginable without the white table cloth price tag. If you eat anywhere in Carmel, make it Casanova’s!
Monterey is one of the oldest towns in California. First documented by the Spanish in 1602, Monterey was once the only port of entry for taxable goods in California. It boasts California’s first theater, public library, printing press and newspaper. It was also known for its fishery and has a charming Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the old massive canneries is now home to one of the finest aquariums in the country, Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium first opened its doors 35 years ago and is now home to over 35,000 creatures and 35 major galleries to peruse.
Aside from the aquarium, Point Pinos is home to the oldest, continuously operating lighthouse on the Pacific coast and is a true beauty to behold. The Dali Expo, in honor of Salvador Dali’s years in Carmel and Monterey, features the largest collection of the artist’s works in the U.S.. The San Carlos Cathedral, a Spanish colonial church and home to the oldest stone building in California, as well as the Old Customs House, dating from 1827, are two superb destinations for history lovers.
One of my favorite things to do in Monterey is to just take a bike ride along the coast. Otters, sea lions, pelicans, dolphins and whales can be seen on your journey, depending on the time of year. One of the best routes to take is 17-mile-drive, but whether you bike or drive, it is a something you do not want to miss. One of the most scenic byways in California, 17-mile-drive connects Monterey and Carmel and passes through Pebble Beach where you can book green fees or just peruse the beauty. If you’re in town Sunday, August 18th, be sure to get tickets for the Concours d’Elegance when the world’s finest classic automobiles take to the greens for the ultimate showcase of its kind. When you take 17-mile-drive there is a gate fee. However, restaurants within the drive all offer vouchers for gate fee reimbursement.
When it comes to food and drink, there’s plenty to choose from. Monterey is just down the road from Watsonville, the artichoke capital of the country, as well as some of the most fertile land in the state of California. Most of the restaurants source locally and seafood is as fresh as you’re going to find it anywhere in the state. Here are a few of our favorites spots to grab a bite or a pint.
Kick off the day right at Parker-Lusseau. This charming café, situated in an adobe home from the 1800’s, offers French pastries, tarts, wonderful coffee as well as lovely sandwiches and salads that are ideal to toss in your pack for the bike ride ahead or to enjoy on their delightful bistro-style patio.
Monterey Fish House, owned and operated by the DiGirolamo Family – a name that’s been linked to Monterey Seafood for generations, is a solid choice for fresh, well-executed seafood in Monterey. The DiGirolamos welcome one and all like family, the ambiance is relaxed and warm, and the food is lovely.
For drinks and an all-around good time, the nautical-themed, British Pub, The Crown and Anchor, in historic downtown, always lends itself to a grand old time, solid pub food and a bevvy of good European beers.
If you’re hankering for a great pub with equally great food, look no further than Alvarado Street Brewery. Their beer garden, housed outside the historic industrial space, serves up crawfish mac and cheese, pork belly poutine or a Vietnamese lamb burger that you can wash down with one of their locally brewed beers or mixologist-crafted cocktails.
Although Carmel and Monterey are two spots on the journey you do not want to miss, accommodations can be a little tricky if you want to be in close proximity to the action. The very best option, Monterey Pines Recreation Complex, is open only to military (active duty, retired, reserves, DOD civilians and family members). Just a mile away from the Naval Post Graduate School, this campus may be one of the most stunning military bases in the country. The university is based out of the former Del Monte Hotel, which was a luxury resort in the late 1800’s until it was taken over by NPS in 1951. It’s actually the original starting point for the 17-mile-drive. If you have the credentials to get on base and hook up here, it’s right in town and I highly recommend it.
The other geographically convenient RV park in Monterey is the Monterey County Fairgrounds RV Park. They have 27 full hook-up sites, showers, and the location doesn’t get much better.
Wherever you decide to stay, Carmel and Monterey offer the ultimate last hurrah for your PCH Road Trip.
We hope you enjoy the journey, and as always, keep us posted on your travels! lo;. Bon voyage!