In California, there seems to be a rule of thumb: you either fall for the charm of San Francisco or the groove of Los Angeles. Sympathy for one goes hand in hand with antipathy for the other, and I’ve often heard that those who adore SF have little left for LA, and vice versa. But everyone agrees that the golden stretch that runs along the Pacific coast from one city to the other is worth the trip in any case. Of course, you can always disagree about which direction to take – south or north – but for me, it’s clear as day: from San Francisco, the route runs along the ocean, which gives you the convenience of stopping at the scenic overlooks at any point without constantly having to cross the oncoming traffic. Besides, it’s nice driving south, away from the wind and fog of the Bay Area. That may be the give-away for which city I prefer, although until now, the two cities were an even match for me. A southbound road trip at an unusual time – the end of February – should help to lend some clarity and show which parts of California are worth it even under “winter conditions.”
Starting Point: San Francisco
This was the seventh time I’ve had the chance to look down from the air upon the now familiar outlines of the Bay Area and the graceful contours of the Golden Gate Bridge. After a quick landing, we made our way to the Sunnycars rental car agency to pick up our rental. We reserved the car ahead of time through their website, which lets you pick up the car at the San Francisco Airport and drop it off at the Los Angeles Airport. We decided that a Ford Mustang would be the best fit for a road trip. Since we had already paid through the website, we could get right down to choosing a color within a few minutes. We ended up going for a silver Cabrio.
We spent the time right before our road trip with a colleague in Pacifica, a relatively quick shot to a lot of places on our list of travel destinations.
Point Reyes National Seashore
North of the Golden Gate Bridge is a beautiful national park with lots of highlights. We viewed a green, hilly landscape where wisps of fog drift by, accompanied by hundreds of camera flashes. We ran across elephant seals and elk, stumbled upon a lighthouse that illuminated the shark-infested waters, and also stopped at several – thanks to Instagram – well-known spots. Among those are the Cypress Tree Tunnel and the Inverness shipwreck, an abandoned boat that was unfortunately badly damaged by fire several years ago.
Sonoma and Napa Valleys – A Paradise for Wine Lovers
One day after our national park excursion, we explored the wine region around San Francisco, even if the grapevines are more painterly in the summer than in the winter. There are a whole slew of wineries that offer tastings. We visited Ledson Winery & Vineyards and also the Castello di Amorosa Winery in Napa Valley. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the second because, in spite of its beautiful appearance, it’s more of a hectic tourist spot than a cozy winery.
Stanford University Campus – A Return to Student Days
You’re never too old to learn, and if you’re already in the Silicon Valley area, you should definitely take the opportunity to find out about the latest trends in technology, startups, and the .com world. I like to check the current activities on Meetup and Eventbrite. This time, I came up with the chance to take a two-day class offered by Stanford Continuing Studies. Along with learning interesting content, you meet a lot of people in the field, so it’s a great opportunity for networking and exchanging ideas. But the Stanford Campus also gets high marks as a magnet for visitors, with its beautiful parks, fascinating bookstores, and a variety of events.
Bye, San Francisco – Off with the Car to the South
It was now time for us to say goodbye to San Francisco and set off in our lovely Ford Mustang. We wanted to take it slow, so we planned for plenty of stops, our goal being to spend no more than four hours a day on the road. With that in mind, we drove along Half Moon Bay toward Santa Cruz, a popular surfer spot, and finally arrived at Carmel-by-the-Sea, the first stop on our road trip.
Carmel-by-the-Sea – Idyllic Small Town
Now arrived at our destination, we first checked in to our picturesque hotel, the Normandy Inn, before heading out on our discovery tour. Carmel is a favorite vacation spot by the sea and also a classic example of a wealthy American small town. Its endless charm derives not only from its many boutique shops and art galleries but also from a number of quaint little houses straight out of a fairy tale. In addition to the Hansel and Gretel cottage, there are many more historical houses to discover – so don’t set out without your camera! I have to admit I was a little envious of Carmel’s residents, who displayed enough imagination, talent, and drive to create this magical town. After a tiring day, we decided to have dinner at Yafa. If you feel like having something other than a burger, we can heartily recommend this Israeli restaurant. Unfortunately, it was already time to move on the following day.
Big Sur – Photography Hotspot
Probably the most famous section of a Route 1 road trip is the part that runs along Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The bizarre cliff formations along one side of this stretch, with the perennial Redwood trees on the other, create the perfect road trip route through nature. But take care: it’s easy to drive through here really fast and miss the best corners. Big Sur offers a multitude of hiking paths, although not all of them are open all the time, or why it’s a good idea to consult the park website. We wanted to enjoy the sunset on Pfeiffer Beach, so we booked a room at Glen Oaks Big Sur, a nice group of accommodations right on Route 1. I liked the retro-chic motor lodge a lot, and I especially appreciated the heated floors in the bathroom since the temperature outside that night was pretty cool. For dinner, we drove about 10 minutes farther south, where you’ll find Nepenthe, with its panoramic view and a huge fire pit in the middle of the restaurant. If you’re planning to visit, be sure to reserve a table by the window so you can watch the sun go down while enjoying a cocktail. Since the motor lodge didn’t serve breakfast, we decided to eat at the little restaurant on the other side of the street. It’s not busy, but that meant the staff had time to take extra special care with our muesli and bagel, which tasted great.
Sadly, we had to leave Route 1 as we continued our trip from Big Sur down to Santa Barbara. The reason for that was a landslide that occurred several months before and that left part of the route impassable. The detour through the interior, up the mountain, and through the forest is unfortunately more tedious than just going straight down the coast. And be sure to pay close attention to your GPS since the mobile Internet there is not the best and the route is not perfectly mapped out. After a solid hour, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of military territory, where soldiers in armored cars were checking to see who was driving through. We were kind of afraid for a little while because, other than us, there was no one there. After leaving that area, we drove past some helicopter landing sites and weapons testing areas a couple of times before finally taking Route 101 to Santa Barbara.
I booked a very special hotel in Santa Barbara. The Cheshire Cat Inn follows the theme of Alice in Wonderland and promises its guests uniquely designed rooms like something from a picture book. I was really looking forward to it, but when we got there, we soon found out that the inn was frequented by a specific circle of patrons, namely, by much older guests who have already reached retirement age. The dominant routine seemed familiar to everyone except us, so we felt a little out of place. Good thing Santa Barbara offers plenty of opportunities to escape hotel life. We drove to the pier, where we took a walk and watched the seals swimming around before filling our stomachs with oysters and shellfish at a small eatery called the Shellfish Company.
Back at the hotel, we unfortunately discovered that our Airbnb for the next seven days had been canceled because of some legal problem between the platform and the city. So we sat down with a bottle of wine and embarked on the search for a new hotel or Airbnb for the next few days.
Since the reasonably good hotels in Los Angeles are really expensive and fill up fast, we had problems finding one that met our expectations. It was nice that Airbnb was obliging enough to give us a refund, even if it barely amounted to one night’s stay in the end.[DZ1] So after a drive along the stretch that was ravaged by wildfires several feet high a few months ago, we headed for downtown LA.
Downtown – The Modern Hipster District
From the Hotel Indigo, we were able to visit most of the attractions and restaurants, partly by foot and partly by Uber. What used to be a run-down, dangerous area has in recent years turned into a trendy locale with a wide variety of cultural and culinary offerings. Hidden between the skyscrapers are such popular Instagram photo locations as the rooms with colorful, sparkling lights [DZ1] at the Broad Museum, a breathtaking glass slide at OUE Skyspace LA, and a giant[DZ2] peephole constructed of books at The Last Bookstore.
Cadillac’s Pre-Oscars Party
Whenever you hear LA, you automatically think Hollywood, and Hollywood means the Oscars. The Academy Awards draw the attention of the whole world, and the biggest names in the film industry are on the Oscars party guest lists. We were very honored to receive an invitation to the Cadillac pre-Oscars party, one of the most sought-after events surrounding the Oscars, especially since Cadillac is one of the main sponsors of the Academy Awards. The event took place in the legendary Chateau Marmont, where they shot the film La La Land, among others. Rumor also had it that Leonardo DiCaprio himself booked a room there that same night. It was really exciting being surrounded by the nominated actors, film producers, and others from the show biz world. The memory of that evening will stay with us for a long time.
About a year ago, we watched the series Californication, so on our first visit to Venice Beach, a lot of the spots already seemed familiar. Starting from our hotel, the Kinney Venice Beach, we were able to trace Hank Moody’s footsteps, stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to the Venice Canals, and make an excursion to the Santa Monica Pier. If you go to Venice Beach, be sure to take a walk down Abbot Kinney Boulevard. In addition to the colorful, cool graffiti, there are a number of must-see small shops and trendy restaurants.
Newport Beach – Playing with Dolphins
Shortly before heading back to Switzerland, we decided to drive a little farther south down Route 1. Our goal was Newport Beach, which some of you are sure to know from the series The O.C. Even if Kevin initially wanted to go there because of the series, he found whale watching to be an even better reason. For a while now, he’s been following an Instagrammer who’s been taking pictures of whales and dolphins with a drone, and he wanted to try it too.
Year-round, the coast of California is home to the lively movement of different whale species. During our road trip, we could easily spot them now and then in the distance because of their spouts. We even learned a few things about dolphins and whales from the boat crew as we sailed out of the harbor[DZ1] . A little while later, we engaged in a race against the dolphins, and then farther out from the coast, we came across our first whale. It was a fin whale that had come to the surface for air. Lucky for us, this wasn’t the only fin whale. Sometime later, two more surfaced, so Kevin was able to take a drone picture of them after all. For us, it was the perfect ending to our vacation and to our road trip along California’s Route 1.
LAX – Returning the Car to the Airport
After a short detour to Long Beach, our trip was now at an end. With a heavy heart, we made our way to the Los Angeles Airport to return the Ford Mustang to the Sunny Cars rental agency. Here we should add that the car rental agency is not right by the airport, so you still have another ten-minute ride with one of Sunny Cars’s shuttles. The better prepared you are for the car return, the faster things will go. Since we had already packed and cleaned everything up in the morning, we were able to take care of the car return in no more than five minutes.
You’re always smarter in hindsight, and you always come up with ideas for how you could have done the trip better. I would definitely spend a few more days in some places, like Carmel and Big Sur, and I would plan for some hikes. Newport Beach was also gorgeous, and it would be worth taking a weeklong vacation there and using it as a base for visiting lots of beautiful spots.