Pacific Coast Highway top spots

Pacific Coast Highway top spots

California’s heart-pounding route along the Pacific Coast is a thrill a minute. We pick the best spots to stop off for the ultimate romantic road trip

Frothy sea crashing into jagged rocks, plunging cliff sides and dramatic views - the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) is probably one of America's best drives. Gripping the mountainside between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the route is best driven from north to south with the coast on you right-hand side, to take advantage of the views. The 460-mile stretch takes you through deep redwood forests, seal-filled coves and historic towns, all the while twisting and turning in a thrilling ride. Easily drivable in a day, most people spend at least a week exploring the towns and beaches along the way, so we've picked the top five spots to get out of the car.

1. Santa Cruz

Dominating the sea front and the town's culture, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is the shining beacon of America's seaside amusement parks. Open since 1907, two of its rides - The 1924 Giant Dipper and Looff Carousel - are National Historic Landmarks, and the park is the largest in the whole of California. As well as the classic rides, the boardwalk has a huge selection of video arcade games, mini golf and more food stands that you can shake a corn dog at.

But of course, there's much more to see and do in this sleepy, surfer town. The vibe here is wacky yet laidback and with its large college population, Santa Cruz is a hub for indie music. Catch a live performance at the Rio Theatre - a spectacularly retro building that harks back to its 1940s hay-day as a movie house, and features bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Switchfoot. Defy gravity at the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, where balls roll uphill and people can lean almost to the floor without falling over. Located in the redwoods just outside of Santa Cruz, this wooden cabin has been a haven for tourists for over 70 years, all trying to figure out its gravitational secrets.

Before you leave, head to one of the town's famous beautiful sands - the National Bridges State Beach makes a great romantic spot to admire the Pacific Coast. Its natural bridge is the ideal vantage point for spotting whales and seals, and the park's Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for up to 100,000 Monarch butterflies during their annual migration (October-February).

2. Monterey

With a seaside village charm and a temperature climate, Monterey offers year-round outdoor activities, including whale watching and scuba diving. But the real beauty of this waterfront community is its residents - Monterey is renowned for its hospitality and you really do feel welcome everywhere you go. Rich in culture and rich in wine, the town has a little bit of something for everyone.

The hubbub of activity is on the historic Cannery Row, which is the main concentration of shops, restaurants and entertainment in Monterey. From gourmet restaurants to freshly caught seafood, there's a huge choice of gastronomic delights to enjoy. Weaving through Cannery Row and beyond is the Coastal Recreation Trail, which stretches 29 miles from Castroville, California, through Monterey and into Pebble Beach. The trail is great for walking and biking, and it's easy to spot sea lions barking on the rocks and whales in the distance.

September is a great time to visit Monterey; the billowing fog that blights the Pacific Coast has lifted, leaving the whole area basking in the early autumn sun. Lots of events kick off then too, including the annual Monterey Jazz Festival (20-22 Sept), the longest continuously running annual jazz event in the world. With over 500 artists performing on eight stages, the festival is perfect for lovers of blues to folk and everything in between. Make sure to head down to the harbour for a magical starlight cruise and enjoy the romance of the coast in the dark, before you hop back in the car.

3. Big Sur

Massive mountains, towering redwood trees and miles of secret beaches, Big Sur certainly lives up to its name when it comes to size. It's definitely the place to get back to nature with endless hiking and mountain bike trails to pursue, as well as horse-back riding activities. After working your muscles hard on the steep terrain head to the Esalen Institute, a retreat centre that houses natural hot springs, which have been used for more than 6,000 years. Visit when it goes dark for a night bathing session (1am-3am) and wallow in the waters under the cover of the stars. Make sure to pre-book your session as spaces are limited.

For a more secluded romantic treat, seek out one of Big Sur's secret beaches - there are quite a few dotted around the rugged coastline and part of the fun is trying to find one. Pfeiffer Beach is no exception and isn't signposted, making it pretty hard to get to, but when you do, it's certainly worth the effort. Located off Sycamore Canyon Road, the beach has dramatic rock formations that are truly mesmerising to look at when the waves crash through them. With its intriguing purple sand and crystal-blue ocean, you'll feel as though you've stumbled across paradise rather than the Pacific Coast.

Be aware that there are long stretches of coastline with little or no phone signal. Remember to fill your petrol tank before you drive to the area, as petrol stations are few and far between.

4. San Luis Obispo

Once named the happiest place in America, San Luis Obispo is serene and welcoming. Nurtured by the mild Mediterranean-like climate and ocean breezes, the city is famous for its thriving vineyards - this could explain why everyone is just so darned happy!

The downtown core is infinitely walk-able, with broad pathways, plenty of lively outdoor restaurants and an interesting collection of offbeat stores. A fun way to get around the town is by bicycle (hire prices from around US$25); San Louis has many bike-friendly city routes such as the Bill Roalman Bike Boulevard (a street that discourages vehicle traffic to give preference to urban cyclists); and the Railroad Bicycle Trail (a flat, traffic-free route from the University to downtown).

San Luis also has some quirky attractions; there's Bubblegum Alley, where thousands of pieces of chewing gum are stuck to the walls forming murals and other bubbly works of art. There are gum ball machines by the entrance to the alley, so if you feel like leaving your mark on the city, get chewing! If you're around on a Thursday, make sure you stay for the weekly night-time farmer's market, which is held on Higuera Street in Downtown San Luis Obispo. There's live music, entertainment and a whole cornucopia of fresh produce to indulge in. This year marks the 30th anniversary too.

5. Santa Barbara

There's little to dislike in Santa Barbara. There are palm tree-lined streets, sunny shopping paseos, rolling valleys and a laidback cool that challenges LA. There are plenty of outdoor pursuits to enjoy in Santa Barbara, but it's the culture and the food that are worth the attention here.

Even though the city is relatively small - around 20 square miles - there are over 400 restaurants to choose from, all offering locally grown or freshly caught fare. From Chinese to Italian, to everything in between, Santa Barbara offers a round-the-world dining experience. Worth visiting is Toma Restaurant and Bar, a waterfront bistro serving up Italian and Mediterranean dishes with dreamy views out over the harbour.

Continue the romance after dinner and catch a movie at the Arlington Theatre - that's if you can keep your eyes on the screen and off the surroundings. Beautifully decorated, the theatre itself is festooned like an old Californian town; houses and shops give way to a night sky complete with twinkling lights. The theatre also hosts The Santa Barbara International Film Festival, usually held in January, which pulls in some 75,000 visitors each year.


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