Embark on a journey of a lifetime as you drive along the scenic and captivating Highway 1, winding your way through the breathtaking landscapes of California. Get ready to immerse yourself in the ultimate road trip adventure, where every twist and turn unveils a new vista of natural wonders and cultural treasures. From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the rugged cliffs of Big Sur and the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara, Highway 1 offers a captivating blend of breathtaking coastal views and vibrant cities.
Greater names than mine have written about the California coastline known as Big Sur – Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, just to name two.
And greater lovers than I have been moved by the sky-thrusting coastline and wild waves that have pounded these shores. Tumultuous lovers Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles purchased a cliff top cabin while driving through Highway One that later became Nepenthe Restaurant (more of that later).
This 120-mile road from San Francisco to Big Sur is a bucket list drive for couples longing for the wind in their hair and salt in the air. Romantics will approach the winding drive from San Francisco through Monterey to Carmel and on to Big Sur in a convertible; realists will take a four-wheel drive to explore the plethora of side trails that lead to hidden coves.
Highway One was built in the early 1900s by cheap convict labour. Prisoners were lured by a thirty five cent a day wage and the promise of reduced sentences to risk their lives constructing over thirty bridges including the famous concrete arched Bixby Creek Bridge.
The result is an exciting driving route protected on one side by the Santa Lucia Mountains and perching cliff side with endless ocean views where the sun drips golden hues onto the horizon come sunset.
From San Francisco there are two ways to reach the heady heights of Big Sur. Hit Highway One and head along the coastline or go inland for a spot of outlet shopping at the Gilroy Shopping Mall (you’ll need half a day) before popping out near Monterey just in time for the gated Seventeen Mile Drive through Del Monte Forest from Pacific Grove to Carmel.
Americans love an exclusive gated community where outsiders have to pay a park fee to get in and insiders pay security guards to keep those same outsiders on the right side of their residential walls.
Enter Seventeen Mile drive from the Pacific Grove gate and head past the the Inn at Spanish Bay with private homes on one side and wild rugged coast on the other. Painters dot the inlets with easels as they try to capture the essence of this coastline and public binoculars and picnic spots provide perfect moments to take a load off.
Related: You’ll begin this trip in San Francisco – be sure to book a date night at one of these romantic restaurants and bars in ‘The Golden City’.
Nature and urban wealth collide along this stretch as the road cuts through the exclusive golfing communities of Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach and envy inducing mansion deed titles owned by captains of industry, silicon valley moguls and Hollywood royalty.The oceans here are filled with otters, seals and a plethora of bird life with the occasional pod of whales depending on the time of year.
Avoid, if you can, the busloads of tourists alighting to capture the Lone Cypress Tree on top of rocks that symbolises the exclusive Pebble Beach golfing ‘brand’. This is where Churchill, Roosevelt, Leno, Nicklaus, Tiger and other amateur and pro golfers that need only one name have come to swing their clubs on the Pebble Beach green and sup aged liquor on the nineteenth hole.
Exit Seventeen Mile Drive at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a fairytale oceanside village more famous for having had Clint Eastwood as mayor than for the home baked hospitality they should be known for.
Carmel is built for lovers, with narrow tree lined lanes of gingerbread looking houses, Spanish inspired mission buildings and cottages offering bed and breakfast lodgings. Throw in townsfolk that are completely dog obsessed with doggie menus in many restaurants and a morning meet up of canines on the beach.
It’s all very “have a nice day” so it’s good to know you’ll find some locals with spice holding up the piano for sundowners each night at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Bay Ranch restaurant (missionranchcarmel.com). If you’re looking for the backbone of the town, you’ll find it here swimming in the top shelf and belting out a show tune.
If you like to be in amongst the action then bed down at The Cypress Inn (cypress-inn.com), a dog friendly boudoir owned by Hollywood doyenne, Doris Day. Inhabited mainly by couples and their pooches, the hotel is hot property, often with a wait list during peak times like the Carmel Film Festival each October. The Spanish Mission-inspired abode features nightly jazz and tinkling of the ivories with canapés and cocktails. A good place to start your night.
Restaurateurs, the Gaston family, are a big deal in these parts and also own La Bicyclette (labicycletterestaurant.com), a bistro with a giant wood oven that serves the best breakfasts in town with crusty sourdoughs and bowls of warm milky coffee.
Carmel can get crowded, especially on weekends, and not all accommodation comes with a view. A little way up Highway One in the Carmel Highlands you’ll find the Hyatt Carmel Highlands (highlandsinn.hyatt.com) with what have to be the best views in town. The Ocean View rooms are a must, sleep with the curtains open and wake to a Pacific vista worth staying in bed for.
But back to the road. There’s not much civilisation past Carmel and on to Big Sur, and that’s the way we like it – an open road with plenty of side bays to stop and inhale the view or wander down to remote beaches for a closer look.
If you’re in a convertible take the top down. This is big redwood country, home to mammoth trees that take a family hand-to-hand to hug. It is also home to mountain lions and poison ivy, so be on your best behaviour.
Big Sur is more a way of life than a destination. There’s no solid town per se, there’s a bakery (must stop) and some art galleries, even the Henry Miller Library (henrymiller.org) where the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been known to play surprise gigs in years passed and of course there’s Nepenthe Restaurant (nepenthebigsur.com).
Nepenthe was once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth who bought it on a whim then never returned. The restaurant was the set for The Sandpipers Dream with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and is owned by the Fasset family with three generations still working there.
This is also cowboy ranch country, land steeped in ranching and trade history, with many ranch families still involved in the community. The six star Post Ranch Inn started its days as a family ranch and one of the area’s first homesteads.
Today each of the hotel’s thirty nine resort guest rooms and villas are named after a Post family or Big Sur pioneer. Let’s just say, make The Post Ranch Inn your final stop because once here, the idea of leaving is akin to chopping your left foot off with a garden spade. You won’t want to do it.
Related article: The H4C team checks into one of the USA’s best-known luxury hotels, The Beverley Hills Hotel. Read our review!
Hand over your car keys and kick off your shoes, you won’t be needing them here. Post Ranch Inn is built for couples with a series of villas hanging off the side of a cliff with the ocean below, some with hot tubs and plunge pools, some hanging in the trees.
There’s no television to distract couples from nature’s own entertainment with acres of walking trails filled with deer and even a yoga yurt. Plus the resort is eco-conscious and run on solar panels. There’s a kitchen garden, a day spa for pampering, an impressive wine cellar and a glass restaurant that makes the most of the location.
A note to the naughty – the meditation plunge pool is best experienced after dark under the stars with a Champagne in hand. Enough said.
Stop For: Hearst Castle 20th-century publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s palatial playground of magnificent buildings and expansive gardens and pools overlooks the Pacific. Fascinating. hearstcastle.org
You’ll also want to stop at Way Falls in Big Sur. This stunning waterfall cascades directly onto the beach, creating a picture-perfect scene that is sure to take your breath away.
When to go: Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival 250 wineries and 75 celebrity chefs descend upon the swanky Pebble Beach coastline every April. pebblebeachfoodandwine.com. Carmel Film and Art Festival Hollywood’s hottest directors, writers and actors unite to discuss film and art with movie premieres and more every October. carmelartandfilm.com
Another great American road-trip is through Maine. Read our article from travel writer Alex McClintock: Maine, The Way Life Should Be.
Or, check out these 5 Classic – and Romantic! – American Road Trips.