California Coastal Adventures on the Pacific Highway 1

It’s hard to think of an area that Mother Nature has hit harder in the last year and a half than the state of California. Yes, Florida and the southeast have had their share of hurricane and flood damage, and parts of Texas are still rebuilding from its own flooding. But combine the wildfires from a year ago October with devastating mudslides, then another round of deadly fires this fall, and California admittedly is reeling from the double whammy of lost business and homes, added to the lost revenue from tourism, the state’s second largest industry behind agriculture.

In August of 2018 a study by Visit California, the state’s tourism arm, showed that 11 percent of travelers said wildfires caused them to cancel trips to the state, resulting in a loss of $20 million to the tourism economy in July alone. The Ferguson fire this summer forced officials to close Yosemite Valley for weeks, resulting in an estimated $10 million loss in tourism dollars by itself.

That’s why, if you’ve ever thought about taking the scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, this might be a good time to do so. The regular tourist hot spots are easier to get into, and frankly, merchants and restaurateurs are just happy to see you.

Christmas break turned out to be a good time to make the Pacific Coast Highway trip from San Francisco to Santa Monica—the weather was perfect, city traffic was manageable and it wasn’t a scramble to get hotels. After a quick trip to Wine Country, the drive started in Sonoma, then connected with California 1 after an hour on the road to San Francisco.

Almost immediately after leaving the city, the ocean views are breathtaking. It was a windy day, so it made the surf even more spectacular. (Pro Tip: make the drive from north to south so you’re driving closest to the shoreline.)

Even though every turn on the road reveals another Insta-worthy moment, resist the temptation to stop at every pulloff to take photos. First, it’ll make the drive REALLY long, and second, there will be ample opportunity to get those spectacular shots.

The halfway point of the drive, in Big Sur, was a great time to stop for lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant (@nepenthebigsur), sitting 808 feet on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The original cabin at the site was owned for a minute by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth before the Fassett family took it over and asked a student of Frank Lloyd Wright to design the building that is the anchor for this restaurant oasis along the coast (another Hollywood couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, shot the folk dancing scene in "The Sandpiper" at Nepenthe).

It was another 4 ½ hours along the coast (with a quick drive-by in Carmel-By-The-Sea) to the evening’s destination of Santa Barbara, which leads us to our next pro tip: Fill the gas tank before you leave the Bay Area. Stations are few and far between once you reach the Big Sur area, and if you need gas, you’ll pay for it—as we did to the tune of $6+ a gallon at the Gorda mini-mart.

Finishing the trip from Big Sur to Santa Barbara, it was obvious where California 1 is still being rebuilt from damage caused by mudslides. At one point, south of Big Sur, the road is down to one lane and as recently as last week, the road was closed in parts of L.A. and Ventura counties because of heavy rains and mudslides. Know that there could be detours along the way as the area continues to recover.

Santa Barbara, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is still recovering itself from last fall’s fires and mudslides, and yet another round of brush fires late this summer. But, according to Santa Barbara tourism, 99 percent of the Santa Barbara South Coast infrastructure was unaffected. In fact, tourists crowded the beach and Stearns Wharf areas just off Santa Barbara’s downtown during the holiday season. 

If you’ve not spent time at Santa Barbara, put it on your “must see” list. It is close enough to L.A. to have a little Hollywood buzz, but far enough away that getting around, even on foot, is easy. For casual good eats, try Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio (@ShalhoobMeatCo) or, along State Street, stop by the new Melville Wine Tasting Room (@melvillewinery) just opened in April before having a bite across the street at Enterprise Fish Co. (@enterprisefish).

The coastal trip finished in Santa Monica for New Year’s Eve dining at Shutters on the Beach (@ShuttersontheBeach) before an early morning (5:30 a.m.) to attend the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. (Pro Tip: Don’t drive there yourself—use a car service to get you close to the parade route so you don’t have to hassle with parking and walk a couple of miles once you do park).

Locals make camping overnight along the route a New Year’s ritual, but you probably don’t want to do that. A ticket package that includes brunch and—thankfully—your own bathroom is the best way to go using Sharp Seating.

The California tour was quick, but rewarding for a dose of sun and surf sorely needed during the winter. Don’t hesitate to head there for your own coastal adventure this year—the Golden State and its thousands of small business and merchants will welcome you.

Jackie Reau