I had long dreamed of driving California’s Highway 1 alone. The iconic coastal road, stretching 665 miles from Mendocino to San Diego, promised epic seaside views and, as the world opened up, time for quiet contemplation. I’d start in San Francisco and end in Los Angeles. Nine days. Six hotels. One suitcase. The idea was to feel small, meet fellow travelers, eat plenty of local grub, and get swallowed up in the shifting north-to-south landscape.
On the first flight out of New York — aboard a squeaky clean JetBlue Mint seat and in between bites of chef Ryan Hardy’s tasty Italian plates — I glanced at my itinerary: a mix of my own research and tips from local pals. I had also carved out time to dip into the road’s diversions — hippy cafes, surf breaks, and poetic lookout points. After all, part of going on a road trip was being open to where you’d wind up.
I arrived on a sunny day at the stately, white-on-white Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill. My room, dressed in soft neutrals and Frette linens, provided sweeping skyline views: Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Oakland Bay Bridge. I drove to Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden and walked among the cherry trees, black pines, and tiny pagodas. Afterward, I met a friend, a local who schooled me on the Ocean Beach surf scene in between sips of gin martinis at A Mano. (I vowed to return with a wet suit.)
Later, Chinatown’s hip Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s offered me a sprawl of smoked tofu, sourdough scallion pancakes, and salt-baked spring trout. And because the Fairmont’s famed Tonga Room tiki bar was closed due to COVID, I plopped down at the old-school Tadich Grill for a nightcap. Ah, it felt good to be in northern California.
Up early, I departed for Half Moon Bay, trading the low-flung cityscape for a sleepy beach milieu. My first stop was Devil’s Slide Trail, a dramatic slice of rocky waters dotted with harbor seals and bottlenose dolphins. A few miles south, I watched the Surfers Beach crowd paddle out, which derailed my lunch plans at Duarte’s Tavern (instead, I bought a heaping $5 bag of cherries from a roadside farmer).
Winding backroads — and my GPS — led me to some very big trees. If you want to feel small, go stand with the giants. At Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, a 40-acre grove, I marveled under the vast ancient canopy, finding some trees had also miraculously withstood fires. (The tallest tree is 1,500 years old and about 277 feet.)
Along Santa Cruz’s nostalgia-laced main stretch, I ate a sandwich at The Picnic Basket and then excitedly skipped over to the boardwalk amusement park, where they filmed the campy 1980s flick “The Lost Boys.”
Like a kid, I screamed on the wood-framed Giant Dipper roller coaster, rode the candy-colored Sky Glider, and chickened out in line for the haunted house. And because Santa Cruz is known for its surf culture, I stopped down the road at Pleasure Point to watch more surfers while savoring organic scoops from The Penny Ice Creamery.
Dotted with posh shops and cottages, Carmel-by-the-Sea was a lovely respite. Down an alleyway, I found Stationaery, a minimalist, locally loved eatery where I fueled up on deliciously simple rock cod with brown rice, lemongrass and ogo seaweed, and for desert, a spread of local cheeses. Afterward, I checked into the 20-room L’Auberge Carmel, a charming Relais & Chateaux property with a leafy courtyard and chocolate chip cookies at turndown (they also have a fancy on-site restaurant). At dawn, I took my coffee to the soft-sand beach down the street, where off-leash dogs and their owners delighted in the cool, cloudy morning.
Just outside of Carmel, I pulled over in the wispy fog and adjusted my hoodie as the briny, pine-scented air whirled about. Yellow wild flowers and a footpath surrounded by coastal scrub led me to the edge of the sea, where waves smacked on the rocks, leaving only a trace of willowy foam. Awe-struck by the enormity (and drama) of the horizon, I closed my eyes to take a snapshot.
Finally, Big Sur — a seductive territory that has long conjured magic and mystery. From its literary roots (Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac) to its New Age retreats (Esalen Institute), as well as its mystical redwoods, rugged cliffs, and seemingly deserted beaches, I was intoxicated.
The towering Bixby Bridge was enveloped in fog, so I drove to Deetjen’s, a timber-clad 1930s inn with a bang-up breakfast (I devoured the eggs Benedict). Then, an unmarked two-mile road led me to the purple-sand-patched Pfeiffer Beach, and later, I looped around the woodsy, newly reopened Pfeiffer Falls Trail. Changing from my dusty hiking gear into something more civilized, I arrived at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant for lunch. It was the ultimate sensory experience: wood-and-glass interiors, boundless sea-meets-sky views, and to eat, a sublime tasting menu (think Rancho Gordo beans with smoked avocado and local black cod).
Back in the car with a Café Kevah coffee in hand, my Wi-Fi faded in and out of the Santa Lucia Range. My Mustang rental snaked along the road, with only a simple guardrail separating me from the sea. I felt lucky to have made it this far sans traffic, inclement weather, wildfires, and road closures. Just beyond San Simeon’s Hearst Castle (which was still closed), I pulled over at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, where hundreds of thunderous elephant seals were lazily spread out on the sand.
Cambria, a sleepy Central Coast town, reminded me of a faded 1970s postcard. I tossed my bags at the chic, 25-room White Water hotel and walked down to the Sea Chest Oyster Bar. They don’t take reservations here, and guests camp out early at picnic tables with bottles of wine, drinking mightily. Inside, I found a bar seat, where friendly locals schooled me on the menu — a mix of butter-and-garlic-doused seafood and made-in-California wines. Later, I watched the sun fade over Moonstone Beach with glass of Ultraviolet bubbles, then retired to my room. In the morning, a picnic basket left by my door contained fresh croissants and warm coffee. I also stopped at Hidden Kitchen to eat the much-buzzed-about savory blue corn waffles, and they didn’t disappoint.
In San Luis Obispo, the Madonna Inn, open since 1958, was still as I remembered it from childhood — gaudy and gloriously bubble gum pink. I sipped tea at the Copper Cafe and admired the bakery’s three-tiered pink cakes. Afterward, I scoured vintage LPs at A Satellite of Love, where upon hearing of my voracious appetite, the kind proprietor suggested I visit Bob’s Well Bread, located in Los Alamos, a western-tinged town known for its wine and bread. Though the latter was sold out by the time I arrived, it was these insider tips that brought me on the road in the first place.
Downtown in Santa Barbara, amid Spanish colonial architecture, I landed at the new, 24-room Palihouse, an exercise in coastal vintage prep (think leafy courtyards, rattan chairs, and a cozy bar with bespoke cocktails). I borrowed one of hotel’s bikes and pedaled to a few tasting rooms (Au Bon Climat, Silver), then stopped at Brophy Bros. for oysters and harbor views. At Yoichi’s, a delightful Japanese spot owned by a husband and wife, I ate a seven-course, kaiseki-style dinner, followed by sunset cocktails at the cozy wallpapered lounge, The Good Lion.
Another morning, another scenic drive. Where “the 1” is called the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), I had lunch at Malibu Seafood, a breezy fisherman-owned shack (order the grilled red snapper plate). I took a lazy Zuma Beach siesta, then pulled up to one of my favorite, under-the-radar stateside hotels: the Malibu Beach Inn. My room, simple and cozy, featured an earthy meld of wenge wood, alongside a fireplace and balcony (I kept the door ajar at night to hear the rustling waves). It was like being on a small boat. I slept in and lingered too long over breakfast (eggs and avocado on sourdough toast) at Carbon Beach Club. I picked up coffee at Malibu Farms and watched the Surfrider Beach longboarders.
Last stop: Los Angeles. Perched on the Sunset Strip, I checked into the legendary Sunset Tower Hotel for a few nights. Famed for its Art Deco facade and star-studded lore (Sinatra, Monroe), it was hard to peel away from room 1207, a blush pink and beige affair with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony with sweet views (the bathroom also had an epic soaking tub). Downstairs, I ordered french fries and tequila at the dimly lit, walnut-paneled Tower Bar (I also eavesdropped on a gaggle of movie bigwigs). Then, I zipped over to the century-old Musso & Frank Grill, beloved for its red-coated waitstaff and stiff martinis. “You’re sitting in Brad Pitt’s stool,” Sonny, the veteran bartender, told me, mentioning Tarantino filmed his last movie here. Late night, I scored a cheap ticket to The Comedy Store, where the greats (Robin Williams, Richard Pryor) once performed, and where I drank cheap red wine as old SNL vets mounted the stage.
In the mornings, I hiked Runyon Canyon and Griffith Park and stopped at Blackwood for excellent coffee. Feeling bookish, I nabbed the last copy of Tarantino’s new novel (thanks to Sonny’s tip) at the old-timey Larry Edmunds Bookshop, then drove to Book Soup for Eve Babitz’s 1970s-era Hollywood manifesto, “Slow Days, Fast Company.” I tried to read at the bar at Gigi’s, a stylish French eatery, but was sidetracked by the handsome clientele. I happily waited in line — Coors in hand — at chef Ari Kolender’s Found Oyster, a supreme seafood joint with silky scallop tostadas and steamed clam frites (a lovely trio of women also shared their cheesy artichoke brandade with me). Another night, I ventured to chef Enrique Olvera’s Damian for more exceptional seafood: uni tostadas and Dungeness crab gorditas (don’t miss the casual taco window out back). A note on tacos: My friend, Kelly, directed me to the crème de la crème of L.A.’s cheap, no-frills spots: Playita Mariscos, El Ruso, Sonoratown, Ricky’s Fish Tacos, and Guisados.
My trip was finally winding down. Feeling giddy and well fed on the flight home, I was reminded of my whopping freedoms. And while many have a good road story, these days, mine was about talking less and listening more. It was about breaking bread with strangers, and the passing scenery and fleeting moments. It was about the wind, sea, and oldest trees on the planet. But mainly, it was about being alone in the world for a week. Want to know something, though? I never felt alone.