Thursday, March 21, 2013

PCH Roadtrip: From L.A. to San Francisco along the coast

Over the winter break (which I realize is more than three months ago now), we went on our first classic, must-do, 16-day Californian roadtrip up the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) to San Francisco. We didn't actually plan this trip in advance so we kind of had to wing it but we did manage to gather some great tips from people so I wanted to share them here with you.

Before I forget, in terms of music--because what's a roadtrip without good music to sing along to?--we had the Forrest Gump Soundtrack, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Eagles, a mix of Californian hippie and other bits of classic rock. (Make sure to pack an aux adapter and car charger for your iPod/cell phone)

Day 1: Los Angeles -> Solvang -> Avila

If this is your very first time out this way, you'll probably want to stop in Santa Monica to walk the pier, then head on to Malibu to check out the beaches, go up to the Getty Villa (free admission) for a beautiful view, and grab a yummy seafood lunch at Malibu Seafood (the clam chowder is fantastic) or Neptune's Net. Another hour or so north in the pretty beach town of Santa Barbara, be sure to visit the county courthouse and walk through the wonderful farmers market on Tuesdays & Saturdays. If you don't think you'll make it up to Napa Valley, you should stop in Santa Ynez for an intro to Californian wine country.

Since we had a late start and had done all that before already, we skipped the coast for a little bit and stopped in at the Camarillo Premium Outlets to pick up some warmer clothing as we were not prepared at all for NorCal weather. (By the way, there seems to be a dozen of these outlet malls littered all along the way if you decide to do some shopping).

After the outlets, we continued our way up to Solvang, the "Danish Capital of America". With the windmills and cutesy timbered houses, it does have that Scandinavian feel (albeit Disneyfied for tourists). It was late so we just walked through the village and grabbed dinner at the Viking Garden Restaurant (not so great) before we drove on through to Avila where we stayed at the Sycamore Springs Resort as recommended by a friend. I must admit having our own hot tub on an outdoor deck looking out to the woods was pretty cool but it was a teeny bit outdated and $193.25 a night wasn't cheap either.

Day 2: Pismo Beach (Monarch Butterflies) -> San Luis Obispo -> Morro Bay -> Cayucos -> Cambria

The next morning we got up for a hike and then went for a quick drive to see the thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies flock the eucalyptus grove at Pismo Beach. (They are only there from late October until February so we lucked out!) P.S. If you need to get gas, get it at Pismo where it's way cheaper than later on (we didn't get it here at $3.40/gallon and seriously regretted not having done so when we got to Cambria where it was $4.19/gallon instead.)

From there we made our way to San Luis Obispo -- supposedly the coolest place to be on a Thursday night when they have the region's biggest and best farmers market between 6-9pm and the whole downtown turns into a lively festival. Unfortunately we were there on a Friday morning so all we got to see was Bubblegum Alley which was neat at first but then gets kind of gross. If you want to stay overnight here, we heard that the Madonna Inn seriously kitches it up a notch. We were also told that the Apple Farm is cheap and has a killer breakfast.

All along this stretch are sleepy small beach towns like Morro Bay & Cayucos which are easy stops for pretty views (I mean, doesn't this look like a painting?). There's a great long boardwalk that wraps around the ocean in Cambria where we stayed for the night at the Cambrian Landing Inn ($90.81). I was quite happy to read in the local magazine that there was an European style Christmas Market, complete with hot mulled wine on a drizzly night. (Linn's provided the food at the market which was really delicious so that's where I'd go for a sit-down lunch/dinner if you decide to stop in here).

Day 3: San Simeon (Hearst Castle) -> Piedras Blancas (Elephant Seals) -> Big Sur -> Monterey

Hearst Castle is essentially a mansion on a huge estate designed by Julia Morgan for newspaper gazillionaire William Randolph Hearst. It was a miserable, cold, rainy day so I don't have any good photos of the grounds/exterior but I did get one of the beautiful indoor pool. The Neptune Pool outside is pretty great too and I'm sure the whole place would look far more amazing on a sunny day. Admission is not cheap though at $25/person for a tour of the grand rooms -- you need to pay more if you want to see the bedrooms etc. Any of the tours include the winding bus ride that takes you from the Visitors Center up to the mansion and afterwards you can walk around the gardens/estate all you want. We should have stopped for lunch at Sebastians Store in San Simeon as recommended by a friend but didn't think of it until after we were on our way.
Just a little ways north there's a pretty obvious turnoff that takes you to see the hundreds of elephant seals that lounge about on this stretch of beach. The birthing & breeding season is from late November to March and there are docents on site who will teach you all about these gigantic, funny-looking, goofy-sounding animals.

As you drive into Big Sur, you'll start to get a real taste of that gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway view (I mean, seriously, just look at these photos and tell me they're not amazing). It's actually better coming south than going north, both in terms of the vantage point and also the ease of access to the lookouts just off the highway, so if you plan to do one way along the coast and return inland which saves you a few hours of driving time, then factor this into consideration.

NOTE: You will not get cell phone reception for most of the Big Sur drive, so if you need to Google anything, do it before you get in and it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a paper map as a backup GPS either. There are loads of tourist center stops all along the way where you can pick up all sorts of free maps/brochures (I'm not allowed to go into one of those anymore because I seem to have a problem with brochures). You'll also want to book your hotel while you still have cell phone service if you want to stay overnight in Big Sur: some friends recommended the Hyatt Highlands Inn and I pulled up Post Ranch Inn or the Ventana Inn for $300 on the Hotel Tonight app if you want to splurge for ultra luxe, sign up with referral code "SBA3" for a free $25 credit off your first booking.)

Following someone's recommendation, we stopped in at the Post Ranch Inn for a 3-course prix-fixe ($40) lunch at the Sierra Mar restaurant which basically sits on the edge of a cliff. The views were ridiculous and the food was delicious (and it also gives you an excuse to check out the hotel without staying there -- ask if you can see one of their suites for your anniversary trip!). Nepenthe is the other one everyone mentions for the clifftop patio experience but because it's right off the highway, it can get quite crowded and it's only first come, first serve whereas Sierra Mar takes reservations. We were also told that the Big Sur Bakery is quite amazing.

After lunch you must stop to see McWay Falls which is technically part of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park but really all you need to do is pull over to the side of the road (you'll see a bunch of cars parked before the entrance to the park), walk across the highway and onto a trail that's just below the highway, and five minutes later, you're there and your mind is blown. It's a stream of water that falls from a creek onto the beach then into the ocean and it's absolutely stunning.

Unless you're planning on staying in the Big Sur, you don't want to be stuck driving along the PCH after dusk because a) there's no cell phone reception and b) the highway winds along the side of a cliff and it's kind of scary. So try to leave Big Sur by 3pm to make it into Monterey for the evening which is what we did. We had dinner at an excellent new restaurant called Alvarado Fish & Steak House and stayed at the Hyatt Regency for $89/night thanks to Priceline.

(If you haven't heard me say this yet, we're on a student budget and I hate paying any more than I have to for hotels but I also don't like to stay at gross motels/inns. So here's where Priceline & Hotel Tonight come in for the rest of this trip. Read this post if you don't know how they work.)

NOTE: a lot of the hotels up this way seem to charge an additional "resort fee" which reminds me of tourist tax in Europe. The Hyatt charged us $44 for the "complimentary parking & WiFi" which I was not terribly happy about but what can you do.

Day 4: Monterey (Fisherman's Wharf & Monterey Bay Aquarium)

The weather was still a bit crappy at this point so we decided to sleep in, take it easy, and just do Fisherman's Wharf & the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the afternoon. The sea otters pavillion was closed so that was a bummer (it re-opens on March 23rd) but how cool are jellyfish?

Day 5: Pebble Beach & The 17-Mile Drive -> Carmel

If you're actually looking at this on a map you'll see that we're backtracking a bit. That's because the weather was kind of dreary the day before so we figured the aquarium would be the better bet. Besides everything's really close together so it's super easy to get to the 17-Mile Drive loop from Monterey. You need to pay a $10 entry for the park but you can put this towards your lunch at Roy's at the Inn at Spanish Bay (we didn't get a chance to try it but it's supposed to be really great). You'll get a map that tells you about all the view points to stop at (including the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links) and it's all gorgeous.


A little bit south is the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea which is super super cute (I told Mike that I would be pretty happy to retire here, if we had a few million dollars to spare).

Carmel is all about cobblestoned alleys, art galleries, little boutiques, houses à la Hansel & Gretel, and excellent food & wine -- what's not to like? We had lunch at Basil, a tiny little place hidden away with great food and dinner at Dametra Cafe, a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant with huge ambience (the owner & the chef both came out and serenaded the packed restaurant, so figure out if you're in the right mood for that kind of thing). Casanova is supposed to be uber-romantic but we didn't make it there.

There's a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright which I would've loved to see but we didn't get around to it. Definitely walk down to the beach for sunset too -- so beautiful. Oh and trivia: Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel for two years back in the eighties and owns the Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant.

You could easily spend a few hours here walking around and we did end up staying over one night on the way back to L.A. at the Wayside Inn ($103 via the Hotel Tonight app).

Day 6 through 8: Christmas

Mike's brother & sister-in-law had actually brought our 2-year old nephew to spend Christmas with her cousins in Modesto so we took a detour here from our roadtrip and went inland for a few days. I'd suggest skipping ahead to San Francisco from here so that you can have more time in Napa/Sonoma too (consider trekking out to see the great sequoiyas or maybe even hit Yosemite which is a little ways east).

NOTE: If you do end up east, I would suggest going up to Napa/Sonoma and then hitting San Fran on the way down because you get absolutely awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge from that direction in. Doing it this way also means you can stop at the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi winery in Lodi to take advantage of this excellent tip I got from the wine pourer there: Sign up for a the Woodbridge Wine Club which costs nothing upfront and gets 4 people FREE tastings and 20% off wines at not just the Lodi winery but all of the sister wineries as well:
  • Robert Mondavi Winery - Napa Valley
  • Clos du Bois - Russian River, Healdsburg
  • Franciscan Oakville Estate - Napa Valley
  • Ravenswood - Sonoma Valley
  • Simi Winery - Russian River, Healdsburg
  • Wild Horse Winery - Paso Robles
  • Hogue Cellars - Prosser, Washington
With the membership, they send you a case of 4 bottles of wine every three months which will run you about $45-$55 per shipment plus $20 delivery charge. But you are only committed to the first shipment and can cancel at anytime after (to save the delivery fee, we picked up our first case right there and then at the Lodi winery). This works out to be an amazing deal because a flight of 4-5 wine tastings at each winery runs you about $10-$15/person. For $40, we got 4 bottles of wine, a beautiful cookbook, and at least $150 worth of wine tastings at the four wineries where we were treated like VIPs.

If you go directly to Napa, I would still get a membership at the very first one of the Mondavi groups which is Franciscan (though the cost of the case might be a bit more than at Woodbridge): they have a massive menu and let us taste all of them. Do not sign up at Robert Mondavi unless you want to spend $120+ on your first case.

Day 9: Napa

Something about vineyards, sunsets, and fantastic food and wine makes it pretty easy to fall in love with California wine country. All the Napa Valley wineries are basically right off Hwy 29 (St Helena Hwy) and the Sonoma Valley ones are up Hwy 12.

TIP: You can pretty much get 2-for-1 tasting coupons for just about all the wineries either from the concierge at your hotel or through the "Winery Finder" app. In Napa, we went to the Franciscan, Robert Mondavi (very comprehensive, sign up for a tour if you can), V. Sattui (great deli inside and we were told they have a fantastic barbeque with wood-fired pizzas & mozzarella bar from 11:30-3:30 daily except for during the winter months), and the Hess Collection (beautiful estate and art collection).

We stayed two nights at the River Terrace Inn ($99/night from Priceline) which was the best hotel we stayed at the entire trip (lovely rooms, complimentary wine hour and fire pit outside). We had fantastic recommendations for food: The first night we had a fantastic pizza & gnocchi dinner at Ca' Momi Enoteca at the Oxbow Public Market (many people buy their picnic materials here -- beautiful cheeses and cured meats). The next day we had lunch at the Oakville Grocery (fancy organic sandwiches and great produce) and dinner at Rutherford Grill (no reservations but you can sit at the bar and the corn bread was ridiculously good).

The only major downside to Napa/Sonoma is the lack of a hop-on, hop-off bus that goes along both highways. There are tour buses you can join but then you're spending the day with other people and they were still like $99/person and only took you to a few select wineries. You can hire a limo if there's a huge group of you but even then it's not cheap. And if you think you're not gonna get drunk off "tastings", think again. Each tasting is an ounce and each flight is about 4-6 tastings (so a glass and a bit) so if you do a few flights, you're pretty much done. As a result I'm sure there are a fair number of drunk drivers on the road which really isn't great. Until they figure something out, you can either split tastings, spit the wine out, or alternate the driving, but let's face it, none of that sounds quite as fun. ;o)

Other restaurant options: Bouchon, Mustards and Brix. You really can't go wrong.

Other winery options: Duckhorn, Paraduxx, Rutherford Hill, Sterling (you ride up on a tram because it is on a mountain and has amazing views), and Domaine Chandon.

Day 10: Sonoma

On the way into Sonoma from Napa, we were recommended a cute spot called the Fremont Diner which unfortunately was closed between Christmas & New Year's. So we ended up at another recommendation: The Girl and the Fig in downtown Sonoma which was excellent but a bit pricy.

We went to Ravenswood which is known for their "no wimpy wines" attitude, and Cline & Jacuzzi which are family wineries that are across the street from one another and are one of the few remaining ones with free tastings. Also if you like sparkling wine, we were told that Gloria Ferrera is worth visiting.

We stayed at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country which is a bit outdated and kind of out of the way in Santa Rosa but at the same time, we really can't complain at $58/night from Priceline.

Day 11 through 14: San Francisco

We ended up staying in San Francisco for 4 nights (including New Year's Eve!) because it absolutely is one of the coolest cities we've ever visited and even 3 full days weren't quite enough. The weather was surprisingly beautiful and clear which is apparently rare as many days a dense fog hangs over the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way into San Fran, we stoppped quickly at Muir Beach but didn't have time to go hug the giant redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument.  

We stayed at The Renaissance Stanford Court (Priceline, $99/night) in Nob Hill for three nights then at Hotel Union Square ($90 from Hotel Tonight). Parking is steep at $40-60/night at most hotels or $28/night at The Grace Cathedral lot. Generally we were told to try for Union Square, North Beach, or the Marina (with free parking if possible) and avoid the "Civic Center" or the "Tenderloin" if you can help it, otherwise it will be sorta sketchy coming home at night. You can also see about taking the train in from San Jose or parking at a BART station and taking transit in.

For the first day, we walked the whole stretch of piers, Pier 39, and Fisherman's Wharf and had awesome clam chowder in a bread bowl from Boudin Bakery. We took a nap, had a great New Year's Eve dinner at the Comstock Saloon (super swanky brasserie with a 1920's speakeasy feel) and finished off the night with brilliant fireworks on the waterfront.
The next day we had Swedish pancakes for breakfast at the famous Sears Fine Foods on Union Square (look for the massive lineup), took the cable car to Lombard Street (the crooked street in the world), rented bikes from Blazing Saddles and went to the Marina and the Palace of Fine Arts, had lunch at The Tipsy Pig (great food, awesome patio), cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and ferried back and had dinner at the House of Nanking in Chinatown (not 100% authentic but quite good all the same).
The last day we went to see the buffaloes at the Golden Gate Park (massive, and not near the bridge despite the name, and the de Young Museum was closed when we were there otherwise we would've gone up the observatory tower for a view of the city so you should do that and also go see Vemeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" which is on loan until June 2nd). We walked through the Haight-Ashbury (hippie town) and saw where Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin lived in the Summer of Love and had delicious schnitzels at a great Austrian restaurant called Leopolds.

Here's a bunch of other tips (in no particular order) that we gathered from people who are from there or used to live there (Yelp is also insanely popular there):

Things to do: 
  • North Beach (cool farmers market)
  • Marina (cute shops on Union Street)
  • Chinatown (Golden Gate Bakery has delicious egg tarts)
  • The Mission
  • Walk up to Coit Tower from the bottom
  • Alcatraz tour (must book your tickets in advance)
  • Berkeley
  • Exploratorium (science museum at The Palace of Fine Arts)
  • The Musee De Mechanique is also cool if you like video games and weird mechanical displays.
  • The Academy of Science has really cool exhibits, an Albino Alligator, and penguins, but is expensive.
  • Wise Sons (amazing Jewish style deli in The Mission)
  • House of Prime Rib (fancy and the meat is awesome but need to make a reservation)
  • Polk street between Union and Broadway has a strip of great bars such as Tonic and Bullet. Nicks Crispy tacos on the corner of Broadway and Polk is also pretty good
  • Brendas French Soul Food (crappy area, but awesome food, great for breakfast or dinner)
  • Papalote (great salsa) and all over The Mission District for burritos. Go on Valencia street between 16 and 25th. There are tons of cool bars and restaurants.
  • Nob Hill Grill (nice little local spot for brunch)
  • Delarosa in the Marina (Italian)
  • Miller's Deli in Nob Hill (Jewish deli)
  • Ploy II in the Haight/Ashbury (Thai)

Day 15-17: Homeward Bound

We took a few days to make the drive home (about 9 hours along the PCH or 6 hours on Hwy 5 but significantly less scenic) so that we could take it easy and do some of the things we missed on the way up. We didn't budget really apart from trying to stay under $100/night for lodging and our total spend for the trip was $3500 which works out to be about $218 a day. All in all, it was a fantastic roadtrip and really made us feel like we live in California now and can just drive to all this amazingness and more whenever we wanted to. I hope you'll get a chance to do this too and let me know if you find some more gems along the way! :o)


  1. My daughter and I are planning this trip this weekend! So glad I stumbled upopn your blog. Thanks for the great tips!!

    1. No problem! This is SUCH a great roadtrip -- have an amazing time on yours! :)

  2. After reading your review, I', feeling so adventurous: Gathering the kids (age 15 and 14) away from their electronic devices, putting them in the Rover and taking off for a great adventure along the California coast from Orange County to San Francisco! Were printing out your itinerary and charging it before school begins the week of September! Let's head out and have some fun!

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful -- you're going to have a great time! :)

  3. What a great post! Wish we had these tips when we did our roadtrip - didn't know about the monarchs.

    1. Thanks Elaine! All the more reason to do the trip all over again! :)

  4. I am planning my trip from Orange County to San Francisco along the PCH and then making my way back home to Chicago next month. I came upon your blog and found this very insightful because I am also in grad school and working on a tight budget. Thanks for all the great tips!

    1. I'm glad you found it useful -- have a fantastic trip! :)

  5. Love this post! We are planning this trip in August. Is the photo of you in front of the Golden Gate bridge at a park? I'm trying to figure out the best place to take a photo like that in front of the bridge.

  6. Thanks Mandy! That photo is from just before you get on the bridge coming from the north on the 1. There's a visitor center parking if you pull to the left but we went up the small road on the right where we took this photo. Have an awesome trip this summer! :)

  7. Planning my roadtrip for LA - San Fran roadtrip for November was considering doing Napa first and then coming down to San Fran, you have convinced me. Delighted I found this post.

  8. Your pictures are stunning--definitely want to recreate these on my trip up next month!

  9. Great post ! very helpful and informative on things I had questions about . I will take a lot of your tips into consideration while planning my trip this holiday season... cheers

  10. Awesome post, we're heading over from New Zealand in April and driving up and back the PCH from LA to San Francisco. You're post is the best one I've read yet... Thanks!

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Enjoy your trip, you'll love it! :)

  11. I loved your article, I'm traveling with friends on October and you give me a lot of ideas.

  12. Loved your post. I am taking my daughter on this trip - she was born in CA but never lived there. Love the information. The last picture of you with all the SF type foods - where is that? Thank for all your amazing info

    1. Glad you found it helpful. :) That last picture was at the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman's Wharf – great spot and you can tour the bakery too! I hope you guys have a great trip!

  13. Now I want to do it even more. Promised a couple of friends we'd go together but they have to wait until next year. Oh well more time to plan. Thanks for all the great info and beautiful pictures.

  14. Now I want to do it even more. Promised a couple of friends we'd go together but they have to wait until next year. Oh well more time to plan. Thanks for all the great info and beautiful pictures.