If you've ever wondered why it's outrageously expensive to buy a home in California, this seaside journey by car will resolve the mystery: Superlatives don't do justice to the views you'll see while twisting and turning, climbing and descending along Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy. 1) from San Francisco to Big Sur. It's one of the nation's most thrilling roads, gripping the mountainside while it takes you past coastal redwood forests, ocean cliffs, and secluded coves battered by the dazzling, formidable Pacific.
The trek begins with a half-day's leisurely drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and then continues south past Monterey and Carmel into thickly forested Big Sur. Not a single part of this drive lacks interesting sights; even the acres of artichokes around the farming town of Castroville are pretty, and it's a wonder the ocean views around Big Sur don't cause hundreds of car wrecks a day.
Heavy traffic can afflict Carmel and Big Sur on summer weekends. If you plan your trip to avoid the congestion, you can cruise at 55 miles per hour from town to town -- with the top down and your spirits up.
Day 1: Santa Cruz & Boardwalk
From San Francisco, take Hwy. 1 south and follow the signs to Pacifica. Continue along Hwy. 1 for about 60 miles to Santa Cruz. Check into the Pleasure Point Inn and make a reservation for the Bittersweet Bistro. Spend some time on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and be sure to ride the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster and the old-school carousel. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is also worth a visit, especially for kids. Have dinner in Aptos at the Bittersweet Bistro and head back to the inn.
Day 2: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Sleep in, sip coffee on the roof deck, and admire the ocean view until checkout (11am), or walk along the coastal path to Capitola for a Bloody Mary. Back in the car, head south on Hwy. 1 to Monterey, about a 1-hour drive. Check into the Seven Gables Inn or Martine Inn for 2 nights, and make a dinner reservation for Montrio restaurant for this evening, and Fandango restaurant and the Monterey Bay Kayaks tour for tomorrow. Drive to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the world's finest. Spend 2 to 3 hours here, and then stroll Cannery Row (briefly if you loathe tourist schlock). Drive or walk to Montrio for dinner.
Day 3: Kayaking & Sea Otters
Breakfast at the inn, and then drive to Del Monte Beach for a leisurely kayak tour of Monterey Bay. Watching sea otters and sea lions play from the water is an unforgettable experience, requiring no kayaking expertise. Afterward, stroll along Old Fisherman's Wharf and snack on all those small cups of fresh seafood sold at one of many faux fish markets. Return to the car for an afternoon/sunset drive along 17-Mile Drive. Dine at Fandango and return to the B&B.
Day 4: Seafood & Beer in Carmel
Eat breakfast, check out, and drive to Carmel. Check in to the Mission Ranch for 2 nights, and make a reservation for the Flying Fish Grill for tonight and Aubergine for tomorrow night. Apply sunscreen, pack a jacket, and walk along the coastal path to downtown Carmel for window-shopping -- a beloved Carmel pastime -- and a burger and beer at the Hog's Breath Inn. If it's Saturday, take the 2pm Carmel Walking Tour; otherwise, pick up a free map at the Carmel Business Association and check out the San Carlos Mission and Tor House on your own. Have dinner at the Flying Fish Grill, and then stroll back to the Mission Ranch bar for an Irish whiskey and piano tunes.
Day 5: Chillin' at the Beach
Take the day off. Sleep in, stock up on picnic stuff at Nielsen Brothers Market, and devote the day to Carmel Beach -- a welcoming stretch of pristine white sand and cypress trees. Head back to your hotel room in the late afternoon, clean up, and walk to the hotel restaurant for a fat steak dinner.
Day 6: Big Sur
Check out, have breakfast at the Little Swiss Cafe, and top off the fuel tank. Drive south on Hwy. 1 deep into Big Sur, and make various stops along the way to photograph the spectacular coastline. Have lunch at Café Kevah, and then check into Deetjen's Big Sur Inn if you like extrarustic lodgings; the Treebones Resort if you're on a budget; or the Post Ranch Inn for a splurge.
Day 7: Hiking & Home
Check out, then drive to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and hit the trail from the parking area to McWay Waterfall (it's an easy trek). If you have time, you can return to San Francisco via Hwy. 1, though taking Hwy. 101 near Salinas is a much faster route.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.