Highway to Heaven
Also known by those not from these parts as Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway is America’s dream drive. You can head south from L.A. to San Diego, or take the traditionalist’s route north to San Francisco and even beyond, past the 19th-century fishing-town-turned-artist-colony of Mendocino in the direction of Oregon, whose own coastal stretch is often no less magnificent.
From the heart of L.A. it’s just 7 miles through cloistered Malibu to Santa Monica, but you’ll already feel a world away. The laid-back community’s beachfront promenade, the famed Santa Monica Pier, and the weekend Farmer’s Market (considered by many food professionals to be one of the best in the country) might cause a moment’s dalliance as you pursue your motoring route to points north.
Temptation is no less alluring as you skirt the environs of neighboring Santa Barbara, about 100 miles north of L.A. at the foot of the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains. This idyllic town, built originally around the 1786 Santa Barbara Mission (queen of California’s many Spanish outposts), remains a quiet throwback to the golden land of the California myth and is sometimes called the American Riviera. The town’s fine wineries are often compared to those of Napa of twenty years ago, while its dining options range from fresh produce at its enviable farmers’ market to the funky, Julia Child-blessed Super-Rica Taqueria on North Milpas Street, home to what many swear is the world’s finest corn tortilla. More than a dozen sprawling rancho-type hotels provide rest and relaxation, among them the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch, a mystic getaway for the rich and famous since opening in 1893, and where JFK and Jackie honeymooned.
About 50 miles north of Santa Barbara, the fabled PCH begins to unfurl at its most majestic, carving an awesome ribbon of highway 500 to 1,000 feet above the roaring Pacific. Extolled as America’s road trip extraordinaire, with a host of don’t-miss braking points, the wild and rugged 90-mile stretch from San Simeon past Big Sur and on to the Monterey Peninsula is the uncontested high point of the coastal drive.
Situated atop what he called “Enchanted Hill,” publisher William Randolph Hearst’s 115-room San Simeon mountaintop mansion is a Spanish-Moorish hodgepodge that strikes horror into the souls of architectural purists. The “castle” and its 127 manicured garden acres are an homage to the romance, eccentricity, and extravagance that cost Hearst thirty years of his life and much of his family’s fortune, and remains to this day the most expensive private home ever built in America, an over-the-top billionaire’s Disneyland from a time of unashamed spending. Hearst’s feeding frenzy, in which he and his agents bought up and dismantled entire cloisters, ceilings, mantelpieces, choir stalls, and tapestries from around the world and reassembled them here, resulted in a mishmash of styles and periods, occasionally offset by subtle details of taste and refinement. A highlight of the tour (the only way to visit the grounds) is the home movies taken during the decades when Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, made the castle a playground for such Hollywood pals as the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Charlie Chaplin.
After such an excessive dose of man made extravagance, the natural masterpiece of Big Sur appears, a coastal wilderness located where the Santa Lucia Mountains encounter the roaring Pacific. It’s a poem of crashing surf and rugged scenery you’ll never forget: Henry Miller, called it “a place of grandeur and eloquent silence.” The area is still widely undeveloped and has a dramatic loneliness about it, with angry ocean breakers on one side and a narrow curving road that snakes along the edge of the mountains. Pfeiffer Beach is breathtaking—in fact, there’s precious little around here that’s not. Stop to take it all in with a drink or dinner at the well-known Nepenthe, with its outdoor patio suspended 800 feet above the surf. Owned briefly by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, it’s a traditional stopover for motorists seeking a stupendous vantage from which to view the sunset.
“Ventana” means window in Spanish, and Big Sur’s stunningly sited Ventana Inn, perched 1,200 feet above the Pacific, is your window to vast 50-mile vistas of dramatic ocean and mountains, visible both from your room’s private deck and from the inn’s many public windows. Across the road, the Post Ranch Jnn offers the same laid-back luxury and middle-of-nature feel, but with an environmentally conscious twist. Everything from your terrace is meant to be romantic, soothing, and relaxing, though you can also stretch your legs on the numerous nearby hiking trails, which take you out among the area’s grassy meadows, deep canyons, and towering redwoods.