Travel review: California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway

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In the first half of a two-part feature, Suzanne McTaggart embarks on a road trip along California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway.

ONE is peppered with beaches, mountains and fantastic scenery, while the other is a straight, grey, boring road only punctuated by traffic jams.

In fact, the only thing the two routes have in common is the interchangeable weather.

Unfortunately, I am more used to travelling on the M1 than Highway 1, but in September I was lucky enough to experience the famous Californian coastline drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which is featured in National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime series.

Officially called the California State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway also appears in Esquire’s list of ‘75 things to do before you die’ – and with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean combined with gorgeous coastal towns, flawless beaches and a laid-back lifestyle, it’s easy to see why.

Tourists often prefer to complete the drive from north to south, as Americans drive on the right hand side of the road and therefore, travelling from LA to San Francisco offers the best views.

However, flights to LA are generally cheaper and more frequent, so we decided to spend a few days in Tinseltown and then head for the highway, closing our trip in the city which is home to the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and some of the steepest streets I have ever seen.

Arriving in Los Angeles in mid-afternoon, we immediately noticed three things (apart from the tight security at LAX airport) – the heat, the traffic, and LA’s resemblance to a concrete jungle.

Cheap diners and burger bars stand on every corner and, driving through the city in a stuffy taxi after a 12-hour flight, our first impressions weren’t great. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and LA actually threw up some scenic hidden gems during our three-day stay.

We based ourselves at a hotel called The Crescent in Beverly Hills, pictured left, which opened in 1927 – the year of the first ‘talkie’ and a period when Hollywood was expanding rapidly.

Our room was not large but was very stylish, and the hotel as a whole has a very 1920s feel.

Its simplicity, stylishness and location (The Crescent is a stone’s throw away from Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard) would have made it the perfect hotel for a budding actress moving to LA to break into the ‘talkies’.

Our time in LA was spent doing the touristy things – a stroll along the Hollywood walk of fame, a tour around the celebrities’ homes and a visit to Santa Monica pier, where the famous Route 66 reaches its end. The charming, lively seaside town on the outskirts of LA is well worth a visit, but the most stunning scenery can be found along Mulholland Drive, which winds 21 miles through Beverly Hills and meets Highway 1 near Malibu, offering panoramic views of the Los Angeles basin, the San Fernando Valley and the ‘Hollywood’ sign.

After staying in Beverly Hills for three nights, we picked up our hire car from Avis at LAX, where we received a black Volvo C70 Convertible. After driving along a section of Mulholland Drive, we emerged on to Santa Monica Boulevard, before heading northbound along the Pacific Coast Highway, with the top down, the sun shining, and the road peppered with jagged cliffs and glorious beaches stretching out in front of us.

The rest of that day’s drive, in the late afternoon sun, was punctuated by beaches and vista points, and we spent the night in the town of Santa Barbara, a surfers’ paradise.

The following day, we set off from Santa Barbara in the direction of San Luis Obispo and the Madonna Inn, a must-stay hotel along the route.

Charming, colourful and delightfully tacky, the motel is situated on Highway 1 just outside San Luis Obispo, a city in the mountains where the sun still shines but the weather is cooler.

The drive to SLO, as it is affectionately known, takes you away from the coastline along a quieter stretch of road – fewer cars, dry, cracked, brown land, imposing hillsides and miles of wilderness.

Although Highway 1 is known as the Pacific Coast Highway, it does not always follow the coast and veers inland several times, with SLO situated around 12 miles away from the ocean, surrounded by mountains, woods and brown fields.

Having driven for two hours along twisting, turning roads with little sign of human life, the Madonna Inn rose up like a big pink oasis flanked by mountains with its fairytale turrets and flashing sign, offering an all-American welcome to everyone from truckers to tourists.

Each of the 110 rooms at the Madonna Inn are furnished and decorated to suit an individual theme, ranging from the bright-green Safari room to the Caveman room, which is built into a rock face and decorated with animal-print rugs.

Some of them are colourful, all of them are unique – and ours, the Austrian suite, was bigger than our entire house, with décor and furnishings that even Mozart would have found over-the-top.

Photos of each of the rooms are available to buy as postcards for 50 cents in the hotel’s gift shop, and the Austrian suite is pictured left. The Madonna also specialises in traditional American dining and is home to a gaudy, pink-themed steakhouse, as well as the more informal Copper Cafe, where the menu includes everything from milkshakes and sundaes to pancakes, burgers and enormous slices of cake.

The swimming pool and jacuzzi are also gorgeous places to spend time, and our afternoon at the Madonna, on the day Andy Murray won the US Open, was the most relaxing of the whole trip – and happily, we were only halfway through our American adventure.

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