A 10-day road trip up Pacific Coast Highway can turn a drive into an adventure.
By Terence Loose
Recently, my family planned a getaway to Santa Barbara and, like most, our goal was to drive up the coast in as few hours as possible, sights set solely on our destination. Then, a friend suggested we stop in Malibu. Another friend discovered my wife and I had lived here our entire lives and had never been to Venice Beach. We had to check it out, she insisted. Yet another was shocked that we…
We got the hint. After growing up in Southern California and sailing across the Pacific, we realized we had explored more of the world than we had our own backyard.
So, we decided to brave 10 days in a car with a teenager and our Santa Barbara getaway became a spontaneous road trip. The drive up historic Pacific Coast Highway reminded us just how amazing our coastline is. Here are a few highlights.
It felt odd to start our trip to Santa Barbara driving in the opposite direction, but no PCH road trip would be complete without a stop at San Clemente, the unassuming surf city at the southern tip of Orange County.
We played tourist, which in San Clemente means a trip to the San Clemente Pier and its surrounding beaches. After a relaxing beachside lunch, we left our daughter sunbathing on the sand and headed to Avenida Del Mar to sample a couple of the city’s famous wine bars, The Cellar and the San Clemente Wine Company. The street is also home to several excellent restaurants.
Afterward, we had plans to visit Casa Romantica, an aptly named almost 90-year-old villa designed by Carl Lindbom, the same man who designed Nixon’s Western White House, which overlooks the world-renowned Trestles surf break. With surrounding gardens and commanding views from the bluff top above the pier, Casa Romantica, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, has showcased everyone from famous artists to acclaimed astronomers.
But plans change. The bright lights of San Clemente Pier drew us back. Walking wooden piers at sunset, as purple water turns black underfoot and competes with a fading sky for attention, has always been one of our favorite activities. This pier did not disappoint. We spent the night with friends in San Clemente, vowing not to forget that this quaint gem of a city lies only a few gallons of gas away.
The next morning, it was a short drive north to the city named after Richard Henry Dana Jr., the 19th century sailor and author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” In that groundbreaking book, he described Dana Point as the only romantic spot along the entire coast. It’s certainly true that it’s hard to beat the views from the streets above Dana Point Harbor, complete with a tall ship in the frame.
On most Sundays, you can tour a replica of the tall ship Pilgrim at the Ocean Institute, which also offers occasional sails aboard its other replica, Spirit of Dana Point, which was a privateer used during the American Revolution.
We opted for a different sort of adventure, strolling the harbor, eating at the waterfront restaurant Wind & Sea, and hitting Doheny for a family-friendly surf day. It’s hard to top the gentle rollers at Dana Point, which used to be known more for pumping right-handers until the Dana Point Harbor breakwater was built in the 1960s. It took away one of the best expert big waves along the coast, and left one of the most beginner-friendly ones. Ironically, one of the best spots to rent a beginner’s soft top is Killer Dana Surf Shop. Irony is so cruel.
In our daily hustle, it’s easy to focus on traffic conditions and destinations and forget just how stunning a drive it is north on PCH from Dana Point to Laguna Beach. The beauty of the rocky coastline and blue Pacific even had our teenaged daughter looking up from her iPhone. Sometimes. This part of a PCH journey could take days in itself if you stopped at every scenic lookout—Salt Creek, Aliso Beach, Montage Laguna Beach and a dozen more. We skipped these in order to spend time playing tourist in Laguna Beach, something locals should do way more often.
Known as an artist colony since the early 1900s, Laguna Beach is a great place to visit galleries. Gallery hopping is also a good way to walk the downtown area, especially during the city’s First Thursdays Art Walks. Start at some of the PCH-located galleries, such as saltfineart, a Latin American contemporary gallery, or Sue Greenwood Fine Art, then work your way inland to the galleries along Forest Avenue, then to the new and unique Peter Blake Modern inside the Peter Blake Gallery on Ocean Avenue, which features collectable furniture and objects collected by Blake and museums worldwide.
There are plenty of quaint cafes along the way, but the better move is to walk back to PCH and to the north of Main Beach. At the top of the hill you can finish your art tour at Laguna Art Museum, then stroll the view-laden cliffs of Heisler Park and finish off with tapas and drinks at Las Brisas patio, overlooking the Pacific. It’s a reminder of why we live where we do—and why others pay thousands of dollars a week to visit.
Again, we skipped one of the gems along the route north on PCH: Crystal Cove State Park. With amazing walking trails and beaches, this is a must-see, which is why we have spent so much time there over the years. On this trip, we were determined to visit the places we rarely think about, let alone visit. That meant a detour to Balboa Island.
Technically not along PCH, but close enough to rationalize, Balboa Island is easy to write off because of the crowds. Despite that, as someone who grew up on the island, every time I return I am amazed at how little it has changed. Yes, homes are 10 times more valuable, the shops and restaurants are a bit fancier, and you can’t expect to get a parking space anywhere near Marine Avenue now. But just try to move fast or wear a frown when you visit the island.
We spent a few hours walking the 1.71-mile boardwalk, licking Balboa bars and mimicking the tourists I cursed as a kid. (We spent Sunday mornings cleaning up Balboa bar sticks from our dock.) Then, we took the ferry across to the Peninsula—something that will never get old—and, after a trip to the Wedge to watch death-defying bodysurfing (the greatest show on water), we drove the length of the Peninsula and reunited with PCH.
On the way out of town, we skipped the busy, but enticing, Huntington Beach Main Street and pier and the city’s newest destination, Pacific City (Huntington Beach’s original name), an outdoor hub of unique shops and restaurants. It’s always a great place to play tourist, but we had our sights set on a quieter stop on our way north: a few hours exploring the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
With a fascinating history that includes duck hunting gun clubs, the discovery of oil, an artillery battery during World War II and infamy in the 1950s as Tin Can Beach because of the massive amounts of trash left by campers, the existence of the wetlands are somewhat of a miracle in themselves.
In 1970, developers bought the area and planned 5,000 homes and a marina, but the 1972 Coastal Act put a dent in that plan and, over the next three decades, battles raged to restore the wetlands. Today, more than 500 acres have been restored, with walking trails that are frequented by birders and nature-lovers. Stop at the interpretive center, which features live animal exhibits—a good place to learn your snakes.
For a year, my wife and I docked our boat in a slip with a view of the Queen Mary and we never once ventured across the bay to tour this historic ship. Now, we were going to spend the night on it, thanks to the fact that today, the Queen Mary is a floating hotel, complete with world-class restaurants and a spa.
I must admit, the idea of staying aboard a ship that’s not going anywhere feels a little odd, but a hotel room with working portholes for windows is undeniably cool. Known as the “ship of woods,” many of the 346 original first class staterooms and suites feature unique paneling, and no two are exactly alike.
Playing tourist on the Queen Mary is as educational as it is interesting. The Queen Mary’s maiden voyage was in 1936, and for the next three years she was the pride of the seas, carrying celebrity passengers like Bob Hope and Cary Grant and dignitaries like Winston Churchill. World War II changed all that, and the ship was painted camouflage gray and transported soldiers as the Grey Ghost, the largest and fastest troop ship of its time. After the war, the Queen Mary became a luxury ocean liner once again, crisscrossing the Atlantic. But after a few decades, plane travel proved too popular and on Dec. 9, 1967, the Queen Mary arrived at her final destination: Long Beach, Calif.
A stop in Long Beach wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific, so we wedged it in. It’s a magical place where kids can touch sharks and rays, stare in awe at the 350,000-gallon tropical reef tank, with 1,000 colorful reef fish and turtles, or watch a 4-D movie about penguins. Plan to spend an entire day at this place.
You know what you really want to do on your vacation is see 250 pounds of tan muscle flexing in a yellow banana hammock. If that doesn’t do it for you, there are snake charmers, break dancers, medical marijuana doctors, palm readers and every kind of street performer. Yes, if you’ve forgotten just how fascinatingly freaky people can be, Venice Beach, undisputed people-watching central of the coast, will remind you in fun, colorful and utterly shocking ways.
The best plan is to rent a bike for about $16 a day. It’s pleasant, healthy, and a great way to get away from crazies in a hurry. Ride north from Venice Boulevard to Santa Monica Pier and, along the way, you’ll find the famous Muscle Beach Gym, with an outdoor weightlifting area that was the main hangout of bodybuilders Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno back in the day.
Now completely revamped and maintained by the city, it’s prime huge human-watching territory. They are used to gawkers—actually, they seem to enjoy them—and most won’t mind taking a photo with you if your Instagram feed needs a pump-up. And if you’re feeling truly adventurous, a day pass is just $10 to pump some iron yourself. (Not wanting to show anyone up, I declined. Besides, I was on vacation.)
When you think of Malibu, you probably envision the crowded waves of Malibu Surfrider Beach, made famous from the Gidget movies, or the famous and now gated Malibu Colony. But Malibu has more to offer than overcrowded waves and secluded real estate.
One of the more surprising finds was Solstice Canyon, a 6-mile-long hiking trail (we did the shorter version) and home to the only year-round waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains. After Muscle Beach and the graffiti-laden walls of Venice, it was a calming reminder that pristine nature still exists, even a mere 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
The next morning, instead of spending three hours failing to get a wave off the infamous Malibu locals (been there, done that), we played tourist and strolled the Malibu Pier. Incredibly, we scored a seat at the Malibu Farm Pier Café, which doesn’t take reservations. The up side: it was a clean space with billion-dollar views. The downside: I paid $10 for yogurt and granola. But hey, it’s Malibu, baby.
With only a few days to spare, we arrived in Santa Barbara, a fantastic place to be a tourist. You can truly pick from many themes for your Santa Barbara getaway. We went totally retro, rocking up to the Autocamp, where we stayed in one of their many polished aluminum Airstream campervans that called back to a simpler time.
These are not the rusting, off-kilter trailers you see towed behind a dented pickup. Instead, each one features more luxury per square foot than your average manse. Try pillow-top mattresses, down comforters, spa bathrobes, and wooden decks with Adirondacks and a gas barbecue. Two of the Airstreams even have deep soaking tubs.
From this base, there are endless things to do in Santa Barbara. Kids will love the Santa Barbara Zoo, which features more than 180 species, who occupy some prime real estate: 30 acres overlooking the beach. There is also a 65-acre Botanic Garden, with guided and self-tours, and if you visit between October and March, check out the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, where monarch butterflies hang in great clusters from eucalyptus trees.
We spent our last few nights 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, at the El Capitan Canyon campground, in a 12-foot by 14-foot safari tent, listening to frogs and birds and wind through the trees. The campground, which also has cedar cabins, aims to “be an antidote to all that is excessive, formal, artificial or contrived.” They pretty much nailed it, with everything from kayaking to horseback riding in a soul-reviving natural minimalism.
It was a fitting end to our trip, the culmination of heading upstream to find peace, quiet and and unique places, before we had to fall back down PCH to our harried nine-to-fivers. But far from dreading the drive, we looked forward to discovering any gems we had missed along the way.