For an easy-breezy sunny getaway, no matter the time of year, look no further than California, USA – the Golden State. It was my first time visiting the weird and wacky world of Hollywood, so it was essential to refresh the body and mind, and what better way than to stretch the legs of our ‘stang out on the coastal road with the top down?
I wasn’t overly keen to drive on the ‘wrong side’ of the road, so Bad Boy took the wheel. We pulled out from the curb and just started getting some speed when, all of a sudden, we screeched to a halt. It was an intersection. Instead of giving way to your right as we would at home, this was a first come, first served situation, resulting in a near-miss. I would soon find out it was to be one of several near-misses in those little towns up the coast. Although a good driver in NZ, Bad Boy turned out to be a bad driver in America. From that point on the coastal drive, we were taking turns. I’ll also add in here, there were no close calls when I was in the driver’s seat.
Santa Barbara was the first stop of our coastal drive and, my word, what a charming little town it is. You can feel the relaxing nature of the Pacific Ocean throughout the township, instilled in its people. Here we visited the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, steeped in history, where we were educated on the Mexican-American War, and the beginning of urbanisation of California under American rule; an interesting historical journey inside a beautiful piece of Spanish Colonial (revival) architecture.
For lunch and dinner, we dined downtown at whatever caught our fancy on the beautiful tree-lined streets. We were spoilt for choice, as there are a huge selection of restaurants and cafés here. Even better, one of the cafés we went to made a proper latte – an amazing discovery! If you’ve ever travelled to the USA, you’ll realise why Starbucks is so popular – coffee to Americans is like muddy water. Being from New Zealand, where any local cafe can deliver a double shot latte with silky milk, complete with a pretty pattern on the froth – American coffee left a lot to be desired. Luckily not so in Santa Barbara.
From visiting the endless selection of cellar doors, finding more great food, shopping the quaint shops along the main street, to music at the theatre, there was so much left to do. Santa Barbara was tasteful and elegant. So much so, I didn’t feel like I was in America at all so I created a new list: Places to Return to Someday.
After a pleasant overnight beachfront stay, it was time to hit the road again.
The Coastal Drive
Wanting to arrive at our next destination, Carmel-by-the-Sea, before dusk, we set out with a plan to stop for lunch in a quiet coastal town. We met a friendly barmaid and got talking about the area, she seemed curious why we weren’t planning on going to Hearst Castle while passing through. “What did you think of it?” I questioned her. “I dunno, I’ve never been. It’s not the kind of thing locals do. But I hear its good from every one who comes in after their experience.”
To be honest, I’m not really into the tourist stuff that involves waiting in lines, or being herded around in a group only to be given slim pickings of truth. But that is exactly what we got ourselves into when we visited Hearst Castle. Luckily, I could see past the bullshit and did a bit of research to put the visit into context. You can read more about our Hearst Castle experience here.
After an afternoon at Hearst Castle, we continued along the coastal drive to Carmel-by-the Sea. Big Sur at dusk felt dangerous as the cliff-side roads wound up and down and nightfall approached. Thankfully Bad Boy was used to the ‘wrong side’ of the road by now, but it didn’t make the coastal drive any less intimidating, as we didn’t know – or expect – such rugged coastline. The winding roads paired with ocean sunset made the scenic route worthwhile and I wished we booked somewhere in Big Sur for the night. How wonderful it would have been to take in that scene fully, to wake up to the waves crashing on the rocks. Big Sur is the perfect scene for a romantic chill-vibes getaway.
When we finally hit Carmel-by-the-Sea it was dark, darker than it should be. Our headlights were the only guides we had to the streets. I looked for the address of our accommodation online, but there was no address. I double and triple-checked, and was confused that I couldn’t find it, feeling we were in the middle of nowhere. Finally, I entered the name in Maps and it directed us to the location (thank you, Google). Upon arriving, I was explained to by reception that Carmel has no addresses, street numbers, or street lights… What the actual? Locals collectively prefer not to be bothered by the postman and collect their snail mail from the local post office.
Famously, Clint Eastwood was the mayor from ’86 to ’88. During his term, his mandate for election included repealing the law prohibiting the sale and eating of ice cream in public places, hence, integrating the town with small business enterprises. The town was known for being a community of reclusive artists and, by the looks of it, these recluses were successful at what they did. Clint managed to achieve his goal of reinstating ice cream and simultaneously direct, produce and star in the movie, Heartbreak Ridge, and direct the movie Bird, for which he won his first Golden Globe for Best Director. Who said you can’t have an ice cream cake and eat it, too?
We didn’t enjoy any ice cream on our stay, but we were spoilt for choice when it came to eateries. There were an array of boutique restaurants, but not a fast food restaurant in sight (they’re also not welcome here). We dined at Vesuvio, an Italian restaurant, and stayed a little longer after dinner, sipping cocktails on their rooftop deck whilst listening to live music.
In Carmel, they take their footwear very seriously. If you’re a fashionista that can’t be without high heels, make your way down to City Hall. You’ll need a permit for that fashion! Even though it sounds crazy, it’s no joke. A permit is free of charge, but is a must-have accessory to compliment your heels.
Carmel seems quite conservative, and has an air of exclusivity, but even more so when entering the gated community of Pebble Beach. Situated amongst a coastal golf course, Pebble Beach residences are the cream of the crop in the area. The golf club and its facilities are luxurious and accommodating, and the staff are friendly. We had morning tea here and, given the opportunity next time, I would book a stay. This is especially recommended for the golf enthusiast. If you’re into a round of golf and world-class facilities, the golf club is a 5-star expereince. As a side note, this is not a party destination; a loud voice or a word out of turn could have some members or residents looking at you sideways.
Some advice for Carmel-by-the-Sea: book in advance. Accommodation is limited and we ended up in a below average motel due to lack of foresight. Definitely do your research, as we discovered, price point does not guarantee luxury and accommodation can book up fast. If I were to go back, I would also venture further north to explore the surrounding areas of Pacific Grove and Monterey.
That said, we continued from Pebble Beach onto San Jose for a quick stop and a bite to eat before ending up at our final destination, San Francisco.
Road tripping in a foreign country is fun, exciting and especially effortless when you all speak the same language. Even though we covered a lot of territory on our coastal drive of California, one thing I can’t get out of my mind is returning to Santa Barbara and snapping a beautifully framed shot on the Old Route 66. If you’ve come that far, it would be silly to pass up a devilish time in the desert. That is why I’ve added another trip to California, including Santa Barbara and driving the Old Route 66 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, to my bucket list.