Highway 1: Take an alternative road trip along California’s “other” Pacific Coast Highway

Tasting a sea urchin’s sex organs on a Pacific golden oyster can conjure up images of a certain jungle reality show.

According to Industrial Eats owner Janet Ollson, Santa Barbara’s Japanese sushi deli Uni is a locally caught favorite. Her hipster eatery in the little-known town of Buellton is adorned with a mural of the 1979 cult film The Warriors and serves everything from artisanal charcuterie to cheese-covered pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens.

It’s just one of many hidden gems off the beaten tourist path on the 451-mile (726 km) stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Having previously driven this route on the faster Highway 101 (which runs parallel), I take the slower, winding CA-1 scenic coastal road (aka Highway 1). Accompanied by my daughter Grace, I embark on a road trip to explore some of the off-the-beaten-path attractions of this popular fly-drive trail.

Of course, as with any recent trip to America, the elephant in the room is cost – with the euro and pound being very low against the dollar, anything across the pond will seem more expensive. But travel between November and mid-March tends to be cheaper (excluding Christmas and other national holidays), says Cath Pusey of US specialty tour operator America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com).

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Surfing in Santa Cruz. Photo: Visit Santa Cruz County/PA.

Gasoline is still cheaper in the US than in Europe and you can explore the many state parks and beautiful stretches of coastline for little or no money.

Admittedly, there are plenty of activities that require you to spend the money – a surf lesson in Santa Cruz can cost you upwards of €110; Wine tastings at secluded vineyards in the Paso Robles hills can cost as much as a decent bottle; Horseback riding in Cambria or whale and dolphin watching in Monterey Bay don’t come cheap, so spend your money on the things you really want to do.

Yet the sheer scenery of the drive, meandering past a surf-battered rocky headland on one side and dramatic mountains on the other, and the small towns we encounter as we turn off the coast road, are momentary a major attraction. The scenic 17-mile (27 km) drive along the toll Monterey Peninsula through Pebble Beach to pretty Carmel might cost $11.25/€11.60 per car, but it’s money well spent.

Observation points on CA-1 are around every corner, where visitors can admire phenomenal marine life, from sea otters sunning themselves on their backs in the languid, unpretentious fishing port of Morro Bay, to colonies of grunting elephant seals clumsily scrambling for a better position on the seabed screaming beach at the Piedras Blancas Rookery.

State parks are home to towering redwood forests, waterfalls, and coastal ridges, while wildlife like bald eagles and peregrine falcons populate the rocky cliffs of the deep canyons of the Santa Lucia Range and Santa Ynez Mountains.

Our accommodation options are off-piste – a vintage caravan with all the comforts in Ventura; a funky surf-themed hotel in Santa Cruz; a walk through redwoods for our Big Sur lodging breakfast.

These are just some of the alternatives you can find if you want to get away from the crowd.

san francisco

Beginners will head for the famous Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the iconic vintage streetcars.

We choose Japantown, the largest of three remaining Japantowns in the United States, where Japanese immigrants built a community after the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city and entered a lesser-known enclave of Asian culture and history, with virtually no tourists.

Easily identifiable by its many restaurants serving ramen, sushi and other delights through colorful replica dishes in their window displays, the neighborhood’s indoor malls also serve a variety of bright, bold Japanese cuisine, including “kawaii” (meaning “cute ” means). Accessories and anime-inspired toys. The distinctive pagoda, a gift from Osaka to San Francisco in 1968, stands out in Peace Plaza, which seems to be cheered on by the annual Cherry Blossom Festival when visiting in the spring.

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The Santa Cruz roller coaster. Photo: Visit Santa Cruz County/Beach Boardwalk/PA.

Santa Cruz

The birthplace of US surfing, Santa Cruz, also known as the Coney Island of the West Coast thanks to its boardwalk amusement park with the state’s oldest wooden roller coaster (1924), feels young and full of collegiate surfers and beach lovers.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the fair, we take a surfing lesson at Club Ed (club-ed.com) a few minutes drive down the beach where we just meet other surfers. After we’ve piled into wetsuits at a public parking lot, veteran surfer Rick leads us to the waves and on the beach gives instructions on foot placement, how to paddle out (the hardest part) and where to look (definitely not down) before diving into the cold plunges pacific.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, certainly for the fitness level, and check the weather before you head out – our waves were too big for beginners, he later told us.

Monterey

Once the fishing center of 19th-century European settlers, Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf have long been transformed into a tasteful, welcoming oasis of tourist shops and restaurants, while retaining the brightly colored metal buildings made famous by American writer John Steinbeck.

Twenty minutes outside of town is the quieter enclave of Moss Landing, home to our nautical B&B The Captain’s Inn (kapitänsinn.com) overlooks the tidal channel of the Old Salinas River, a wetland teeming with life.

We admire the views of pelicans and blue herons from a quirky deck adorned with wooden paddles, vintage lifebuoys and mooring ropes, and use our room binoculars to get a better look. The nearby Elkhorn Slough Reserve offers visitors the opportunity to explore 1,700 hectares home to 340 species of birds, 550 species of invertebrates and much more.

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Photo of redwood trees in Glen Oaks, Big Sur. Photo: Hannah Stephenson/PA.

national parks

California is home to 280 state parks, more than any other US state, and nine national parks, including the well-known Yosemite and Sequoia, but these are both about a four-hour drive from the west coast, too far for a day trip.

80km inland from Monterey is Pinnacles National Park, one of the least visited, situated in the San Andreas Fault Zone where volcanic activity 23 million years ago is responsible for its massive monoliths, pinnacles and balconies, steep gorges and boulders -covered caves.

We hike to bat caves, walk alongside majestic pillars of rich, rust-hued volcanic rock, duck under dangerous boulders wedged between natural walls and breathe at the waters of Bear Gulch Reservoir.

Paso Robles

With almost 300 wineries in the region, the numerous outlets allow you to sip and enjoy to your heart’s content, whether you’re downtown or in the vineyards.

With wineries spread across two distinct growing regions — Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo — we choose one that’s small and personal. Alta Colina (altacolina.com) not only offers summit tours where visitors can taste Syrah, Rhone blends and Rhone whites at the top of the vineyards, but you can also “glamp” in vintage trailers at the base of the vines (thetrailerpond.com).

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A mural in Ventura, California. Photo: Hannah Stephenson/PA.

Ventura

Ventura is sometimes overlooked by visitors in a hurry to get to Los Angeles (half an hour away), and Ventura is worth a pit stop. It’s a cheaper but in many ways more attractive and compact option, with its quirky street murals, pedestrianized downtown streets, and surfing beaches.

We are sitting on a small campsite in front of our cool vintage 1950s caravan (waypointventura.com) near the beach, we could be a million miles from La La Land toasting S’mores with a Texas couple who retired early and sold their house to travel across the US in their RV to travel.

los Angeles

The sprawling City of Angels is choked with traffic but tries to live up to the Hollywood dream with tours and museums like the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (AcademyMuseum.org), which opened last year.

Our ultimate view—and ultimate breakout—comes high in the empty Burbank hills at Castaway (castawayburbank.com), a fashionable restaurant with wraparound patio and cliff-top seating with fire pits, where guests enjoy spectacular views of the San Fernando Valley, downtown LA and the Hollywood Hills.

My dollars are spent, the trip cost – but it was worth paying for.

For more information about California, visit visitcalifornia.com.

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Fry Electronics Team

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