There’s only one way to experience California if you really want to get into the West Coast spirit – and that is by driving an open-top sports car up the Pacific Coast Highway, the Beach Boys and Eagles blaring out from the stereo, surfers to your left, cool wind in your hair and blue sky up above.

The PCH, as it is often shortened to, is officially the 120-mile stretch of Highway 1 between Dana Point and Oxnard in Southern California, taking in Los Angeles, Malibu, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. But to most people, it applies to the entire near-500-mile length between San Francisco and LA, or the 600 miles between San Diego and San Francisco. You can also take it up through Northern California and on to the Canadian border, for a total distance of 2,000 miles.

This long, snaking ribbon is far more than a highway. It leads you on a voyage of exploration right through California’s coastal heartland, passing by much of the Golden Gate State that visitors want to see.

Since my first visit to California 25 years ago, I have been fortunate to have driven the scenic coastal stretch between LA and San Francisco on a couple of occasions as well as driving shorter sections many other times.

Classic car in San Francisco © Peter Ellegard

Both times, it was in iconic American muscle cars: a little red Corvette in the Nineties and, earlier this year, a flame-red Ford Mustang. I even turned down a classic Jag for the Corvette, and as I motored around LA and its environs, I couldn’t resist a lazy drive along Santa Monica Boulevard and West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip with my shades and shorts on, the top down and one arm draped over the door. Call me a poser, but I firmly believe that when in Rome – or in this case, the laid-back West Coast – you should emulate the locals.

Memorable

Some of my most memorable US moments have happened along the PCH, none more so than when I decided to photograph the stars’ hand and foot prints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood after my Sunset Strip drive and found what seemed a perfect parking spot down a nearby side street. Having topped up the meter and walked off, I turned round to see a policewoman taking a keen interest in the Corvette.

Hollywood  © Peter Ellegard

Returning to the car, I asked in my finest upper-crust English accent: “Is there a problem, officer?” Unfortunately, I had mistakenly parked in a red no-parking bay, saving the car in the adjacent metered bay from a parking ticket but earning one myself. Seeing my crestfallen expression, the lady cop asked if the car was rented, and when I said yes she reassured me I would be OK as the rental companies never paid parking fines.

Seizing the moment, I asked if she would mind posing with the car while writing the ticket so I could take some souvenir photos. “Sure,” she beamed, and I clicked away as she struck different poses until a couple of curious Hell’s Angels bikers pulled up alongside. Within seconds, they were in the photos as well, and I ending up getting them to sit on the car’s bonnet with the traffic cop lying across their arms, pen poised on the ticket. Only in LA! And I never did have to pay the fine.

I had another brush with the law in California this year, having done the LA-San Francisco drive in my Mustang and traded it in for a nondescript Japanese saloon to drive back down to Monterey for an overnight and a round of golf on the famed Pebble Beach Links course.

With my return flight home from San Francisco that evening, I put pedal to the metal on the coast road after my round and caught the attention of a California Highway Patrol officer, who sped after me with his motorbike lit up like a Christmas tree. It was a fair cop: I had been doing 81mph in a 65mph zone. He told me I would get a speeding ticket through the post, adding that had I been doing 75 I would have got away with a ticking off. But I didn’t mind. I was still on a high from playing Pebble Beach. The CHiPs officer can’t have ticketed many speeding motorists wearing a smile as broad as mine. And, six months on, I still haven’t received that ticket, either.

Surf culture

The freeways are a quicker way of getting between California’s coastal cities and key attractions, although around LA they are often jammed solid. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway needs time and patience, like savouring an expensive wine. Plan to take in the sights and highlights along the way and be prepared for frequent stops, from traffic in towns to photo opportunities.

My Corvette trip took 11 days and began in San Diego, a beautiful city of picturesque parks and grand, restored 1860s buildings in the downtown Gas Lamp Quarter. It made a fabulous, easy-paced start to the drive north.

The coastline between San Diego and LA is often bypassed by those who laCatching a wave © California Travel and Tourism Commissionnd at LAX and head north. Do that and you miss out on some real treats. California is synonymous with surfing and, while you see it all along the coast, nowhere is surf culture stronger than south of LA.

The breakers created by the offshore Santa Ana winds are perfect for surfing at Huntington Beach, sung about in 1963 hit single, Surf City, by home-town duo Jan & Dean. Today, Huntington Beach even calls itself Surf City USA. It hosted the first professional surfing event in 1959 and is where the USA surf team has its base. Surfing attractions include the International Surfing Museum and Surfing Hall of Fame (www.surfingmuseum.org), and the Surfing Walk of Fame (www.surfingwalkoffame.com).

Surf culture is also strong in Oceanside and Newport Beach and, beyond LA, in Malibu, playground of the rich and famous.

Majestic former transatlantic liner the Queen Mary (www.queenmary.com) now lies captive in dock at Long Beach as a floating hotel and attraction. Stay aboard her, as I have done, in elegant decadence or be transported back to the days when steamships ruled the waves on tours of its stately, art deco interior. Nearby are the Disneyland (http://disneyland.disney.go.com) and Knott’s Berry Farm (www.knotts.com) theme parks of Anaheim.

To its detractors, Los Angeles is a sprawling urban mass; a city with glitz but without a heart. The reality is it has several hearts, and they beat loudest in its western neighbourhoods. This is a Westside Story with a difference.

From the refined elegance of Los Angeles and West Hollywood to the vibrant oceanside communities of Santa Monica and Marina del Rey, including funky neighbour Venice Beach, each neighbourhood has its own flavours and attractions for visitors.

Ferris wheel

Beverly Hills has attracted stars for decades. Today, it is famous for its high-end shopping, with ritzy Rodeo Drive (www.rodeodrive.com) the epicentre of its shopping scene, and the grand Beverly Wilshire hotel there and at the Beverly Hills Hotel (www.beverlyhillshotel.com), a doyenne known locally as the Pink Palace.

Shop for designer fashion and art at West Hollywood’s Avenues of Art & Design district (www.avenueswh.com), before hitting Sunset Strip to party the night away at its clubs and nightspots.

Santa Monica Pier (www.santamonicapier.org) features the Pacific Park amusement park, which includes the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel, giving bird’s-eye views of the beaches, and a traditional carousel.

Muscle Beach (www.musclebeach.net) was born just south of the pier in the 1950s, kick-starting the body-beautiful, workout and health fads now such an integral part of the LA scene. Rent a bike or skates and follow the 8.5-mile beach path to Venice Beach, where you will find the musclemen pumping iron today. Venice Beach is great for people-watching for its bizarre sights and wacky performers. I once encountered a semi-naked man standing one-footed while holding rubber snakes in each hand and balancing a branch on his head. You could also have your photo taken with aliens sat in deckchairs.

Neighbouring Marina del Rey boasts America’s largest man-made yacht harbour, from where you can take a chartered yacht to explore the coastline and offshore islands or take a relaxing harbour cruise.

Hollywood highlights include Universal Studios (www.universalstudioshollywood.com), while LA’s cultural scene takes in the Getty Centre (www.getty.edu) high above the city and the Getty Villa, in Malibu, with collections of artworks, sculptures and photographs. Catch shows and concerts at the Kodak Theatre (www.kodaktheatre.com), home of the Oscars, and Los Angeles Philharmonic performances at Frank Gehry’s garish, silver Walt Disney Concert Hall (www.laphil.com). Pasadena is worth taking a side trip for the historic buildings of its old centre. I vividly recall partying all night with samba-dancing Brazilians in the street celebrations in Old Pasadena after watching Brazil beat Italy in the World Cup Final at the nearby Rose Bowl stadium in 1994.

Shoppers wanting unusual souvenirs should head to the LA County Coroner’s Office, where Skeletons in the Closet (www.lacoroner.com) is a gift shop a couple of floors up from the mortuary that sells items including towels with the outline of a dead body and toe-tag key rings. The proceeds help rehabilitate offenders.

Missions

Two hours north of LA, Santa Barbara styles itself the American Riviera and is a beautiful city rich in history with glorious Pacific beaches and a marina edged by restaurants. Take the lift up to the 85-foot-high clock tower of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse (www.sbcourts.org) for a great view over its red tiled roof and the city, then go on a Red Tile Walking Tour past 1800s-era adobe homes and public buildings. The beautiful, hilltop Old Mission Santa Barbara (http://santabarbaramission.org) is the city’s crowning architectural glory. Founded in 1786, it is one of 21 missions built by the Spanish between 1769 and 1823 and is known as the “Queen of the Missions”.

Stay at a cosy downtown B&B like the Cheshire Cat Inn (www.cheshirecat.com) and you can enjoy its art galleries, shops and restaurants on foot.

Santa Barbara Wine Country is one of California’s main wine regions. You can taste local vintages at 12 wineries within a few blocks of downtown and the beaches on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail (www.urbanwinetrailsb.com) or take a Wine Tours by Trolley trip (www.sbtrolley.com), hopping on and off trolleys to enjoy good libations at four wineries.

Oscar-winning movie Sideways was set in Santa Barbara Wine Country and you can check out film locations on guided Sideways tours or pick up a map from the Santa Barbara Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.santabarbaraca.com) and drive to them yourself. Among locations used were picturesque Santa Ynez Valley communities Los Olivos and Solvang, a fascinating Danish village celebrating its centenary this year with Scandinavian buildings, antique and art shops, a windmill and an old mission.

Hearst Castle  © California Travel and Tourism Commission

At San Luis Obispo, a stay in the Madonna Inn (www.madonnainn.com) means sleeping in themed rooms, including caves where you shower under a cascading waterfall in your bathroom.

Halfway between LA and San Francisco at San Simeon, stop for a guided tour of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s palatial, Spanish-styled Hearst Castle (www.hearstcastle.org), which houses priceless art and antiques, with sculptures and a Roman temple gracing the estate.

Artist’s colony

The road from there to the Monterey Peninsula is one of America’s most spectacular drives, and is known as the Big Sur Coast Highway. It hugs the wild coastline past Big Sur’s towering cliffs, canyons and giant redwoods. Stay at the chic, clifftop Post Ranch Inn for spectacular views and to enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife, including condors, at leisure.

Beyond Big Sur lies pretty artists’ colony Carmel. There, you can take scenic 17-Mile Drive, which loops around the Monterey Peninsula headland past glorious ocean vistas, wind-sculpted cypress trees and golf courses including Pebble Beach.

Former fish-canning town Monterey, made famous by author John Steinbeck, is popular with tourists. Go shopping in Cannery Row’s stores and dine at harbourside restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf, from where you can watch sea otters frolic among the giant kelp fronds or hear barking sea lions. Rent a kayak for a close-up view of seals and dolphins or take a boat trip to watch migrating blue, grey and humpback whales.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must and showcases the rich marine life found just offshore in the bay’s protected marine sanctuary waters. The Hotel Abrego makes a good base for exploring the Monterey area, or if you want luxury with world-class golf on your doorstep, book a stay at Pebble Beach Resorts.

First opened over 100 years ago, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com), on Monterey Bay, is California’s oldest surviving amusement park. Ride an old steam train through redwood forests on the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad.

By the time you reach San Francisco, you should be chilled out after your marathon drive and ready for a chilled glass of wine from nearby Napa Valley to toast the memories. Much as I love San Francisco, I think I left my heart somewhere back on the Pacific Coast highway.


California facts

When to go

California’s diverse topography, from coast to deserts and forested mountains, means it has a range of climates. Coastal regions enjoys a Mediterranean-style climate with sunny and warm summers and wet and mild winters.

Getting there

Flights operate from London Heathrow to Los Angeles and San Francisco, with direct services by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, United Airlines and Air New Zealand.

Getting around

Rent a car. All the main rental companies have locations throughout California. You can rent Ford Mustangs from Dollar Rent a Car. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo via Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. San Francisco’s Muni operates buses, trolleys and cable cars. Los Angeles has a bus network and its Metro (www.metro.net), with four lines and 70 stations.

Tour operators

Operators include www.americaasyoulikeit.com, Virgin Holidays, Bon Voyage, Premier Holidays, North America Travel Service, Funway Holidays and Trekamerica.

Tourist information

Visit California: www.visitcalifornia.co.uk


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