There are few places in the world that generate more iconic imagery than California. And there’s no better way to explore the Sunshine State than with your favourite people – in my case my kids Jess, 25, and Sam, 21.
These days they’re generally off with their friends, but when the idea was floated of burning along the legendary Pacific-fringed Highway 1 in a Ford Mustang convertible, I had them!
Expensive, you might think, but the car was cheap to hire and run, and low-cost motels and Airbnb stays made the whole shebang surprisingly affordable.
Stopping off at fabulous points along the way – from the elegant ‘Riviera’ resort of Santa Barbara to the overblown fantasy of Hearst Castle, staying in a treehouse on Big Sur and whale-spotting in Monterey – I only wish this 430-mile journey could have lasted longer.
Discover the USA, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the neck-craning skyscrapers of New York. Find out more here.
1. Los Angeles - the start
The famous Hollywood sign, Los Angeles
It’s everything you’ve seen in the movies, but then magnified, stretched and glitzified many times over.
The usual tourist suspects may seem clichéd but they’re still must-dos – the obligatory Universal Studios tour, Rodeo Drive’s high-end (window) shopping, the awesome views of the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory, the star-strewn sidewalk of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, off-the-wall Venice Beach.
But you should also seek out LA’s Art Deco architecture, among the finest in the US. For the real LA experience, brave the traffic and cruise the Strip at dusk – it’s what your car’s for!
2. Santa Monica - 15 miles
Santa Monica Pier, California
The seaside ‘west wing’ of Los Angeles feels more like a stand-alone resort than part of the general urban sprawl. It’s a classic surfing hang-out and the century-old pier boasts a solar-powered Ferris wheel, no less.
The pier is the final western point of the classic Route 66 – but we’re heading north, not east. Maybe next time…
3. Santa Barbara - 95 miles
The Santa Barbara shorline, California
Known as the American Riviera, this delightful, elegant, curiously south-facing seaside town is a well-heeled resort. It has something of a Mediterranean ambience – and it’s not just the palm trees.
If you’ve made your money in Hollywood, and still have some sense of perspective left, this is where you choose to live.
4. San Simeon - 240 miles
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
Building began in 1919 on Hearst Castle, the San Simeon hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It out-Disneys Disney with its preposterous design.
It’s Citizen Kane come to life as you make your way through 165 rooms and 127 acres of grounds. More than a million people visit every year. Lady Gaga, who appreciates excess when she sees it, filmed her GUY music video here. You can see why.
5. Big Sur - 270 miles
Bixby Bridge, Highway 101, Big Sur - California USA
The stretch of highway here weaves, ducks and dives between the mountains of the Pfeiffer Big Sur National State Park.
You’ll travel over the 715ft-long Bixby Bridge – stop for a photo opportunity – where 90 miles of lightly populated communities and ‘wow’ moments await.
McWay Falls, where the water cascades into the sea; Ragged Point, 400ft above the ocean; cutesy Carmel; secluded Pfeiffer Beach. Do be aware though that severe winter storms have led to some bridge and road damage: you may find your route diverted.
It probably boasts more laid-back locations than any stretch of road this side of the Pacific. Big Sur is relaxed to the point of prostration. Jack Kerouac came here for the peace and solitude, described in his novel Big Sur.
6. Monterey - 320 miles
A foot path leads down to the Pacific ocean in Monterey California
Famously the location of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel Cannery Row and the location for the first great Sixties rock festival in 1967 – and still hosts the coolest annual jazz fest in the US.
Like Big Sur, it’s got a timeless hippie vibe (the Beach Boys’ 1973 California Saga nails it), though a little busier than its neighbour just down the highway.
Even the whales that patrol the waters along here seem laid-back. If you don’t want to venture out into the Pacific, then check out Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best in the world.
7. San Francisco - 430 miles
The Golden Gate Bridge is every tourist's number 1 attraction to visit when in San Francisco.
‘Babylon by the Bay’, ‘49 square miles surrounded by reality’ – describe it as you will, San Francisco lives up to the soubriquets and then some…
Park the car (not before you’ve driven down Lombard St) and walk/bus/cable car the city. It’s (very) hilly – see Russian Hill, right – but surprisingly compact.
Each distinct district – Chinatown (one of the biggest in North America), the digital start-up core of South of Market (SoMa) and vibrant Hispanic Mission, reclaimed-from-the-dunes wonder of Golden Gate Park, still-quirky Haight, the boho buzz of North Beach, summer-fogged Inner Sunset – melds into another.
For the best views of the city, climb Coit Tower, sip a cocktail at the Top of the Mark bar or catch a ferry to Sausalito, with must-book Alcatraz to your right.
Contrast big city with small town on an adventure from the Golden Coast to the Pacific Northwest Find out more here.
California must see attractions
Our not-to-be-missed insider recommendations for the best places to stay, shop, dine and generally have a good time
Post Ranch Inn
Stay in a luxury treehouse with a mountain view, above, or a clifftop cabin overlooking the Pacific at this award-winning hotel on Big Sur.
One of five on the Big Sur stretch. Before its construction in 1932 the only way to cross the gulley was to detour inland for miles.
The grandiose swimming pool reflects the newspaper magnate’s no-expense-or-taste-spared decor.
Once the fish-canning district in Monterey, it’s now a popular strip of gift shops, seafood restaurants and bars in converted factories.
Monterey Jazz Festival
This year it celebrates 60 years of cool and it’s still the benchmark festival. The late Jimmy Cheatham played in 1988, above.
Road trip research
Inspiration for before you go – or even when you’re on the road!
In Roads, Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry ‘Lonesome Dove’ McMurtry combines a love of his nation’s great highways with his bibliophile’s knowledge of American history. Captivating!
It’s ‘the law’ that at some point on a US road trip you must eat a burger, and cult favourite In-N-Out Burger, founded in 1948, the same year as McDonald’s, is considered one of the best chains.
This is Clint Eastwood territory – he lives in Monterey. Catch the former mayor of Carmel in the atmospheric 1971 chiller Play Misty for Me with Carmel and Big Sur locations,
Petrol or rather gasoline – the costs explained
How our 5-litre Ford Mustang convertible performed:
From LA to SF
Combined city/highway driving
Cost to drive 25 miles
Cost to fill the tank
16 gallon (60ltr)
USA car-hire tips:
The AA recommends applying for an International Driving Permit (£8.50 inc processing fee), to be carried alongside your UK licence. It’s not compulsory, but car-hire companies and insurers can impose their own terms.
Be aware, too, that speed limits vary between different states.
Save up to 30% on global vehicle hire with our partner Hertz Care Hire. Find out more here.
Other great American road trips to try
Despite being ‘deconsecrated’ as a US highway, Route 66 is still the road trip ‘Daddy’.
Once out of Chicago, it’s a winding mish-mash of rolling mid-West hills and small, defiant communities, crossing the Mississippi and into the cornbelt, before merging into desert, still more small towns, parallel railroad track, lonesome bars, on the-horizon cities and hooting trucks the size of small liners.
It’s more than 2,000 miles all the way to Santa Monica pier on the Pacific coast, but eminently doable in a fortnight.
From Chicago to LA, live the dream and travel the iconic Route 66 across America Find out more here.
Bob Dylan stamped his musical identity on the 1,400 miles of Highway 61 (officially Route 61) that runs from the bayous of New Orleans and Louisiana, through the southern heartlands of Mississippi (the legendary ‘crossroads’ where Johnson ‘sold his soul to the devil’ is at Clarkdale) and Bill Clinton territory, Arkansas.
Then it’s the farming plains of Iowa, some 90% of the land given over to agriculture before Wisconsin (home of the great NFL Packers team, if you’ve ever wondered where Green Bay is), before ending in cowboy-and-cattle territory of Wyoming.
Looking for ‘real’America? You’ve found it.
If you’re going to do the east coast, then I95 is the way to do it, talking in 16 states with an incredibly diverse cultural, historical and topographical mix.
Setting off from Miami, this is a fantastic, foot-down, no-nonsense drive, six to eight lanes all the way, that encompasses the southern states including Georgia and the Carolinas, redolent of the Civil War, through New York and New Jersey, into New England until journey’s end in Maine some 1,920 miles later.
And not a pesky time zone change along the way.
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