Tag: San Simeon

Route One – Day One: SAN FRANCISCO to SAN SIMEON

It’s the Road Trip which is on everybody’s bucket list and –  after driving 500 miles down California’s ever-changing coastline – we now know why the Pacific Coast Highway is so special.

The funny part about this world-famous drive is that not many Californians, including Mrs Life of Reilly, have actually experienced it.

Most natives opt for a quick flight from Nor Cal or So Cal (slang terms for Northern and Southern California, if you hadn’t guessed?!) or get the job done in an eight-hour drive on the freeway.

After “doing” Route One, I don’t think we’ll ever drive the main motorway (Interstate 5) ever again!

Sure, it might take a few hours longer but we’d rather be smiling and enjoying every minute, rather than being stuck in traffic or trying not to fall asleep on a dead-straight road, while listening to a boring audiobook your other half put on before she fell asleep.

We were really excited about doing Highway One but when we were researching it, there didn’t actually seem to be any websites which offered exact timings so that we could properly plan our trip (to the hour) and work out a realistic itinerary. This is why we’ve written THIS article!!

Our timings are real and accurate, because we noted them down as we went along.

On the left you’ll see our real timings, but we’ve put our suggested times in brackets (plus a full itinerary at the end of Day 3), which will help you avoid the problems we had each day. If only we’d read our blog before we travelled!!!!

So, here’s how we did Route One, with two kids, over three days!

Get a convertible, if you can

The convertible was amazing - but remember to keep those kids warm in the back!! Oops!

The convertible was amazing – but remember to keep those kids warm in the back!! Oops!

Ok, before you get to the Golden Gate Bridge, make sure you try to rent a convertible for your Road Trip.

Having the top down makes it feel as though you’re really travelling and connecting with the towns and cities that you drive through, rather than watching it all through a rectangular piece of glass.

It’s great to feel the temperature change with the landscape, as it often captures the mood of the place you’re driving through.

A convertible also looks really cool in photos! 😉

We found that choosing a convertible over a standard car was only $50 extra  for five days, when we booked through Dollar. I’m not sure if we were just lucky with a promotion, but give it a try – it might not be as much as you expect!

Dylan still talks about having a convertible in America! He's going to be disappointed on our next trip!!

Dylan still talks about having a convertible in America! He’s going to be disappointed on our next trip!!

Was it worth getting a convertible when you have small children? Yes and no.

Yes: it’s something different and fun; they liked it when we drove under 10mph.

No: With a roof in the boot (trunk), there’s less room for luggage and a travel cot (pack and play) so it’s quite tight; they didn’t like it when we drove faster than a child on a bike; the back gets really cold, even in the Californian sun (we found this out the hard way and only realised that they needed jackets and blankets on when we got past Monterey – oops!); you need to put sunscreen on the kids before you leave; it’s frustrating to drive Route 1 with the roof on when you have a convertible, so you kind of wish you didn’t have one!

Overall: Would we choose a convertible again despite the big list of negatives? Hell yeah! It was fun to drive around with the top down, even if it was just for an hour each day. Just remember to snuggle up those little ones in the back.

Book ahead

Plan your trip along the Pacific Coast before you go so you don't get stranded in the middle of nowhere

Plan your trip along the Pacific Coast before you go so you don’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere

There are a few things that you should book before you jump into your car and leave modern life for three days (it really will feel as though you’ve gone back in time, especially during the first 48 hours).

Yes, Big Sur is located just a few hundred miles from the global headquarters of Facebook and Apple, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, but it really is in the middle of nowhere – with no mobile phone reception, let alone internet – so there’s no way you can reliably book stuff.

First, book your accommodation for both nights. You should be able to find a normal priced hotel around Santa Barbara but, just outside of Big Sur, the hotel owners know you have fewer options and hike up the price.

We paid £92 ($142), via Expedia in the end, which was the cheapest priced room in the region. And it was a low-end hotel/motel, so it was totally not worth the money at all, but you need somewhere to sleep!

The other thing about fewer hotels – and people knowing that you should book ahead – means that there isn’t much scope for turning up and expecting a room somewhere. We saw people, who hadn’t booked ahead, running in and out of every hotel reception looking for a room – even at our hotel!

They said they were going to sleep in the car! You wouldn’t want to do that with kids in the back!

There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the "ranch" as he used to call it!

There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!

The other place you should book before you leave is Hearst Castle.

Yes, they recommend that people should book ahead of time on their website but we weren’t certain which tour we should go on – and, we didn’t think that every good tour would get booked up for the times that we wanted to go.

We also thought that we’d be able to book it at the hotel the night before…but with no 3G, and no working hotel wifi – it was impossible!

When we arrived at the castle, all of the tours were booked up and we had to go for a later tour – and not the one that we really wanted to do, either.

So, avoid this by simply booking ahead – you’ll thank us if you do!

10am – Golden Gate Bridge (you should get there for 8am)

Aim to get to the Golden Gate Bridge as early as you can.

We went for 10am to avoid rush hour traffic going out of the city but we could have probably left San Francisco at 9am and been ok.

We ended up getting there just after 10am and then didn’t actually start the drive until 11.30am, which meant that we we had lost a good amount of valuable driving time, straight away.

Aim to arrive at the bridge around 8am so that you can hit the road by 9am.

Golden great photo opportunity

Mason Street is a great place to grab photos of the Golden Gate Bridge

Mason Street is a great place to grab photos of the Golden Gate Bridge

Get some pictures at the bridge, but don’t go to the Vista Point on the Marin side of the Bay: it’s packed and not a great shot.

Head down to the beach off Old Mason Street. You’ll get a much better picture there and it’s far less crowded.

We found a free parking spot just before the beach and took our pictures next to the road, which you might choose to do if you already have the beach shots.

Once you’ve taken your pictures, jump in the car with your selfie stick and get some cool shots crossing the bridge.

You’ll then turn around in the Marin Vista car park – where you’ll turn around (and at the same time thank us for helping you avoid the chaos here).

You’re now ready to head south – the same direction you’ll be travelling for three days!!!

Time to drive, but be warned

Head down to the beach near Mason Street to get the perfect shot of the bridge.

Head down to the beach near Mason Street to get the perfect shot of the bridge or take some from the promenade, like this one.

It is a very real possibility that you could get a $70 fine just seconds into your epic Road Trip.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a toll road but you don’t pay with cash as you cross anymore.

It’s more like the London Congestion Charge where your number plate is photographed and a toll is attached to the car.

There are loads of places and ways to pay the toll but doing it online (here’s the link for you) is the easiest way.

It’s also best to pay the toll a few days before – the biggest reason for this is that you only have 48 hours to pay it and there is hardly any 3G or wi-fi once you hit Big Sur!

11.30am – Time to drive, finally (9am for you)

Take the coastal road straight off the Golden Gate Bridge, as 101 isn't as scenic as you might think!

Take the coastal road straight off the Golden Gate Bridge, as 101 isn’t as scenic as you might think! Photo: Google Maps

Ok, we’re finally off!!

The official way to drive Route One is to stay on it (or the Historic 101) from San Francisco to San Diego BUT after you get off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Coast Highway is a four-lane road which gets snarled up with traffic.

It’s not exactly the way you’ll want to start the drive of a lifetime, so we jumped off and headed towards the Ocean as soon as we got out of Golden Gate Park.

It did feel as though the Stop Signs and traffic lights were never going to end at one point, but it was all worth it when we got our first glimpse of the water.

**You can avoid our slow drive to the ocean if you take Lincoln Blvd as soon as you get off the bridge.**

We continued along Great Highway Road and enjoyed the panoramic views of the sea along the flat road.

Every mile or two, we stopped at traffic lights to allow surfers to race into the water.

There’s no mistaking that you’re setting out on a real Californian experience with these sights and sounds.

You’ll join Route 1 just past Daly City and wind your way down to Santa Cruz.

The El Camino Real bells line the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Eric Chan on Flickr.

The El Camino Real bells line the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Eric Chan on Flickr.

Now you’re on “The One,” you can get your kids to start looking out for the El Camino mission bells which are on ‘shepherds crook’ posts along the whole route to San Diego.

They were placed on the highway in 1906 to commemorate the old El Camino Real (The Royal Road) trail which Spanish settlers created in the late 1700s to link the 21 California missions along the entire coastline.

Over the past century, more than half of the 450 iron bells have been stolen, vandalised or fallen into disrepair.

Don’t worry though, in the 1970s and 1990s many were replaced, so you should be able to spot some and take a few photos!

2pm – Lunch in Santa Cruz (11.30pm for you)

After driving along the empty coastline for two hours, it was nice to hit a real city again.

Santa Cruz is the original surf town: three Hawaiian students shocked locals by riding waves here in 1885 and, in doing so, became the first people to surf in the USA.

It’s also the home of surfer, and inventor of the wetsuit, Jack O’Neill. Yes, that O’Neill.

As you can see from our timings, because we left San Francisco really late.

We didn’t have time to walk along the famous Boardwalk from The Lost Boys movie.

Instead, with two starving kids – and two very hungry adults – we ran into the first diner we came across and ate lunch as quickly as we could so that we could get back on the road again.

It was a shame because the boardwalk was buzzing with tourists – and locals – who were all looking to make the most of the fun that the city has to offer.

Look out for the 90-year-old Big Dipper which is still holding its own against the modern amusements.

We spent an hour in Santa Cruz, and left at 3pm.

You should leave two hours – for lunch and sightseeing – and get back in the car at 1.30pm. This will get you to your next stop for the times below.

4pm – Monterey (2.30pm for you)

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by: Meij Kobayashi

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by: Meij Kobayashi

We’d been to Monterey to visit family there several times before, so we didn’t stop here during this Road Trip.

Monterey is a quaint place to visit, with its’ seafood restaurants and fishing village vibe. It’s home to Cannery Row, where John Steinbeck based the novel of them same name.

It’s home to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium but, unless you’re going to do Route One with a stopover here, you won’t have time to visit it because it takes a whole morning or afternoon to get around.

You could easily choose to stop here, rather than the fast-paced Santa Cruz, for lunch though.

If you do – and you have some time to spare –  you could also visit one of the most picturesque – and famous – PGA Golf Courses in the world: Pebble Beach.

The famous links course is situated within, what’s called, “17-mile-drive” – a scenic route around the rugged peninsula which, believe it or not (!!!!), is 17 miles long!

With its rugged coastline, ocean views and varied wildlife, it’s like a mini Route 1 roundabout!

It’s set within a gated community, so you’ll either need to know someone who lives in one of the mansions, or pay the $10 fee to be allowed in.

5pm – Big Sur entrance (3.30pm)

The roads out of Monterey are straight and filled with expensive sports cars but the modern world seems to fall off the side of the cliffs, and into the ocean, with every mile that you drive south from this point.

Before you know it, it’s just you. The road. And, the ocean.

Gone are the Starbucks’ and fast-food chains. Even the gas stations and motels seem to suddenly disappear.

There’s no Las Vegas style sign that says, “Welcome to Big Sur” but as you start climbing above sea level, the roads get windier and the landscape becomes more dramatic. You’ll quickly know when you’re there.

The panoramic views open up around you. The waves crash beneath sheer cliff-drops next to the road, and the hot Californian sun begins to cool.

The land becomes rustic and wild and it really feels as though you’ve got a seat in nature’s best interactive theme park.

It got so chilly that we needed to put the roof up to stop the children from freezing in the back. We were also starting to get red faces from the sun and now the wind.

We would’ve probably kept the top down if we didn’t have the little-uns but it did mean we could turn up the stereo and find an appropriate soundtrack to the stunning scenery around us.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

There are scores of small parking areas through Big Sur to allow you to stop, take in the scenery and capture a few memories with some photos but we needed to keep our pit-stops economical.

The first big landmark we stopped for was, surprisingly, a man-made one: Bixby Bridge.

There’s a smaller version of the bridge that you cross before Bixby, so we were looking for a place to turn around, but before we  knew it, the real bridge was in-front of us and we were ready to pull over.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a bridge lover, but I’ve always found the Golden Gate Bridge compelling for some reason – and the pictures I had seen of Bixby Bridge looked really cool, too.

It was amazing to see something so well constructed in the middle of nowhere.

The best part…is that the bridge totally lives up to the hype. It takes your breath away when you see it in person – and it will look amazing in any photograph that you take!

5.45pm – Pfeiffer Beach (4.15pm)

Pfeiffer Beach has to be seen to be believed! Check out our Big Sur video to see more.

Pfeiffer Beach has to be seen to be believed! Check out our Big Sur video to see more.

One of things we didn’t think about – or appreciate – when we’d heard stories or read articles about Highway One was the coastal fog that’s around.

We thought it would just be on certain days, or at certain heights, but from Bixby Bridge all the way to San Simeon (where we stayed the night), we couldn’t see that far into the distance – even though it was July!

It was a bit disappointing, at first, but then it all begins to add to the mystique of the drive.

We also think it’s Big Sur’s clever way of making you want to return again and experience a completely different trip.

Our next stop was Pfeiffer beach, with it’s purple sand and famous Keyhole Arch which invites big waves to build and crash through it.

We had also been told that it was hard to find, but we scoffed at the advice of family and friends believing that anyone can easily find anything in the USA.

We should have listened to Aunt Connie! It’s really hard to find and we drove past it twice, even after asking for directions.

There are no signs to the famous beach – and GPS doesn’t take you to the right place – so bookmark this page now so you can find it later.

Make sure you save this page to make sure you can find Pfeiffer Beach when you're doing your road trip!

Make sure you save this page to make sure you can find Pfeiffer Beach when you’re doing your road trip!

Here’s how you’ll find Pfeiffer Beach:

**North to South: You’ll see a sign which welcomes you to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After that, on the right, you’ll see a sharp turning off Route One (Sycamore Canyon Road). There’s no sign from the road, just some mailboxes, but as you turn you’ll see a yellow sign says “Narrow Road, no RVs – Trailers.”**

If you miss it, like we did, then you’ll know you’ve gone too far because you’ll end up getting to “Big Sur Center.” You can turn here and try again!

Be warned, the drive down to the beach is for confident drivers only. Alicia was yelping as we drove down and saw other cars heading our way!

When you get down to the beach you’ll be asked to pay $10 to park, so make sure you have some cash with you. It’s well worth the money as it felt like being on another world. It was really peaceful and the rock formations and waves are stunning.

We spent 45 minutes there, which felt a little rushed when we got our kids out of the car and back in again.

So, again, leave San Francisco on time and you should be fine!

6.30pm – Other Big Sur landmarks (5pm)

Nepenthe Cafe, Big Sur. Photo by: Traveling Otter

Nepenthe Cafe, Big Sur. Photo by: Traveling Otter

This was the point that we started panicking about how late we’d left everything.

It was dinner time, the kids were doing well, but would be getting hungry very soon. The sun was beginning to go down…and we were still two hours away from our hotel…so we raced through the rest of Big Sur to get them fed and watered.

If we weren’t in such a rush, we would have definitely stopped at McWay Falls and some of the other turnouts along the route. If you stick to our recommended timings though, you should still have time to see these sights.

Big Sur Bakery is just next to the “Big Sur Center” which you might have turned around in to find Pfeiffer Beach. It would be a great place to pick up some freshly baked food to keep you going until dinner.

If you’re running late, like we were, they also serve “normal food” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of eating in the middle of nowhere though: Soups start at around $10 and wood-fired pizzas start at more than $20.

A mile south is Nepenthe, which has a cafe and restaurant with a view, on the right hand side. We didn’t quite know where this place was when we drove past, but we really wish stopped here for dinner as it would have been perfect with our super-late timings!

A little further south, on the left, is the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

Yes, it’s a library, but in Bug Sur, you know it’s going to be different.

Stop in for a cultural, quiet break to browse some books or walk around the gardens with a tea or coffee, which you have to make yourself (of course).

McWay Falls

McWay Falls, Big Sur. Photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

McWay Falls, Big Sur. Photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

If you don’t need to stop for food, McWay Falls is next.

Unlike Pfeiffer Beach, there is a sign to McWay Canyon from Route 1, but it’s hidden on a sign for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Confusing, huh? Two State Parks with similar names) and it’s a left turn, which feels wrong when the ocean is on the right.

We couldn’t afford to go wrong so late in the day so kept on driving.

You might get lucky and find a spot to park just before your turn off Route One, but if you don’t have the time to look for a free spot, follow the signs and you can pay to park in the official spaces.

It’s just a short walk, then, to see the 80 foot hight falls.

Your photos will be stunning at any time of the year – even with a drought – because the water constantly flows from underground springs.

Fact of the day: the water used to fall straight into the ocean until a fire, and then a landslide in the early 1980s, created the sandy beach that you see today.

The beach is too dangerous to get down to, due to cliff-falls and erratic tides, so stick to the path.

8.15pm – San Simeon for the night (6.45pm with no other landmarks)

An example of the hotels in San Simeon. The old school hotels should be embraced - you can go to a Hilton anywhere in the world!

An example of the hotels in San Simeon. The old school hotels should be embraced – you can go to a Hilton anywhere in the world!

The coastal fog was around all day but it was when the sun began to set that it felt more desolate and overbearing.

The drive seemed like a real effort through the southern end of Big Sur.

The road seemed windier than ever, a queue of cars was building-up and getting closer together – almost like a train convoy – and we were all feeling very tired and wanting food, some rest and a bed for the night!

I even started to get worried that we might miss checking in to our hotel because the reception probably wasn’t 24/7 (I was right, it wasn’t) but we did make it to San Simeon in the end!

The hotel was very basic and looked like the Bates Motel but we knew that’s what it would be like and, to be honest, this is what adventures are meant to be like.

It would be boring if it was a standard Hilton or Holiday Inn that you could find anywhere in the world.

There was no restaurant in our hotel so we drove to downtown San Simeon which, we’d just driven past and knew was definitely serving food, rather than going to nearby Cambria.

The main strip of hotels in San Simeon. Make sure you book ahead.

The main strip of hotels in San Simeon. Make sure you book ahead.

We should have gone to Cambria!!

The restaurants in San Simeon were all linked to the hotels. The only nice looking one had a two-hour wait.

The only one that could fit us in was a dodgy diner with incredibly over-priced food ($15 for a burger) which wasn’t very good!

We think you’d do better if you travel a little further south for food, unless you’re in one of the nice hotels.

The kids were in a weird mood. Dylan was going hyper with the lack of sleep and Samantha began to cry over anything and everything.

At around 9.30pm, we climbed into our two double beds – the lads in one and the girls in the other – and we were all asleep within minutes.

It had been a long, tiring day – and we were now sleeping in the middle of nowhere – but we’d travelled so far and done so much in a relatively short time.

I think we all fell asleep with smiles on our faces.

Click here to read about our second day of the Road Trip: from San Simeon to Santa Barbara.


					
		

Route One – Day Two: SAN SIMEON TO SANTA BARBARA

As you’ve just read from our previous post, we’d made it safely down the first stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway – from San Francisco to Big Sur – and we were staying overnight at a hotel/motel in San Simeon.

On Day Two, we did the least amount of driving during the whole trip, which was great because we’d spent 12 hours driving the previous day (we drove from Palo Alto to San Francisco before we officially started the Road Trip, which was one of the reasons we started late) and we wanted to give the kids – and us – an easier day.

That was the plan but, as you’ll see below, we made a few mistakes!

So, again, our timings are on the left but you should use the timings in brackets (full easy-to-read itinerary on the next page).

Live music at breakfast in San Simeon

Only on a road trip like this would you find a songwriter using Big Sur as inspiration! Watch Marcos Lopez-Iglesias' scenic soundtrack for us.

Only on a road trip like this would you find a songwriter using Big Sur as inspiration! Watch Marcos Lopez-Iglesias’ scenic soundtrack for us.

Ok, so our hotel in San Simeon was “rustic,” but that was part of its charm  and it was this kind of experience that we travelled from England to enjoy.

The room was basic, but it was clean and safe. Breakfast was included but don’t expect a huge hotel spread of sausages, eggs and pancakes.

There was unlimited cereal and toast, plus packaged English muffins and filter coffee.

It was a forgettable breakfast, food-wise, but having a local retired guy welcoming everyone with warm and genuine conversations – plus watching the different types of guests around the room – it was actually a very fun meal.

After some food, we wanted to see how close to the ocean we’d been sleeping.

Sure enough, we crossed one small road and were looking out to the Pacific. It was a special place, but it felt even more special with the soundtrack from the man on the bench next to us.

A tall, tanned middle-aged man was strumming a very cool melody on his guitar.

The lyrics were also really catchy – and he had the look of a famous musician – so I asked him why he was playing his guitar at 9am on a bench in Big Sur.

It turned out that we’d stumbled across a fellow Brit who’d moved to LA after touring Europe for many years with his own band.

Marcos Lopez-Iglasias was a drummer for ex-Kajagoogoo star, Limahl, and even Duran Duran!

He told us that he loved coming to Big Sur to write music and that he was working on a new album!

I asked him if he could play us a bit more of his new song. We all shared a special few minutes listening to a brand new song coming into the world, next to the ocean in Big Sur.

It’s these moments that you would only have on a Road Trip. AMAZING!!

Watch his impromptu gig for us, above!

11.30am – Hearst Castle (10am for you)

Hearst Castle is a beautiful hill-top hideaway that was the home of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher of the late 1800s.

You may not have heard of him but you’ll definitely know the brands which bear his name today: ESPN, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle are just a few of the major media outlets that he would own today, if he was still alive.

Living in England, surrounded by lots of medieval castles, I wasn’t sure if I would really want to visit a “new-money” mansion that was only completed in 1947.

After browsing online, the pictures of the outside swimming pool won me over, plus the fact that it looked like an interesting attraction in the middle of nowhere.

It was 9.30am and jumped into the car to go to the castle. This was mistake number one for the day!

I saw all of the warnings about booking Hearst Castle ahead of time on their website but I didn’t think it would really get booked up!

We were also going to book it the night before but there wasn’t any wifi or 3G near our hotel in San Simeon.

We turned up at the castle at 10am only to find all of the early tours had gone. The earliest of the general tours that we could get was at midday – we couldn’t wait around to do that!

So, we went for an 11.30am tour of the cottages, which didn’t sound great but it gave us access to the grounds and it would be fun to go there, still.

There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the "ranch" as he used to call it!

There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!

As soon as the tour started though, we were hooked!

The excitement builds as you sit on the coach up to the castle and you hear the  history – and the many and varied famous guests that visited Hearst, here – while you wind your way up to the property.

When you arrive at the top, the hot Californian sun returns and you can immediately see the detail – and money – that went into this public show of wealth and opulence (even the tiles on the stairs tell their own stories).

It feels like a real-life Great Gatsby. The Neptune and Roman Pools are something to behold.

I kept on thinking about what it must have been like here, in its heyday: Clark Gable and Greta Garbo partying with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

The “cottages” on our tour were more like mansions: decorated in gold leaf, with sea views and . It was here that Hearst’s “wife” lived, away from his mistresses.

Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw also stayed in the cottages when they visited.

This is classed as a "cottage" at Hearst Castle. Winston Churchill stayed in one when he visited!

This is classed as a “cottage” at Hearst Castle. Winston Churchill stayed in one when he visited!

Anyway, I could write an article just about Hearst Castle. Add it to your itinerary!

Three hours was just about enough time to take a tour, stroll around the estate and have some lunch at the Visitors’ Centre (the Mac and Cheese was awesome!)

The kids were pretty good but didn’t appreciate any of the tour, plus away from the coastal fog it gets pretty hot up on the hill.

Dylan had a couple of melt-downs due to the heat, lack of water and boredom. He enjoyed walking around the grounds, though.

On your way down in the bus, make sure you check out the empty zoo cages that Hearst had filled with animals, and as your drive south to Cambria, look left and see if you can spot any of the zebra that were released. There are more than you think!

11am – Elephant Seals (1.15pm for you)

Elephant seals at near San Simeon.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon.

As we had an hour to wait for our tour, we swapped things around and went to see the Elephant Seals before heading up to Hearst Castle.

They’re just ten minutes north of San Simeon at Piedras Blancas so, whatever direction you’re travelling, it’s just a minor detour.

Turn right out of the castle onto Route One and you’ll see the Elephant Seal car park on the left hand side.

It’s a very busy car park, and attraction, but people only stay for 10-15 minutes so it’s constantly moving so you should find a spot.

You may have seen the odd seal during your trip already – on a rock or in the ocean – but you won’t have seen this many and certainly not this many so close up.

You can see…and smell…everything!!

They’re a great way to see some unusual wildlife close-up – and they’re a great final memory of rural Big Sur because every mile south from here, is another mile closer to reality.

3.45pm – San Luis Obispo (2.45pm for you)

The ruggedness of Northern California begins to make way for the hot, desert climate of Southern California with every mile.

We tried to take in the pretty little towns that we passed (Harmony, Cayucos and Morro Bay) but we were in a bit of a rush (again!!), so didn’t stop.

When you hit San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals) it feels as though you’re firmly back in reality, which is good and bad, of course.

We hit rush hour for the first time in a what felt like a week. Traffic picks up again as you’re forced onto Highway 101.

A waitress told us to stop off at a place called the Madonna Inn with the promise of a very special toilet break.

We pulled up to, what looked like, a 1950s Vegas motel.

Go left when you walk through the main entrance and go down the stairs into the men’s toilet, which looks like a cave!!

When you step in to take a pee, water cascades down the rock-face and washes everything below, away.

We were one of “those” people that stopped just to experience the bathroom but we wished we knew about it earlier as it could’ve been a great place to stay overnight.

The uber-kitsch Madonna Inn and a taste of some of its furnishings!

The uber-kitsch Madonna Inn and a taste of some of its furnishings!

The dining room was more kitsch than the Eurovision Song Contest and all of the 109 rooms are uniquely decorated: yes, the cave room is just like the Flintstones where you’ll literally shower in a waterfall; sleep in a room decorated as though you’re staying in the Alps; or maybe you’ve always wanted to stay in a bed with wagon wheels?

There’s a fun room for anyone. Take a look at this link!

This should definitely be on your list for a place to stay on your Road Trip, if you can make it all the way to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco in one day, or you choose to split it up and make it a four-day holiday.

5.45pm – Solvang (4.45pm for you)

When you leave San Luis Opismo, you’ll have the choice of staying on the 101 or rejoining Route 1 at Pismo Beach.

We jumped back on the Pacific Coast Highway until just before Lompoc to make our way to Solvang on the 246.

We were glad we did – it was a beautiful drive through Guadalupe with its’ mix of flat, lush strawberry fields, then a steep climb, before descending down to another huge sea of green, on both sides of the car.

It’s another reminder of how varied the climate and landscape is on this special road: today, the harsh mountain-sides have transformed into lush agriculture and tomorrow we’ll head further south into the arid desert.

Why did we decide to come off Route 1 for Solvang? Well, this Road Trip is all about finding new places and experiences and we loved the idea of visiting a mini-Denmark that’s been built in the middle of California.

The city was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants (surprise, surprise) who wanted to create their own colony.

A Danish speaking school was built three years later and their idea of creating a mini-Denmark went a step further in the 1940s when one of the town’s developers built his home in the style of his homeland.

The Danish Village concept grew and, now, much of the city looks as though it’s been picked up from cold Copenhagen and dropped into sunny California.

In fact, Solvang has the most windmills (five) within two square miles, outside of Denmark!

Solvang is a place like no other in California. It's the complete opposite of what you would expect to see on the Pacific Coast Highway!

Solvang is a place like no other in California. It’s the complete opposite of what you would expect to see on the Pacific Coast Highway!

It’s a great atmosphere as you drive through Solvang.

The architecture makes the city feel different immediately. It does feel like you’re in a Danish Disneyland with the cartoon-like facades but all of the shops sell real Danish goods and are owned by people of Danish heritage.

It was great fun wandering past the windmills and taking photos on the ‘olde world’ street corners but the best part was picking out a delicious Danish pastry – from the hundreds on display – and enjoying a very unique Californian/Danish pit-stop.

If Solvang doesn’t appeal to you, you are also in one of California’s famous wine regions.

This is the region where Sideways was filmed (I still haven’t seen it, but heard so much about it. One day!) so why not do some wine-tasting instead?

7.15pm – El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara (6.15pm for you)

We stayed in Solvang for just under an hour and left at 6.35pm. If you did the same, with the timings above, you’d be leaving Solvang an hour earlier which is much better.

Head towards the 101 and you’ll soon be back on Route One, flying down to Santa Barbara.

We wanted to make the trip extra special and chose not to stay in a regular Best Western or “normal” hotel in the city.

One place, which was recommended by my boss at ITV (thanks Robin),  was a glamping site with its own private beach just outside of Santa Barbara in a place called Goleta.

Now, I’ve had some bad experiences of camping in the UK. I hate it! Sure, I like nature but do we have to sleep rough to experience it?!

So, El Capitan Canyon is my perfect camping ground, with its own swimming pool, spa and every home comfort!

You can choose to have a yurt or a log cabin – both have real beds and electricity!!

The site also has: movie nights, at its own open-air cinema; stargazing talks with a local astronomer; wine tasting with samples from the wine region you’ve just driven through; plus loads of other activities including yoga, hikes and fun, runs.

Our cabin at the El Capitan Canyon camping resort and spa! All of the fun of camping with all of your home comforts!

Our cabin at the El Capitan Canyon camping resort and spa! All of the fun of camping with all of your home comforts!

We went for a Queen Cabin with a kitchen and shower, which was $245 (£170). I justified the high price as being a part of our trip of a lifetime and also the fact that all hotels/motels on Route One seem to be over-priced, anyway.

It was a fab experience. We arrived and un-packed just in time to get dinner in the Canyon Market, which closes at 8pm so be warned!

It was there I was able to get wifi for the first time since San Francisco and was able to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll!

Every pitch has its own fire pit which you can cook on. They sell wood and fire-starters, plus over-priced barbecue kits which start at $65 for burgers and $77 for steak (they do include enough meat for four though, plus salad, garlic bread, drinks and s’mores – and firewood, cutlery and plates).

Cooking marshmallows on the fire pit outside our cabin at El Capitan Canyon!

Cooking marshmallows on the fire pit outside our cabin at El Capitan Canyon!

We were cheap (Really? Us?!) and bought some firewood, marshmallows and beer.

We sat out watching deer run past us, while talking about all of the animals that might be near the site.

It would be great to have spent a couple of nights here to explore the canyon properly but we had to get back on the road the quite early the next day.

The boys went up into the loft to sleep (we didn’t trust Dylan up there by himself quite yet – and the ladder was really steep), while the girls took the California King bed!!

Click here to read about our third and final day of the Road Trip: from Santa Barbara to San Diego. It’s also where you can find our full  itinerary in one handy spot.

© 2018 Life of Reilly

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑