If the Golden State represents some of the most deeply held views of the American Dream – with its pioneers, wild frontiers, outsized nature and freedom to fly one’s flag – then this coast, which spans from Santa Barbara in the south to Santa Cruz in the north, is California refined to its most stunning signifiers: towering mountains, vast oceans, and unfettered vistas belonging to every man.
One of the best trips of my life was spent here, driving down one of the world’s most famous roads: Highway 1. I was fifteen years old, had never been to the US before, and my dad had rented a brand-new Ford Mustang convertible. It was red and it was the classic cliché. To make matters worse (or better depending on how you look at it) I’d pre-loaded my iPod with songs and albums that had the word “California” in them.
I loved every minute of our trip, and I’m not the only one. Politicians and entertainment-industry figures have long called Santa Barbara and neighbouring Montecito home. Along with Oprah and the Jolie-Pitts, there are a number of others who succeed in keeping low profiles because there are just enough of their kind around to render them slightly unexceptional.
The true California magic, however, lies further north. From Santa Barbara, the pacific highway briefly traces a route inland through grassy hills peppered with Spanish oaks, before emerging fully at Morro Bay. From here it’s a straight and breath taking shot, hugging the shore, past Hearst Castle and up into Big Sur. There is no shortage of places to stay over around here, all representing variations on Californian hospitality, ranging from the slightly antiquated “inn” that I stayed in with my father, to more upscale places.
But let’s keep driving. There’s so much to see. The Big Sur Bakery, set on the highway towards Monterey, is a cult destination among the world’s chefs and food critics. It’s a personal favourite, and anyone passing in the morning hours would be remiss not to stop for a sampling of its breads and pastries.
Even further north, after driving through winding, windy scenes, the mountains gradually smooth out into flatlands, culminating in Point Lobos, a rocky outcrop below the Carmel Highlands, forested with cypresses, its shoreline scalloped with dozens of pristine coves. And just past Point Lobos are the towns of Carmel and Pebble Beach, which land you back firmly in Santa Barbara-style territory: majesty and bohemia surrender to streets lined with Range Rovers. Wining and dining pursuits will beckon; La Bicyclette is particularly good for brunch, and Casanova for a romantic dinner. But don’t be surprised if your mind lingers in the dappled light of the redwood forests or if the timeless sound of waves on stone persists in your consciousness, drowning out the clink and hum of civilisation.
For me personally, this road trip led me to discover so many things; ranging from the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains spectacularly tumbling into the ocean, the true American wilderness, to the mouth watering burgers from In-N-Out. And thanks to my carefully curated California playlist, my fifteen-year-old self also discovered some amazing artists including The Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell.