California Dreaming: The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Imagine boating down a river as scenes of natural beauty unfold at every turn. That's what it's like to embark on America's ultimate road trip, the route that edges thew California coast. The pacific Coast Highway has been called scenic, legendary and unforgettable, but words just don't capture the drama of the stunning cliff vistas backed by Indigo Ocean and azure sky. As you wind your way down the derpentine road from Sonoma County vineyards to San Diego beaches, the entrancing beauty of the Golden State unrolls before you.
Begin the Adventure in Wine Country
Start your adventure in the lush Sonoma Wine Country, home to well-known vineyards and Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, the area’s finest destination resort. The Inn’s signature spa services have earned it sky-high status with guests for decades. The pools, baths and spa treatment areas harness the power of the hotel’s geo-thermal mineral springs, with the healing water of an ancient spring pumped from 1,100 feet underground. The Willow Stream Spa is co-ed welcoming couples to take in the waters together, as well as enjoy a number of couple’s spa treatments.
The resort offers plenty of leisure activities to keep you happy during your stay, but don’t miss a visit to nearby wineries such as Ravenswood Winery and B. Wise Vineyards. You might also enjoy exploring Sonoma County’s dynamic agricultural community on organized Farm Trails, where you can meet everyone from organic farmers to beekeepers and water buffalo ranchers.
When you are ready to head out, start by taking River Road (Hwy 116) west, past vineyards and through redwood forests, to the little town of Jenner on the broad mouth of the Russian River. The coast highway south (Hwy 1) passes dozens of enticing beaches as well as small resort towns like Bodega Bay. Then head down to the pristine Point Reyes National Seashore tops the list of natural areas to explore, with wildlife ranging from elk herds to sea lions. To continue your southward trek, cross the Golden Gate Bridge into everyone’s favorite city, San Francisco.
Be Charmed by San Francisco
The city’s iconic cable cars still carry laughing people up and down the hills of the City by the Bay. This includes famous Nob Hill, home to Fairmont San Francisco. The hotel is located in the heart of historic San Francisco and offers impeccable service, elegant guest rooms, and city skyline views from the rooftop garden. The hotel is also the home of the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a favorite Mai Tai spot for both locals and tourists for more than seven decades.
Fairmont San Francisco is not far from Grace Cathedral, a beautiful Episcopal church with an international reputation for social justice work. The church is also the site of fascinating art installations, musical concerts and community classes. Check out an evening yoga session, ideal for centering mind and body before the exhilarating road trip ahead.
Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
When you are ready to roll, head south on the coast highway in search of more adventures. You’ll pass through Santa Cruz, with its famous boardwalk, before getting to historic Monterey. Make time to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s best. Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to artists and the second mission founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission. Then follow the winding road through the Big Sur area. Keep your eye out and camera ready for stunning views of the famous Bixby Bridge. The coastal highway travels high above the ocean with the jaw-dropping cliffs plunging down to the Pacific.
As you travel carefree with eye-catching views all around, the cliff-hanging road descends into oak-forested hills and range land. When you approach the town of San Simeon, look for luxurious Hearst Castle high on a hill to the left. Built by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst as a private retreat, today it’s a unique museum and open for tours. In San Simeon, visit Piedras Blancas beach, where over 10,000 elephant seals migrate annually. If you pass through at the right moment, you can watch them from the viewing platform.
Once you slip through Morro Bay, the road turns inland toward the college town of San Luis Obispo, but you’re soon back on the edge of the Pacific. The beautiful scenery continues through Santa Barbara and Ventura as you wind your way toward Santa Monica, some 480 miles from San Francisco.
Explore Sunny SoCal Beaches
By the time you get to sunny Santa Monica, the high cliffs have ceded the stage to grassy bluffs above long, golden beaches. Here’s where you’ll find the idyllic grounds, serene elegance and multitude of leisure possibilities offered by Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows. In summer, the hotel serves up beach fun with its complementary Miramar Beach Club, providing rides to the ocean in open-air Jeep Rubicons, beach games for all ages and Vilebrequin lounge chairs for sunning.
Nearby, the Santa Monica pier has been delighting guests for over a century with carousels and rides as well as an excellent aquarium. One local pleasure not to miss: the Trapeze School New York. You can discover the joys of flying effortlessly through the air while making life-long memories.
When you leave Santa Monica heading south, you’ll pass beach after golden beach, each lovelier than the next. Stop for a splash or picnic at whichever one calls to you. Once you roll into San Diego, discover the wonders of Fairmont Grand Del Mar. It’s set in a 400 acre nature preserve just 25 miles from the downtown area and five miles from unspoiled Del Mar beaches. You’ll be able to golf, ride horses or enjoy exquisite dining at Addison, a five-star, five-diamond Relais & Châteaux restaurant under the direct of award-winning Chef William Bradley.
For a touch of local flavor, take in a horse race at the renowned Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, opened in 1937 by Bing Crosby.
Teo Spengler is a novelist, writer and attorney who splits her time between San Francisco and France's Basque Country. She writes travel articles for publications like USA Today, SF Gate and Arizona Central, as well as brands like Choice Hotels, JetBlue and United Airlines. Her work has covered the world’s best luxury hotels and resorts.