Monterey Bay sea otters. Santa Cruz’s Giant Dipper.
California’s scenic coastal route is worth the extra time, writes David Whitley.
Kalyra Winery feels as though it’s on the wrong side of the Pacific. A surfboard decorated with Aboriginal art is proudly mounted on the tasting room wall, which looks suspiciously like an Australian beach shack. Reg Mombassa prints cover the walls, and the pinot bianco made here goes down dangerously easily.
The connection lies with Kalyra’s owners, the Brown brothers, who received their education in South Australia’s Barossa Valley before upping sticks to the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Santa Barbara region. Kalyra got a boost when Hollywood paid a visit, too, using the winery as a location when filming the box-office hit film Sideways. The movie instantly made the wine region hip.
As first stops go on a drive north from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Santa Barbara is pretty agreeable. The city’s Old Mission church harks back to the Franciscan order that set up shop here in 1786, but the city itself is thoroughly modern and has its share of rollerbladers whizzing past yoga devotees and surfers on the beachfront promenade.
These are among the sights you’ll miss if you drive from LA on State Highway 5 for the six-hour run to San Francisco. California richly rewards those who take the long way, using the Pacific Coast Highway and US Highway 101/State Route 1 with overnight stops en route.
For much of the journey, nature provides the thrills. Birdlife teems on the Sahara-meets-sea Guadelupe Dunes. Pristine forest backs the wild surf along the Big Sur stretch of the coast.
One extraordinary sight, however, is man-made. On the hills above San Simeon lies Hearst Castle, an object lesson in how to build a dream home if you’ve got unlimited money to throw at it. It was the beloved baby of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who spent 28 years adding ever more lavish touches to this pile. On trips to Europe, Hearst saw antiquities he liked and bought them. In the grounds are ancient Egyptian statues, lion fountains from the days of Richard the Lionheart, and wooden choir stalls from mediaeval churches in the Pyrenees. Rubens tapestries hang in a room where Hearst played Monopoly with fellow billionaires. Roman marbles are dotted about, almost as afterthoughts.
David Niven, just one many of Hollywood celebrities invited to stay at the estate, described the vast, temple-like outdoor pool as “an elegant place to drown”.
On a tour of Hearst Castle, the elements that drove the man become apparent, and are as fascinating the property. Hearst expected guests to have his relentless energy, organising day-long programs of activities. He was a Democrat, served two terms on Congress, and ran for the US presidency in 1904. His policy of giving women the vote is widely thought to have been his downfall. Rarely does a tour make you so eager to rush out and buy a biography.
A few miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, is a beach that you’ll have trouble stretching out a towel on. It’s chock-full of elephant seals, once almost hunted to extinction for their blubber. Visitors use the viewing platform above the beach, watching the wildlife picking fights with one another or nurturing their young. There’s an awful lot of honking going on, too – both in terms of noise and smell.
More sea life is in evidence on the waters of Monterey Bay. It’s a major stop on the whale migration route, and the big beasts are usually fairly easy to spot. But Dorris Welch, on-board marine biologist for Sanctuary Cruises, understands their reticence.
“The whales are shy when orcas are around,” she says. “They feed on the whale calves.”
Orcas may be spotted, too, and may flit around your tour boat – until they spot a harbour seal. What happens next is both a privilege and a horror to watch. The orcas treat the seal like a plaything. They stalk it as a pod, corner it and slowly tear it to pieces. This is nature as directed by Scorsese rather than Disney.
On the way back in, however, there’s a merciful dose of cute to balance out the visceral scenes of aquatic savagery. Sea otters, gorgeous whiskery faces bobbing on the water, form an adorable honour guard for the returning sailors.
For the last leg of the journey to San Francisco, a decision needs to be made. Head inland, and you’re in John Steinbeck country. Many of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s novels, including Of Mice And Men, were set in the agricultural lands around his home town of Salinas. His house and the National Steinbeck Centre are in Salinas itself.
Stay on the the coast road and you will reach Santa Cruz, as close to the archetype of seaside Californian charm as you could wish to find. At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a faded hippie, surf-bum culture meets nostalgic family fun at the amusement park, where the Giant Dipper rollercoaster – a fixture since 1924 – takes visitors up high for million-dollar views before plunging.
Taking the time to go the long way between key cities in California has never seemed more right.
The writer travelled at his expense.
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Most rental companies won’t charge one-way fees for pick-ups in Los Angeles and drop-offs in San Francisco (but do check before confirming the booking). San Francisco has excellent public transport, so plan to drop off the car as soon as you can.