A "one-tank trip" that's among the world's most scenic drives, where mountains plunge almost vertically into the Pacific Ocean, can be found south of San Francisco.
This trip along California's Highway 1 -- or the Pacific Coast Highway -- puts drivers to the test with its hairpin twists and turns along mountain ridges south to Morro Bay.
|The scenery never stops along Highway 1 (Barbara Fox photo)
Along the Golden State's famous route, ocean waves crash against rocky shorelines and wind-swept beaches are inhabited by surfers, perky sea lions and otters.
It traverses forests rising from cool mountains, step-back-in-time towns, artist colonies, mining camps, historic missions and magnificent mansions.
Editor's note: Also see the companion piece about California 1's wildlife at http://foxtrotstravel.blogspot.com
Our land-sea journey began conveniently in San Francisco where Highway 1 crosses the Golden Gate Bridge.
Staying atop Nob Hill at the impressive Fairmont San Francisco, then marking its centennial year, was opportune. That's because local expert Tom Wolfe prepares Highway 1 tourists with assistance. There's also a Hertz car rental counter right inside the Fairmont.
A celebrity at Fairmont, Wolfe was America's first concierge in the 1970s, providing personal assistance to guests.
|Staying in style at the Fairmont San Francisco. (Jim Fox photo)
Heading south, surfers and hang gliders soon appear with plenty of spots to pull over as the views are spectacular, Wolfe said.
At Monterey, there's the famous fisherman's wharf and aquarium, while artists populate Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the state beach stretches for a mile with pelicans and kingfishers aplenty.
Nature lovers can find 250 species of birds and mammals at Point Lobos State Reserve south of Carmel, an undersea ecological reserve, tide pools, coves, kelp forests and cypress.
Winding south to Big Sur, the Santa Lucia Mountains touch the sea and giant redwood trees climb to the sky while expansive houses perch on granite cliffs and wooded hillsides.
|Bixby Creek Bridge along California Highway 1 (Jim Fox photo)
Clinging to the coast, pull in for lunch at the Ragged Point Inn set high on a cliff while nearby is the Piedras Blancas Light Station, said to be named by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo for the bird-dropping stains on the white rock outcropping.
“The inn is one of the most beautiful settings for lunch along the Central Coast,” said Sara Loven, a native Californian and our unofficial tour guide.
|The view from the Ragged Point Inn. (Jim Fox photo)
A sensual highlight is viewing -- and smelling -- the thousands of elephant seals that take over the beach at San Simeon near newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst's 165-room castle, where tours are big business.
|Elephant seals take over the beach. (Jim Fox photo)
“Sally Seago paints from her heart,” Loven said. “Her oil paintings have rich colors and range from beautiful ocean sunsets to African wild life. She travels extensively to capture scenes and recreate them on canvas. Whichever subject she chooses, she seems to capture its essence, whether it is a colorful garden or snowy mountain scene.”
|Artist Sally Seago shown in her studio. (Jim Fox photo)
This trip ends at the Morro Rock, a gigantic volcanic remnant set in Morro Bay that's connected by a sandbar where there are frolicking sea otters, peregrine falcons and great blue herons.
“When you visit Morro Bay, be sure to head out of Morro Rock and look for the sea otters on the right side of the bay,” Loven said. “There are sea otters lazily eating or rolling in the water. They have been there for several years and are fun to watch.”
|Morro Rock, a scenic part of Morro Bay (Jim Fox photo)
Visit the Spooner's museum at the park “to get a feel for the history of the area and then take a walk along the three-mile coastal trail.
“You will see native plants, birds and huge crashing waves curling into rocks that look like outstretched hands. If time allows, take a picnic lunch and enjoy the beauty of the area,” Loven said.
|Writer Jim Fox exploring Montana de Oro with Sara Loven. (Barbara Fox photo)
Inn staff can arrange ecological tours, birdwatching, surfing and kayaking excursions.
A fitting end to a perfect day is watching the sun set into the Pacific Ocean from the fine-dining Orchid Restaurant at the Inn at Morro Bay, a coastal hideaway resort located inside the state park.
The fine dining is “California style” with Mediterranean-inspired cuisine using regional organic products and seafood, including Ocean Rose Farm abalone gourmet shellfish.
From Morro Bay, it's a short drive to explore the Paso Robles and Edna Valley wine regions before returning to San Francisco or heading home from the Central Valley.
Our drive along the ocean took place in April before the really busy summer season with cooler temperatures – in the mid-60s.
“Since it was cooler, there wasn't a lot of activity on the beaches, but that was great for driving through the little towns along the coast--cute little touristy shops and lots of restaurants,” Loven said.
|Keep your eyes on the road - and the scenery. (Barbara Fox photo)
It was sunny and very windy the day we did the coastal drive and we passed all the popular beaches including Huntington and Laguna.
“The views were spectacular with the waves high and foamy against the jagged cliffs, and wild flowers in bloom along the roadside. We saw some surfers and swimmers on the beaches but some were deserted, probably because of a high-wind warning and it was cool,” Loven said.
“It's easy to pick a beach as you do the drive -- just pull in, park and head for the beach. The choices are unlimited.”
If you go:
- To plan a California one-tank trip: www.visitcalifornia.com; 1-877-225-4367. The California Travel and Tourism Commission offers detailed maps and routes.
- The Fairmont San Francisco has a bed-and-breakfast package available year-round. 1-800-257-7544; www.fairmont.com
- Embarcadero Inn at Morro Bay charges from $120 a night and has a family suite at $375. Breakfast is included and each room has a refrigerator, coffee maker and video player with free movies. 1-888-223-5777; www.embarcaderoinn.com
- The Orchid Restaurant at the Inn at Morro Bay has dinners on Friday and Saturday along with Sunday champagne brunch. www.innatmorrobay.com; 1-800-321-9566.
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