One of the most spectacular drives in America begins at the rugged cliff tops of Big Sur, nips the broad public beach in Carmel, winds past the famous Pebble Beach golf course and aromatic pines and wave-washed rocks of 17-Mile Drive, snakes through the college town of Santa Cruz, hums on through Half Moon Bay with its quaint downtown and ritzy seaside developments and finally rolls to a gentle end in San Francisco.
Most of the drive follows California's aptly named Highway 1, aptly named because it is the Golden State's most-loved stretch of coastline road. It's visually compelling, varied and studded with homey cafes and funky bait-and-tackle shops and latticed with roadside hiking trails. Most people drive this two-lane blacktop on four wheels; a hardy few venture forth on motorcycles or high-performance bicycles.
Big Sur, about 140 miles south of San Francisco, took a big hit this year when wildfires ravaged the area, forcing evacuations and temporarily shutting down the destination restaurant Nepenthe. Made famous by Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and the inner-space explorers of the Esalen Institute, Big Sur is recovering nicely now. Residents have returned home, and Nepenthe, on the ocean side of Highway 1, is once again serving gourmet burgers, salads and microbrews from its cliff-top vista point.
Driving north on Highway 1 brings you to Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor; his former restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn, is still a local favorite, and his current property, the Carmel Mission Ranch, has a lively bar and overlooks a bucolic meadow and wetland. Sitting outside in an Adirondack chair with a drink in hand on a good-weather day is a fine way to while away an hour or two.
At Carmel's Pebble Beach, veer west off of Highway 1 and take 17 Mile Drive, a private road (with an $8 fee) that winds through exclusive estates and hugs the coast, for prime views.
Rejoining the main road, you can motor to Monterey. This seaside town, with its historic links to native son John Steinbeck, long ago converted the old, played-out fish-canning factories on Cannery Row into shops. Just a few months ago, Cannery Row blossomed with a stylish new boutique hotel, the InterContinental Clement. Right in the middle of everything sits the justly celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium, arguably the country's finest.
Downtown Monterey, as with most of neighboring Carmel, is a good place for walking. So, park the car for a while and meander about on foot. Cheap eats and fresh (well, usually) seafood are available at Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf from a cluster of small restaurants.
From here, Highway 1, running concurrently with Interstate 101, passes military bases and the massive sand dunes of the appropriately named Sand City as the road threads through the fertile Salinas Valley; artichokes and Brussels sprouts, among other things, are grown commercially here. Gilroy, a Salinas Valley town, just off 101, bills itself as the garlic capital of the world, and if you stop there, you'll know why. Gilroy even peddles garlic ice cream, though this may be a scoop too far.
Leaving 101 where it branches off from Highway 1, pushing west to the coast and on to Santa Cruz. A green, leafy refuge for alternative lifestyles, Santa Cruz is home to a University of California campus, where the occasional tie-dye shirt and crunchy-granola breakfast are on offer. Off-campus and right on the water you'll see the town's century-old amusement park, complete with vintage wooden roller coaster. This is a California version of the East Coast's Jersey shore, right down to the boardwalk and salt-water taffy and win-a-kewpie-doll games.
And still, we mush northward, but there are no snow drifts, only tidy shops along the highway in the town of Half Moon Bay. Rolling vegetable patches produce farm-fresh food, and the giant-pumpkin contest held every fall is a defining small-town Americana event. Year-round you can find good grog, light meals and more ocean-watching at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, which sits at the apex of two championship golf courses. This is a good place to admire hawks riding the thermals. If you want refreshment without leaving your car, pull over to the drive-through Caffino at the intersection of Highway 1 (also called Cabrillo Highway here) and San Mateo Road and sip an espresso.
San Francisco awaits. "The cool grey city of love,'' the poet George Sterling's description, typically loses its shroud of marine fog this time of year. Highway 1 blends into San Francisco's nondescript 19th Avenue when you cross the city line. For a better drive, motor west along John Daly Boulevard toward the water, then head north along Skyline Boulevard to the Great Highway.
On the Great Highway, you'll pass surfers shivering in their wet suits and hang-gliders taking off from Fort Funston to float over sand and water and the western end of Golden Gate Park. The Beach Chalet on the edge of the park offers good pub food and beer. Just up the road, perched on an outcropping of rock, is the Cliff House. A favorite of generations of San Franciscans, the Cliff House was renovated three years ago and now boasts several high-end spots to eat, a buzzy bar, an easy mix of locals and tourists and big servings of tradition. Mark Twain wrote about an earlier incarnation of the place.
The drive ends a few miles north, at the end of Lincoln Boulevard, which curves inland to meet the Golden Gate Bridge. It's fun to drive across the bridge, but you can walk, too, taking the east-side pedestrian promenade, or ride a bicycle on the west side to nearby Marin County. Walkers and cyclists don't have to pay, but motorists must cough up a $5 toll. Don't forget to look back; the city looks magnificent: romantic on its hills, modern with its jutting forest of high-rises and altogether splendid, framed by the blue waters of San Francisco Bay and the noble, burnt-orange girders of the Golden Gate Bridge.