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A Pacific coast vacation

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Tearing down the Pacific Coast Highway in a red convertible, Cecilia Yee discovers a passion for the California coast.

Without doubt one of the world’s most memorable road trips, the Pacific Coast Highway is on the top of everyone’s list when it comes to US travel. It snakes some 198-kilometres along the California coast, and has been designated an All-American Road, one of the country’s most scenic. Hugging the cliffs, it’s extremely narrow in places with sharp drop-offs providing glorious, and sometimes hair-raising, views of the ocean below.

Determined to make the most of the trip, my friends and I rented a big, red Ford Thunderbird (convertible) and powered south out of San Francisco. As we left the city behind, we were welcomed by the ocean breeze and a real feeling of freedom.

In and around Carmel

Retro-hip Santa Cruz was our first overnight stop, with its famous beach boardwalk and ’50s-style amusement park. As a tourist you feel like you’ve walked straight on to a film set and the 1987 vampire movie The Lost Boys was in fact filmed here. You’ll meet surfers, hippies, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (slumming it) and loads of students (the University of California, Santa Cruz is nestled up in the hills).

The road to Monterey, the centre of California’s sardine-packing industry into the late ’50s, is lined with pretty beaches from which you can spot all kinds of marine life, including sea lions, sea otters, harbour seals, bat rays, pelicans and dolphins. A popular base with scuba divers, most visitors head into town to the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to hundreds of thousands of marine animals and plants. You will also want to hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row (immortalised by the John Steinbeck novel). Here the old canning factories have been converted into a gentrified strip of gift shops, seafood restaurants and bars.

Heading further down California’s rugged Central Coast, we drove through picturesque Pacific Grove, stopping off at Lone Cypress – perched high above the Pacific, it’s one of the most photographed trees in the US – before reaching Carmel-by-the-Sea. Comprising whimsical cottages, inns, shops and galleries, and home to artists, poets, actors and the seriously well-heeled, Carmel is quite simply picture perfect – it’s where I would like to live when I grow up. Take a walk on the mile-long Carmel River State Beach, visit the 1919 home of poet Robinson Jeffers, and treat yourself to a round of golf at world-class Pebble Beach.

Just a 10-minute drive from Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a fine place to stop and get a taste of the magnificent scenery to come. The popular 0.8-mile Cypress Grove Trail meanders across rugged cliff tops, while also taking in flower-strewn meadows and forests of Monterey cypress. On a good day you’ll spot black-tailed deer, grey foxes, sea otters and sea lions; migrating whales pass by from December through April.

Soaking up Big Sur

After driving through the Carmel Highlands, a residential district that’s more upmarket than the Hollywood Hills (and with better views), you reach Big Sur, a 145-kilometre stretch of pure scenic bliss. Here on in, the coastline gets truly dramatic – elemental even – as massive waves beat against the rocks and towering redwood groves stretch skyward. We were forced to pull over at virtually every turn to take it all in. It’s easy to understand why Henry Miller, who lived in Big Sur for 18 years, said it was here that he learned to say amen.

Just 15 miles south of Carmel is the first big-ticket Big Sur fixture – Bixby Bridge, one of the world’s highest single-span bridges, arching 80 metres high and 200 metres across. Stopping for a photo op, it was here that we decided to cut short our end-of-vacation stay in Los Angeles, in order to buy ourselves a little more time in the area.

Hunkered down in Big Sur, we spent three full days exploring Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the roads and walking trails are lined with redwoods, sycamores and ferns. Heading down Sycamore Canyon Road, we found ourselves at Pfeiffer Beach, a long-time hippie haunt known for its ‘good vibrations’. The crescent-shaped beach is dominated by a huge, arched rock formation, through which surf and sunlight stream in equal quantities.

The following morning, we woke early and headed straight to Big Sur Bakery, which gets flocked by visitors for a reason. Fortified by delicious pastries, we found our way to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to visit the truly awesome McWay Falls. Be sure to follow the short trail above the beach to see these majestic, 70-foot falls tumbling over granite cliffs and free-falling into the Pacific. Later in the day we had a burger at Nepenthe. This hip indoor-outdoor restaurant, perched 245 metres above the sea, was once favoured by the Beat Generation poets.

Our road trip ended here but, if time allows, you can follow the Pacific Coast Highway across the southern stretch of Big Sur all the way to Morro Bay. I would have liked to have seen Ragged Point, with its fabled million-dollar view and hiking trail down the cliff face, and to have spent some time at Hearst Castle, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, now a state historical monument. The artsy coastal colony of Harmony has also captured my imagination, as has the chance to hunt for moonstones and California jade at Moonstone Beach in Cambria. But all this I’ll save for another summer, after all, few people take this once-in-a-lifetime road trip only once.

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