The coastline just south of San Francisco is one of California’s most enchanting stretches, brimming with natural beauty and eclectic attractions, all kissed by the waves of the mighty Pacific. Cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway (known locally as PCH), this half-day road trip will take you on a scenic seaside adventure you won’t soon forget.
Scoot southward from San Francisco about 40 miles down the PCH (California Highway 1), and let the seaside spirit wash over you with a quick early morning stop at San Gregorio Private Beach, the oldest nude beach in the U.S. Don’t confuse it with right-next-door San Gregorio State Beach—access to the private beach is via the white gate just north of San Gregorio Road. The nude section is north of the Hazardous Surf sign, and things get gayer the farther north you go.
Newly liberated and recharged with Pacific Zen, move on down the PCH another 40 miles or to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (701 W. Cliff Dr., 831-420-6289), just south of the highway, via Swift Street and W. Cliff. Through a mix of “whoah, brah” photos, videos and exhibits, learn all about the history of wave riding, its technologies, and even its fashions, all the while overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.
Follow Cliff Drive a little further down the coast to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach Street, 831-423-5590), one of the West Coast’s last major seaside amusement parks, now more than a century old. Before meeting back up with the PCH, stop for a healthy organic lunch at Cafe Limelight (1016 Cedar Street, 831-425-7873), a de facto gay meeting point in Santa Cruz thanks to its ownership by Billy Thompson and Farouk Algosaibi. Dogs are welcome and even have a special menu, should you be traveling with poochy.
After lunch, continue down the coast to Monterey, where a spectacular off-highway diversion will show you what happens when you add gobs of money to the coast’s cache of natural richness. 17-Mile Drive is a world-renowned golden path stretching from the stunning vistas of the Pacific coastline to amazing architecture, the majestic Del Monte Forest and famed Pebble Beach golf course. Since it’s a private thoroughfare, access costs $9.50 per car, but it’s well worth it for the unmatchable wealth, both geographic and economic, on display.
To add a bit of spirit and history into the local beauty mix, move onward to Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo (3080 Rio Rd., 831-624-1271, www.carmelmission.org), or as it’s more commonly known, Carmel Mission. Originally created by the Spanish as a Catholic outpost in the late 18th century, the complex now consists of the gorgeous original church plus a whopping five historical and art museums.
Just south of Carmel proper is the spectacular Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (866-338-7227, www.pointlobos.org), one of the West Coast’s most beautiful seaside parks. Stretch your legs with a quick hike along one of the many ocean-adjacent trails, or pop into the unique whaling museum. If you can’t resist finally getting into the Pacific, suit up and go for a dive – Point Lobos is a top area scuba spot.
Cap off day one of your ocean-hugging adventure with what many consider the PCH pièce de résistance, the cliffily magnificent Big Sur. Check in to Post Ranch Inn (47900 Highway 1, 888-524-4787, www.postranchinn.com), a 100-acre former working ranch that’s now one of the world’s most acclaimed luxe resorts.
After a yesterday of oceanside peace and tranquility, head back up PCH for some shopping indulgence at The Barnyard (3618 The Barnyard, 831-624-8886, www.thebarnyard.com), Carmel’s beautifully designed boutique shopping center. If you’re on the lookout for art, the Carmel Art Association (Dolores between 5th & 6th in Carmel, 831-624-6176, www.carmelart.org) is the place, featuring the work of more than 120 local artists in the city’s oldest gallery.
If you can spare the time away from the world, Carmel’s Kush Day Spa (Morgan Court on the East side of Lincoln Street between 7th and Ocean Avenue, 831-626-4100, www.kushincarmel.com) is one of the area’s top-rated spas, consistently getting high praise from visitors for its line-up of rejuvenating massages and facials.