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The Only Way From L.A. to S.F. 

One definition of heaven: A week, a t-top Camaro, and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Wednesday, Jun 25 2003
The American road trip is the stuff of novels, dreams, and notebooks full of song lyrics. It's a Kerouac-inspired montage of ´50s convertibles, flickering neon signs, roadside diner cheeseburgers, cheap souvenirs, and long stretches of dusty highway -- scored by Willie Nelson warbling "Blue Sky" over tinny speakers.

And if most of us aren't Benzedrine-fueled, poetry-writing Beatniks, living here means we are fortunate to be a mere freeway exit from the ultimate Sal Paradise road trip: the Pacific Coast Highway stretching north to Oregon and south to Mexico.

My boyfriend had a meeting scheduled in L.A., and we recently acquired a dark gray, t-top Camaro, so we decided to cruise down I-5, spend a few days in L.A., then wend our way up the legendary Pacific Coast Highway.

Seven or so hours after leaving home we arrived at the Hollywood Downtowner Inn. "The pool's open till sundown," the desk clerk with rotting teeth and a vaguely French accent told us. The place was absolutely sketchy -- no "visitors" allowed, and you had to be buzzed into the office from the street even in broad daylight. Our wood-paneled room overlooked the garish motel sign above the Strip and had an aura of junk sickness and low-budget porn. If you want to stay in a David Lynch film set, this is your kind of place.

I hadn't been to Los Angeles in years, so I wanted to do cheesy tourist things -- slum around Hollywood, stroll down the Walk of Fame, put my hands in Marilyn's impressions (amazingly tiny) in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre, drive by celebrity death sites (Lenny Bruce, John Belushi), kick it at Venice Beach, have drinks at the Viper Room, and eat breakfast at Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles. Roscoe's was just as I'd remembered it, a haven of soul comfort food in a vast wasteland of fast food joints and taco stands. Tourist cheese consumed, we decided to go highbrow and pay a visit to the Getty Museum. The Getty collection aside, it's worth a trip to L.A. to revel in Richard Meier's astounding Modernist architecture and Robert Irwin's breathtaking Central Garden while marveling at a view of the Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains that only big oil money could ever buy.

We left Tinseltown, headed for the coast, passed rolling hills dotted with mustard-yellow scotch broom and purple lupine between the sleepy, coastal towns from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay, and stopped for our first extended loiter in the affable seaside town of Cambria, which has the distinction of being exactly halfway between L.A. and S.F. The town reflects the sensibilities of both cities; overly tanned beach bunnies in sports bars and aromatherapy herb-shop patrons coexist in harmony. The commercial area is almost cloying in its charm, crammed with high-end gift shops, galleries, gourmet cafés, and antique stores. Lodging is plentiful and reasonable, especially if you head west to one of the many beachfront motels on Moonstone Beach Drive.

Cambria is also home to the late Art Beal's eccentric, folk art mess known as Nit Wit Ridge, a multilevel house made entirely of recycled and found objects -- sea shells, beer cans, beach glass, discarded appliances, even toilet seats.

In stark contrast, six miles north of Cambria, William Randolph Hearst's ostentatious, Julia Morgan-designed Shangri-la looms on a hill above San Simeon. An embarrassment of riches, the compound of 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, three guesthouses, two ornate swimming pools, and a theater is a mishmash of styles, from the gloomy medieval Refectory (where Hearst and his mistress, B-actress Marion Davies, dined with guests) to the sparkling, sunny Grecian-inspired Neptune's pool. It's worth a visit, if only to comprehend the staggering breadth of Hearst's wealth. We opted for the Experience Tour, which includes a screening of a National Geographic movie about the castle's construction, but four others are offered.

From here, we took a slight detour inland to experience the highly regarded, somewhat overlooked Paso Robles wine country. It reminded me of Sonoma County but with space -- narrow country roads winding through vineyards and horse pastures, pairs of quail bobbing alongside wooden fences, wild turkey rushing about neurotically, and live oak trees fringed with lacy Spanish moss. The area's history of grape growing and winemaking began in 1797 with the Franciscans at the Mission San Miguel. Today there are more than 60 wineries, many small, family-owned, and not crowded. We headed for the Justin Vineyards & Winery, in a remote corner at the end of Chimney Rock Road.

We checked into the Sussex, one of three sumptuous, idyllic, and ridiculously romantic suites at the Just Inn, a B&B on the vineyard. The pedestal canopy bed, a towering cloud of fluffy down pillows and a double-weight feather duvet, was accessed by a wooden step stool. Our previous budget accommodations receded from consciousness as though we were waking from a dream. This was pure fantasy -- vaulted ceilings, a stone fireplace, trellised English gardens. We dined that evening on braised rabbit strudel, seared sand dabs, filet mignon, and a warm fig turnover at Deborah's Room, the winery's cozy yet elegant dining room, steps from our decadent lair. After a few glasses of the award-winning Isosceles (a well-balanced, fruity Cabernet blend -- Justin's trademark wine), we slipped into the hot tub beneath a canopy of stars.

We set out in the morning in a light mist. The best stretch lay ahead -- Big Sur, nature's version of shock and awe.

Inland mist became rain on the coast, resulting in a landscape straight out of Tolkien. With each switchback turn, partially shrouded cliffs revealed themselves, plunging into a roiling cauldron of deep blue and white froth. When the storm finally passed, the churning water changed into bright jewel tones, pools of glittering sapphires and aquamarines.

It was sunny and clear when we stopped at Esalen, the granddaddy of New Age retreats. This metaphysical epicenter, built on 120-degree Fahrenheit thermal hot springs, was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Dick Price. They created an alternative education center devoted to the exploration of human potential, with experimentation in a range of philosophies, religions, psychologies, and arts. Over the years Esalen has attracted teachers and seekers from Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and B.F. Skinner to Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, and the Beatles.

I was skeptical. Images of crystals, drum circles, and creepy naked guys swirled around in my head. But it's hard to be a cynic when you're soaking in a pool built into sheer rock cliffs with red-robed Tibetan monks milling about and a whale breaching in the foamy waters below.

Among the 400 to 500 workshops offered each year are "Advanced Holistic Sexuality," "Gestalt Awareness Practicum," and "Watercolor: A New Beginning." Workshops include accommodations and meals and are fairly expensive. Esalen offers work-study programs, scholarships, and bunk or sleeping bag options for those looking to participate at a lower cost.

Sunset at Big Sur begs for a stop at Nepenthe. Named for an ancient Egyptian drug used to induce forgetfulness and relieve grief, this bar's built on the site of the cabin Orson Welles bought for Rita Hayworth. Spacious terraces are poised to offer spectacular, almost surreal views. We climbed up to the upper deck, drank cold white wine, and watched nature do her thing.

Down the road a spell, the funky, rustic accommodations at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn smack of early bohemia and summer camp. A hodgepodge of rough-hewn, clapboard buildings is surrounded by stands of towering redwoods and purple and white wisteria, and the air is fragrant with the scent of eucalyptus and salt water. Heating is provided by fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and the odd electric heater. There are no locks, keys, phones, or televisions. We fell asleep to the sound of a rushing creek outside our miniature dollhouse cottage.

Guidebooks and locals alike recommend breakfast at Deetjen's, so in the morning we trekked over to the restaurant for fluffy blueberry pancakes with a hint of cinnamon and clove, and eggs Benedict smothered in a superb hollandaise sauce.

After exploring trails at the stunning Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, we set off to meet friends in Carmel. We had a guest cottage booked at La Playa Hotel, one block from the beach. First stop was The Cheese Shop, a Carmel foodie institution with a dizzying selection of cheeses from all over the world; we chose a French beaufort alpage, a Spanish manchego, and a brie-like fromage d'Affinois.

Thanks to the legacy of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Carmel has some outstanding photography galleries. We poked around at Photography West Gallery and Gallery Sur, then beat a hasty retreat out of the too-precious, yuppified downtown and headed for the beach. Sunset glowed pink above the silvery waves and wet Labradors tore up and down through the surf.

When our friends arrived we cocktailed poolside in the meticulously manicured gardens of La Playa, then retreated to the spacious, secluded cottage for dinner.

We parted ways the next day, and Dan and I headed out for our last night on the road. We stopped outside of Santa Cruz at Bonny Doon Vineyard, where we sampled a flight of eccentric winemaker Randall Grahm's unorthodox blends. Grahm is known for both his "excessive eclecticism" in winemaking and a penchant for radical art labels, including one by Ralph Steadman that was banned in Utah. We bought a bottle of Framboise, a lip-smacking, raspberry-flavored dessert wine, and headed to the Costanoa Coastal Lodge & Camp.

Accommodations at Costanoa are comprised of campsites, an assortment of cabins (wooden and canvas), and the more luxurious lodge. We opted for the "Cypress Canvas Cabin" with locking doors, down bedding, lighting, and a heated floor. There are 16 excellent hikes within 15 miles of Costanoa, including Año Nuevo, Big Basin, and Butano state parks. We dropped our stuff and took a brisk hike out to the ocean.

Before retiring, we spent our last evening watching a spectacular sunset over the Pacific at Pigeon Point, a few miles north. On this picturesque spot, a 115-foot lighthouse (the second tallest in the United States) was built in 1872 and retains its original Fresnel lens. Docent-led tours wind up the iron steps to the lens room on weekends. A charming hostel on the grounds, with fully equipped kitchens and an outdoor hot tub, offers overnight lodging. This an ideal spot to observe migrating whales from December through May, and the perfect place to begin or end your trip from L.A. to S.F. via the PCH.

Where to Stay

Hollywood Downtowner Inn -- 5601 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-7191, Doubles from $55. Inexpensive central Hollywood location, not for the squeamish.

Madonna Inn 100 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo, (800) 543-9666 or (805) 543-3000, Doubles from $147 .Outrageous kitschy theme rooms like the Caveman Suite with a waterfall, stone ceilings and floors.

Just Inn at Justin Winery -- 11680 Chimney Rock Rd., Paso Robles, (805) 238-6932, Suites $245-295. The ultimate romantic getaway; worth the splurge.

La Playa Hotel -- Camino Real & Eighth Avenue, Carmel by the Sea, (831) 624-6476 or (800) 582-8900, Rooms from $160, suites and cottages from $295. Historic Mediterranean-style villa with dazzling gardens, one block from the beach.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn -- 48865 Hwy. 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2377, Cabins from $150. Rustic cabins with bohemian charm; stay for breakfast.

Costanoa Coastal Lodge -- 2001 Rossi Rd. at Hwy. 1, Pescadero, (650) 879-1100, Accommodations ranging from camp sites to luxury lodge suites, $30-240.

Where to Go

The Getty Museum -- 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, (310) 440-7300, Reservations required on weekdays. Free admission, parking $5.

Hearst Castle -- 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, (800) 444-4445 or (805) 927-2020, Reservations for parking required. Adults $18-24 (varies by tour); youth (6-17) $9-12; free for children under 6.

Nit Wit Ridge -- 881 Hillcrest Dr., Cambria, (805) 927-2690.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park -- Hwy. 1 between Lucia and Big Sur, (831) 667-2315.

Esalen Institute -- Hwy. 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-3000, Reservations required. Hot springs open to the public 1 a.m.-3 a.m. ($20).

Bonny Doon Vineyard -- 10 Pine Flat Rd., Davenport, (831) 425-4518,

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel -- 210 Pigeon Point Rd. at Hwy. 1, Pescadero, (650) 879-0633,

Where to Eat/Drink

Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles -- Multiple locations, including 5006 W. Pico Blvd. (near La Brea), (323) 934-4405 or (323) 936-3730.

Nepenthe -- Hwy. 1, Big Sur (831) 667-2345,

The Cheese Shop -- Carmel Plaza, Carmel by the Sea, (831) 625-2272 or (800) 828-9463,

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn -- 48865 Hwy. 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2377

Duarte's Tavern -- 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, (650) 879-0464. Sparkling fresh seafood in a small-town setting.

About The Author

Lisa Crovo


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