Road Tripping on California’s Stunning Highway 1

Aquamarine coasts and olive farms, nested cliffs and pier carnivals—a drive through the scenic route summons visions in your rearview mirror.  
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The route along California’s Highway 1 packs in breathtaking visuals of the Pacific from over the Bixby Bridge. Photo by: Chris Axe/Moment/Getty Images

The rides, all 84 of them, look ready to put their best bonnet forward—shining facades, bright colours, each one raring to go.

It is a cool August morning in Monterey, and we are gathered around the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. An undulating drive past thick foliage has led me to a jazzy entourage of around 70 international journalists and writers, assembled to mark the reopening of the California’s Highway 1. Following a major landslide, the highway—which snakes past cliffs, farms and beach towns—has been thrown open after a good year and a half. The highlight of my journey—scheduled along the celebrated Pacific-hugging highway—is going to be my vehicle. My adrenaline, already roofing, explodes at the sight of the 1969 Porsche, red-resplendent in the distance, under the coastal sun.

Around me, conversations bubble in alien languages, often aided by a smattering of English. Amid the hustle of pillions trying to find their driving escorts, I find mine. I walk up to Gary Michael Swauger, whose grey hair and kindly eyes are somehow a reassuring sight. Making our way past vintage footboards and leather seats, Gary and I approach our own gleaming grande dame. Soon, we’re ready to roll.

The cars are flagged off one by one, helmed by the senior-most of the divas, a majestic Courvette from the 1920s. We take a ceremonial ride through the track, which on race days must feel the scorch of hot tires, churning drivers’ stomachs as they take a speeding, 60-foot drop at a turn tellingly called the ‘corkscrew.’ But unlike race cars, we move with a stately elegance, just slow enough to let the beauty of the coastline and the hissing waters below seep into our consciousness. Whales and dolphins live in these waters, but we have no chance sightings. Every once in a while, swathes of mist descend to block the view—with the top down, it turns into a sensory experience. I take photographs of the crashing sea, the cliffs and the 86-year-old Bixby Creek Bridge. By the time we reach Big Sur, the first of our three stops, I’m dressed for the decadence in Biggles glasses and a red leather cap that my 58-year-old ‘road friend’ has pulled out of the glove compartment.

 

A Rocky Romance

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The author found herself well-prepared for a Porsche ride in her Biggles glasses and red leather cap. Photo courtesy: isit California/Mason Trinca

The two-hour breather at Big Sur crams in a Blytonesque picnic—cold meats and salads, fruit drinks and finger food that taste better for the salty open air. Luxuriating against sweeping visions of the sea, now rolling and stretching in angry balls of cyan, I am amused by the attention owners lavish on the older cars. As they cool down under shady oak and alder trees, radiators are checked, tyres examined, and notes exchanged over their maintenance. Only prudent, seeing that they have a long way to go before we reach the day’s final destination—Morro Bay.

Chatting with Gary, I learn how being a full-time architect didn’t stop him from putting together the Porsche, one replaced part at a time, after he bought it in a rusty, run-down condition 30 years ago. We zip past Hearst Castle, stopping at the Hearst Beach to soak in the scenery. After that it’s just 32 kilometres to the Morro Beach, where the ride will end in a party. I persuade Gary to trust me at the wheel, even though I’ve never driven on the right side of the road. A few shaky moments later, I drive slowly along. My style is impeded by the fact that the seat will not slide forward and the foot pedals are a long stretch away. The old-fashioned brake needs a hard push—I attract eyeballs when I lean back at a weird 45-degree angle to reach it. Gary is patient, and urges me to try some speed. When I do, we finally purr along—the Porsche is pleased.

At Morro Bay, a feast awaits. Fried calamari and fish fingers, pastries and artisanal ice cream lull me happy, and like the fussy car owners, I pat the Porsche. Now that I’ve seen her colt-like spirit, she no longer looks her age. Later, Gary offers to drive me back to my hotel along the bay. Now free of the convoy, we coast along at 86 kmph. Inspiring, I tell myself—one is only as old as one feels.

The next day kicks off with stand-up canoeing—for others. I’m determined not to stand up and canoe. I cannot swim and have no intention of drinking sea water until some kindly scribe stops laughing and helps me. So I instead take a walk along the beach, watch otters gambol in the water, and gaze at Morro Rock—a giant volcanic plug that hosts a flurry of birds. Sometimes mist from the sea erases it completely from sight. I examine its crags and crevices, wondering if it can be climbed, but I’m told it’s out of bounds. Protected as the Morro Rock State Preserve, it can only be accessed by the members of the Native American Salinan tribe who have an annual prayer ceremony at the top. Almost as interesting is the fact that the rock is currently home to a pair of peregrine falcons who, having made it their breeding ground, must not be disturbed by adventurous climbers.

 

Oysters and Olive Oil

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Fresh oysters (top left) at the Morro Bay Oyster Company broke the author’s resolve to steer clear of their fishy taste; At Santa Monica, the pier (top right) is where the party’s at; The California coasts abound with adventure activities like surfing (bottom left) and slacklining; An entourage (bottom right) of 70 international journalists and writers had assembled to mark the reopening of Highway 1. Photo courtesy: Travels with Darley (food), Camboyita/shutterstock (pier), ianmcdonnell/E+/ Getty Images (surfer), Photo courtesy: Chris Kaufman/Visit California (cars)

I had sworn off oysters after gagging on a slimy mass in Australia. But it seems rude to refuse the owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Company, who brings out bagfuls from roiling cold cisterns. Fresh oyster isn’t slimy, I realise, though I could certainly live without eating them for the rest of my life. Yet an hour later, I find myself tucking into a mustard-encrusted, cooked version. At the Groves on 41, a private estate and olive farm in the Templeton countryside, I find myself drinking olive oil, flavoured with a variety of spices, from a spoon. A salad lunch, munched to details of mechanised olive farming that aims to make California ‘the new Italy’ follows.

But it is in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone that meals take on a richer significance. Built in 2012 within a remodelled warehouse space, the cluster of boutique restaurants now throng with a vibrant young crowd. At the Enterprise Fish Co., I taste an excellent Mexican grilled fish cooked on a charcoal grill and award-worthy lobster bisque. At Poquita, the decor is as appealing as the Spanish vermouth, spiced with starry lime. I down a full glass and weave my way out, the taste of liquid olive mingling with the taste of the three-cheese pasta. But it is at the Lucky Penny Restaurant that I linger longest, over a pizza eaten slowly enough to count the 10,06,412 pennies that I’m told form the front wall of the diner. Sausages, rocket leaves, smoked mozzarella and fennel sauce—the flavours fill up my senses. Later, the memory of chomping through homemade spores and clam chowder around a beach bonfire is added to this cornucopia of tastes and smells. Somehow Santa Barbara, with its amazing waterfront and pretty roads, will always remind me of food instead.

 

Adventure Ahoy

One morning sees me trekking up the Three Bridges Oak Preserve woodland savanna in Altascadero. Think 103 acres of native vegetation spread out across a landscape enveloping both mountains and interior valleys of California’s central coast. The biodiversity-rich area is protected by the Atascadero Land Preservation Society, or ALPS. Our small ‘adventure group’ climbs gentle slopes crossing three small bridges along the way. Oak trees stand sentinel, the occasional flower smiles from inside drying grass. Colourful signposts tell us about the local fauna. Apparently, bush fires are common here, and the hill we are climbing now was endangered a decade ago.

More adrenaline rushes in as I zip line over the Pinot Noir vineyards in Santa Margarita, where a series of six zip lines runs across a length of 7,500 feet. It’s an exhilarating experience—parallel lines allow two people to zip down simultaneously. After the initial wave of fear, I’m able to admire the view from above. Afterwards, we drive around the historic El Camino Real trail, across old farmlands where I spy hidden streams and animal tracks.

 

Party on the Pier

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Kayaking (left) is popular on the Santa Margarita Lake and at other stops along the central coast; Santa Barbara’s bright streets (bottom) lead the way to Funk Zone, a remodelled warehouse housing eclectic restaurants. Photos by: Michael Mike L. Baird flickr.bairdphotos.com/Moment/ Getty Images (kayak), By Bill Perry/shutterstock (city)

Santa Monica, my final stop in the eight-day-long trail, is all about the pier. Built in 1908 to hide the city’s sewage pipes, it evolved into an entertainment arcade complete with restaurants and carousels after surviving a possible demolition plan in 1973. A sloping walk brings me to the iconic arch featured so often in movies and music videos. Jim Harris, Deputy Director of Santa Monica Pier Corp leads me to the small staircase going up to the first floor. Here, hidden from the revellers, are rooms that breathe pop-culture history. A scene from The Sting (1973) was shot in the small room we next enter. I make a mental note to watch it again so I can locate the scene. Singer-songwriter Joan Baez often visited a room here, I’m told. Outside, the pier is a moving carnival, and I am fascinated by street dancers and illusionists. Snacks are sold on the go, and even the flaky sea cannot kill the spirit. At Santa Monica the party’s on the pier, and by the looks of it, it holds ground ’round the year.

I do the customary thing of posing under the Route 66 sign that marks the iconic route which begins in Chicago in the north and cuts across the country to end so close to the Pacific Ocean. Come evening, I pound the shopping promenade near Ocean Avenue, three blocks away from Hotel Shangri-La, where I occupy a seventh floor suite. The wares—from make-up and clothes to electronic baubles—are enticing, so concerns over excess baggage take a backseat. I stop to listen to a cellist who sends a magic plaint into the cool night air.

On my last morning in California, I am treated to a wholesome facial at the Tikkun Holistic Spa in Downtown Santa Monica. The “all American” ritual is perfect for my weather-beaten skin, and soon I’m on my way to the airport, refreshed. My bag of memories bulges at the seams—waiting to be shared.

  • Sathya Saran collects travel stories to nudge others to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. Forts, mountains and rivers inspire her to burst into song. In her next life she hopes to scale the Mount Everest.

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