Pacific Coast Highway

Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch

If you truly want to say you saw California you have to putz along the Pacific Coast Highway. Don’t zoom along, don’t skedaddle, you have to “putz”, stopping here and there to see this and that. God, as they say, is in the detail.

Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)
If you’ve seen the TV show ‘Big Little Lies’ opening credits as they drive over the Bixby Bridge, you are already familiar with the PCH. The coastal view is eyeball gripping, the road follows the edge of the cliff, as you motor along you can almost see the sheer drop into the deep churning ocean below!

I took a bus tour with my Dad back in 2012 along the Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel and Monterey. The journey was memorable for lots of reasons, scenic and otherwise…

  • An elderly British couple sitting in front of us kept repeating everything the guide said back to each other, followed by a lilt of the words ‘tremendous, isn’t it?!’...“Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house, tremendous isn’t it?!”, “Hitchcock made his movies here, tremendous isn’t it?!”... Good heavens!
  • An Italian couple on the bus kept staring, whispering and pointing at my Dad (who didn’t seem to notice). They tapped him on the shoulder and told him he was the spitting image of the Mayor of Milan. Of course I immediately googled the mayor, yeah, I see it. 
  • There was lots of talk on the bus about the fact myself and my Dad were Irish. My Dad is not a man that relishes attention, after the leprechaun hullabalu calmed down, he leaned into me and whispered, “Next time say we’re from Honduras” !

Rockin away at Rockaway, the ads write themselves

I can’t mention the PCH and not mention Pacifica. Plus it is home to my bestest San Francisco-ist homegirl, Shannon. It’s beautiful, it’s beachy, it’s foggy, it has amazing walking trails, it’s got a fabulous more-British-than-the-Brits tea house and the world’s best Taco Bell location (bang smack overlooking the beach). The surf is always up in Pacifica, Dude!

Three year olds, toughing it out in a tent, survivalists

Half Moon Bay
Our tour stopped at Half Moon Bay, the name alone is straight up utopic. Nobody who lives in a place called Half Moon Bay has a teaspoon of badness in their veins, and that’s a fact. It’s quite simply ‘dreamy’. Dom, Róisín and I love an ole jaunt down that way, it’s a good half way point to meet friends from the South Bay (Trish and Ger) and fellow SFers (Sarah and Ross) for family picnics beachside.

It’s known for its celebrated surfing spot called Mavericks beach. Personally, I love to just stroll up and down the old fashioned Main Street. There is a shop that just sells seashells, seashells by the sea shore, need I say more. A great spot for lunch/hot-toddy/sea watching/people watching is the plush surrounds of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Half Moon bay is also a great place for pumpkin patches and pumpkin festivals during the Fall.

Me, deciding not to walk all the way to the lighthouse, all about perspective

The bus stuttered to a stop at Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Lighthouses draw me in, I wonder in a parallel universe am I a Lighthouse Keeper, or maybe just someone who owns a flashlight. It was suitably picturesque and is the tallest lighthouse on the west coast, it often pops up in movies.

Davenport is a teensy weensy town with a population of only 375. Anybody and everybody that heads down the coast finds themselves stopping there for a cup of tea and a scone. If you’re a fan of Ansel Adams photography (he did a lot of famous black and white photos of the American west) the St Vincent de Paul church in Davenport was the subject of some of his photography. Davenport is famous for its olallieberries (how many olallies does it take to make you go doolally?!).

Troublemakers, cruzin for a bruzin

Santa Cruz
Rumour has it the song ‘Under the Boardwalk’ was written about Santa Cruz. It’s boardwalk is extensive, complete with a rollercoaster and fairground, it is California’s oldest surviving amusement park. The casino, video arcade and laser tag unfortunately give it a tacky feel (in my opinion) but there is still an air of helter skelter fun about the place.

Santa Cruz is also famously liberal, marijuana grows naturally, lots of hippies moved there from SF after the Summer of Love in 1967. This has fostered, over the years, a laidback anything-goes attitude that makes you just relax and take it all in. You are not allowed build higher than 3 stories in SC, it is 4 times larger than SF but only has 65,000 people!

I’ve been to SC a few times, Dom did a triathlon there, and when one of my best friends Sharon came to visit from Australia, we took her down there for ice cream and a nose around the surfer shops.

If the beach or boardwalk isn’t your thing, lots of people camp or airbnb it in the wider Santa Cruz mountains and county.

Take a Peek at Capitola

When Dom’s parents visited we took them down the coast and on a completely random whim we stopped in the town of Capitola, ostensibly because we liked the name. It was a gem of find. It managed to pull off that trick of laidback beach town mixed with sophisticated bistros and village shops. At one point I grabbed Dom’s arm and declared “THIS is where we will retire to. Yes, I have said that many times before, but until it happens again, THIS is definitely the spot!”

Yes, we can!

I’ve always been curious about Monterey since reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in school. I also am a Hitchcock fan, Hitchcock fell in love with Monterey when he filmed the Daphne du Maurier classic ‘Rebecca’ there in 1939. My interest in books and movies was pushing me eagerly down the coast.

Heave-ho, nearly there

Monterey town itself is a pin drop for tourists. You’ve got the sea, cafes, the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium (which I have never been too, people rave about it, but at $50 a pop, for a fishbowl, I haven’t yet felt the urge). A mural of two old men hauling a boat into the sea caught my Dad’s eye. I took a picture of it and emailed it to him. When he got back to Ireland, he painted the pic, go Dad! (Parkinsons, Schhhhmarkinsons, peh)

When Dom’s parents were visiting one Christmas (for stories on Christmas in Yellowstone Park - read here) we took them to Monterey for New Years Eve. There was nothing huge in the way of fireworks but we did have a very nice meal and Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is always lively. It’s similar to SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, lots of seafood restaurants, ice cream parlours, candy stores and souvenir shops. There is even a little museum dedicated to the area’s most famous author, John Steinbeck.

Hanging out with the lads

Probably the best thing I’ve done in the city of Monterey occurred when we took Dom’s brother Adam down there. He is a well read chap, he knows his A’s from his B’s from his WC’s (I just said that because it rhymes, clearly I am not well read myself!). He discovered that we could do a self guided walk around ‘Cannery Row’.

To quote John Steinbeck - “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

Too cool for Cannery Row

Steinbeck wrote about Cannery Row as a bawdy, bustling waterfront in Monterey. The town then named a street after the book (life imitating art imitating life). In fairness, Monterey was already famous for its sardine factory. We walked along Cannery Row for a half-mile as it winds its way past fictional bordellos, real cannery cottages and artistic nods to the characters of both the book and the place. It wonderfully brought everything to life, it’s a hidden gem.

If you’re not into books, Monterey county is the home of the artichoke, two thirds of the world’s artichokes are grown there! It hosts a famous jazz festival every year and if you like country music, unfun fact, poor ole John Denver fatally crashed his plane off the rocks in Monterey. He had built the plane himself. Oh John, that might have been the first mistake.

Some folks solely come to Monterey for the scuba diving. I prefer to drop a few streets back from the waterfront where you get the best view of the bay. It also brings you to the start of the famous 17 Mile Drive that leads you on to Carmel, and past Lucille Ball’s old house!
Tee time!

17 Mile Drive
The guide on the tour bus announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now entering the FAMOUS 17 Mile Drive”. It’s so famous no one on the bus had ever heard of it! This private road (which you pay to enter!) is not soft and delicate, it is hard and rugged and beautiful, it put me in mind of the west coast of Ireland (with celebs).

There are celebrity houses dotted here and there but pulling away from the world, this is not where a fame hungry actor sets up home, this is where a fame weary celeb goes to retire. George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Antonio Banderas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and last but not least Doris Day, all have houses there.

I love Doris Day, but I must embarrassingly admit that I thought she had passed on, but no, she is alive and well and rockin it out behind closed doors on the 17 Mile Drive. The house next to her used to be owned by her bestfriend, Rock Hudson, aww.

The drive curves by Pebble Beach Golf Club, home of the PGA Tour, I may not have heard of the 17 Mile Drive, but I had heard of this club. My Dad was a keen golfer in his day and we both got a kick out of wandering about the clubhouse and watching golfers swinging away, the sea as their backdrop.

Many years ago Pebble Beach was owned by a Japanese business man allowing no entry to the public. The people of Carmel (lead by Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer) bought it back and built the 18 hole public golf course. The green fees to play a round of golf are approximately $600, sooo a special kind of public.

We passed a second golf club, the Cypress Golf Course. You can only play there if you are a member of the Cypress Club (according to our gossipy guide, it’s a very eliest club, lots of members are high ranking politicians, you need 21 million in your bank account to join, the membership consists of 121 men, spaces come up when a person dies - good grief, it sounds terribly boring).

The symbol of the Pebble Beach Company is the Lone Cypress, a tree that has stood on its rocky perch for more than 250 years. The bus exploded with camera’s as we pulled up to lear at the lonely tree.

As we drove on the guide kept screaming about seals, a jellybellied Canadian tourist got so worked up trying to capture photos of the slipperly seals, that he nearly whipped off his shirt in the process of getting his camera ready. Steady on old chap, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.

Dom and I have traversed 17 Mile Drive at various points over the years, and it is worth the diversion. You can hire bikes, you can surf, you can picnic, or you can hang out at the Lone Cypress waiting for Doris Day to swing by with her golf clubs over her shoulder! Que Sera Sera

My kind of 'retirement home'

The last stop on the tour was the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Carmel, did I mention it’s beautiful. The place is drizzled with charm, there is even a house right out of a fairytale that sells candy (stop! Too much). I have been fortunate to return there many times, I’d quite happily retire there (maybe I’ll play a quick 9 with Doris up at the club!).

Who doesn't want to live on street named 'Ocean Ave'?! 

Streets with cute Californian houses branch off the main shopping street Ocean Ave. There are no numbers on the houses, you have to get a P.O. Box and pick up mail, it’s all about the privacy in Carmel.

It is home to Mission Carmel Basilica, when I come across one of the famous Californian Mission churches I always like to pop in. They feel very Spanish and simple compared to European elaborate architecture. They played a huge part in the formation and development of California and gave birth to the biggest Cali cities (all named after saints or angels) - San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Los Angeles.

The first time myself and Dom visited Carmel, I insisted we go to Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch for brunch. The buffet food was so-so, (sorry Clint, it didn’t make my day!), but it was nice to sit out, looking over the ranch, hoping ole Gran Torino himself might swing by for a cuppa.

Dom had a company boondoggle down Carmel way a few months back, he didn’t have to ask me and Róisín twice to come along (it’s possible he didn’t ask at all). I picked her up early from school (#badparenting) and bombed it down the highway. Dom escaped from the clutches of work to take us out to dinner in a lovely low key French inspired spot called La Bicyclette.

Miss Marple's summer house

Afterwards, we took a stroll down the tree lined Ocean Ave slipping in and out of the kooky shops and boutiques. As the sun was setting we realized Carmel doesn’t ‘do’ street lights! Dom activated his phone light and guided us to the beach (following the sound of the waves). Beaches at night will always remind me of my J1 Summer in Nantucket. In fact, Carmel in general reminded me heavily of Nantucket (for stories on our Massachusetts adventure - read here).

The next day I left Dom and Róisín cavorting in the pool so I could investigate the plethora of art galleries that Carmel is most famous for. You can’t twerk in that town without hitting a work of art. I lost count of the galleries I tripped in and out of; all the while staring at the art, gawking, falling in love, feeling confused, moving on, then back to staring and so on. You could spend days going in and out of the galleries yet there will always be one you miss.

I think the best time to visit might be the lead up to Halloween, enjoy it in all its pumpkin glory.

Golden couple (or is it bronze)

If you do make it to Carmel, leave your Jimmy Choos behind, the city has an ordinance dating back to the 1920s stating you are not allowed to wear high heels on the street! Apparently it stemmed from a fear of law suits from people tripping up over the irregular pavement and tree roots. You can get a permit to wear high heels or you can be fined $85! In practice, this rule is not enforced, I saw a LOT of high heeled rich folk pottering up and down the hills. Then again, if you’re a regular shopper in Carmel, $85 is chump change!

If you’re thinking of visiting the Golden State, you could do worse than ‘putzing’ down the PCH!

Or ignore my advice, to quote John Steinbeck ‘No one wants advice - only corroboration.’

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