On a visit to California, a few years ago, we had to travel to San Diego from San Francisco and decided that it might be fun to drive down the coast using the PCH rather than fly between the two cities. So from that decision a little road trip was born.
This is the final section between Santa Barbara and San Diego broken up with an overnight stay on the Queen Mary ship in Long Beach.
Distance: 221 miles
Time: 4 hours 20 minutes without stopping
Next day we set off for our final stop in Long Beach about 100 miles south. I was not looking forward to the final stretch of the journey – the free for all freeways of Los Angeles are notorious and to say I was nervous of driving there is no exaggeration. PCH merges with US Route 101 at this point for the next 54 miles and the traffic was intense.
Driving along the ‘Screaming Eagles Highway’ and then ‘Ventura Freeway’ we hugged the coast with great views of the ocean to the right and the Ventura Hills to the left with the lyrics of America’s “Ventura Highway” buzzing around our brains. Just after Ventura is Oxnard where the 101 and PCH part company again and passing a huge naval base we were back on the coast. Seeing islands close to the mainland we subsequently found out about the Channel Islands Park that lies in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Basin – the park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara). You can get there by boat from Oxnard harbour and spend time hiking, kayaking, camping, photography, painting, bird-watching and snorkelling as well as looking for wildlife. I had never heard of these islands before this trip, but they look more than worthy of a visit if you are in the area.
Two sunny hours later and we reached Santa Monica on the outskirts of Los Angeles where the traffic was heavy on a late Sunday morning and somehow we missed the turnoff for the PCH which would have taken us through Santa Monica to Venice Beach and Redondo Beach (and also under the runways at LA International Airport), instead we found ourselves on the Santa Monica Freeway and the stuff of nightmares – 12 lane freeways with cars overtaking from the left and the right.
Fortunately we managed to weave our way through the spaghetti onto Interstate 405 (the San Diego freeway) and then Interstate 710 (Long Beach freeway) to our destination in Long Beach harbour where the Queen Mary is berthed.
This lovely grand ocean liner with its memories of old Atlantic crossings is a timeless art-deco masterpiece and a wonderful place for an overnight stay in staterooms with original wood panelling and artwork (and plumbing) and half the price of the motel in Santa Barbara!
The following day we reluctantly said goodbye to the Queen Mary thinking we really must try a cruise some time and carried on our journey southwards. Locating the PCH we skirted across the north of Long Beach before plunging south to the coast again. I heaved a sigh of relief. Much as I love driving I no longer enjoy big towns and cities and LA is one huge mother of a city!
We abandoned the car at Huntington Beach, a pretty surfer town just south of LA, to meet up with a friend for breakfast. I had a half stack of pancakes with maple syrup – the first time I had tried the pancake option and I can only say how glad I was not to have ordered a full stack! Coffee was plentiful and the aroma of crisp bacon filled the air.
The name of this café? Sugar Shack on Main Street. Owned by the same family since the 1967 it is a place where you can dine with surfers coming back from “catching the waves”. Go there if you can for mammoth portions of the best breakfasts in California along with interesting surfing posters and surf boards in 1960s splendour and old family memorabilia.
After a brief walk around the pier and promenade in the much warmer (though still cloudy) SoCal climate to try to burn off some of those calories we continued along the coast to Capistrano beach near Dana Point in Orange County where the PCH ends becoming Interstate 5, the San Diego freeway. Shortly after lunchtime we drifted into the car rental place in downtown San Diego with only fumes left in the tank.
Our journey ended with a sigh, ‘Surfin’ USA’ rattling around our heads and a reluctance to return to normality.
This journey can be done in a couple of days, but if you aren’t in a rush I recommend taking your time. The Pacific Coast Highway is an excuse for a long, lazy trip in the sunshine and if you drive from north to south as we did, you are all but in the ocean for most of the time – though choosing a less inclement time of the year would be an improvement.
NB: Also check the route before setting off as there can often be road closures along the coastal roads from landslips.