California road trip

CALIFORNIA DREAMING: The Bixby Bridge on the Big Sur Coast of California.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING: The Bixby Bridge on the Big Sur Coast of California.

I suppose I could have taken the I-5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

After all, it would have taken just six hours instead of the 2½ days I'm spending in my rented red Chevy Cobalt on the long and winding road that is Highway 1. But I would have seen nothing apart from other cars and exits to petrol stations and fast-food outlets.

And I would not have been spending my first night sleeping in a bed carved out of barrels.

I drive north from Los Angeles on Monday morning and take it as a good omen when the classic-rock station I'm listening to airs the 1972 America song Ventura Highway while I'm on the Ventura Freeway.

I stop for a quick walk around the neatly manicured streets of central Santa Barbara and eat lunch on the Hispanic side of town at a local legend of a roadside Mexican joint called La Super-Rica Taqueria. In the late afternoon I pull into the Madonna Inn, a 109-room hotel in San Luis Obispo, 320 kilometres north of LA.

The answer to the first question everyone asks is no, the Madonna Inn is not owned by the singer of Like a Virgin. It was opened on Christmas Eve 1958 by the late Alex Madonna and his wife, Phillis. Each room has a different theme, none of which could be described as understated. Mine is called Barrels of Fun - every bit of furniture uses oak barrels.

I'm taken on a tour by Chayenne, who wears heels so high and make-up so thick that I wonder whether I've interrupted her en route to a beauty pageant. We visit Krazy Dazy (sunglasses are needed to look at the floral wallpaper), Jungle Rock (which could have been designed by Fred Flintstone), Harvard Square (argyle patterns on everything) and more. In a room called The Golfer, Chayenne notes without irony that "it's handicap accessible".

I have a swim in the 30-metre pool, a coffee in the Copper Cafe & Pastry Shop, dinner in a pink leather booth in the Gold Rush Steak House and a beer in the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge, watching locals take their weekly jive-dancing classes. Then I retire to have a shower in my rock-lined bathroom and tuck myself into my barrel bed. Next morning, I'm up at sunrise to point the Chevy north and drive 70 kilometres to San Simeon, roughly halfway to San Francisco. I'm on the first tour of the day, at Hearst Castle.

In 1919, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the man who inspired the main character in Citizen Kane, told San Francisco architect Julia Morgan he would like to "build a little something" on top of the hill of his 97,000-hectare ranch. The result was a sprawling estate in the Mediterranean Revival style, housing 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 41 fireplaces.

A bus takes 55 of us on an eight-kilometre trip up to the castle through farmland, pasture and areas where Hearst kept a zoo. The kangaroos, tigers, bears and lions are gone but zebra, elk and wild pigs still wander the hills.

The castle is so huge and the rooms are filled with so much antique furniture and fine art, there are four different tours. I choose the introductory option, with guide Bob Latson, who has been taking tours here for more than 30 years. He is witty and sharp, sprinkling his commentary with wry asides such as "imagine the honour of being in here as a termite", and "I would have had bigger windows but that's just me".

Seven kilometres north of Hearst Castle, I turn off the highway at Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals. It's hard to miss them; they can weigh up to 2700 kilograms. While most are sunning themselves on the beach, a few young bulls are out in the water, bellowing at each other and play-fighting.

Heading north, the road hugs the coast up to Big Sur and winds around the cliffs for almost 150 kilometres. The Santa Lucia Mountains rise in the east and the Pacific Ocean crashes against the rocks below to the west, as cars twist and turn through the Los Padres National Forest. I time lunch to coincide with a visit to Nepenthe, a restaurant and cafe that has been operating since 1949. Perched on a clifftop at the northern end of Big Sur, about 100 kilometres north of San Simeon, it commands breathtaking views down the coast. The building, all redwood and adobe brick, was designed by Rowan Maiden, a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Renowned for its ambrosia burger and three-berry pie, Nepenthe is built on the site of a former holiday cabin owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. It can be seen in the 1965 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film The Sandpiper and author Henry Miller, who lived nearby, wrote about it in his novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.

I have my own brush with fame when I start chatting to the sixtysomething couple next to me on the terrace. It turns out the husband owns a knife store in LA inside the Bradbury Building, which provided the setting for Blade Runner. More notoriously, OJ Simpson bought a knife from him, so he had to testify at his murder trial. In the end, it was established that the knife he sold Simpson wasn't the murder weapon but, to this day, his shop features on macabre OJ tours.

Fortified with food, views and celebrity gossip, I drive the 45 kilometres to Carmel. My bed and breakfast is on Dolores Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. Carmel touts itself as an arts community but most of the art I see depicts big-eyed animals and children, dolphins leaping against sunsets and chocolate-box landscapes. Like a Simpsons parody of a contrived "olde worlde" shopping complex, the shops have chintzy names like Linens & Such and Ritzy Ragz & Thingz.

Still, it does have a village atmosphere, it's walkable, there are some cute fairytale-style cottages dotted along Ocean Avenue and at the western end of town you come to Carmel Bay, a fine stretch of white sand bookended by cliffs.

Dogs are allowed to run leash-free on the beach; Carmel has a population of about 4000 people and 850 canines, so it's a place where four-legged friends are treated like royalty.

Carmel is also famous for its former mayor, Clint Eastwood. That night, I have dinner at his place - well, the restaurant he owns. I've heard Eastwood tries to drop into Mission Ranch when he's in town but he doesn't make my day with a visit, so I content myself with a huge meal of roast chicken, mashed potatoes and asparagus, a Californian pinot noir and a selection of mouldy favourites from the piano man in the corner.

As I'm taking the long way around on this trip, I cruise 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, a community so exclusive you pay $9.25 at the gate just to drive through. You can smell the salt air and the money if you roll down the windows and wherever there isn't a mansion, there's a golf course. Fortunately, the views are worth the price of admission - a map from the toll gate marks good vantage points.

I drive on to Monterey, the setting for John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, Cannery Row. Few remnants of the old fish-canning factories remain and the Row is lined with tourist-oriented shops and restaurants. But the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a deservedly fine reputation. To see marine life in its natural habitat, head to the Plaza Hotel - on a small beach below the terrace there are sea otters playing in the shallows or resting on the sand.

Another two hours behind the wheel and I spy the Golden Gate Bridge, welcoming me to San Francisco. I've done my time on the road, so later that night I feel it's appropriate to have a beer at Jack Kerouac's old watering hole, Vesuvio, in North Beach. I get talking to a local sitting beside me at the bar and when I tell him I've driven from Los Angeles, he asks how long it took.

"Two-and-a-half days!" he splutters. "Why didn't you just take the I-5? It's way shorter."

Well, yes, it is. But where's the fun in that?

Barry Divola travelled courtesy of V Australia and the California Travel & Tourism Commission.


At the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, prices range from $US159 ($NZ222) to $US449.

Carmel Country Inn is a country-style bed and breakfast. Rooms range from $US195 to $US425.

La Super-Rica Taqueria, 622 N Milpas Street, Santa Barbara.

Nepenthe, 48510 Highway One, Big Sur.

Mission Ranch, 26270 Dolores Street, Carmel.

Touring there Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon.

17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey.