The last time we drove the California coast, we were headed north on our 5-week trip and we trekked from LA to Napa with only a single night stopover. It was incredible, but there wasn’t enough time to really absorb it like we had wanted to. We have a music festival in San Diego at the end of this trip, so we seized a rare opportunity to extend our Nashville to Tulsa excursion to include a few nights along the coast. On Wednesday, we turned in rental car #1 in Tulsa and flew to San Francisco to pick up car #2, a cute and sporty bright red Hyundai. We saw a lot of red cars on the road for the next couple of days, and figured that it was a popular CA color. Part two of this trip felt like an entirely separate adventure. We traded open plains for bright blue seas, and it was worth it. We stopped briefly outside the San Francisco airport to have coffee with Katie’s good friend Lily before hitting the road. It was chilly, foggy, and drizzling—not our prime road trip weather. However, no sooner had we left the bay area before the fog cleared and the rain retreated. We made the 2-hour drive down to Monterery for the night as the skies got dark. If we had still been in Oklahoma, the ominous clouds in the distance and lack of highway lighting would have put us on tornado lookout.
The last time we stayed in Monterey, we checked into our hotel at 10:30pm and checked out at 5:30am the next day in order to make it to Napa in time for our morning wine tour. We didn’t see a single inch of the town in the daylight and had no idea what we might have missed. This time around, we woke up early to begin the coastal drive that would land us in Santa Barbara by dinner time. We started in Monterey’s Lover’s Point Beach. It was our first “real” glimpse of those azure blue Pacific waters since that trip years ago, and it catches me off guard every time. The air is clear and mild, and the water shimmers in unnatural shades of blue and teal. Lover’s Point was littered with rocky cliffs where seagulls gathered as the waves crashed below. It was serene and stunning, and I stood knee deep in the bay-like water until I couldn’t stall any longer. Reluctantly, we hit the road.
It didn’t take long to overcome the disappointment of leaving Monterey, as the roads opened up before us and the coastline felt endless. It was better than I had remembered, and my driving posture was instantly relaxed by the freedom of seaside highways. I slumped back into my seat in a California daze.
Choosing to take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), we wound around curvy hills and stopped frequently at roadside turnouts. Everybody drove at a casual pace, so it was easy to stop at a moment’s notice to catch a particularly awesome view. It’s hard to verbalize the feeling I get from driving this route and seeing the ocean this way—it’s so visually consuming that you don’t know how you will ever leave. The road snakes along cascading cliff sides and moves around tight corners that reveal new sections of sea at each turn. The closer we got to Big Sur, the more incredible the view became. At one point, a low fog rolled in and blanketed the rock walls with white fluff that occasionally allowed patch
es of blue sky peak through. I remembered the moments of fog from the first trip—it hides from the world out there in those secret hills.
As we neared Big Sur, we made a stop at the famous Bixby Canyon Bridge, which we had accidentally driven over in the pitch black of night on our first trip. Despite the impending sunset during that initial drive, we had made the stupid decision to continue on Highway 1 for 40 miles without the possibility of exiting. Driving that road at night was pretty much tantamount to driving in a dark cave in the center of the earth, but with thousand-foot cliff drops and the occasional lack of guard rails. There are almost no houses nearby—all I could see that first night was my headlights. I don’t think I took a full breath for several hours as Katie stared at the floor in a blind panic.
Three years later, the bridge looked much better in the daytime. We crammed our car into the minuscule parking turnout at the bridges start and snapped some pictures. Katie told me that sometimes you see base jumpers leaping from the top, which we thankfully missed. I might have had an aneurysm. Soon after the bridge, we were in the
heart of Big Sur, a town that’s comprised primarily of natural landscape and a sprinkling of lodge-style accommodations and little roadside cafes and restaurants. We stopped to eat quickly at a lunch spot with an outdoor patio that faced the woods before continuing onward. As the road opened up again, we saw unofficial hiking trails veering off to the left and scaling the sides of large hills. In the distance, all you could see were the tiny silhouettes of hikers as they trekked up the dirt paths.
Not long before Santa Barbara, we made a stop in a town called Cayucos because it had a special but unpleasant nostalgia attached to it. On our first trip, while heading north, we’d pulled over there and gone to Ocean Side Pizza to grab a *quick* slice and get back on the road before dark. Despite being the only customers, our personal pizza took 45 minutes to prepare. We stood on the pretty beachside as we helplessly watched the sun get lower and lower in the sky. This pizza snafu was the sole reason why we had to drive over the Bixby Canyon Bridge in the pitch black. We found out that the pizza shop is now under new management….
After grabbing a brown butter sea salt espresso cookie (so good you want to die) at Brown Butter Cookie Co. for the road, we flew down the winding road as the blue sky turned to shades of yellow and orange, and made it into Santa Barbara by sunset. We picked a dinner spot called Opal Restaurant in downtown, and I ate my way through the best salmon I’ve ever had in my life—lemongrass crusted and covered with tangy Thai curry sauce and a handful of citrusy julienned vegetables. Katie’s thin-sliced duck breast with black currant chutney was equally as perfect. I am never leaving California—I’ve been drugged by their perfect shoreline and the food of my dreams.