Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What's the Most Fun You Can Have in a Car?

There is a saying that a well-loved child has many names. The same can be said about one of America’s best loved highways, State Route 1 in California, aka Highway 1 or Pacific Coast Highway or, as locals call it, the PCH. No matter what it is called, this 655 mile stretch of tarmac, which starts south of Los Angeles in Orange County and ends north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, is the most beautiful, dramatic and inspiring coastline in the United States. That’s a bold statement but I doubt anyone who has driven this road will argue.

Eloise and I spent 4 days travelling north on the PCH from LA to San Francisco. We drove a total of 577 miles in a red Chevy Impala, a most uncool car which was perfect for our Thelma and Louise purposes. Eloise insisted, against all my cheap instincts, that we add a GPS system to our rental agreement and never has a gadget that I knew nothing about, and trusted less, proved more useful. Our new talking companion ended up being the third girl in the car – “turn right, turn left, turn around now”. She and Eloise got along like houses on fire, she always knew where she was going and never complained when she was ignored.

Day 1 – John Wayne Airport, Orange County to Santa Barbara

Driving through LA was not fun. I suppose it is instructive to spend several hours stuck on freeways contemplating America’s dependence on cars/oil/Saudi Arabia/China. Eloise, being a London girl, was experienced in the art of zoning out in traffic and chose to play a computer game in the back seat about simulated people in a simulated suburb. At first, I thought, this was ridiculous. We’ve come all this way. She should stop playing Sims and look at LA. Then I thought about how ridiculous it would be to say “Stop staring at that screen and admire the view across 12 lanes of stopped traffic.” After that thought, I left her alone.

Once we reached Santa Monica with its wide sandy beach and beautiful bluffs, all was forgotten. The open road beckoned and neither of us was in the mood to stop. I did consider pulling into the Getty Villa off the PCH in Malibu where a reconstruction of a patrician Roman villa houses the Getty antiquities collection. Normally, you need to purchase a timed ticket in advance but this was mid-week in March and who knows, maybe we’d get lucky.

We didn’t stop, however, given the risk that we wouldn’t get in plus I did not want to spoil our newly established road camaraderie with a contentious discussion about going to museums. Instead, we went to Zuma Beach in Malibu. Long, wide and sandy, this is the California beach of every visitor’s imagination. There is tons of parking, either free off the PCH or $7 in the gigantic lots and plenty of amenities including swings, volleyball courts, rest rooms, showers and food vendors. Zuma is supposed to be busy on the weekends but on a Tuesday in March, it was deserted. We had a fine time admiring this empty mega-beach, finishing with an undistinguished lunch at Spruzzo’s, located directly across the PCH from the beach entrance. The view of the Pacific from the outdoor terrace on top of an unattractive strip mall almost justifies the mediocre food.

Back in the car, Eloise loaded the Presidio Motel in Santa Barbara into the Garmon Girl and we were off. We picked Santa Barbara for our first night for several reasons. It is blessed with everything. Only an hour’s drive from LA., Santa Barbara has near perfect weather, gorgeous beaches and an interesting history. It is also known for being opulent and expensive but just about every travel writer in the business has recently selected Santa Barbara as the counter-intuitive subject for a budget travel article. As I write this post, the New York Times just published one. The LA Times wrote essentially the same piece in January.

We had picked Presidio based on good reviews in both an LA Times article and The Lonely Planet which described it as a good value, trendy little motel. Hey, I thought, what could be hipper than a red Chevy Impala, a precocious ten year old and a more than middle aged mamma. We’ll stay there. It was a good choice. At $112 for the night, Presidio had clean, comfortable and stylish (as in cool Ikea) rooms. The location, at the northern end of State Street, is good, the proprietors are groovy, and wifi, bicycles and breakfast are included in the rate.

After a stroll around the chic Spanish style town, we stopped at Carlito’s Café Y Cantina for dinner, a restaurant recommended by the Presidio for offering good food, a relaxed atmosphere and a fair price. For serious foodies, Carlitos is nothing special but we were happy with our choice. We ate on the patio outside, which for Londoners in March is blissful. Our waiter was ultra charming to Eloise (she came home with dozens of little Mexican flags when she only asked for one), I had an impressive Halibut ceviche and the bill, with wine, came to a reasonable $42. Relaxed and contented we strolled back to Presidio for an early night.

Useful Addresses

Zuma Beach
30000 Pacific Coast Highway
Call 310-457 2525 for more information

29575 Pacific Coast Highway
Tel: 310 457 8282

Presidio Motel
1620 State Street
Santa Barbara
Tel: 805 963 1355

Carlitos Café and Cantina
1324 State Street
Santa Barbara
Tel:805 962 7117

Photo courtesy of Jeff Mason

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