It's one of the most scenic and iconic drives in the world. A long, snaking highway, hugging the Pacific, taking you past towering mountains and crashing waves. Along the way, you'll find laidback beach towns and sleepy college campuses, national parks and some dizzying bridges.
In its entirety, the route stretches for 1000 miles, from the border with Oregon right down to Mexico. But the most famous (and well driven) stretch is from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Unlike other big American drives, the highway is mostly two-lane, and peppered with frequent look out spots and laybys, where you can park up and drink in the view.
In a country as vast as America, it's a rarity to find a road trip that packs as much in as this does, without endless days spent cruising down an empty highway. As well as the constantly changing drama of the coastline, the route passes through some of the best beaches, parks and small towns, all with the easy going Californian charm that makes the state so popular.
You'll take in Big Sur, where you can cut in from the mountains and see some of the tallest trees in the world at the Pfeiffer State Park. At Monterey, surfers power along the dramatic waves on a twisting section of coast. Things are a little calmer at the sleepy town of Carmel, and San Luis Obispo is one of the prettiest beach towns you could ask for.
The route passes by some of California's best emerging vineyards, such as those in the Paso Robles wine country, where you'll find some great Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel varieties. You won't be short of places to whet the appetite either - explore the farmers' markets of little towns to get some of the best produce in America.
And you can't beat the taste of a salty, crunchy fish taco, eaten on the beach with the sea breeze whipping through your hair.
If you were to drive without stopping, the route from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes around nine hours. But it's best to allow a week to experience it to its fullest. Do allow plenty of time to see San Francisco and LA as well.
It's a good idea to plan your accommodation in advance, as places along the highway book up quickly. You can also rent an RV, though bear in mind you'll need to book your campsites in advance as well. Most American car hire companies allow you to pick up in one location and drop off in another.
DO: Alcatraz, San Francisco
Casting an ominous presence over San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz's infamous history needs no introduction. No longer a high-security prison, Alcatraz is one of the area's most popular draws. Take the eerie night tour and see the cells, officers' club, library and dining area with the aid of a compelling headphone guide (often voiced by the prisoners that once inhabited it).
From September 27, renowned dissident artist Ai Weiwei - himself no stranger to incarceration - will also feature a number of site-specific installations there. Given that it's one of the bay's busiest tourist spots, it's recommended that visitors book well in advance.
Tickets can be booked via alcatrazcruises.com (the night tour is $37 per adult, and from $22 per child).
Pier 33, Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94133.
EAT: Scoma's San Francisco
No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to bustling Fisherman's Wharf. Of the myriad dining options available there, Scoma's is a sure bet. Boasting sweeping views of the bay and an old-school wood-pannelled interior, its Italian-inspired seafood menu has long been the stuff of legend.
Given its prime location, Scoma's is pricier than your average tourist joint, but you certainly get what you pay for. Locals flock back time and time again, which is saying something.
Al Scoma Way, San Francisco, CA 94133, scomas-sf.com.
VISIT: Palace Hotel, San Francisco
Over by Union Square, the Palace is a landmark historic building that was founded in 1875 (although it was renovated after the 1906 earthquake). The space is grand, imposing and replete with old San Franciscan charm and glamour. Rooms start from around $473 per night. If that's a little out of your price range, go for afternoon tea in the hotel's stunning garden court instead (from $47 per person). 2 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94105, sfpalace.com.
VISIT: Food market at the ferry building, San Francisco
Down by Market Street lies the historic Ferry Building, which has now become home to an array of artisan food producers, food trucks and local gourmand specialists. Like a farmers' market in the heart of all the city action, the Ferry Building has become a Mecca for foodies: try the Frog Hollow Farm desserts, the Argentinean empanadas or the Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop.
The building is buzzy during weekend brunches, though gets busier on weekend afternoons.
1 Sausalito, San Francisco, CA 94111.
STAY: Green Tortoise Hostel, San Francisco
In the bustling North Beach district, the Green Tortoise is a winner, and not only for the pennies it will save you. There's plentiful free breakfast, free dinner three times a week, and even a sauna. The dorms are basic but comfortable, and the private rooms are a steal. Dorms from $39.99pp, privates from $84.99,
DO: Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Granted, you won't be the only person doing it. But a cycle is the best way to take in the Golden Gate Bridge. Rent a bike in the city and pedal over to Sausalito, before getting the ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf.
Rental from $32/24hrs,
Do: Urban Hiker Tours
There's no better way to work off those clam chowder calories than with Urban Hiker's friendly tour guides. Mainline into the hidden parks, quaint stairways, street slides and trails that are off the beaten track for as low as $45 per person. If you want to get away from the masses, and discover killer views and hidden gems of the city, this is the tour for you. Team hikes and private tours are also available. See urbanhikerssf.com for the lowdown.
EAT: Sam's Chowder House, Half Moon Bay
Adored by Californians and only 25 miles from San Francisco, Sam's Chowder House serves up casual seafood dishes right on the water. Opt for the famous chowder or a lobster roll, grab a seat outside and watch the sun go down.
samschowderhouse.com, entrees from around $22.
SEE: Santa Cruz Wharf
Between The Lost Boys and songs by The Thrills, Santa Cruz has long had an assured place in pop culture. See what all the fuss is about at the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk, an open-air amusement park on the seafront that has been open since 1907.
See cityofsantacruz.com for more information.
VISIT: Monterey Bay Sanctuary
Head 75km south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay, where you'll find their National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marina area (montereybay.noaa.gov). Amid 4,600 square miles of ocean, enjoy one of America's largest underwater canyons, as well as surfing, diving, snorkeling and camping.
Art lovers will appreciate the galleries in Carmel and movie fans may feel the need to visit Clint Eastwood's former restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn on San Carlos Street for a Dirty Harry burger and baby back ribs.
The coastal town is super touristy, from the fairytale cottages to the quaint teashops, and it is a must-visit experience for dog lovers. Carmel is regarded by some as one of the most dog-friendly cities in the world, with a wide variety of restaurants and coffee shops welcoming pooches. Hotels have luxury packages for dogs, there's dog spas, pet grooming, puppy hangouts and party planners who will organise doggie birthday parties.
Dogs are allowed on the local beaches, and off a leash too, which is highly unusual down the Californian coast.
VISIT: McWay Falls, Big Sur
Amid the splendour of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park lies the 80-foot waterfall that has become the singular must-see of the Big Sur area. The waterfall flows right onto a stunning beach, which alas is closed to the general public. Regardless, the hike is easy and accessible, and definitely worth a half-hour before you move on to the coastal glamour of Big Sur itself.
STAY: Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
If your budget can stretch to it, the Post Ranch Inn makes for a picturesque stopping point along Highway One. The rooms are perched along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, each with a fireplace, private deck and an indoor spa tub. But the two main infinity spas are the real showstoppers. postranchinn.com, from $675 per night. STAY: Treebones Resort, Big Sur
This oceanside spot is the ultimate "glampsite" with a hot tub, sushi bar and yoga. You can bring your own tent or stay in one of their kitted out yurts. If that's not adventurous enough, cosy up in their Human Nest, a woven structure overlooking the sea.
Yurts from $215 a night, treebonesresort.com
SEE: Hearst Castle, San Simeon
Halfway between San Francisco and LA, the landmark mansion Hearst Castle is an interesting pitstop, where you can visit the grand rooms, ornate pools and lush gardens that bloom throughout the year.
Tours from $25, hearstcastle.org
VISIT: Nitt Witt Ridge, San Luis Obispo
Once home to local colourful character Art Beal, Nitt Witt Ridge looks like a post-apocalyptic death trap from the road, but is in fact a jaw-dropping building sculpted with bottles, metal, TV sets and other debris. Under Beal's watch, the Hillcrest Drive dwelling became a hothouse of whimsical folk artists, and as such is the embodiment of hippie culture and whimsy writ large. The home became a designated landmark in 1981 after Beal's death - it is now inhabited by another interesting character... 881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria, CA 93428.
STAY: The Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo
Described as 'Barbie meets The Flintstones', the Madonna Inn is a must-see on any decent Northern California road trip. Proudly painted pink since 1958, it is brilliantly kitsch and…well, Californian. Stop by for hearty American fare in their restaurant, pick something up in their famous Madonna Inn bakery, or stay in one of their 110 individually decorated guestrooms. Rooms start from $189 a night, madonnainn.com
SEE: Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach
Nature lovers will find much to like here, where thousands of vibrant Monarch butterflies seek shelter from the Northern winters. From October to February, a grove on Pismo Beach is teeming with butterflies - on average 25,000 of them. Volunteers patrol the area, offering daily talks and information on the colony, while the Natural History Museum in Morro Bay is a great spot for enthusiasts to find out even more about Monarchs. A magical experience.
Located near Santa Barbara, the hamlet of Solvang is also known as 'California's Copenhagen', and is an unexpected palate cleanser. This quaint Danish-style town, founded in 1947, is teeming with traditional European-style architecture, old-world restaurants and even shopkeepers decked out in traditional attire.
See amtrakcalifornia.com for details on how to get there by train.
EAT: Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
If you make your way to Hendry's Beach at the Santa Barbara Pier, you'll find this down-at-heel shack, a firm favourite with young locals. What the Shellfish Company lacks in pomp and fancy trimmings, they easily make up for in fresh, inexpensive shellfish and easygoing charm.
230 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, sbfishhouse.com.
EAT: McConnell's Ice Cream, Santa Barbara
By now, McConnell's is a California institution, and rightly so: husband and wife team Mac and Ernie (married in 1943) founded the company in the 1940s, and it's now run by another local couple, the Ein-Palmers. Much as it always has been, everything is made from scratch with the company's own raw, local milk and cream. Expect deliciously devilish varieties: double peanut butter chip, churros con leche, toasted coconut almond and dark chocolate paso brittle.
728 Slate Street, Santa Barbara, CA 931010, mcconnells.com.
STAY: The Goodland, Santa Barbara
The just-opened Goodland encapsulates everything that SoCal has to offer, from poolside sangria and beach-chic hotel rooms. Goleta Beach and Stern's Wharf are nearby, but it's the attention to detail that puts the retro-style Goodland on the map: there's morning yoga, a billiards bar, and record players and backgammon sets in every hotel room.
See kiptonhotels.com for room rates (which are around $200 a night in September and October)
STAY: The Charlie, Los Angeles
Those seeking the razzle dazzle of Los Angeles often head straight to the Chateau Marmont. But The Charlie is so much more sophisticated, and still relatively under-the-radar. The West Hollywood hideaway was once the retreat of Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s. Today it houses 13 charming cottages offering a 'home from home' experience. thecharliehotel.com, from $250 per cottage, per night
VISIT: The Record Collector, Los Angeles
If you like music then the Record Collector on Melrose Place is an absolute must. Possibly the greatest record store in the world, you can get anything here unless you're looking for Belgian Avant-garde from the 1930s, rap, hip-hop or anything after 1990. In that case the owner 'Sandy' Sanders Chase will show you to the door. The store boasts over 100,000 jazz records and over half a million records in total, and it has been around for 40 years. It was also Michael Jackson's favourite record store. 7809 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046, therecordcollector.net.
VISIT: Catalina Island
About 22 miles southwest of LA, Catalina is a small island (pop. 4,096) rich in history and wildlife. William Wrigley Jr - he of the chewing gum empire - developed the island into a tourist destination in the 1920s, and its resort city, Avalon, is the land's buzzing epicentre. See catalina.com
Written by: Nicola Brady, Tanya Sweeney, Bairbre Power, Katie Byrne and Barbara McCarthy.
Irish Independent: September 7 2014 2:30 AM