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California Travel Guide

Cruising the Coast: What to See on America’s Best Road Trip

Highlights from the highway.

Pack the cell phone charger, sunscreen, and extra snacks, and get ready to hit the road for the ultimate road trip on California’s Highway 1. The treasured highway, spanning 656 total miles, jogs along the coast through diverse micro-environments, including undulating hills, jagged cliffs, bucolic vineyards, and untouched sea caves. From Carlsbad to Crescent City, here are 13 don’t-miss spots with everything to do, see, and eat along the way.

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Originally placed on the map in the late 1800s by mariner John A. Frazier who later established similarities between local well water to that of European spas such as Karlsbad (now known as Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic), the seaside town beckons visitors from all over the globe with its breathtaking beaches, coastal hiking trails, and family-friendly offerings. At Legoland California Resort, choose from more than 60 rides (for kids ages 2-12), cool off at the 10-acre Legoland Water Park with seven water slides and sandy beaches, or delve underwater and examine sea specimens of all varieties at the Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium. Maximize time and stay overnight at the Legoland Hotel, located at the main entrance, and dream all things Lego in one of 250 themed rooms. Stop and smell the flowers, literally, at The Flower Fields (open March to May) comprised of nearly 50 acres of sprawling grounds with Giant Tecolote Ranunculus in vibrant shades of fuchsia, persimmon, and sunny yellow.

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Laguna Beach

Situated in Southern Orange County, this laid-back city has attracted nature enthusiasts, Plein-air painters, and artsy types for decades. Today, Laguna Beach hosts annual art festivals, including the Pageant of The Masters, The Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, and the Sawdust Art Festival. The Laguna Art Museum, initially opened by local artists Edgar Payne, Anna Hill, and others as an art gallery in 1918, features rotating exhibits such as The Sea Around Us, a 360-degree video art installation by Los Angeles–based artist Rebeca Méndez. Poised on 30 acres atop a bluff overlooking the ocean, Montage Laguna Beach is the ideal place to stay with 260 guestrooms (60 suites); three on-site restaurants and a lounge, a 20,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, and a house car service for any local trip within two miles of the resort. For a bespoke experience, book a half-day excursion with local professional surfer and skimboarder, Blair Conklin, or sign up for a two-hour guided kayak tour to nearby Seal Rock for a look at a massive colony of California sea lions.

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Manhattan Beach

This once sleepy, unassuming beach town beloved by surfers is now a popular refuge just four miles from LAX with a bevy of shops, cafés, and restaurants. Before hitting the boutiques along Manhattan Avenue, or the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (referred to by locals as “The Strand”)—a 22-mile-long walking, running, and biking path that stretches all the way to Pacific Palisades—grab a chapati, a gourmet breakfast burrito, and a pour-over at Goodboybob Coffee Roasters. For dinner, enjoy small plates and hand-crafted cocktails at M.B. Post, helmed by Michelin-starred chef David LeFevre, or choose from a selection of handmade pastas and wood-fired pizzas at Italian eatery, Love & Salt. At Westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection spend the day with an in-room spa treatment at the hotel’s on-site spa and pre-arrange a private surf lesson with Go Surfing.

INSIDER TIPWalk to the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier to the Roundhouse Aquarium for a look at more than 100 species of marine life spanning Garibaldi, Wolf Eel, Sea Horses, and Strawberry Anemones. Admission is free; Open Monday-Friday 2pm-5pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm.


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Santa Monica

Synonymous with landmarks such as the Santa Monica Pier lined with Pacific Wheel, a solar-powered Ferris wheel, world-class restaurants, and a relaxed beach vibe, the “Westside” (as dubbed by locals) is dotted with more than 40 hotels, including the 267-room Proper Santa Monica designed by celebrity interior designer Kelly Wearstler, Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, and Shutters on The Beach. On Montana Avenue, peruse specialty boutiques such as Clare V. with leather clutches and t-shirts, to the Brentwood General Store with gourmet picnic items and home goods spanning handmade soy wax candles by Voyage et Cie. Watch the sunset with a cocktail like the Ship Wreck with rum, lime, almond orgeat, nutmeg, and Amari float at Elephante, and head to dinner at Rustic Canyon with menu selections prepared by chef and owner Jeremy Fox. To start, order the beets & berries with Santa Barbara pistachio, red quinoa, and mint, followed by the Petaluma chicken paired with Nantes carrot, walnut gremolata, and brown butter.

INSIDER TIPFor sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, take the elevator to the 18th floor of Huntley Hotel to The Penthouse, or mingle with locals at The Galley, a kitschy, nautical-themed bar and restaurant reminiscent of longtime TV series Gilligan’s Island.

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Avila Beach

This quiet coastal locale is home to mineral hot springs, wine-tasting rooms, and hiking and biking trails. At Sinor La Vallee Tasting Room, sip a variety of wines grown just 1.2 miles from the ocean by husband-and-wife vintners Mike Sinor and Cheri LaVallee. Listen to the waves crash on the beach at Avila Lighthouse Suites with 54 two-room options replete with private patios and kitchens; complimentary daily breakfast; and Tesla electric car charging stations. Go for a bike ride or leisurely walk on the Bob Jones Trail, also referred to as the City to the Sea Trail, that winds for three miles along the San Luis Obispo Creek and ends at the Avila Pier.

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As history goes, New England Captain James Cass settled in the area in 1867 and later built his home, a pier, and wharf referred to as Cass’s Landing, now a haven for skin diving, fishing, surfing, and kayaking. For an off-the-beaten-path excursion, immerse in a seaweed 101-like field trip and learn identification and ethical harvesting methods of seaweed foraging with Melissa Hanson, founder of Kelpful, or book a tour to learn about the five species of edible marine algae at Marley Family Seaweeds. At Hidden Kitchen, grab a hearty breakfast (think blue corn waffles or a superfood Baywood Berry smoothie with strawberry, banana, peanut butter, beet powder, almond milk, maple syrup, and chia seeds), or sample a chocolate chunk classic cookie or take home a dozen brown butter sea salt cookies at Brown Butter Cookie Company, founded by sisters Traci and Christa Hozie. At Cass House Cayucos, Cass’s former home, reserve one of five rooms appointed with four-poster beds and pedestal sinks, and indulge in a slice of handmade coffee cake or an almond croissant at on-site bakery Bijou. Another option is the Pacific Motel comprised of standalone bungalows and guest rooms lined with shiplap walls. The property is replete with modern artwork by local company 3114 Designs; organic linens and robes by Parachute; and amenities spanning outdoor firepits and blankets, an outdoor shower, and ping pong.

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Serving as the ideal halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is regarded for its historic architecture, antique stores, seafood restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, and wildlife. It’s also well-known for a single fruit: olallieberry. At Linn’s Restaurant, sample the infamous olallieberry pie, or visit Linn’s Family Fruit Farm for everything from olallieberry truffles and syrup to grilling glaze. After, take a leisurely stroll along the water at Moonstone Beach and build a sandcastle or comb for sea glass and shells, or take a ranch tour or a guided horseback ride atop a Clydesdale at Covell’s California Clydesdales ($120 per person; ages seven and up). Eat like a local at Sea Chest Oyster Bar with seafood selections consisting of fresh clam chowder, cioppino, seasonal fresh fish, oysters, and shrimp scampi. The casual, cash-only eatery doesn’t take reservations, so be sure to grab a glass of wine and mingle with other diners while you wait. At White Water, a 27-room hotel that takes cues from Scandinavian design and adjacent Moonstone Beach, relax in the lobby with a vintage board game or check out a Linus cruiser bike available for guest use. Designed by Los Angeles–based interior designer Nina Freudenberger (whose other projects include San Luis Creek Lodge in San Luis Obispo), the property features guest rooms outfitted with cozy gas fireplaces, Aesop apothecary items, and minibars stocked with local gourmet snacks and provisions.

Fifteen minutes north, make a stop in San Simeon for a tour of Hearst Castle owned by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (who inherited the land in 1919) and masterminded by renowned architect Julia Morgan. In San Simeon, grab the binoculars for an up-close look at Elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery (optimal viewing times include late January, April, and October.)

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Big Sur

Situated between Carmel and San Simeon, the region is arguably one of the most Instagram-worthy spots in the country with a slew of state parks and natural wonders, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with two-thousand-year-old Redwood trees and an 80-foot cascading waterfall, McWay Cove, and landmarks such as the arched concrete Bixby Creek Bridge completed in 1932. For activities such as falconry, sound healing with crystal singing bowls, axe throwing, and private guided hikes with local outfitter, Big Sur Guides and Hiking, reserve a stay at Alila Ventana Big Sur. The 160-acre woodsy property features 56 suites along with a casual barbecue eatery; two outdoor heated pools; Japanese hot baths; and glamping in luxury tent cabins with views of a 20-acre canyon.

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Gaining notoriety from writer John Steinbeck who penned Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and Cannery Row, Monterey is known for its storied past in the fishing industry and sardine canning and production. It’s now a veritable playground for marine biologists, historians, and nature enthusiasts, and home to one of the most recognized aquariums in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium with more than 200 exhibits such as “Discover The Bay” with more than 20,000 species of fish and marine life including Moray Eels and Garibaldi, and “Into The Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean” with midwater and deep ocean dwellers such as Spotted Comb jellyfish and Filetail catsharks. For dinner, venture to Alejandro’s for Mexican cuisine in a modern, resort-like setting with rustic wood doors, a wall of candles, and rattan dining chairs. On the menu, choose from starters including the masa tempura with sweet corn, jalapeno, cilantro, and citrus aioli, followed by entrees like pollo, chipotle chicken wrapped in a banana leaf and paired with pickled red onions and chicken chicharron. At Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, reserve a spa treatment at the rooftop spa, or spend the afternoon cycling with one of the property’s bicycles (available for complimentary guest use) along the Monterey Coastal Recreation Trail, an 18-mile path with scenic views.

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Santa Cruz

In Santa Cruz, the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been a mainstay since its inception in the early 1900s with highlights including the wooden Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and the Looff Carousel with 73 hand-carved horses with tails made of real horsehair. Get a glimpse of the burgeoning local craft brewery scene with a guided tour by Brew Cruz aboard a converted bus or a vintage 1964 Volkswagen van named “Slowboy.” Hungry? Head to Pretty Good Advice, owned by Matt McNamara (a former alum of Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Sons & Daughters), for a Spicy Boy sandwich on ciabatta with fried egg, crispy potato, red pepper, and housemade aioli, and a Hott Cheezy Burger with roasted jalapenos and American and pepper jack cheese. For a selection of coffee, handmade cheese, ice cream, and specialty food all under one roof, be sure to visit Abbott Square Market.

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San Francisco

Stretching only seven miles by seven miles, the city is beloved for its diverse neighborhoods, foggy mornings, world-renowned restaurants, and jaw-dropping scenery from just about every spot in town. At the Ferry Building Marketplace, an iconic waterfront emporium filled with merchants and restaurants, sample everything from wine and freshly-baked sourdough to doughnuts and shop for design tomes, bud vases, and candles by Sausalito–based Heath Ceramics. There, break for lunch (think clam chowder, grilled squid salad, and fresh oysters from British Columbia and Washington) at Hog Island Oyster Co. Catch the cable car at Fisherman’s Wharf to hop on and off at your own pace around town, or go for a pedal boat ride at idyllic Stow Lake. Drive down steep Lombard Street, the country’s second most crooked street, venture to Golden Gate Park to the de Young Museum for rotating exhibits ranging from textiles to ancient Egyptian artifacts, and the beloved Conservatory of Flowers stocked with five galleries housing plants spanning rare orchids and potted plants. Reset and unwind at eco-friendly 1 Hotel San Francisco with rooms fashioned with low-energy LED lightbulbs; sustainably-sourced linens and non-toxic mattresses; and bathroom faucets equipped with water filtration systems.


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With a lush, green coastal landscape, countless hiking trails and state parks, and a plethora of seaside hotels, Mendocino has been a longtime escape for rest and relaxation. It’s also the site of numerous television shows and films including “Murder She Wrote,” Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Majestic, and Overboard. Downtown, check out specialty boutiques including Erin Keller Home, a trove filled with accent pillows, throws, and linens, and  The Study Club with homewares and women’s clothing ranging from hand-thrown ceramic serving vessels by local ceramicist Colleen Hennessey to cozy, undyed alpaca and pima cotton cardigans by Bare Knitwear. Recharge and take in the scenery at Heritage House Inn & Spa, situated on 37 acres replete with walking trails; a lounge and restaurant; a spa; and a fitness center. Take a hike and meander through the woods at Russian Gulch State Park, and explore coastal and plants and flowers from magnolias to Rhododendron at Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden. Set on 47 acres, the garden also features native plants such as California blue-eyed grass, Angelica, and Seaside Daisy; a Dahlia garden; and the largest collection of Camellias on the West Coast.

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Crescent City

Situated just 20 miles south of the Oregon border, the often-overlooked town has a rich maritime history, Redwood forests, and hiking trails. Here, go back in time to one of the state’s first lighthouses on the coast, Battery Point Light, now a California Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built in 1855, the lighthouse is open during low tide for tours. Once inside, explore artifacts and paraphernalia, including historic photographs, a writing desk, a 4th-order Fresnel lens, and an old organ. Take a scenic drive along Howland Hill Road, (a narrow, 10-mile gravel road once a stagecoach route), lined with old growth Redwood trees, or venture into the woods through 10,000 acres of Redwood groves at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.