Road journeys in the US
Of the Big Sur and the Pacific
Amongst the most popular road-trips in the United States is the over 1,000 km State Route 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
The orange towers rose up proudly against a clear blue sky and an equally deep blue of the creek, dwarfing the vehicles that ran on the suspended bridge opened in 1937. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge was the tallest and longest at one time and I was at the bridge to tick off the last of the touristy spots of San Francisco. A customary shot with the bridge in the background was mandatory for my travel brag.
The last leg of my month-long vacation in the US was to culminate with a drive skirting the Pacific Ocean all the way to Los Angeles. San Francisco done and dusted with, I was ready to roll down one of the world’s most scenic routes.
John Steinback’s 1945 novel Canary Row had its roots in Monterey, once abundant in fishery. Another recent television series Big Little Lies, with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as lead, also features the town. The white sandy beaches and quiet hidden coves have in fact attracted many a writer and artist to Monterey, which is surrounded by Pacific on three sides.
From here, the route formally becomes the Pacific Coast Highway.
The first glimpse of rippling blue expanse hugging the rocky shore took my breath away as soon as we entered Monterey, leaving the clamour of cities behind some two hours and about 200 kilometres (km) into the drive. Unhindered azure sky merged into the cerulean sea below as far as the eyes could see. Along the edges the playful juvenile waves attempted to climb over the jutting edges of rocks, frothing and foaming in defiance. The bright sun twinkled like a million stars on the waves that caught its blinding light and I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the unabashed display of nature.
We stopped wherever possible to savour the sight of each rock, each wave and every clump of wild grass. Little did I realise that the route designated as National Scenic Byway had more to offer later. Had we taken a slight detour little further, we would have reached the Pebble Beach along the 30 km drive.
Instead, we cruised along the highway to enter Big Sur. Earlier known as El País Grande Del Sur or The Big Country of the South for its unexplored wilderness, Big Sur now is a 150-km stretch of rugged most picturesque coastline between Carmel, just south of Monterey, and San Simeon.
The ribbonous tar road that sprinted along majestic Santa Lucia mountains on one side soon entered Bixby Creek Bridge, the tallest single-span concrete arch and the most photographed bridge, overlooking a silvery sandy beach. The 200 metres long bridge that opened in 1932 is a life-line to Big Sur since the old route is cut off during the winters.
Peering over from the bridge, the swelling sea seemed too inviting not to make a stop. A wooden stairway leading to that patch of a beach was all the encouragement we needed to explore. With only a couple of other road trippers around, we had the beach to ourselves. The waves were fierce and large rushing towards the rocks in much urgency leaving behind sea-weed and colourful pebbles on the retreat. Tempted, soon I was collecting little rock pieces of all shape and sizes as souvenirs of the Pacific. The ocean suddenly sent out a gigantic wave that made us scramble away out of its way and back in our car.
With its bohemian vibe, the Big Sur has several beautiful sights, totally instagrammable to be precise, in Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, ragged point, forest trails and many more. A road trip from San Francisco through the Big Sur to Los Angeles does no justice to the breathtaking vistas that the Big Sur has to offer. It demands a separate trip, dedicated all to itself.
The drive through the Big Sur was full of surprises. The road seemed to stretch for miles without another soul in sight when a group of cyclists rode past. With fall around the corner, the dull brown mountain along the road broke into colourful patches of wild plants. When it looked like we were driving at the edge of the cliff, the road stole away from the seaside to enter the Big Sur River valley with tall redwoods forest and a rivulet gurgling along the road.
Quaint little sign-boards, small kiosks and a landscaped eatery, River Inn, appeared emphasising the sudden change in landscape. The arty off-beat aura that the Big Sur is so known for could be seen in the array of eye-catching landscape paintings and easels with works-in-progress. Rustic trinkets and curios crafted by the Native Americans too had their own charm, luring us towards the inn. But, what floored me was the wooden seating right in the middle of the rivulet with forest as a backdrop. It was indeed a picture postcard setting. The guests at the inn could take their food to eat midstream with feet dangling in cold water.
Rejuvenated by food and the maverick ambience, we continued on the drive that would take us to the home of Hollywood celebrities, Los Angeles, the City of Angels. An hour into the drive, similar country setting showed up again at Whale Watcher’s Cafe at Gorda Springs. Perched on a cliff, Gorda Springs is a tiny town of not more than 100 people with cottages, general stores and a small gas station along the highway. Set across the highway, with clear unobstructed views of the deeper ocean, the cafe, as the name suggested is very popular for whale watching vistas during the annual migration around October. It was only later in the day that I realised that had I stayed longer at the cafe, I could have seen wild Humpback and Orca whales in their natural habitat.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find hordes of large elephant seals on the sandy beach later. The road aligned itself with the shore again as we left Gorda Springs. The mountains gave way to open fields with yellowing grass on one side. On the other side, the ocean seemed calmer. The monotony of blue canvas was occasionally broken by a lone seagull, flying away screeching.
Further on, a few sea otters sunning on rocky surface caught my eye but the absence of a designated viewing spot forced me to drive on. Our patience was, however, rewarded soon enough when we reached a seal watching deck at Cambria. The beach, nominated a rookery for seals, remains inaccessible to people especially during the mating period of the giant elephant seals. The sandy shore becomes a mating ground from late October to December when seals occupy it entirely. Male seals engage in a duel to attract the female seals. Due to their bulky bodies, seals are sluggish, and at first glance, the motionless seals basking in the sun seemed lifeless. A grunt, however, gave them away. With a few younger ones frolicking in water, it was nature in its untamed form.
It was at Morro Bay, south of Cambria that we ultimately veered away from the coastline after a brief glimpse of Morro Rock, one of the 13 volcanic plugs or neck of extinct volcanoes and a protected State Reserve.
With Los Angeles still a few hours away, it seemed impractical to explore. The evening had set in. As we mingled in the city traffic, the ocean played a peek-a-boo showing up in stretches as a backdrop to Spanish Colonial architecture of Santa Barbara, the American Riviera. We gave a miss to the wine trails that the town has to offer to head towards our last destination Disneyland, Los Angeles.
Tired from the 10-hour drive, stoked with an overdose of sublime natural landscapes, I rested as the next day I had to make a long journey again. This time, back in time to rediscover my childhood at Disneyland.
GOOD TO KNOW
• Indian Driving Licence works for tourists in USA as long as it is valid and in English.
• Stopping anywhere on the highway is not allowed. There are specific spots along the Pacific Coast Highway as viewpoints to enjoy the scenic vistas.
• The drive takes roughly 10 hours with few short stops. Better to stock the car with enough drinking water and dry snacks.
• The road rules and road etiquettes of USA are available on the internet. It helps to know and follow before driving.
• The Big Sur is a destination in itself and if time permits, two-three days should be spent in the area.
HOW TO REACH
• Cars can be rented from several sites on the internet or on consolidators like www.rentacar.com, which lists offers by different companies.
• Cars can be picked up from one location and dropped off at another.
• While returning the cars, care should be taken to keep it clean, with no food and beverage spillage, to avoid paying a surcharge for cleaning.