It is exactly like what I have seen in countless American road movies. The road, smooth as silk, stretches out under the canopy of a cloudless blue sky. It is hemmed in by the mountains on one side and the surging ocean on the other. Standing up in the car through the sun roof, I feel an adrenaline rush as I take in the spectacular panorama of the car zipping down the iconic Highway 1. I try to soak in every bit of that bright Californian sun, the hair in my face, my ears pounded by the rushing air.
As we drive out of Los Angeles with my sister at the wheel, the only thing I know about the Pacific Coast Highway is that it ranks on travel websites among the “top ten road trips to do before you die”. A far cry from the bustling humanity on Indian highways, the journey down the Highway 1 is a uniquely solitary experience. It is only when we approach one of California’s favourite holiday destinations, the Santa Barbara beach, that the road becomes chock-a-block with family trailers. Otherwise, it’s you and the beautiful landscape for company. There are countless “vista points” en route, but we pull up only for the “too beautiful to capture in a photograph” moments. I see a seagull springing up with the white surf every time a wave crashes into the rock it is standing on. Does the intoxicating air impart such vitality, I wonder. “It certainly relieves stress and fatigue,” testifies my sister.
At Santa Barbara, the beach front, lined by palm fronds, is replete with colourful umbrellas and beach chairs. A few enterprising artists have set up stalls on the sidewalks, their art attracting many admirers. Joe and Madera, proud owners of a majestic Harley Davidson, insist on clicking pictures of us seated on their bike. One could easily spend an entire day lazing on the beach, but we are eager to explore the place. The short water taxi ride from the Harbor to Stearns Wharf gives us the chance to venture into the sea. Santa Barbara is often described as the “American Riviera”, and luxury yachts and gleaming boats crowd its bustling harbour. By afternoon, we stroll over to a secluded area famed for its restaurant where we delightedly dig our feet into the sand while we feast on local sea food: delicious fried calamari rings and crab and clam chowder.
The sumptuous meal considerably slows our pace as we get back on the highway. “Let’s not go back, tonight,” I suddenly declare on an impulse, a decision that my sister heartily seconds. She is thrilled at the prospect of another entire day on this scenic route. We halt at a motel in San Luis Obispo, a quaint little coastal town with pretty gardens and cottages. Late at night, we realise how chilly it has become.
The next morning, we head north to Morro Bay. To our delight, this calm inlet of water draws early morning birds diving into the clear waters for their first catch of the day. As we walk along the sandspit, small birds scamper along the sides, the serenity of our surroundings broken only by the occasional bird call. The Morro Bay State Park adjacent to the inlet offers the most heavenly hiking trails. At a distance, the Morro Rock, 578 feet of volcanic spew, seems to have suddenly jutted out from the ocean floor.
Then, keen to see the Californian countrylife, we steer away from the highway and drive past acres of vineyards. These wineries of central California have outstripped the hyped Napa valley, home to the famous Californian wines. I believe the sunny climate lends itself to the laid-back hospitable Californian character. Being Halloween season, we see the most gigantic pumpkins lined up for sale at the gates of farmsteads as well as wheelbarrows piled with ripe melons. Ted Dellaganna, owner of the Dellaganna ranch, gives us a reality check: “The four-year-long drought in the state has taken a toll on us. It’s hard trying to irrigate these large tracts.” Hearing that we are Indians, he tells us that his sister is a missionary in Dhaka. For him Bangladesh, a world away, is as much India as perhaps California is America.
Back on Highway 1, we pass by the European grandeur of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, once home to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The sight of zebras grazing on the sprawling grounds of the property along the Californian coast so startles us that we almost screech to a halt. I insist on gathering photographic evidence to refute disbelievers. We plan to make only the briefest of stopovers at California’s largest elephant seal rookery at San Simeon, but the adorable clumsiness of the baby seals keeps me glued to their antics on the sand. The loud grunts of the adult seals delight the children who have gathered in droves to see the seals at play.
The road gets steeper then and we drive cautiously past sharp turns and hairpin bends. This stretch is part of the famous ‘Big Sur’ region that extends all the way to Bixby bridge. It is the most picturesque section of the Pacific Coast Highway, and offers spectacular views of treacherous cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean and mighty waves crashing against the crags. The breathtaking views from Ragged Point, a resort cum viewing spot perched at a height of 400 feet, leave us spellbound. Since there isn’t another eating place within miles of this inn, it is a popular stopover for those coasting along the Highway 1.
By late evening, we decide to turn back. But the opportunity to witness a sunset on the Pacific Ocean is too good to be missed. As the fiery orange orb dips beyond the horizon at Pismo beach, it gives me the most spectacular photographic moment of the trip. Satiated with our adventure, we head back to LA, the two-day getaway leaving us with enough memories for a lifetime.