There are not many road trips that are as iconic as the Pacific Coast Highway on the coast of California. I have made this journey a few times and learned a lot along the way each time that will hopefully help you have a great experience. Below are some great hotel options complete with virtual tours of each of our rooms so you can see exactly what you get from each hotel. I produce these Matterport virtual tours for some of the top hospitality brands in the world and it is always great to see all the different spaces and how they are decorated and designed. Be sure and check out some of the Matterport virtual tour features within the virtual tours especially the new embedded media feature.
I have found the best route for this journey is to start in Los Angeles and work your way up from there. Besides the virtual tours of each hotel I will provide the exact room number so you can grab the room if you like it. Also, I will give some insider tips on fun activities, amazing restaurants and funky finds we have come across.
Stop 1: Santa Monica
Santa Monica is always a favorite hang out of mine in California and hotels in the area can be hit or miss. Over the years, I have stayed at The Huntley Hotel many times and I am always glad I did. The location is excellent and the accommodations are superb. The Huntley definitely has a funky chic vibe to it with a dash of Hollywood glitz. Below take a look around with our first virtual tour of room 1414. 1414 comes with a nice view out to Pacific Coast Highway where your journey will begin after a great night’s sleep..
- Breakfast: Jinky’s in Santa Monica (10 min walk) has a huge menu and a favorite of mine is the “Flaky French Toast”.
- Dinner and Drinks: Hop into your car service of choice and 2 killer spots are a 5 dollar ride away. It’s a 1-2 punch with drinks first at Shore Bar followed by dinner at Giorgio Baldi. Not only is the Italian menu out of this world, but be prepared for some great celebrity spotting. Just over the last few days diners have included Katy Perry, Rhianna, Doc Rivers, Chris Martin and more.
Stop 2: Ojai (90 min drive)
On the Way: Grab lunch at Beach House Fish on the Pier, 668 Harbor Blvd. in Ventura. Killer fish tacos.
The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in Ojai, CA is THE Hollywood chill zone because of the short drive to get there and the super zen vibe when you arrive. There is a reason A-listers, moguls and LA execs flock here…it’s simply amazing. A pretty amazing history is spread over the lush 220 acres. The Spanish Colonial Resort was built in 1923 and has numerous restaurants, a championship golf course, a world class spa and simply perfect grounds with tons of trees you will want to plop down under and take it all in. Be sure and ask about Annie when you get there…she has a lot to say.
We stayed in room 364 which has a staggering view over the golf course and into the California mountains. Step inside the virtual tour below and be sure to step out onto the balcony and also check out the Ojai Walking Tour Map where you can enjoy downtown Ojai less than a mile away.
Stop 3: Cayucos (2.5 hours drive)
On the way: (You’ll arrive 30 min after leaving Ojai): Grab lunch at Padaro Beach Grill, 3765 Santa Claus Lane in Carpinteria, CA. Their catch phrase “where food and paradise collide” is pretty accurate. The fish tacos are incredible and depending on what time of day you arrive there is a fire pit, tons of picnic tables, a stage for live music, a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and lots of wildlife running around.
Stop 3 is a tricky stop as you get into a strip of PCH with no major luxury brand hotels. Because stop 4 is Hearst Castle it is very important to land at a decent hotel that leaves you with a short drive to arrive at Hearst Castle the next day. Lucky for you I have done the research for you and you will love the sleepy beach town of Cayucos, CA. which will put you a 30 minute drive from Hearst Castle.
On The Beach Bed & Breakfast has beach house boutique charm, large rooms and is…well…on the beach! This is not the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa for a reason. You are stepping into Cayucos listed by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine as one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America”. The population is just north of 2500 and the main street looks right out of a western movie.
We stayed in room 201 at On The Beach and saw numerous whales and dolphins flying through the air in late afternoon. The room has an up close view of the Pacific and a pier. The beach is steps away. A great dinner option 3 doors down is Schooners Restaurant and Bar that has the usual seafood offerings but also a fantastic steak salad.
Stop 4: Hearst Castle (30 minute drive)
If you have never been to William Randolph Hearst’s “little place” in San Simeon this will be a treat. There are multiple tours and you can’t see it all in one day. Check that. You can see it all in one day with a private tour. The different tours are about 25 dollars each but you can get this private tour for 6 people at $750. It sounds crazy but trust me it is worth it as you get your own tour guide (read as better access than gen pop) and you will see ALL areas you want that would take multiple tours to accomplish on multiple days. You also get to drive up and park at the castle instead of riding the 5 mile journey in a bus like a sardine. Below is a 360 image from Mr. Hearst’s personal study where you can see the insanely ornate antiques he owned and a sneak peek of his grand style.
Special Note: Because of the torrential rains of 2016 a chunk of PCH was closed due to collapsed bridges and roadways. We had to circle back about 10 miles and loop up to Hwy 101 for the next portion of the trip to Carmel. This isn’t the end of the world as PCH gets spectacular in the Big Sur and Carmel area which you will see the next day.
Stop 5: Carmel-by-the-Sea (2.5 hours drive)
This alternate route is actually kind of fun. After your Hearst Castle adventure get ready for some incredibly tasty BBQ about 10 miles away at a place called Main Street Grill at 603 Main Street in Cambria.
Your hotel for the night (or 2 is what I recommend) is The Hyatt Highlands Inn in Carmel-by-the-Sea. This
hotel is fantastic and the views are to die for. These are the views you will recognize if you watched HBO’s “Big Little Lies” who’s characters all “lived” in this neighborhood. When you check-in don’t overlook the hotel bar which has a magical sunset view over the Pacific (often listed in publications as one of the top hotel views in the world) and has a kick ass burger.
Get a good night of sleep and then head out to explore PCH headed south to cover some missed ground because of the road closures. There are tons of photo opportunities over the 25 mile drive and a great lunch waiting for you at The Big Sur Roadhouse at 47080 CA-1 in Big Sur. This is a great funky dining spot where I recommend the pulled pork sandwich which was massive and tasty. This 25 miles will take several hours and definitely plan on being back by 4:30 for the free wine served up at the Highlands Inn.
Here is a look at our room #544 which has a wood burning fire place and astounding views of the rocky Pacific.
Stop 6: Monterey ( *4 hour drive)
If you took a direct route it would only take you about 15 minutes to get to your next hotel but that is no fun. I will be guiding you through a few cool stops along the way which will take about 4 hours. First up, before breakfast hit the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve which is about a mile down the road from The Hyatt Highlands Inn. 10 Bucks to get in to see some harbor seals and other assorted wildlife up close. It’s a flat easy hike/walk with plenty of cliff views. After your morning walk it’s off to breakfast we go.
I found an excellent little breakfast spot in Carmel-by-the-Sea which is a quaint little town with tons of shops and restaurants. The Little Swiss Cafe is at 6th & Dolores St. and served a really tasty breakfast with super nice attentive service.
After breakfast ask anyone how to get to “17 Mile Drive” st. (very nearby) which is…you guessed it…a 17 mile drive! Cost to get into the super exclusive neighborhood is $10.25 BUT you get that money back if you have lunch inside so bring in your receipt. I suggest lunch at The Lodge in the Stillwater Bar & Grill which is the hotel restaurant on the 18th Green at Pebble Beach. Shockingly, valet parking at this swanky hotel is FREE for diners. After lunch you should wander around and check out the shops but DON’T buy any Pebble Beach Golf gear because you can get it at a HUGE discount at the Pebble Beach Outlet Store which is right next to The Clement Hotel in Monterey (your next stop). During the 17 mile drive you will see many expensive houses, many stopping areas with great views of more seals (and squirrels that will come up and get nose to nose with you), The famous “Lone Cypress” tree, and views of all the famous golf courses. The 17 mile drive will spit you out very near the next hotel on Cannery Row.
Cannery Row in Monterey is famous from the Steinbeck Novel with the same name. This where you will find the next hotel I have chosen, The Intercontinental Clement Hotel. The location is prime to walk around and enjoy some serious people watching. The eating options on Cannery Row are pretty cheesy and lame BUT just 3 blocks away I found superb mexican food at La Bahia – 675 Lighthouse Ave, Monterey, CA 93940. It looks like nothing on the outside but don’t judge until you have taken a bite. It’s a family run restaurant with Jambalaya that will knock your tacos off.
Jump inside room 403 at The Clement below.
Stop 7: Napa (3 hour drive)
The PCH part of the expedition is over but you can’t escape California without a quick visit to wine country. For this trip I am jumping off of PCH and taking the more direct route to Napa. You COULD keep going up the coast and it would about double your time to Napa but you would see some more stellar scenery.
Off to Napa we go. First things fist. Before bolting out of Monterey grab breakfast at First Awakenings which is just a few blocks away from The Clement at 125 Ocean View Blvd, Pacific Grove, CA 93950. It’s a nice hidden patio with really good food and snappy service. From there walk off that meal down the Lovers Point State Reserve Park which is about a mile away on the scenic Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail which you can get on just a block away from the restaurant. When you get to the picturesque park you will recognize it from “Big Little Lies” if you watched that series on HBO. Along the way you will see a few Harbor Seals and pups depending on what month you are in Monterey.
2 hours into your 3 hour drive will come a culinary treat that when in California it is tough to resist…IN-N-OUT BURGER! Plug in the address (2270 San Ramon Valley Blvd, San Ramon, CA 94583) when you exit Monterey and this will be the fastest path to Napa, leaving you about an hour after your burger feast.
Staying in Napa can be tricky because of the overpriced hotels and many with crappy views. I’ve got you covered. The Napa River Inn at 500 Main St, Napa, CA 94559 is a boutique gem. It is downtown Napa and you want to ask for a river view so you don’t “feel like” you’re downtown. Most downtown hotels have zero view. Your other option is to stay in one of the small “wine country” towns like Yountville but beware that can
be super expensive. The Napa River Inn is about a 20 min drive to most country wine areas of interest. Also, there are tons of great restaurants walking distance from The Napa River Inn. One I suggest is about 10 steps away called Angele which is right on the river and has an enticing menu. There is great walkability in downtown Napa and you can’t go wrong with man of the restaurant experiences. There is also a nice walking trail along the river where you can meander past restaurant after restaurant.
For a day trip out in the country I love Yountville but all of the small towns have charm and eats/drinks galore. Take a car service because you will be tempted often to pop a cork. 2 obvious stops in Yountville are Bouchon Bakery and The French Laundry. Neither are easy to get into but why not give it a try?
Back to the Napa River Inn and a look at 216.
That’s my take on some worthy stops along one of the most iconic road trips in the world. Travel on!