The US: Ocean Drive

The US: Ocean Drive

Jenni Doggett hits the Californian coast road

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"Baby I was born to ruuuuuuunnn…”

I’m mangling Bruce Springsteen’s road trip anthem, but I don’t care. I’m racing out of San Francisco in a glossy red Mustang, bound for Los Angeles, and no one can stop me. Well, three lanes of traffic did slow me down for a bit, but now I’m flying along again, windows down, volume up, vast grin on.

California’s coast-hugging Highway One is legendary and I have five days and a killer soundtrack to explore it with. That might seem a lot given that it’s possible to drive it in a day, but there is so much to take in along the way you could easily double that and still only experience a fraction of what this route has to offer.

Fly-drive holidays are wildly popular, and with 675,000 UK visitors to California every year, there’s a clear demand for this iconic American adventure. As Virgin Holidays’ Linda Burton says: “Fly-drives are the perfect way to experience the very best of the state, combining the rugged coastline with the stunning national parks.”

Driving here is easy. Automatics are standard, which makes the long distance and winding corners less stressful. You can also collect the car in San Francisco and drop off in LA for no charge. A stunning alternative is a Harley-Davidson – one-way charges do apply to this option but it’s a small price to pay for such epic cool.

The coast road is staggeringly beautiful, with precipitous cliffs dropping to the Pacific. The best views are to be had driving south, right on the edge, but nervous drivers may want to start in LA so they stay on the inside of the road.

I begin in San Francisco. For clients staying just one night, a hotel near the waterfront is a good option. You can get to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge nearby, see seals dozing on Pier 39, and explore Fisherman’s Wharf on foot.

I head into Boudin Bakery and inhale creamy chowder, accompanied by a fiery bloody mary oyster shooter that would wake the weariest of travellers. Then it’s time to hit the road.

San Francisco to Big Sur: 141 miles (Drive time 3 hours)

Skyline San Francisco at Dusk

After negotiating San Francisco’s steepest streets, I finally hit the Pacific Coast Highway. The road is not yet more than a few lanes out of suburbia but I already feel like Knightrider, Thelma and Louise and Ferris Bueller rolled into one.

American road trips are so steeped in film history it’s impossible for a little of the magic not to rub off. Everything seems oddly familiar.

Soon enough, rolling golden hills and cypresses take over the scenery and within a few hours I reach Pebble Beach Golf Resort, a glorious sprawling estate with white sand bunkers set against Pacific Ocean spray.

A round of golf, on the same links visited by Winston Churchill, Clint Eastwood and Bill Murray, starts at $495. Another hour gets me to Big Sur, a stunning stretch of coast surrounded by the Santa Lucia mountains. This is the place for hiking, with vast redwood forests and striking cliff top views.

Big Sur to Pismo Beach: 175 miles (3.5 hours)

The road is calling, but I’m distracted by the extraordinary elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas. Hundreds of these enormous silvery sea mammals are spooning each other in the sun, occasionally snorting and tossing flippers of sand.

The next stop is Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo County. This is Central Coast wine country and home to more than 250 wineries. A two hour Tour, Taste and Tailgate tour visiting Adelaida Cellars’ family-owned vineyards costs $50 and must be booked in advance (

Sand dune buggying on Pismo Beach gets you drunk on adrenaline rather than alcohol: bone-jangling, but more fun than any adult has a right to have, and a great antidote to motorway driving. Prices for a two-seat buggy start at $175 for two hours (

No one who stops in Pismo Beach should miss the Madonna Inn. It’s the high-camp offspring of Barbie and Liberace in restaurant form. Massive artificial flowers, a forest of fairy lights and intricate carved cherubs carpet the ceiling.

The restrooms are a destination in themselves, featuring a waterfall urinal and clam shell sinks. The inn serves excellent steak and giant slabs of princess pink champagne cake and, like many local restaurants, allows you to bring your own wine – ideal if you’ve just bought at a vineyard (

Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara: 83 miles (1.5 hours)

Santa Barbara – the so-called American Riviera – is all sandy sophistica-tion, wide beaches framed by palm trees and elegant low-rise architecture. An evening cruise from the harbour is a glamorous but gentle introduction to the area.

Hundreds of yachts of all sizes glide by our catamaran and I stretch out on the deck to daydream. Prices start from $27 (

Suggest clients sample more local wines at the achingly cool Santa Barbara Wine Collective before diving into the innovative restaurant scene.

Wine tasting Santa Barbara

Book well in advance for a table at The Lark, but it’s worth it for the lemon fennel popcorn and smoked pork belly (

Santa Barbara to Santa Monica: 92 miles (2 hours)

The last leg of the trip is the least pleasant to drive. Los Angeles is notoriously traffic-heavy with its multi-lane slalom, but I turn the radio up and take my time.

The thrill of hitting Santa Monica is worth the freeway weaving, and pulling up to the Miramar makes you feel like a star. This is the end of the road, and time to celebrate with cocktails among the beautiful people at the Bungalow Lounge.

After a margarita or four it may be time to change the soundtrack to Dancing in the Dark.

Sample Product

Virgin Holidays offers a five night West Coast fly-drive. It includes Heathrow flights to San Francisco, returning via Los Angeles, with room-only accommodation, staying one night each at Hotel Zephyr, Ventana Inn & Spa, Cottage Inn and Harbor View Inn, plus one night at the Fairmont Miramar, with a convertible included, from £1,425, departing November 16. (Prices with an SUV from £1,415; with a Chevy Camaro from £1,639; or with a motorbike from £2,029.)

Tried & Tested

Hotel Zephyr, San Francisco
The recently renovated hotel has a playful nautical theme and plenty to keep guests entertained. Each of the 361 rooms has magnetic darts and backgammon, and there is a fully loaded games room, making it ideal for family stays. Excellent location for an overnight pitstop, but parking overnight is pricey at $49 plus tax.

Book it: From $299 plus tax and fees

Ventana Inn & Spa, Big Sur
This luxury hilltop retreat is surrounded by seriously beautiful scenery. Fifty-nine capacious and impeccably designed wood cabins offer privacy and calm, most have wood fires, and private hot tubs are available.

The sea views are more expensive but balconies overlooking the forest are magical. The Santa Lucia mountain range and Pacific are visible on good days, and long hikes can be taken privately on the estate. Two swimming pools and onsen-style hot tubs plus a spa and morning yoga by a crackling fire help melt away any long drives.

Book it: From $480 plus tax and $35 per night resort fee

Cottage Inn by the Sea, Pismo Beach
Charming waterfront cottages sit on a bluff overlooking the sea. The real selling point is the sound of the waves shushing guests to sleep, and the ocean views from the windows. Each of the 80 rooms has a fireplace adding a real cosiness when the June gloom kicks in.

Book it: $126 plus tax and fees

Harbor View Inn, Santa Barbara
The clue is in the title with this airy boutique hotel. Minutes away from the broad beaches and mast-filled harbour of Santa Barbara, it features 115 rooms built around a courtyard garden and swimming pool.

Harbor View Inn

Perfectly placed for meandering down to State Street for holiday shopping, where local artisan wine and food shops are flanked by designer and high street stores along long stretches of wide palm lined streets.

Book it: $250 plus tax and fees

Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, Santa Monica
This hotel has been offering high-octane glamour since 1921. Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Steven Spielberg all stayed here; Greta Garbo lived here for more than four years.

Choose from 302 rooms and bungalows surrounded by tropical gardens sitting behind truly iconic beach scenes. Santa Monica Pier, with its giant ferris wheel and Venice Beach are easily reached from the hotel.

Book it: From $399 plus taxes and fees


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