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Road Trip (I): Highway 1, Monterey, Pebble Beach, Big Sur

My trip back to Australia for the semester break was a long one. Prior to Christmas, I packed into a car with four other international students at Berkeley, and we drove down California Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. From LA I flew to Hawaii and visited Honolulu for a couple days, and finally jetted back into Sydney two days before Christmas Day. This is the first installment of a series of blog posts about this great trip.

The famous Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance, located in the Big Sur region

Highway 1 snakes down the California coastline, following some of the most beautiful seaside scenery in the US. It starts well north of the Bay Area, near a little town called Leggett in Mendocino County, and continues south for over a thousand kilometres until reaching its terminus in Orange County near Los Angeles. There are a great variety of roads of the route, ranging from modern, fast freeways to meandering roads through small towns and cliffside stretches following twists of the coast - hairpin turn after hairpin turn at less than 60 km/h (or 35 mph). The weather is extremely variable - whilst it rained on most days during the trip (sigh), we would have bursts of brilliant sunshine before plunging into fog and rain.

We joined Highway 1 at Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, having crossed the Bay Bridge from Berkeley. Passing Half Moon Bay on the way, our first stop on the trip was Monterey, roughly 3 hours south of San Francisco. Famous for its yearly jazz festival, the sea life in the Monterey Aquarium as well as Monterey Bay, the city featured California's first theatre, public library, public school, and printing press. Today, the 30,000 inhabitants of the city are reminded of their history through attractions such as the historic Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf.

Both the wharf area and Cannery Row are filled with overpriced tourist traps selling all manner of trinkets, tidbits, and tasty things. The harbours are covered with boats of all kinds, as well as these friendly inhabitants above who were catching some of the feeble sun that day. I think the highlight of Monterey for me was our hostel, which featured a large lounge with comfortable couches and even a piano. It had a lovely friendly atmosphere, and was probably the most hospitable place we stopped at.

Our second day of travel took us from Monterey down to Santa Barbara - approximately six hours of driving, with several hours of stops along the way. Just south of Monterey sits 17 Mile Drive, a famous scenic route through Pebble Beach. Many mansions and pricey golf courses line the road; a portion of the route is actually within a gated residential community, and requires a $9.75 toll to traverse. The full length of the drive is actually 17 miles, but this requires a full loop back to the starting point at Sunset Drive; most people exit before completing the full loop to continue driving south.

Upon paying the toll, you receive a map pointing out the major attractions along the way. The Drive snakes along the coast and through leafy forests, gently undulating around Pebble Beach. There are many great spots to stop and take photos of the houses, golf courses, and coastline; you're joined in this undertaking by coaches full of tourists and numerous cars of sightseers.

The most famous attraction is the Lone Cypress tree, situated about halfway along the drive. Balanced on an outcrop and framed by mountains and the sea, the tree is striking in its solidarity. It is the symbol of Pebble Beach, though there is some debate as to whether the Pebble Beach community can enforce a trademark over use of its images (as they claim). It's hard to do it justice in words, but seeing it in person is very special.

South of 17 Mile Drive lies Carmel and the Big Sur region. The road is almost exclusively coast-bound through this area, with nerve-wracking cliffside hairpins the order of the day. One of the most beautiful spots is the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and the McWay Falls. It is one of the few waterfalls in the world that empties directly into the ocean, doing so into an exquisitely turquoise cove. This picture was taken in September; the cove was far less picturesque on this second visit in the height of winter.

As we drove on from Big Sur and the day wound down, the weather turned for the worse. Drizzle and fog enveloped the coastline, making for some slightly hair raising driving along twisty cliffside roads shrouded in clouds. But we safely reached Santa Barbara after nightfall, and I'll write more about its sights next time.

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