Out of Town - California's Hwy. 1: Los Angeles to San Francisco

It’s true that most who travel between the West Coast’s largest gay meccas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, do so by way of a simple one-hour flight. But there’s a great reason for driving between these two cities, and not even by way of the most direct route (along I-5). The often narrow and windy coastal route, using Hwy. 1 and — optionally — portions of the faster U.S. 101 - takes a minimum of 10 hours to drive. But this roughly 450-mile tour passes through some of the most spectacularly scenery in North America, from soaring coastal palisades to vineyard-studded wine country. If you’re an ardent road-tripper, you owe it to yourself to make this drive at least once in your life.

I’m providing a blueprint for making this tour south to north (starting in coastal L.A.), with several overnights. It’s perfectly fine to plan your trip from north to south. Whatever you decide, allow yourself at least three days to make this trip, and aim for a week if possible. You could easily spend two weeks on this adventure and never run out of cool things to see and do, especially if you tack on some days at either end, around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Be aware that most rental-car companies charge a $100 to $150 drop-off fee (or a higher daily rate in this range) for picking up a car in one city and returning it in another. Alternatively, you can make this a round-trip drive (for a quicker return, take I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley — the drive takes between six and seven hours).

Start your journey in the coastal section of L.A. — the neighboring communities of Venice Beach and Santa Monica have much to offer and enjoy a low-keyed but substantial gay following. The only gay bar along the coast is the endearingly quirky and fun Roosterfish, along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, which is rife with trendy restaurants and design shops. Also be sure to explore lower Santa Monica’s engaging Main Street, which is also a great source of offbeat shopping and fun cafes. In lively downtown Santa Monica, you’ll find chic retail at the open-air Santa Monica Place, and it’s also worth timing your visit with the Santa Monica Farmers Market, held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Santa Monica is also a great place for visiting one of the world’s most talked-about art museums, the Getty Center, which is as famous for its precious holdings as for architect Richard Meier’s striking — and controversial — design. Also, at the northern end of Santa Monica you’ll find the area’s top gay beach, at Will Rogers State Beach - on a sunny day, there are few more enjoyable places to people-watch.

The area abounds with great restaurants, including pan-Latin Border Grill, which is run by the highly talented and engaging chefs Mary Sue Milliken and (openly lesbian) Susan Feniger, of cookbook and TV cooking-show fame. Other downtown Santa Monica standouts include Blue Plate Oysterette and Rustic Canyon, and right near the Santa Monica border in Venice, the Rose Cafe and Market is a perfect stop for grabbing coffee, sandwiches, and gourmet picnic supplies.
Accommodations in Santa Monica and Venice
Loews Santa Monica Beach (www.santamonicaloewshotel.com), a swanky beachfront resort; Embassy Hotel Apartments (www.embassyhotelapts.com), quirky, historic, and moderately priced with central Santa Monica location; and Hotel Erwin (www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/losangeles/erwin), hip boutique hotel overlooking Venice Beach.
From Santa Monica, if you take the longer, scenic way up the coast on Hwy. 1, it’s about a two-hour drive to one of the most beautiful small cities on the West Coast, lovely Santa Barbara. Upon arriving in town, grab lunch somewhere overlooking the ocean — both Brophy Bros. Seafood and the less touristy Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach are excellent choices. Then head inland into the dramatic foothills above downtown to reach the Mission Santa Barbara, the 10th of 21 Franciscan missions built in California during the 18th century, and the nearby Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; allow a couple hours to appreciate these attractions. For sunset drinks and appetizers, drive east through the foothills to San Ysidro Ranch, a stunning resort in Montecito.
Even by coastal California’s high standards, Santa Barbara stands out when it comes to culinary prowess. If you’re in town for just one night, do not miss out on dinner at Seagrass Restaurant, which serves refined farm-to-table regional cuisine, with an emphasis on local seafood. Nowhere along the central coast will you find any full-time gay bars, but Santa Barbara does have some fun mixed hangouts, including Wildcat Lounge — which has a mostly gay night on Sundays — and Elsie’s Tavern.
Accommodations in Santa Barbara
Four Seasons Biltmore (www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara), magnificent beachfront resort in tony Montecito; Franciscan Inn (www.franciscaninn.com), mid-priced and nicely run hotel within short walk of beach and downtown; Canary Hotel (www.canarysantabarbara.com), stylish downtown property steps from major shopping.

As you leave Santa Barbara (grab breakfast at the outstanding D’Angelo’s Bread if you need sustenance), you’ll be heading through the most dramatic stretch of scenery along this itinerary. Start by cutting inland slightly to the famed Santa Barbara Wine Country, and the towns of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez — take Hwy. 154 for the best scenery (it’s a 45-minute drive). In Los Olivos in particular, you’ll find a number of wine-tasting rooms, enticing boutiques, and first-rate restaurants within a few blocks.

Then from Los Olivos, continue up U.S. 101 for an hour to San Luis Obispo County, which takes in the small and attractive county seat as well as the increasingly notable Wine Country town of Paso Robles, which lies about a half-hour north. High-quality and in many cases small-scale wineries abound in this area, as do fine restaurants. San Luis Obispo has a pretty, tree-shaded downtown and a lively personality thanks to the presence of Cal Polytechnic University. You’ll find one of the better nightclubs in the area, Native Lounge, which has a mixed gay/straight following, as well as such notable restaurants as Novo, for mod California cuisine; Ciopinot for creative seafood with an Italian accent; and Big Sky Cafe, for the best brunch and breakfast fare in the area.

Fans of wine-touring should really budget an extra night in order to take full advantage of the many vineyards and tasting rooms in the countryside around Paso Robles. For meals, head to the town’s leafy and expansive town green, and explore the nearby blocks - you’ll find several fantastic dining options, including Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro and Artisan, both of which specialize in locally sourced provisions prepared with considerable flare.

One attraction in the area absolutely merits a two-hour stop is Hearst Castle, a grandiose antiques- and art-filled palace built by the late publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst (reservations for tours are recommended). It’s about an hour north of San Luis Obispo, in the tiny village of San Simeon - plan to have lunch afterwards at Sebastian’s Store deli, and on your way up from SLO, drive through the bustling fishing village of Morro Bay and the quaint town of Cayucos, which is home to the Brown Butter Cookie Company, whose lightly sea-salted cookies have earned this little bakery a cult following.
Accommodations in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles: San Luis Creek Lodge (www.sanluiscreeklodge.com), reasonably priced yet upscale property close to downtown San Luis Obispo shopping; Sycamore Springs Resort (www.sycamoresprings.com), century-old spa resort with an emphasis on holistic health; Cambria Pines Lodge (www.cambriapineslodge.com), romantic and gay-friendly hotel set amid magnificent gardens.

From Hearst Castle, the scenery along Highway 1 becomes even more eye-popping - it’s a similarly stunning drive up Hwy. 1 through the soaring palisades around Big Sur, and onto the Monterey Peninsula. It’s about a two-hour drive to Monterey, but if you’re driving through here as the sun is setting, you should budget an extra hour or so for a glass of wine and tapas at the Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant, which is perched on a cliff high above the ocean.

The Monterey Peninsula a favorite destination for several activities, from shopping in the tony village of Carmel to golfing at the famed Pebble Beach resort. As with other stretches of the central coast, it’s also well-regarded for its acclaimed wineries, and downtown Monterey has one of the top attractions in the state, the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, which anchors the touristy but fun Cannery Row district. Among the several terrific restaurants in the area, consider the stellar Passionfish, which has been a leading proponent of sustainable seafood, and Santa Lucia Cafe, a fine spot for breakfast or an afternoon espresso.
Accommodations in Big Sur and Monterey
Post Ranch Inn (www.postranchinn.com), posh and intimate cliff-top hotel in Big Sur; Clement Monterey InterContinental (www.ichotelsgroup.com), opulent hotel just steps in Cannery Row; Mariposa Inn (www.mariposamonterey.com), affordable yet elegant 50-room property with central location.

Drive around Monterey Bay via Hwy. 1 to reach the groovy beach city, Santa Cruz, where you’re apt to encounter a mix of surfer dudes, skate punks, and left-wing college students - a colorful scene to say the least. The Municipal Wharf, though kitschy and lined with souvenir stands, is worth checking out. Also stroll along the charmingly faded century-old Santa Cruz Boardwalk, whose half-mile-long wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, has been getting a rise out of tourists since 1924.

At this point you can cheat and sneak up to San Francisco in less than two hours via inland U.S. 101, perhaps stopping in charming Los Gatos, an upscale community in the foothills above San Jose. Stalwarts, however, won’t be disappointed by the views enjoyed along Hwy. 1, as it winds the rest of the way up the coast to that splendid City by the Bay.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website GayTravel.About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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