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Cruising California

The California State Route 1, also known as Highway 1, is one of the most beautiful coastal routes in the world. iFly reporter Iris van den Broek drove along this ‘all American highway’ from San Francisco to the City of Angels. A trip along the strawberry fields and rugged cliffs, past dozing elephant seals and through beach towns that seem to be frozen in time.

Hit the road
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The man at the Hertz rental counter in San Francisco eyes me jealously when I tell him what I am going to do: “Highway 1? Well, you’re in for a real treat”. And he is right, which is why we have put this 442-mile stretch of coast (over 700 kilometres) on the iFly Bucket List. You could drive it in a day, but then you’d miss a lot, so I have reserved three days for my trip. This route is also known as the ‘all American highway’ because of its spectacular views and ever-changing landscape.

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Pescadero to Santa Cruz

Heading out of town, Highway 1 cuts right through Golden Gate Park. Once I leave the bustle of San Francisco behind, I see the Pacific Ocean loom ahead. Spectacular! The first stretch of the route also goes through forest and farmland. The road is lined with fruit stands. Kiwis, cherries, bananas, corn, strawberries and oranges: everything is grown locally and comes straight from the farm. I pause at Swanton Berry Farm near Pescadero. Here you can pick your own strawberries from one of the many fields. “Swanton is the first certified organic strawberry farm in the United States,” explains the vendor at the fruit stand. The strawberries taste wonderfully sweet. My road trip is off to a delicious start!

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What makes Highway 1 so great is that the breathtaking natural beauty alternates with some wonderful small towns that seem to be frozen in time. One of the first places I hit is Santa Cruz, a typical Californian beach town with tall palm trees. This place still exudes the charm of the sixties, especially on the boardwalk with its old-school Americana vibe. Surf culture dominates the scene: this is where the sport first made its entry in California. It's laid-back and relaxed. I could easily spend a few days here.

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“Beams of sunshine sparkle in the spray of the waves, casting a golden glow on the rocks in the ocean”

Breathtaking Big Sur

Highway 1 is a long string of dazzling visual attractions but the most beautiful stretch lies between Big Sur and San Simeon. Here I see the forces of nature in action: giant Redwood trees reach high into the sky and the Pacific Ocean pounds on the huge rock formations along the coast. One of the most beautiful secluded beaches is rugged Pfeiffer Beach. For over three kilometres I wind my way down an inconspicuous side road (if you see the Big Sur Deli, you’ve gone too far) to reach the beach. I arrive just as the sun is setting. Beams of sunshine sparkle in the spray of the waves, casting a golden glow on the rocks in the ocean. It’s the perfect place to stop.

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Fortunately my accommodation is nearby at the Ripplewood Resort. I spend the night in a cosy cabin, listening to the sounds of the Big Sur River in the background.

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Elephant seals and cowboy hats

When I continue my drive the next morning, the weather is foggy, a common occurrence along the coast. But even without the sun the route is stunning. I stop at Limekiln State Park for a short walk to a beautiful waterfall in the middle of the forest.

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As I drive on, the landscape quickly changes from mountainous and green to dry and vast. One stop I definitely don’t want to miss is near San Simeon, and this is where I hope to see the elephant seals of Piedras Blancas. A narrow strip of sand, just off the road, is home to a huge colony of these interesting mammals. A custom-built boardwalk allows me to get a close-up look at them.

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Half an hour later I arrive at Cayucos, a classic Californian beach town with a great Wild West vibe. Men stroll around wearing cowboy hats and the town even has a saloon. But the real attraction is the Brown Butter Cookie Company: a small local cookie manufacturer and shop, run by two sisters. Their Original Brown Butter Sea Salt Cookie is known all over the US.

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“Neon signs, diners and motels dating back to the 1950s compose the streetscape of Pismo Beach”

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The California dream in Pismo Beach

Dusk is around the corner as I arrive at Pismo Beach, where easy living is the way to go. In the late afternoon sun, surfers carry their boards across the wide stretch of sand to the ocean and people stroll across the pier. Price Street, the town’s main street, exudes a delightful retro charm. Neon signs, diners and motels dating back to the 1950s compose the streetscape. Pismo Beach is also known as the ‘clam capital of the world’. For the best clam chowder, head to the Splash Café. The queue stretches around the corner.

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Along vineyards and ranches

The next day I drive from Pismo Beach to my final destination, Los Angeles, once again through a completely different landscape of vineyards and ranches. At Gaviota, Highway 1 hugs the coast again and I reach Santa Barbara, perhaps the prettiest town in California. Pristine white beaches on the one side and vast vineyards on the other: I can understand why the rich and famous flock here. The city boasts many Spanish influences, which only enhance its envy-inducing charm.

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The closer I get to Los Angeles, the more traffic I encounter. Dozens of motor caravans are parked in a special parking lot to accommodate Americans spending a weekend by the ocean. I wouldn’t exactly call it idyllic, but it’s one way to briefly escape the big city. I pass Malibu and after 700 kilometres of highlights I reach Santa Monica, with its world-famous pier. Although it signals the end of a road trip I will never forget, the pier is the perfect spot to reflect on my journey — comfortably seated on a bench by the beach of course. The California way of life suits me very well.

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