Read an Excerpt
Pacific Coast Highway
By Tom Snyder
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Tom Snyder
All rights reserved.
YOUR PERSONAL TOUR
Highways can usually be driven in either direction, but books are pretty much a one-way proposition. So everything possible has been done to make this guide useful whether you are traveling north or south.
A town-by-town narrative for the entire highway follows, with towns and special wayside areas printed in boldface type.
Where directions are detailed, these are presented in boxes, for both northbound and southbound travelers.
Alternate routes commonly used in case of storm or slide damage are covered as well.
Special sections on books, food, and lodging are listed toward the back.
Which brings up the first major question: In which direction is it best to drive the coast?
To answer, you only need to know in what season you'll be traveling and how many days you have — the highway will tell you the rest.
In winter, the sun is lower on the horizon and not so intense, so driving toward it leads you into the warmth of Southern California. In summer, the cool forests of Oregon and Washington are inviting, so it feels good to put the sun over your shoulder and head north. But choose what feels best for you.
That's the major aim of this book, to be a traveling companion rather than a shop-here-eat-there guide.
Special places and attractions will be highlighted, but without laying out the journey in every detail. That way you'll be exploring your own possibilities, and the tour will be your adventure rather than someone else's.
Discounts, Maps, and Listings
Money-saving offers along PCH change daily and many disappear altogether during the summer. But one discount source you can count on every day is membership in the American Automobile Association.
Through the AAA's "Show Your Card and Save" program, you can expect discounts of 10 to 20 percent — enough to pay for your membership and realize some hefty travel savings, too. That's to say nothing of the value of a AAA card if you have a roadside emergency.
Cost of a one-year membership is around $40, varying from state to state, and members are entitled to free AAA TourGuides and maps for each state. Plus, if you are planning on doing much camping, the AAA publishes a comprehensive listing for California, Oregon, and Washington in their CampBook series.
NOTE: Other than state maps for California, Oregon, and Washington, there are exceptionally useful maps for your PCH tour. These include: San Diego Area, Oceanside-Escondido, Southern Orange County, Los Angeles — Southern Area, Los Angeles — Western. You'll also want the San Francisco city map. Free to members. Otherwise, $30 or more.
So if you're not already a member, do yourself a favor — and no, I don't get paid for saying this — by signing up with the American Automobile Association.
If you hadn't guessed, the summer season in California coastal communities can range from bustling to jam-packed.
So if possible, plan your Pacific Coast Highway tour off peak-season. Labor Day to mid-June is best. One special inducement is that October to February is the season when Monarch butterflies return to California and can be found in abundance in Pacific Grove and a few choice eucalyptus groves along the coast. And, of course, the rates for lodging are invitingly lower.
Another advantage of traveling along the coast in the off-season — even by a few days or weeks — is that marginal operators, whose quality could not attract local business, are shuttered and gone. That makes finding a nice place to eat much easier.
If an off-season tour is unworkable, here are a few suggestions for making the most of your time along the coast.
Make reservations well in advance in prime resort areas. And do all the information-gathering and booking you can over the Internet!
Arrange overnight stays so you are near but not necessarily in a coastal resort city or other popular destination. Reservations will be easier to obtain and rooms less costly.
If you are heading into a city like Los Angeles, time your arrival for about 9:30 A.M. and be clear of the freeways before 3:00 P.M. That will keep you out of the worst commuting traffic.
Information on attractions and accommodations is available from state departments of tourism and local visitors information centers. Promotional offers often accompany this material, so don't be shy.
PLANNING NOTE: For easy access to sources covering Pacific Coast Highway, visit www.sentimentaljourneys.org.
Making Your Tour Special
Now let's get to the fun part — planning your tour. For drivers from the East and airline passengers on direct flights, the major gateways to Pacific Coast Highway are Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The best corridors to follow driving out from the East are Route 66 and I-40, with I-10 as an alternative in the winter. Traveling Route 66 is always a joy, and takes six to ten days. (See Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion for details.) Best of all, a tour of Pacific Coast Highway will neatly cross the T of your Route 66 journey.
For a full tour of Pacific Coast Highway, San Diego makes the best beginning point. Starting from San Diego will require one to three days. If you haven't the time, turn north from Santa Monica for all but one hundred fifty miles of spectacular coastline.
In order not to feel rushed, figure on nine to ten days one-way for a full Pacific Coast tour. Allowing a little extra time for special places in each of the three states, it's best to plan on twelve to thirteen days to do the entire coast in one direction; at least three weeks overall.
Spectacular but shorter tours are also possible, but let's look at the full-course treatment first.
Complete Dream Tour
More of the West Coast can be explored with fly-drive-rail than any other way. If you are coming by air from the East or are taking an international flight, an all-pro dream tour can be yours by driving in one direction and returning via train to your arrival point. It's generally less expensive, too.
I've driven the West Coast, flown it at beach-house level, hitchhiked some of the highway, and ridden the rest on a motorcycle — probably in more than one incarnation — and I must tell you that the grandest complement to your drive is a return trip by rail through the Cascade Mountains. It will leave you breathless.
And as if that weren't enough, the Amtrak route along California's beaches will finish the job. For even though the coast highway is close to the ocean, the train offers a different and more intimate perspective.
If you are arriving at LAX, there are several options. You can pick up a rental car for the first leg south to San Diego. Or you might take Amtrak's marvelous Pacific Surfline service from Union Station in Los Angeles direct to city center in San Diego. Or, your airline may offer discount seating on connections from LAX.
The vehicle you choose will turn out to be a crucial decision, however. Make sure you choose something you'll enjoy driving and living with for your tour.
At Budget car rental you can even choose a Ford Ranger or a Mustang. Prefer a Jaguar? No problem. You could even request a real Woodie surfwagon — with Budget's huge fleet of fun cars, they might even have one. Not all specialty cars qualify for one-way rentals, though, so you may have some secondary choices to make.
A mid-sized car can be rented from Budget for twelve days with unlimited mileage for $300 to $500, depending on the season. And there is no drop-off charge. Specialty vehicles are in the $400 to $900 range. And your AAA card entitles you to a discount.
Other agencies offer similar rates, but you may encounter hefty one-way surcharges. As we go to press, Budget certainly looks like the best deal around. View their fleet at each location and make easy reservations online at www.budget.com. It's also wise to secure your rental early to take advantage of additional savings.
TRAVELER'S TIP: It is generally less expensive to rent through a hotel or downtown office during the week and at an airport on weekends. You may not always find the same selection of vehicles, though, so check on both.
Now, here comes the dream part. After you follow Pacific Coast Highway north, board Amtrak's classic Coast Starlight at Seattle or Olympia for your return through the Shasta Mountains to Los Angeles via Portland, the Bay Area, and Santa Barbara.
Travelers from the Northwest may board the train for the southern leg and return home by rental over Pacific Coast Highway.
NOTE: Don't confuse Coast Starlight service with southbound trains traversing California's central valley.
The Coast Starlight departs Seattle or Olympia before noon and you'll arrive in Los Angeles the next evening, refreshed and ready to head on home with stories of everything you've discovered on your journey.
A one-way coach reservation on Amtrak costs $120 to $170 (less if you are a student, senior, disabled, or a AAA member). You'll also be saving on accommodations, rental days, and fuel. Book via 1-800-USA-RAIL and receive a special rate with Hertz.
Shorter Dream Tours
Sometimes a split of champagne is just right for an early evening. And the same goes for touring. If you have fewer than ten days, take advantage of seasonal differences along the West Coast — make San Francisco your gateway.
In summer, take a cool, restful drive north from San Francisco, along unspoiled beaches in the Pacific Northwest and through the forests. You can walk for miles on parts of the coastline without seeing another soul. And just as the sea changes, each redwood and western cedar forest casts its own kind of enchantment. In three days you can make Portland; five will carry you around to Seattle.
At other times of the year, when the blahs set in, fly into San Francisco, rent a snappy little convertible, and head south along California's sun-drenched beaches. Again, except on weekends, you might have the whole place pretty much to yourself. With an overnight in Santa Cruz, three days will take you to Los Angeles; five will easily see you through to San Diego.
Whether north or south, though, combine your drive with Amtrak's superb Coast Starlight or Pacific Surfline service for return, or fly home from your final destination.
You'll find information on a number of travel options at www.sentimentaljourneys.org, a site designed for travelers planning tours on Pacific Coast Highway, Route 66, and other two-lane highways across America.
Now, take a step back in time with me and imagine the West Coast as it was in the decades after the 1930s. That was the heyday of the highway you're about to travel.
What was playing on the radio? What were travelers' fears and dreams back then? What did they find along this very special highway? What will you find ...?
Retro-touring is about what Jack Kerouac called "the goingness of it all." It's also about fusing memories and stories of the past in order to enrich the present — bringing us more fully into each moment, producing a new level of experience.
Rain. Heat. An ice-cold drink. Stories of romance and adventure. Sunset colors. Nat King Cole. Garcia. The Beach Boys. A stranger's welcoming smile.
Traveling is also about the simple things in life, often lost in the shuffle of our regular world. On the road they become important again. So traveling is about being regular. It's about buying dopey T-shirts and sometimes acting silly for the camera. Traveling is about having a bathroom every day that is cleaner than the one at home.
And traveling is about knowing that you started your day way back there and ended up way over here.CHAPTER 2
LIFE AND TIMES OF PCH
The West Coast has miles of great highways. But the three states rarely agreed on signage, and California once created the most godawful numbering system of all. Pacific Coast Highway is heir to those inconsistencies, so here's a thumbnail history.
In 1909, the California State Legislature established numbered highways. These numbers were never posted along highways, but appeared on maps until 1958 — at which time there were 240 such routes.
Later, in the mid-1920s, a new numbering system was developed for all U.S. highways. North-south routes were assigned odd numbers, and east-west routes were assigned even numbers. Another feature of the new numbering system was the practice of assigning the number 1 to north-south highways of importance. The easternmost road along the Atlantic Coast became US 1, and so on.
In the ensuing scramble, what was originally called Pacific Highway became US 99, while the north-south highway farther west became US 101.
That made sense at the time, but other interests were at work and optional routings of US 101 appeared, including: US 101E, US 101W, US 101A, and Bypass US 101. For a while, 101 was all over the place.
Worse, when transportation officials began numbering routes that had already been signed by the auto clubs, these numbers were different from the legislative numbers. Some routes actually had three separate numbers at the same time!
For example, the coastal highway from the junction of US 101 in Ventura County to Los Angeles — officially named Pacific Coast Highway — was also listed as Legislative Route 60, State Signed Route 1, and US 101A. And in Malibu, the road was for a time known as Roosevelt Highway. Near San Diego, it's now a county road. In the north, US 101 is signed as the Redwood Highway or Pacific Coast Scenic Byway.
So while the route in this guide is derived from the US 101 series, along with highways like CA 1, our test-travelers thought the term Pacific Coast Highway would be easiest for visitors to grasp, while a route closest to the ocean would be their preference.
And that's what we decided to do.CHAPTER 3
WOODIES, SURFING, AND LIFE
What's a Woodie? Well, for one thing a Woodie is the last remnant of the true coach-builders' art, dating from a time when wood was the structural material of wagons and early automobiles. Not stamped steel, covered with bits of stick-on plastic.
That much is history. But a Woodie is also an icon, emblematic of beaches and surfing and Pacific Coast Highway and much of what people who live along the ocean care about deeply.
Around 1910, automobiles were just going into serious production and companies were looking toward a vehicle that could replace the horse-drawn depot hacks that hauled passengers and their luggage from the railway depot to a local hotel.
It was a throwback, really. But even Henry Ford — not exactly a spendthrift — could see that customers treasured them. By the late 1920s, these depot hacks were being called estate wagons to help sell the idea to mansion-dwellers who had enough money to buy a high-ticket item.
People, then as now, fell in love with the retro look of the Woodie. But the vehicles still had no windows and were basically wagons with roofs and penny-ante engines.
By the late 1930s, Woodies had much of the look that we associate with them today. But there was a problem with owning a car built almost entirely of wood — maintenance. Early finishes did not hold up well in eastern winters or under western sun. And one by one, the wagons everyone loved were traded on the cheap for steel-bodied cars.
Many used Woodies turned up in Southern California, where they were snapped up as luxury symbols in a land where you are what you drive.
Yet Woodies did little better in the damp, salt air, and one by one, they were resold — or given to do-nothing sons who spent their days at something called surfing.
It was then that the Woodie surf-wagon was born. Hundreds of them dotted the California coast in the 1950s and early '60s as surfing became popular. With international competition and media attention, early surfers grew toward godhood. Younger surfers and collectors were soon paying dearly for the old Woodies their heroes had been driving. And in that moment the Woodie passed into song and legend.
Today, surviving Woodies (now numbering only a fraction of the thousands built) recall sweet days of surf and sand and music and good times. What's even more important is that every Woodie reminds us that it was once a tree — and how fragile our connection is with the bounty on which the entire coast is founded.
Which brings us back to surfing and its relationship to life, along the waveline and elsewhere. For surfing offers a connection with nature and power — and one's own sweet juices — that few activities can match.
Airplanes and other high-performance machines are certainly thrilling, and there are few rushes equal to dialing a motorcycle up to a hundred and watching the world blur by. Yet it's all mechanical; even sky-diving is machine-dependent. Not surfing.
On the water, it is just you — a resin sliver under your toes — and tons of rolling sea water in a ten- or twenty-foot wave right over your shoulder. If you've never surfed, you can take it on faith that this is both a humbling and ecstatic experience.
Excerpted from Pacific Coast Highway by Tom Snyder. Copyright © 2000 Tom Snyder. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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