Picture yourself cruising down a twisty, 620-mile ribbon of asphalt, jagged cliffs to one side and the placid Pacific Ocean on the other. There’s only one place in the world you could be: The Pacific Coast Highway. Bejeweled by coastal towns and interesting attractions, we recommend you take at least five days and explore a long stretch of it while stopping at a few of our stylish hotels each night along the way. We also suggest traveling north to south for the best views of the ocean.
Day One: California Central Coast to Santa Barbara
We suggest starting in Monterey, Big Sur, Cambria, or around Morro Bay, leaving early and driving for a few hours. On this breathtaking leg of the journey, you’ll want to fire up some tunes and podcasts, roll down the windows to take it all in. Two stops worth getting out for, however, are the Bixby Bridge and Hearst Castle (where you can stroll the recently-reborn, Roman-style Neptune Pool that Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard used to swim in. Note: advance tour reservations are strongly recommended.)
Rest Stop: Kimpton Canary Hotel, a luxurious, Spanish-style hotel with an outdoor rooftop swimming pool.
Day Two: Santa Barbara
It’s time to dig in and explore. We suggest a morning hike at the Gaviota Wind Caves Trail. Duck into its sandstone caves formed by the wind and it can feel like you’re walking through tunnels in the air.
Afterward, cruise part of the California 1 portion of the PCH on over to Santa Barbara and plan a self-guiding walking tour of the “American Riviera” with its regal Spanish architecture. Alternatively, take a stroll in the Funk Zone around sunset, a hip district known for its murals, wine rooms and artisan clothing boutiques.
Day Three: Santa Barbara to Huntington Beach
Explore Lotusland in the morning (a massive botanical garden on 37 acres, conceived by a Polish opera singer) and stop by the local and dog-friendly Butterfly Beach. Hope back into the car, roll down the windows, and cruise for three hours down the coast to Huntington Beach. On the way, stop by Long Beach and stretch your legs at the Aquarium of the Pacific (one of the best aquariums on the West Coast). Once you arrive in Huntington Beach, maximize your trip with our hand-picked to-do’s like surfing lessons and yoga on the beach,
Rest Stop: Kimpton Shorebreak Resort, a surf-inspired hotel just steps from the beach and Main Street. Catch hang ten vibes at Pacific Hideaway, with amazing pier views and vibrant fare that takes cues from Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Latin and South America.
Day Four: Huntington Beach to San Diego
This is Surf City, one of America’s most agreeable and scenic places to embark on a surfing lesson or try stand-up paddle boarding (Shorebreak is partnered with the best local programs). Follow up your immersion with a visit to The International Surf Museum, a cool Art Deco building that houses an original hardwood surfboard that belonged to Duke Kahanamoku, “The Father of Modern Surfing,” as well as the world’s largest board. Then keep driving down to your last stop, San Diego, while passing Dana Point, San Clemente and Carlsbad along the way.
Day Five: San Diego
Right outside your front door is the heart of downtown, easily accessible to Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and Balboa Park. We also recommend a trip to The Salk Institute in La Jolla – designed by Louis Kahn, it’s a 1960s architectural treasure and research facility that has been called “San Diego’s anonymous Taj Mahal” due to its out-of-the-way location and low-key reputation.