Pacific Coastal Highways of California

Pacific Coastal Highway

This is part four in our Summer Road Trip series. We have already talked about road trippin’ Maine, Maui, and Florida.

Recommended Time: 7 to 10 days

Sand, sun, surf, and scenic drives: the stuff California dreams are made of. California’s coastal highways allow you to escape the bottle-necked freeways of the crowded cities, and live life in the slow lane. So, put the top down, feel the ocean breeze in your hair, and let the ribbons of highway take you on an adventure.

Although the Pacific Coast Highway only encompasses the stretch of road through Orange and Los Angeles counties, technicalities don’t seem to matter when you’re cruising down the California coast. Start your journey near the Oregon border with a visit to Redwood National & State Parks, home to the tallest trees on earth.

Photo: Wonderland

Continue down the coast and jut just a bit inland to the famed wine region of Napa and Sonoma counties. With more than 400 wineries to choose from, it’s an oenophile’s paradise, and a casual taster’s classroom. Scenic doesn’t even begin to describe the rolling hill and sundrenched vineyards found in the region. Each winery has its own flair and set of experiences—from a gondola ride to a hillside tasting room, to a tractor tour through the endless rows of grapes. Make time to take a bike ride to a few wineries, or even splurge on an early-morning hot air balloon ride over the vineyards.

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Next it’s on to San Francisco, driving into the city in the best way possible: over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Plan to spend a few days here, exploring the mystery of Alcatraz, the allure of Fisherman’s Wharf, and the serenity of Golden Gate Park. Be sure to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city by day for an easy way to see the highlights, and go back for more at night to see the city lights and hear stories about this beautiful city by the Bay. Make time for an unexpected highlight: the California Academy of Sciences, which is a natural history museum, rain forest, aquarium, and planetarium all in one. Soak up San Fran! It’s one of my favorite cities on earth!

Iconic Pier 39

Iconic Pier 39

Monterey comes next along the coast, with the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the beautiful galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here begins the most scenic day of driving, as the two-lane highway winds lazily along the mountains of Big Sur, offering sprawling ocean views. There are plenty of scenic stops along the way from McWay Falls to Pfeiffer Beach. Get out, stretch your legs, and take in the stunning scenery—and share your pictures to Instagram to instantly get thousands of likes!

Photo: Howard Ignatius

Make a pit stop near San Simeon to explore Hearst Castle, a beautiful hilltop mansion that stands as a testament to wealth and ambition. William Randolph Hearst, a 20th-century newspaper tycoon, built the estate in 1919. It included a grandiose main building, three guesthouses, and 127 acres of gardens, pools, and fountains. Today, you can tour this National Historic Landmark.

Photo: Cocoabiscuit

For quintessential California beaches blended with fantastic red wine, stop in Santa Barbara next. Dubbed the American Riviera, the climate has been described as “Mediterranean.” Come for the weather and the views, but stay for the film and art festivals!

Photo: Damian Gadal

Next up is Malibu with its 27 miles of scenic beauty, and gated homes of celebrities living merely meters from the coastline. Take a look inside one of the most beautiful mansions—the Getty Villa, housing the very best artifacts of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. This hilltop oasis takes you back in time, allowing you to not only see the art, but explore four gardens inspired by Roman models.

Photo: nicoleversetwo

End your trip down the California Pacific highways with visits to bustling Los Angeles and San Diego, if you so choose. From the big-screen fame and fortune of Hollywood to sparkling beaches of San Diego and its surrounding area, these two sprawling cities are about as eclectic as they come. Dedicate a few days of exploration to both.

Photo: peasap

What spots do you recommend on a Coastal California road trip?

Places

Redwood National & State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, CA, United States

Napa & Sonoma Counties

Napa Valley, Napa County, CA, United States

San Francisco

San Francisco, CA, United States

Monterey

Monterey, CA, United States

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, United States

San Simeon

San Simeon, CA, United States

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA, United States

Malibu

Malibu, CA, United States

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA, United States

San Diego

San Diego, CA, United States

Redwood National & State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks, CA, United States

Napa & Sonoma Counties

Napa Valley, Napa County, CA, United States

San Francisco

San Francisco, CA, United States

Monterey

Monterey, CA, United States

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, United States

San Simeon

San Simeon, CA, United States

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA, United States

Malibu

Malibu, CA, United States

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA, United States

San Diego

San Diego, CA, United States

Photo Byte Friday: Black and White

My favorite black and white friends!
My favorite black and white friends!

I’ve been posting “Photo Bytes” for a while now—giving you a glimpse of a destination. Each week, there is a themed photo sharing event called FriFotos, which is just plain fun, so I’m going to start sharing my favorite photos each week based on that particular theme. I hope you enjoy Photo Byte Fridays!

This week’s theme is Black and White. I love photos that are completely devoid of color. There’s something magical about them. They have a timeless quality. They’re a perfectly preserved memory—a captured moment from journeys gone by.

Timeless tranquility in Charleston, South Carolina.

Unwavering oaks of the South.

The journey ahead in Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.

A fleeting sunset kiss in St. Lucia.

I love creating black and white photos of places that hold a lot of history. They’re recognizable. Everyone knows the stories they have to tell. But it’s as if the life has been removed from them, and they stand silent, frozen in a moment.

Alcatraz sits in the San Francisco Bay. This was during the 2013 government shutdown when National Park land was closed, and thus, no one was able to visit the island—which made it all the more eerie. I was able to visit the following year.

The USS Arizona Memorial is anchored over the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” -Virgil

The 14 Best Travel Moments of 2014

Rainbow over Costa Rica
Rainbow over Costa Rica

Each year, we like to look back on some of the highlights from our year of travels. Check out the post from 2013! We did a lot of traveling this year, going everywhere from Washington D.C. to New York City, Charleston to Orlando, Cancun to Costa Rica. We’ve decided to each pick our seven favorite travel experiences, and share them with you in no particular order.

Feel free to share your favorite travel experiences in the comments below!

Kim’s Top 7

Be Free, Little Turtles!

What fun it was to release several hundred baby sea turtles to the ocean one evening in Cancun. I got to hold three of them, feeling their flippers beat against my fingers as they squirmed to be set free. There is no flash photography allowed, as it could disorient them, but watching the tiny turtles slip and slide their way to the ocean in the dim light is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Escape to Alcatraz

After a failed attempt to see Alcatraz last year due to the government shutdown, I was bound and determined to see the famed prison this year while I was at a conference in San Francisco. It was surreal to walk the hallways and see the cells that hardened criminals once inhabited. And what an eerie calmness passes over you when you go out to the courtyard area of the prison which overlooks the city, seemingly a world away.

Science, Stars, and Sharks… Oh, My!

Exploring the Nightlife of the California Academy of Sciences was a real highlight for me this year. What a fun place! With a rainforest, aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium, this place has a little bit of everything. This adults-only event happens every Thursday night, and I just so happened to be there for Sharktober, which was awesome!

Christmastime in the City

As an Upstate New Yorker, I’ve long wanted to go to NYC to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the beautiful seasonal window displays, and this year, we finally got to do it! The City is one that always hustles and bustles, but there’s something special—almost magical—about it on an evening in December, and I’m so glad I finally got to experience it, cup of hot cocoa in hand.

Home Away From Home

I’ve often heard that some people find their “home away from home” while on vacation, but it hadn’t happened to me before. That all changed in Costa Rica. The nine beautiful days we spent at the Beach Bungalows in Tamarindo were absolutely perfect—both in our surroundings and the company. Our hosts Trish and Claudio were the friendliest, most generous people we’ve had the pleasure to meet while traveling, and they made our time there an absolute joy. And, of course, we loved spending time with their beautiful dogs, Stella and Parker. What a paradise they have created in this seaside town!

Soaking in the Hot Springs

I have wanted to go to Costa Rica since high school, and one of the things at the top of my list was to soak in some natural hot springs. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort was certainly the place to do it, with the beautifully manicured grounds, and gloriously warm water cascading throughout the resort near Arenal Volcano. Whether you wanted to sit under a waterfall, or relax in a shallow pool, the options were limitless, and there seemed to be enough room for everyone to enjoy the water—something I had been worried about since it’s such a big attraction. It was a great way to spend an afternoon!

Christmas in Costa Rica

Kyle and I have been talking about spending Christmas at a beach for a long time, and this year, we finally did it! How amazing it was to spend the entire day splashing in the waves, and soaking in the sun. This year convinced me I’d trade a snowy Christmas for a sandy one any year!

Kyle’s Top 7

Visiting the Newseum in D.C.

Opened in 2008, the Newseum was created to educate people on the five freedoms provided by the First Amendment. Out front is a display of the front page of a newspaper from every state (and several countries) for that particular day. Aside from this very cool street-side display, the Newseum has some fantastic exhibits worth checking out. Highlights for me included sections of the Berlin Wall, a collection of historically significant headlines (e.g. outbreaks of war), a memorial to fallen journalists including a truck shot up in Sarajevo and a truly touching 9/11 memorial. Overall, I can’t think of a single exhibit that was lacking when compared to the rest – this is a must for anyone interested in some of the biggest moments in history for the last two centuries.

Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica

I’ve been whitewater rafting a couple of times in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon when I was a kid. The rapids are class II/III there, but are overall pretty easy to navigate. The opportunity to go again in Costa Rica was one of the things I was most excited for, and the Río Colorado just north of Liberia did not disappoint. We took a tour from our hotel in Tamarindo to reach the Cañón de la Vieja Adventure Lodge – about an hour drive. This tour featured several activities, which we’ll write about in the future, but the rafting was by far the best. There are a handful of calmer spots for you to catch your breath and overall, beginners will have no trouble tackling these rapids; however, there are a couple of thrilling drops to ratchet up the experience. You WILL get wet and it is awesome!

Wormsloe Historic Site

I wrote about this one recently, but let me sum it up for you. Wormsloe is a beautiful plantation built by one of the members of the party that founded Savannah, Georgia. Unlike other plantations in the south, this historic site doesn’t feature an extravagant mansion with large, well-groomed grounds. Instead, Wormsloe is more like a nice nature park centered on the long-abandoned ruins of one of the first homes in the area. It is known best for its gorgeous driveway, which is frequently photographed, but I really liked the tabby ruins themselves. This was my favorite part of Savannah.

Xcaret: The History of Mexico

Part of a group of attractions aimed at educating people on the history, traditions and ecology of Mexico, Xcaret is a park about an hour outside Cancun’s Hotel Zone that features a dinner show similar to Medieval Times – except that this one is infinitely better. The food is good, but the show is awesome, transporting you from ancient Maya to present day and highlighting much of the musical tradition of Mexico. Standout moments included a recreation of two ancient sports from the region: pok-ta-pok and pelota purépecha (similar to field hockey, but with FIRE). This was one of the handful of touristy things that we got to do in Cancun while we attended TBEX and it was a real joy to experience.

Visiting Charleston Plantations

More plantations… really? How many plantations can one person enjoy in a year? Yes – more plantations, but only because each plantation has its own feel. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features the traditional southern plantation home surrounded by gardens that have been allowed to grow in a more uncontrolled fashion. This means it has a much more natural look and ensures you’ll see more wildlife – we saw alligators, turtles and a bald eagle here. Middleton Place on the other hand is beautiful in that aristocratic sense – its gardens are carefully manicured and beautifully kept. Overall, both are absolutely worth the visit.

The Rides in Disney

We had a rough time in Florida this year, but problems aside – Disney has world-class rides. I’m a big fan of Expedition Everest – I love everything about it from the set dressing to the rapid shifts in direction. Kim on the other hand – she’s all about Space Mountain.

Visiting Central Park for the first time

Despite having been to New York City a number of times, somehow neither of us had ever managed to make it over to Central Park. It’s kind of a weird oversight, I know. We visited in late spring and lucked out as the weather was perfect. As we walked around, Kim pointed out that this was the first time she’d ever really liked NYC. Until that moment, both of us had always seen NYC as a dirty, busy, necessary evil that we had to visit for work or to see a Broadway show. It took us walking around the oasis that is Central Park to understand that NYC doesn’t have to be about fighting your way through crowds and running all the time. Instead, you can enjoy lunch by the boat pond, watching as people of all ages sail their miniature boats. You can stroll about, just taking in the well-kept park as people walk their dogs or play pick-up games around you. Finish out your trip by riding the carousel at least once – it certainly isn’t the most amazing carousel of all time, but it just feels like something you have to do. Overall, walking through Central Park was a standout New York moment for both of us.

Cheers to many more adventures in 2015!

Escape TO Alcatraz… at long last!

It's time!
It's time!

Everyone who’s visited San Francisco knows that a visit to Alcatraz Island is a must-do. When I found out I would be visiting the city for a conference last year, Kyle decided he wanted to fly out after I finished with work, mainly so he could see the famed prison. We made all the arrangements, and planned lots of activities for an extended weekend in San Fran. Then the government shut down.

It was October 2013, and there had been a lot of talk in the news about the 80,000 government workers who were furloughed, and some 1.3 million more who had to report to work without knowing when they would next be paid. My little Upstate New York town had been relatively unscathed by the happenings in Washington, but spending a week in San Francisco opened my eyes to the effect the shutdown had on other parts of the country—more specifically, the tourism industry.

Probably very few visitors to the city realize how many attractions are on National Park land, all of which across the country was closed during the government shutdown—including Alcatraz. Even the Cliff House, a fantastic restaurant where we dined one night, was closed for more than a week and had to petition the government for permission to re-open, since it sits on Golden Gate National Park land.

There was also an unfortunate circumstance where I wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge from a stop along the Big Bus route, but it was closed due to the shutdown. Someone told us we could walk down to the same spot, which we ended up doing, but then had to hike 5 miles uphill to Sausalito. Ugh. It was much easier to get to the same vantage point during my recent visit!

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So, at long last, I was able to visit the hauntingly beautiful prison set in solitude, 1.5 miles out in the frigid, supposedly shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay. An added bonus was that it was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and I got to watch the Blue Angels dart in perfect synchronization back and forth across the sky as the ferry boat glided closer to the island. I kept sending pictures to Kyle who was some 2,000 miles away this year – already jealous he wasn’t getting to see Alcatraz, but now even more upset he was missing the air show.

Fleet Week: Watching the Blue Angels

Fleet Week: Watching the Blue Angels

First, I walked the seasonal Agave Trail to get a beautiful view of San Francisco, and to watch the planes before the fog rolled in. Then I made my way to the prison, set high on a hill. I started the self-guided audio tour, and found myself being thankful that the night tour that I had wanted to go on was sold out. That might have been a bit much for me to handle on my own! The tour is narrated by former correctional officers from Alcatraz—and prisoners who once served time on the rock. A unique, but eerie perspective, knowing these hardened criminals were one locked away in the cells you’re peering into.

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There were about 260 prisoners on Alcatraz at any given time, and 1,576 inmate numbers were issued – but some people served multiple sentences. You’d think if you’d spent time in the harshest prison in America, you would have learned your lesson the first time! The island functioned as a penitentiary for 29 years (1934-1963), and during that time there were 14 escape attempts. Throughout the tour, you’ll hear about the most famous attempt in June 1962, the subject of the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Over the course of a year, three men had assembled a raft out of raincoats and cement, dug holes in their cell walls with spoons, and fashioned dummy heads to leave in their beds. They scurried up the ventilation system onto the roof, managed to get over the prison fence, inflated the raft on the shore of the island, and disappeared into the night. Parts of the raft were found, but the men were neither seen nor heard from again.

The recorded tour takes about 45 minutes, and leads you through various parts of the jail, including the cafeteria, library, and administration wing. You’ll see lots of cells and even get to go in a few. Seeing some of the personal belongings of the inmates was interesting—there was one guy who taught people to paint and another, to crochet.

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D-Block was where the worst criminals—the likes of Al Capone—were “segregated.” The 42 cells, ironically are slightly bigger than the rest, and positioned directly across from a high window wall, with views of the San Francisco skyline. If you were lucky enough to get out of your cell to catch a glimpse, it was a harsh reminder of the world you weren’t allowed to be a part of—existing a mere 1.5 miles away from your world of steel bars and concrete.

A world away.

A world away.

It was an interesting experience, visiting this former jail by myself. The air was heavy; laden with the sadness and tragedy that took place here. It’s one of those places that makes you think, “If only walls could talk.” Imagine the stories they would have to tell!

Enjoying the “Nightlife” of the California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences at Night
California Academy of Sciences at Night

I had barely been in San Francisco 15 minutes before I was given my first recommendation for a place I had to visit. I like to ask locals about their favorite off-the-beaten-path things to do. I met a girl from San Francisco on the BART (public transportation) leaving the airport, and she told me I absolutely had to visit the California Academy of Sciences, preferably on a Thursday night if I could swing it.

I had actually never heard of this place before—it’s not one of the typical tourist traps—but once she told me a bit about it, I was intrigued. I love a good museum—I should; I work at one!—but this place is no ordinary museum. This place has a natural history museum complete with Tyrannosaurus Rex, an aquarium where you can find much more than Nemo, a four-story indoor rainforest, and the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. The museum’s tagline is, “Let the Wonder Begin.” And wow, do they have that right! This place is incredible.

Located in Golden Gate Park, The California Academy of Sciences sees a lot of people in a day. It’s a stop on the Big Bus hop-on, hop-off tour I did. Typically, the museum closes at 5 p.m., but every Thursday night, it takes on a whole new life—“Nightlife” to be exact.

I was quite familiar with the idea of an after-hours, 21+ party-style experience at a museum. The Corning Museum of Glass where I work does this during the off season with what we call 2300°. One Thursday a month (six times a year), we throw a big themed shindig, complete with live music, Finger Lakes wine and beer, and, of course, a few special glassblowing demos. So, needless to say, I was expecting great things from California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife—especially when I heard the theme was “Sharktober!”

I have a love/hate relationship with the predators of the sea. I basically don’t go in the ocean for fear of losing a limb, but I can’t get enough of Shark Week! The evening’s schedule of events included a special planetarium show called “Lost Sharks,” where ocean experts and scientists took control of the “sky” to zoom in on areas of the world where they are out researching brand new shark species, many of which were featured on this year’s Alien Shark: Return to the Abyss” during Shark Week. Dr. David Ebert with the Pacific Shark Research Center told us all about his work in remote locations across the globe, and how he’s found so many new species of sharks, he’s started naming them for people. He even named a shark after his niece as a graduation gift! I found it ironic to be sitting in a planetarium talking about naming sharks for people, the same way you can name a star.

The Ocean Research Foundation conducted a lively game of shark trivia in the aquarium, shark-themed balloons were set up in the outdoor biergarten, and slightly sloshed adults were fashioning shark fin headdresses out of foam and plastic beads. And yes, I have photographic evidence to prove it!

There were tons of shark-themed drinks available (at an extra cost, of course), but considering admission is only $12 for Nightlife instead of the typical $34.95, I didn’t feel badly paying an extra $12 for a pretty drink.

In another area of the museum, a shark attack survivor gave a presentation about his ordeal. It always amazes me to hear their stories—especially when they say they aren’t hesitant to jump back in the ocean, and many of them are actively involved in organizations that work to protect sharks.

When I wasn’t having shark-themed fun, I took some time to explore the main exhibits of the museum. The four-story rainforest was extremely impressive—this soaring glass cylinder in the middle of the building. Each level featured trees and plants from different tropical locations, like Costa Rica, which I paid particular attention to because of our upcoming Christmas trip! Butterflies floated about the entire exhibit. There was something very calming about walking through it.

The aquarium had exhibits of sea life from all over the planet, but there was an exceptional exhibit on the creatures of the California Coast.

I also went back to the planetarium to catch a regular show that is run on any given day, called Dark Universe, which detailed two cosmic mysteries: dark matter and dark energy. I enjoyed it, since I’ve always been fascinated with planetariums, but there was something about being part of the first shark-themed experience that seemed much cooler. That was a live, special show. This was a narrated program, that while excellent, seemed much less intimate. I guess that’s a perk of attending a Nightlife event. I highly recommend seeing whatever the custom show for that week is—but the trick to seeing planetarium shows on these nights is to get there early and wait in line for passes. It’s a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no additional cost for the programs.

I also got to check out the roof, which is an exhibit in itself. They call it the “Living Roof,” this open-air observation terrace that gives you a bird’s eye view of the canopy of plants growing above the incredible displays below, which are lighted by skylights in the building’s domes that open and close throughout the day. This is one green building, both in color and the environmental sense. It really was very cool!

Even if you can’t make a Thursday evening event, make sure to add a stop at the California Academy of Sciences on your next visit to San Francisco. I can see how it would be a perfect way for families to spend the afternoon, and I know it would make a good date for couples—Kyle was pretty jealous of the pictures I kept sending him!

All that fun from a recommendation from someone I met on public transportation. Engage with locals if you get the chance. Ask them what they like to do. This museum is a relatively large attraction in San Francisco, but I probably wouldn’t have found out about it wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf. I can’t thank that girl enough, first, for telling me when to get off the train, and for pointing me in the direction of a true gem in a great city.

Places

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States
415-379-8000

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States
415-379-8000
https://www.calacademy.org/
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