On The Road Drivin’ South
I get a good night’s sleep, waking at 5.30 am initially, dozing through to 7, then it’s up, showered and off to Breakers diner, just opposite Nick’s, for breakfast. Two eggs sunny side up, bacon, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee make for an excellent – and good value – breakfast.
It’s a nice sunny day and I’m on my way by 9.30 am. And then it starts. The trip down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz is awesome, with mind-blowing scenery almost from the off. It seems that every turn of the road brings another beautiful vista into view, backed up by clear blue skies, warm – if not at times hot – sunshine, and glistening beaches with rolling surf crashing to shore. I keep stopping in lay-bys on the road (or roadside turnouts as they’re called in the US) to take it all in, taking photos galore. I’ve only been on the road for about an hour and already I feel that my brain is getting overloaded with scenery that is consistently stunning and gobsmacking in its beauty. The road itself turned into a single carriageway both ways soon after leaving Pacifica and it stays that way, hugging the coastline, often changing elevation, sometimes high up the cliffs, sometimes down at sea level such as in Half Moon Bay. Most of the countryside to my left as I’m driving looks like it’s farm land with crops and the suchlike. There’s not much else to see after the town of Half Moon Bay, such as other towns or places of interest, but frankly who needs it when the views are as spectacular as this.
But then around 11 am clouds start to appear in the sky and by the time I reach Pigeon Point Lighthouse it’s completely clouded over. The sun has disappeared, it’s foggy by the shoreline and over the sea when I walk around the Lighthouse – and it’s really, really cold now. I need to put a jacket on! It’s such a complete turn-around in a really quick period of time. There’s been a really dramatic change in the weather inside of an hour, from warmth and clear blues skies to chilly and cloudy. Incredible. It’s so bad I can hardly see the top of the Lighthouse when I’m standing next to it, it’s shrouded in mist and fog. I can’t see the sea either beyond 100 yards or so offshore. I talk to one of the volunteers (docent) at the Lighthouse about the weather to ask if it’s normal and will it clear up. He says it probably will but can’t be certain when, but he does confirm that the weather here was the same as I had when I left Pacifica earlier. I just hope it does clear up…
So after wandering around the Lighthouse site – you can’t go inside because it’s in need of much repair, but it’s worth a stop – I set off again. And hey presto, within 10 minutes the skies start to clear! Stopping at a roadside turnout, I look back up the coast and the lighthouse is now almost clear of fog and there are blues skies again all around. The temperature has also risen about 10o F in about 15 minutes. The change is again astonishing in its rapidity.
So 20 minutes after being shrouded in fog and almost freezing cold, and just a few miles further down the road, I pull into Año Nuevo State Park. I’d read beforehand that there is a large Elephant Seal colony here and you can take a guided walk to see them right up close. But a website indicated it’s a 3 to 4 mile walk that could take around 2-3 hours, which is time I don’t have. So I ask the Park Ranger at the entrance is this is correct or is there a quicker route and she confirms not, it is a 3 hour or so excursion. One reason she says is that the terrain is variable including sand dunes. So I decide to pass and turn around back onto the PCH.
It’s still a bit cloudy but there is blue sky and the sun is poking through. But after taking my time over the next few miles driving south, I pull over at Waddell Beach and soon I’m standing on the pristine almost-white sand in scorching sunshine with not a cloud in sight. The fog came and went in an hour or so – what a dramatic transformation. I walk around on Waddell Beach for a while, going up to the sea, seeing the waves crashing ashore and feel the sea mist thrown up by the breeze, and watch a kite surfer in the waves: it’s deserted today but it is a lovely beach and I bet it’s packed on weekends.
The City of Santa Cruz
Back on the road and the views continue to amaze as Santa Cruz eventually comes into view. The whole trip from Pacifica down to Santa Cruz is a truly mind-blowing drive. Just make sure you take your time! It took me about 4 hours in total.
I’d read about the Beach Boardwalk at Santa Cruz as a place to visit so I turn off Hwy 1 and into the centre of the city – it’s more like a big town to me – and then down to the seafront. My God, it’s now officially boiling hot or, more precisely, 80o F. I’m sweltering within minutes of getting out of the car.
I’ve no idea what the Boardwalk is beforehand and it turns out to be a small version of Blackpool Pleasure Beach – an oceanfront amusement park – but in a hot and sunny climate. So it wouldn’t have been of much interest to me anyway. Apart from the fact that it’s almost all closed, being a Friday. I wander up to the Santa Cruz Wharf – basically just a pier – but it’s just tat shops and restaurants. Some grunting noises under the wharf get my attention and there are loads of sea lions resting on the wharf supports. I stop at one of the food outlets that do takeaways and have a small cup of shrimps for lunch, which is very good. The Wharf is nice to see and it’s good to have a wander around but there’s little to see really.
It seems even hotter now, it’s officially steaming – or I am anyway – and I walk slowly back to the car trying to keep in the shadows as much as possible. I decide to drive to Pacific Avenue rather than walk because of the heat, which is a good idea as it turns out because it’s a reasonable distance from the seafront. This is supposed to be a street with lots of odd shops selling “vintage goodies” according to one travel website I visited before leaving the UK. There are however lots of homeless people on the sidewalks, some begging, others selling quirky & bohemian trinkets, all trying to make a dollar or two. In fact there are many non-corporate shops on the Avenue so it is a bit different from the norm. I walk to the top of the street where there’s a statue and some old-ish building but frankly it’s too damn hot and I can’t be bothered to go any further: maybe next time… I also want to get going on the road again. It’s 3 pm by now and Monterey – my next overnight stop – is only about 40 miles away so I assume I can take my time.
Wrong. There’s a massive traffic jam when I rejoin Hwy 1 on the outskirts of Santa Cruz: it looks like I’ve hit the Friday afternoon rush hour. The PCH here is actually a 6 lane freeway (3 x 2) but even so it’s wall-to-wall cars not going very fast. I crawl along until we reach the outskirts of Santa Cruz when the traffic starts to ease up and my speed increases slightly. The road goes down to 2 lanes each way here and from now to Monterey is mostly 2 or 3 lanes with only a few small sections of single lane road. And most disappointingly it’s a freeway that rarely goes near the coast. It’s boring as hell to be honest and on some sections I’m travelling at 70 mph whereas this morning I was lucky to touch 40 mph, not that I wanted to go any faster because of the scenery. But this stretch of Hwy 1 is eminently forgettable and needs to be driven as quickly as possible to get it over with, there’s very little to recommend it other than to get from A to B, and nothing to see. It’s very disappointing after the beauty and spectacle of the morning. I know that some sections of the road further south are inland but I though the section around Monterey Bay would be by the coast. But it’s not, and the point is – don’t assume anything! In a way, that’s part of the adventure – into the unknown…
Monterey and a Pacific Sunset
I turn off the PCH and head into town, finding the Downtown Monterey Days Inn quite easily – it’s just off the main road into Monterey. Still no bottle opener in the room – job for tomorrow: buy one! After unpacking it’s sunset time so I go back to reception to ask the manager on duty where’s the best place to watch it. The dickhead can hardly understand or speak English but eventually communicates to me that I can walk to Pacific Grove, which is the best place. Well I’m glad I didn’t walk, it’s bloody miles from the hotel, at least a 15 minute drive. F****** idiot, telling me to walk.
I’d hoped tonight would be cloudless because after the morning fog I’d not seen a single cloud all afternoon, so I was hoping the sunset would be good. It’s still 77o F by the time I get to Asilomar State Beach, and the sky remains clear. I got a bit lost on the way from the hotel as Google Maps couldn’t keep up when I was driving plus I lost GPS signal a few times, but I just used my ‘nose’ to head north and eventually the ocean came into view. Where I came out seemed OK so I quickly park up right on the road by the beach. There’s not many people around so it’s nice and peaceful as I clamber across the rocks and down onto the sand, right by the water’s edge.
And what a sunset. OMG. It was perfect. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen the sun disappear below the ocean. A yellow disk slowly diminishing and reducing, colours constantly changing. The last bit seemed to hang on forever, just above the horizon, but once the majority of the sun is ‘under water’ it seems to quicken up. The sky stays bright for a while after the sun has set, but then darkness slowly descends.
Watch a video of the sunset here on YouTube.
I drive up and down Sunset Drive – now what else would the road be called? – after the sunset and there were loads of cars in some places and lots of people, so my spot was brilliant being so quiet. A bit of luck and not a bad place to end the day doing something I’ve always wanted to do. Another one off the bucket list. 🙂
I drive back around the headland of the Monterey Peninsula – it’s completely dark by now – and pass a few places on the way back to the hotel that I’m planning on seeing tomorrow. I realise Cannery Row might be a bit far to walk tonight for dinner, so decide on Fisherman’s Wharf instead. But upon walking out of the hotel I suddenly feel quite tired so I end up in The Other Side Restaurant & Cantina which is only 100 yards down from the hotel. It’s very quiet inside, but the barman is attentive if a little too intrusive at times. I have a pork chilli-type dish for dinner on his recommendation (which was alright), the beer is good, there’s baseball on the TV to keep me amused. A few customers and other bar staff appear during the evening as I sit at the bar and we all have a good chat at various times. It appears the Restaurant & Cantina closed a few years ago.
I’m even more tired now – jet lag catching up perhaps – but despite Hwy 1 from Santa Cruz to Monterey being a bit of a downer, it’s been a brilliant day. I just think back to where and when I stopped, what I saw, walking on the beach, the beauty of the coastline. Awesome. With a big capital A.
It was the extremes today that got me. A crisp and clear morning at Rockaway Beach. Fog and mist in the late morning from nowhere. The blue skies returned with hot and sunny weather. A perfect sunset. And there were even pelicans on the beach…