South To LA
Back on the road again, I leave Santa Barbara around 10.45 am. Dana Point here I come. Breakfast at the hotel was somewhat bizarre with a really bad attitude from the breakfast supervisor when I asked her for some butter for my toast – “we don’t do butter” she snaps at me from inside her service room off the lobby and then shuts the door in my face. Bitch. That aside, the Hotel Santa Barbara is in a great location for bars and restaurants and it’s not a chain, it does have some old world charm and décor. The room was good if a little small-ish but the lift is very, very slow. What I didn’t like however was that they charge a $150 deposit on your credit card and this is not refunded until a few days after you leave. I’d read on TripAdvisor that some guests were complaining about deductions made without their knowledge after they checked out and without apparent cause. So on checkout I insist that a supervisor comes back up to the room with me and verifies everything is in order. I then insist that he confirms this when we return to the front desk so that I won’t get stung. This really is a bad practice by the hotel – I’ve never come across it anywhere else in the world – and it’s something they need to get rid of.
Back onto Hwy 101 and it’s 3 lanes each way with light traffic. The weather is overcast and it’s cool. Suddenly, before I expected it and just before Ventura, there’s a sign off 101 to the PCH. Looking ahead at the route yesterday I thought the PCH didn’t reappear until many more miles down the road. So off I go and end up on a section of the old road right by the sea, parallel to 101. It is obviously a surf hot spot because there’s literally hundred’s of RVs parked on the roadside at the top of the beach (it’s not my photo). Most are locked up today, a Thursday, and it looks like many are permanently parked there. It’s only a little detour though before I get routed back onto Hwy 101. Ventura approaches and there’s a sign to the Scenic Coastal Route, again before I expected the PCH turn off, so I take it but then the road signs get confusing – as they often can in the US – so I stop and look at Google Maps. There appears to be a way to carry on from here to get where I need to be – on the PCH – but it looks complicated so decide against it given I’m alone and would need to be looking at Maps every few hundred yards. So I turn around and get back on 101 and keep looking for the Hwy 1 or PCH turn off – but there isn’t one. A quick glance at Maps and with the GPS it tells me I’ve gone past the turn off but I’m adamant there was no “1” signage. Thinking back I realise the last turn off said Oxnard, which I know is the next town I need to head for. My experience in the US is that from a freeway a city will often have multiple exits so I ignored ‘Oxnard’ because I was waiting for a Hwy 1 or PCH indicator, which I am convinced was not on that sign.
So still being on Hwy 101, but not Hwy 1 because Maps has told me Hwy 1 is now somewhere on my right, heading in a different direction, I surmise that Oxnard only has one exit and that it’s also the PCH turn off, just not marked as such. So I turn off 101 at the next exit and following my nose I work my way west trying to pick up Hwy 1, which with the help Maps – I do pull over a few times to look at it – I eventually find the PCH after a couple of U-turns and much swearing. I don’t think I missed much of Hwy 1 and I’m in a suburban area so there’s not much to see anyway. Out of the city of Oxnard and the sea comes into view again but the PCH here is a very different road from up north. I’m on a 4 lane-wide 2 by 2 highway, curving around hills and headlands but for the most part flat and an easy drive.
The sun is poking through in places and there’s some nice views as I head south, in fact it’s a great drive again so far today: different to further north on the PCH but not as stunning – and then I reach Malibu.
Malibu By The Sea
The sun is out now and the sky has cleared. It’s getting hot again… There’s even more great views from the point when I enter the Malibu city limits where the road is still quite high up. But Hwy 1 drops down and I stop off first on Zuma Beach as I’m right by the sea again. I continue on and stop to walk on a couple more beaches. There are houses built directly on the beach with waves crashing into their foundation stilts, just like you see in the movies. The beaches are really beautiful. It’s very quiet today but I can imagine these stretches of pristine white sands are packed out with people in the summer at weekends. So what else to do? Well it’s lunchtime so I have a McDonalds in Malibu! They are now doing an All Day Breakfast – I’d seen the ads on TV – and as I’ve never been in a McD before lunchtime before, it’s a Sausage McMuffin with Egg for me. Quite tasty it was as well.
Malibu is a huge city, at the top of a huge sweeping bay. I didn’t realise it’s so big, it stretches for miles along the coast, and of course the scenery is stunning. Again. For some reason I thought of Malibu as a smallish town – probably was at one point, obviously – but today it’s large place.
As I enter Santa Monica, and see the iconic pier stretching out into the sea, it’s hot and sunny again. I pull over to take a photo of the pier by walking onto the North Beach of Santa Monica State Beach. I have been here before many years ago (and went on the pier then) so as it’s just amusements and restaurants, I decide against going on it again. Back on the road and into the heart of Santa Monica. I keep seeing signs for the beach front so I turn right off the PCH and follow my nose to the sea. I park up and get out for a wander around and walk onto Santa Monica State Beach again, this time the South Beach, south of the Pier. It’s very picturesque, there are huge – I mean huge – white sandy beaches that stretch for miles in either direction. And it’s very hot. Nice and tranquil, the calm before the storm of LA’s roads…
Gridlock In LA
Highway 1 left the coast just after the pier and turned into a freeway heading east – the Santa Monica Freeway – and suddenly there’s loads of traffic, and I grind to a halt. I soon leave the Freeway by turning right onto Hwy 1 again, named Lincoln Boulevard here, but the traffic is just as bad. I do my South Beach detour here, which takes about 20 minutes, but then I’m back on the PCH where I turned off, heading south. Or trying to. I’ve done 85 miles from Santa Barbara, but for the next 70 miles or so to Dana Point I mostly travel at a snail’s pace. There are traffic lights at the end of every block. And always on red. There are 3 lanes in both directions just solid with traffic, crawling along. The road is lined with shops, without a break anywhere. They’re selling cars, mufflers, food, tattoos, everything and anything, it’s a commercial war zone, witnessed by drivers doing 10 mph if they’re lucky. It’s absolutely horrendous. There are bursts of freedom to give false hope every now and again when I touch 30 mph, and maybe drive through a couple of blocks before coming to a halt again. It’s LA gridlock. One LA neighbourhood is indistinguishable from another as I drive along: I see the signs telling me which one I’m in now but on Hwy 1 they all blend in together, it’s just a relentless visage of shops and more shops: Venice, Marina Del Ray, Playa Vista. Names I know from the movies and TV but driving through and seen from Hwy 1, one looks no different to the next one.
LAX comes into view – Hwy 1 goes through the middle of it – and then signs to the Beach districts: Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo. Not that there’s any beach or sea to be seen from Hwy 1 here. I don’t know what I expected: I’ve been to LA before and have driven here, but this journey today is total hell. Absolutely horrible and hugely disappointing. Talk about compare and contrast to Malibu just a few miles up the road and a few hours earlier. It’s not good. Around the signs for Long Beach there is some industry to be seen, refineries and the like, some shipping ports – but no shops, hooray! I keep hoping that soon I’ll lose the urban sprawl, start travelling at a reasonable speed and see the sea again, but the misery just keeps on coming.
Out Of The City At Last
And eventually… I get out of LA. The road changed to two lanes each way around Long Beach and now switches between 2 and 3 lanes down to Dana Point. But what I’d seen on a map as Huntington Beach and Newport Beach – and assumed were small towns with beach bums and a few tourists – are again cities in their own right, strung along the shoreline, that merge from one into another. It’s all becoming a blur. There is some traffic respite after Long Beach before Newport Beach – I’m by the sea again although you can’t see it very well – and I hit 60 mph in places, but in these beach cities traffic lights re-appear to stop me every now and again. North of LA I can hardly remember a traffic light on Hwy 1 outside of the towns but from Santa Monica onwards they’re everywhere.
From Newport Beach down to Dana Point it’s an urban sprawl – albeit bathed in sunshine under blue skies, with white sands and surfers to the right and huge apartment complexes to the left. Progress has slowed again with the curse of traffic lights stopping me every few blocks. I’m way behind my schedule and I begin to wonder if I’ll even make it to Dana Point before sunset. You’d think some idiot could sequence the traffic lights so the traffic flowed, but no, I have to stop at practically every set. And then the Dana Point City Limits sign appears and a few miles later I finally pull into the hotel, the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach – Dana Point. What a drive. And I don’t mean that nicely.
Sunset At Dana Point
It’s 30 minutes until sunset so I ask the receptionist on check-in: “Where can I see the sunset over the water without anything in the way?” “Er, I don’t know.” She asks her mate. “Er, dunno.” What the fuck, I’m thinking to myself. “We have a bar on the 4th floor, you might be able to see it from there.” So I dump my bags and rush up to this bar – but there’s no view of the sea where the sun will set plus there are loads of palm trees blocking the view anyway. Bloody useless. So I go down to the parking valet who was quite helpful when I pulled in and ask his advice. He tells me I need to drive back up Hwy 1 for a few blocks to get to so-and-so beach. Sod that I think, I’ve had enough of driving for today. Plus I won’t make it as there’s only 10 minutes left ’til sunset.
Capistramo Beach is opposite the hotel so I walk across to it but there’s a headland that juts out that will block the final dive of the sun into the sea. However, it’s quite a reasonable view overall and it’s better than nothing. There’s a few clouds around but it’s not too bad a sunset. I suppose if you live here the sunset’s not that important but it’s poor customer service for some hotel staff not to be able to advise customers about it.
The End Of The Pacific Coast Highway
The official end (or start of course) of the Pacific Coast Highway is Capistramo Beach and in fact, when driving around the next day, I see a sign that indicates that point is 200 yards south of the hotel, so the road the hotel’s on is actually the start / end of the PCH. How cool is that? You can see it here. (There’s an alternative view that says it terminates where Hwy 1 joins I-5 S, but there are two local signs that indicate it’s at the Beach.)
Breakfast is not included in my room rate and at $14.95 a shot I’m not paying that, so I do get the car out – after a short rest – to nip around the corner to find a supermarket for some supplies to stock my fridge. Yes, finally I have a fridge in the room! The ocean view I paid for on the room is OK but it’s not a cheap rate and I’m disappointed with it to be honest. I was unsure what’s nearby to the hotel for eating and drinking – it was difficult to research this before booking – and the parking valet says the harbour is near for food and bars but he doesn’t recommend walking there at night because there are no street lights. Even though it’s only 15 minutes walk, he says it’s totally dark and whilst it’s safe, I run the risk of tripping or falling over. He says I should drive there, and so it looks like I’m in the car again later…
The room in the hotel is large and has a separate lounge area with sofa, table and kitchen. The furniture and decor quality is a bit poor, it could do with a re-fit. After unpacking I head on out to find the harbour and there are lots of bars. I end up in Turks, which is very busy with hardly a table or seat free but I manage to get a seat at the bar. The food is good but the service is slow.
Yet again though I experience something that has become common on this trip: I sit at the bar surrounded by people but no-one engages with anyone anymore. You might get a word or two every now and again, but everyone’s on their smart phones, not talking to anyone. It’s a real change from the Hwy 61 trip. Or maybe it’s just California. Time was a single traveller, on business or pleasure, would sit at a bar in the US and within a short while conversations would strike up with neighbours and others and continue until you left. Not this trip. Last night in Santa Barbara the bar was quiet and I exchanged no more than a few words with anyone but at least the barman was OK. The previous night there I spoke to no-one. At Moonstone Beach it was a restaurant, so doesn’t count; the first night in Monterey the bar again was quiet but only a little bit of chatting; the second night there was nothing until I met the honeymooners; in Pacifica the bar staff were good but little again from any punters. Now I do like my own space and time on occasions but US bar chat is usually good and it’s a surprise and disappointment on this trip to date. So as no-one’s talking, I settle my bill and leave for bed.
Driving back to the hotel, I reflect on the day. I only did 155 miles but it took me about 7¼ hours in total. I worked out that over the 70 miles from Santa Monica to Dana Point I averaged about 18 miles an hour! Unbelievable. I never thought the LA traffic would be that bad. But at least I’ve completed the Pacific Coast Highway. Hooray! If I ever do the PCH again, like the Seattle to San Diego trip I’ve got thoughts about, I’ll need to have a real think about how to do the LA section. Maybe stay in Malibu and set off early, or break the journey in LA by staying over in Venice or Manhattan Beach so I don’t have to suffer it all in one go. Food for thought for the future…