The day was bright and balmy. My Rent-a-Car, a 2022 Jeep Compass, looked shiny and compact. Outfitted with updated tech, the Subcompact Crossover’s Trailhawk version is a capable off-road drive. I was in California and news was just out: US has the best road trip of all scenic routes in the world: Big Sur, California.
Mainstream media was quoting multiple Instagram hashtags, search data, and TikTok views (gleaned from data till July 2022) that listed the 28 most popular road trip routes worldwide. The Pacific Coast Highway, also called Highway 1, a stunning stretch down the California coast with winding turns and views from heaven, was the unanimous choice. My eyes lit up.
Wasting no time, I jumped into the Jeep in San Francisco with my friend to take the iconic road trip. On one side, seacliffs overlook the Pacific and on the other, the Santa Lucia Mountains loom. Rolling down the windowpanes, we let the Pacific breeze ruffle our hair. The famous Californian sunshine glistened upon our faces (and gave me a suntan, which I still spot).
At Half Moon Bay we grabbed an American breakfast of omelette — eggs with sausage and fried potatoes, pancakes and toast with jam. There is a small town charm to this place, replete with cliffside coastal hikes, crescent beaches, surfing, beachcombing and migratory marine mammals. Here I was sipping my black coffee, overlooking unique cove beaches and tide pools — an ideal start to the trip.
America has to be explored by road. At the Cowell-Purisima Trail, just south of Half Moon Bay, I bumped into surfers in their wetsuits, surfboards and longboards in hand, running to catch the early tide. Parking the car, we walked down the 5km gently-graded path that winds along bluffs. This is where pristine American farmland melds into the blue Pacific Ocean and harbour seals can be spotted aplenty.
We opened up the throttle across Santa Cruz with its lighthouse field state beach shimmering in the distance. At some point, I lost count of the jaw-dropping vistas, stunning seaside villages and mom-and-pop produce stands that sell the best cherries in the world.
California’s fresh-market cherry is called Bing. Large, dark red with superb flavour and firm, juicy flesh, you can tell the fruit by its dark hue and heart shape. Since it is officially cherry season, many small farmers put together roadside truck stands, where you can pick up premium cherry to keep you powered during the road trip.
California Highway 1 is for friends, families and summer sweethearts. It passes through such beautiful coastal spots like Monterey, Pescadero, Pebble Beach, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara and Big Sur, to name just a few.
You can’t help but notice the contrariety of California — how the birthplace of the internet and home to Silicon Valley has some of America’s greatest rural farming and ranching communities.
So while the Big Tech — and the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft and others continue to innovate, it is rather fascinating to learn that California leads the US in the production of almonds, apricots, avocados, raspberries, strawberries, and other fruits.
On the road, it is not uncommon to see forests with redwood trees, hundreds of feet tall. There are several state parks with abundant wildlife — black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and elk.
As you reach a particularly dazzling stretch of the trip, called the 17-Mile Drive, you can see bald eagles and California condors hover above you. Swimming off the coast are green sea turtles, California sea otters, and blue whales, which sadly did not make an appearance for me.
For our overnight halt, we stayed in a small fairy tale village called Carmel-by-the-Sea. This is where turquoise blue waters of the great Pacific kiss the Californian shoreline. It is also where America’s super-wealthy have their multimillion dollar seaside holiday homes.
There are piddly restaurants serving you the freshest seafood in America. The Flying Fish Grill in the Mission Street has the best sea bass and grilled king salmon, avocado, caramelised onions, chipotle aioli, lettuce and tomato in focaccia bread.
Next morning we set off for the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve on Highway 1. This is a 10-km loop trail near Carmel-by-the-Sea, popular for birding, hiking, and running.
Point Lobos loop trail has plenty of Cypress trees with bright orange growth, lending the park an otherworldly feel. With the Pacific caressing the nature reserve, Point Lobos offers some of the best locations for scuba diving on the Monterey Peninsula.
When you spot Monterey pine and Cypress groves hugging the coastline, you know you have entered the Big Sur. This is the most beautiful coastline anywhere in the world — an isolated stretch of road where the water is breathtakingly blue, and craggy cliffs overlook the shimmering ocean below.
Francis McComas, the great Australian artist who spent most of his adult life in California, once called Big Sur the world’s “greatest meeting of land and sea”. This is a surreal drive of ruggedly-beautiful coastline and gravity-defying bridges. I got off at the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge to get some pictures.
It is often said that people don’t take trips, trips take people. In hindsight when I think of my recent American road trip, driving up and down California, it feels like many quick and urgent dreams — all jumbled together.
I don’t know what was the best bit: the enticing pace of it, the wind rustling, journeying past caring or the red cherries? Days later a friend casually asked me in New York: what was your destination? Perhaps the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination!