From the deeply puzzling Winchester Mystery House to the jaw-dropping majesty of Big Sur, California’s much-loved Pacific Coast Highway is dotted with attractions well worth stopping for.
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There’s no town of Big Sur. It’s a rugged, wild coastal region about 90 miles long between Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north and San Simeon in the south. It's also the beloved natural muse of the Beat poets, hippies and bohemians. Nothing prepares you for the sheer majesty of the razor’s-edge mountains, towering redwoods, plunging cliffs, waterfalls, unreachable shoreline and iconic Bixby bridge. If you really want to unplug and absorb the spirituality of Big Sur, a few days of silent monastic retreat at the New Camandoli Hermitage
will be enough to bring you back to you.
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Veer off the Pacific Coast Highway before you reach the Humboldt Redwoods State Park to California’s only coastal wilderness, the rugged, remote Lost Coast. Bumpy, winding roads lead through high alpine forests, along the shore through the beautiful landscape of the King Range. Surfers flock here for the legendary Pacific rollers crashing onto the black volcanic beaches. Others come simply for the solitude and natural beauty.
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Once home to discarded glass and pottery during the 1800's and 1900's, glass beach has transformed over time into a truly spectacular sight. Pounding waves crashing over the beach broke down the glass, tumbling the fragments of bottles and pottery into smooth, polished sea glass that litter the beach like millions of tiny, coloured jewels.
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Winchester rifle fortune heiress Sarah Winchester spent 38 years constructing this intriguing, allegedly haunted, 160-room Victorian mansion – because spirits of people killed by her rifles told her to. Believing she was cursed, and anxious to pacify the ghosts, Sarah drew up architect’s plans during séances, which goes some way to explaining why hallways reach dead ends, a staircase stops at the ceiling and the whole house is a labyrinth that's easy to get lost in.
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One of California’s most famous restaurants, the historic Moss Beach Distillery, perches on a cliff top overlooking the ocean. On cool evenings, fire pits on the outdoor patio warm you (and your dog) as you enjoy steaks, sliders and seafood classics such as clam chowder, crab cakes and crispy oysters. Watch out for the Blue Lady – a mischievous but kindly ghost who is said to stack bottles, turn on showers and move furniture.
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Hippie dippy Santa Cruz, hangout for Silicon Valley millionaires and surfers alike is world-famous for its boardwalk and beachside amusement park dating back to 1907. Free to get into, the park’s rides are a mixture of vintage – the Sky Glider, Sea Swings, Carousel and wooden Giant Dipper, and the hair raising new – the disorientating G-force Fireball and Undertow. Food isn;t what you'd traditionally expect from a fairground, with the freshest California seafood, sweet and creamy fudge, piping hot churros and artisan ice-creams.
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Cannery Row, immortalised in John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, was the centre of the sardine industry for the first half of the 20th century. Rough and tough until its decline in the 1950s -‘a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream’, Cannery Row is now a manicured version of its former self. It is, though, the best place for spotting the delightful sea otters frolicking in the kelp canopy.
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This mystical Big Sur crescent beach has the beautiful Keyhole Arch, through which the setting sun glows for only five minutes each year. But this isn’t the only feature to delight those who appreciate the unusual – it has purple sand. Deep pinkish-brown manganese garnet deposits wash down from the mineral-rich hillsides, giving the beach a purple hue.
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Designed by California’s first licensed woman architect and furnished with the European shopping haul of a super-rich newspaper magnate, the sprawling hilltop Hearst Castle estate has to be seen to be believed. Based on a Spanish cathedral, but with pieces of medieval monasteries, 15th century Gothic ceilings, Roman mosaics and Greek vases shoehorned in together, the beautiful Hearst castle is a triumph of acquisition over meaningful archaeology.
If you don’t mind a bit of the strange factor on your holiday, the bizarre Bubblegum Alley is worth a quick look, depending on your constitution. In Higuera Street, look for a 70ft-long, 15ft-high alley completely covered in…pre-chewed bubblegum. It’s one of the more unique landmarks in the otherwise delightful city of San Luis Obispo. Old, new, hip and retro combine in a happening downtown and youthful cultural scene there.
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If you love a fruity, berry-bouqueted glass of Pinot Noir, the golden hills of the Santa Ynez Valley is the place to enjoy it. This usually temperamental grape variety flourishes in the coastal fog here. But the 100 wineries dotted around this scenic valley region also produce other varieties – Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. With five small towns within 10 miles of each other, it’s easy to coast around the Santa Ynez region, stopping in places you like the look of and touring the wineries.
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If you’ve dreamed of going out on a whale-watching trip, Dana Point is the place to book one. You’re guaranteed to see at least one species of large sea mammal, or maybe even a basking shark. If you’re here in the winter, you’re likely to see hundreds of migrating grey whales, and the summer brings the rare and colossal blue whales. Dolphins, zooming around in huge pods and playing in the bow waves are here all year.
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With 70 miles of gorgeous coastline and plenty of Californian sunshine, San Diego is a mecca for surfers the world over. And if you’ve ever wanted to try surfing, there’s no better stop-off. Beginners (or kooks as they’re known in the waves) should book a lesson at one of the town’s numerous surf schools (San Diego Surf School
is a good one), while seasoned surfers will be stoked with Trestles, a spot at the border of San Diego and Orange County that has surf so consistent it’s home to North America’s only Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) event. When the sun goes down, head to the chilled-out Wonderland Ocean Pub
for craft beers on tap and cocktails with a view of the sea.
With Visit California's exclusive road trip itineraries, you can visit bucket-list landmarks like Yosemite, then follow a wine road or visit a craft brewery. Find top theme parks, secret beaches and cool cities on road trips that visit every corner of the state.