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Brown leaves and gray skies may have inspired the ‘60s classic “California Dreaming,” but flowering hillsides and blue skies will be on tap during a springtime visit. And there’s no better way to appreciate the Golden State’s scenic beauty than with an exhilarating seven-day drive down the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 1) from culture-rich San Francisco to seaside Santa Monica and beyond. Here’s my suggested itinerary:
Day 1: San Francisco Arrive at midday and rent a car (splurge on a convertible if the forecast is favorable). Spend the afternoon exploring the city’s neighborhoods, from posh Pacific Heights to funky Haight-Ashbury, with a stop at The Ferry Building along the Embarcadero to stock up on locally sourced snacks for the trip. Stay at Hotel Vitale, a Zen-like retreat with 200 light-filled rooms and Bay Bridge views (from $279).
Day 2: Half Moon Bay Before you bid San Francisco adieu, get off to an energetic start with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge and a dim-sum brunch in Chinatown. By early afternoon, head south on U.S. 1 for the scenic 60-minute drive to this circa 1840 community known for fishing and whale watching. Stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, a stunning 261-room enclave set atop craggy bluffs straight out of Scotland, where you can play a round of golf or hit the spa before watching the sunset while sipping wine beside a cozy fire pit (from $379).
Day 3: Big Sur Get on the road early to enjoy all the scenic beauty of this next stretch of coastline. Zip through touristy Monterey—unless your inner child craves time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium—before cruising famous 17-Mile Drive and stopping in beautiful Carmel–by-the-Sea to peruse its art galleries and enjoy lunch on the patio at Casanova and a short stroll on Carmel Beach. Hop back in the car for the 45-minute drive to Big Sur. Stay at Post Ranch Inn, a 40-suite luxury resort perched atop dramatic cliffs, where you can relax at sunset in the infinity-edge pool with its endless Pacific vista (from $550).
Day 4: Santa Barbara The four-hour drive from wildy romantic Big Sur to this cultured mountains-meet-beach city is the longest of the week, so leave early to allow time for stops at magnificent Hearst Castle, quaint seaside Cambria and panoramic Morro Bay. Coast into Santa Barbara by mid-afternoon and simply kick back and enjoy several hours of relaxation. Stay at the Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore, where retro glamour meets stellar service—you’ll feel like a celebrity (from $425).
Day 5: Santa Monica To avoid rush hour, sleep in before setting off at midday for this beachside city west of LA. Spend the afternoon trolling the shops along pedestrian-friendly Third Street Promenade or boutique-lined Montana Avenue, rent bikes or jog the path to people-watch in funky Venice Beach, and ride the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier for a bird’s eye view of the beach. Stay at Viceroy Santa Monica for a change of pace—romance that’s younger and hipper but with a sophisticated designer touch (from $314).
Day 6: Laguna Beach Today is all about taking it easy and indulging in the good life—with a 90-minute drive to this relaxed and photogenic town brimming with galleries, restaurants and spas. After a lunchtime walk through town, settle in a pair of chaises, take a dip in the pool and book a couples’ massage. Stay at Montage Laguna Beach, a 250-room full-service luxury resort with the feel of Craftsman-style inn (from $645).
Day 7: San Diego End your coastal odyssey in this sunniest of cities by stopping for breakfast at Brockton Villa, overlooking La Jolla Cove, then heading to lost-in-time Coronado. To sightsee, hop aboard Old Town Trolley Tours for an enjoyable loop through the city’s top neighborhoods. Stay at Hotel del Coronado, which still has the iconic architecture from the comedy classic Some Like It Hot, but with modern, recently remodeled rooms (from $355).
For more trip-planning information, see our California Travel Guide.