Of Sands, Seas and Seagulls
It had been a while since I had done a long road trip. But the occasion called for it — three of my best high school friends were congregating in San Francisco this December; one of them was visiting America for the first time. After a lot of deliberation, debate and discussion (it was more like a yelling contest) we settled on a trip that roughly looked like :
Close to 2000 miles spread across 4 states over a period of 9 days. On paper it sounds pretty crazy, but in reality…okay, who am I kidding…yes it was crazy. But not too crazy though, because the philosophy backing this route was fairly legit (read: Self fulfilling prophecy) :
- Thou shalt not drive for more than 5 hours a day*
- Thou shalt intersperse natural beauty with man-made ones.
- Thou shalt intersperse opportunities to sin with opportunities of redemption.
*If you worked out the math, you’ve probably realized how religiously we were able to follow this rule.
We picked up our rental car and began our trip at the San Francisco airport. Cutting across the Peninsula on CA-92, we hit the Pacific Coastal Highway (also known as Highway 1) at Half Moon Bay. As its name implies, the PCH runs all the way along the Pacific coastline, treating the traveller with dramatic sights and breathtaking vistas. On that particular December morning, the weather was impeccably good — bright, sunny and not too windy. If there is one takeaway from this entire post, it would be this : Drive along the PCH. Just do it! :)
After stopping at random spots along the highway and several failed attempts to hook up our Go Pro on the windshield, we proceeded to Monterey — our first real pitstop of the day.
Located about 90 miles south of Half Moon Bay, Monterey is a quiet, coastal town famous for its marine diversity, most notably on display at the popular Aquarium. With a lot more driving left for the day, we couldn’t afford to spend time at the Aquarium. So we skipped past and that and instead entered the biggest tourist trap in the area — The 17 Mile Drive.
You pay $10 to enter and then drive along the coast for, you guessed it right, 17 miles. The place is really beautiful, no doubt, but this stretch of the coastline isn’t any more beautiful than what precedes and succeeds it. And so, paying a fee to enter this section seemed weird, no matter how nominal it was. It’s like one of those classic Market Norms versus Social Norms situations. The moment money gets attached to the picture, the human mind (at least my primitive one) starts making comparisons — I paid zero dollars to get this exact same snapshot at Ocean Beach that I got with 10 dollars over here.
In Hindi, there is a term called “paisa vasool”. <Stereotype> It’s a powerful feeling that’s genetically ingrained into most of us Indians </Stereotype>. It roughly means — “It is my birthright to get my money’s worth.” And so, we took lots of pictures. Mostly of seagulls. Some times of other things. But mostly of seagulls. I had a vested interest to use them for visual puns at work (For the engineers out there, see http://www.slideshare.net/AmazonWebServices/arc348-seagull-how-yelp-built-a-system-for-task-execution)
Though it was bright and sunny, it was after all the height of Winter. It may not be bone-chillingly cold along the coast, but the sun still sets pretty early. For context, Monterey is higher in latitude than Tokyo. And Tokyo is pretty frikking high. It was already 2pm and we had to get out of there if we were to reach Big Sur before sundown.
So we prematurely exited the 17 mile drive and drove into this cute little beach town called Carmel-By-The-Sea to ease our stomachs and our bladders. Apart from the fact that it has a self descriptive name, it’s claim to fame (as widely publicized in one of the coffee shops we halted at) is that Clint Eastwood was once it’s mayor. And oh, you cannot wear high heels there. Yes, it’s true.
Located about an hours’ drive from Carmel, Big Sur is one of the most iconic places along the entire Pacific Coastal Highway. A craggy coastline, sweeping fog, secluded beaches and misty forests adorn this landscape. You could spend days in Big Sur and never get bored. Looking at that breathtaking landscape, it’s no surprise that Jack Kerouac and his fellow beatniks considered this as their spiritual home.
Given that we only had an hour of daylight left in Big Sur, we decided to pay a quick visit to Pfeiffer Beach. There was an important reason to do so during that day. Apparently, around the time of winter solstice, sunlight from the setting sun streams through a natural arch formation resulting in this. It was too Indiana Jones-esque to miss. But there was a simple problem. None of us knew how to get there. This country is generally pretty good about marketing its natural wonders (“Historic cliff view ahead. Historic cliff view in 2 miles. Historic cliff view in 1 mile. You cannot miss it. Historic cliff view now!”). But for some reason, the route to Pfeiffer Beach is unmarked — no adverts, no billboards, no signages. It’s almost as if they don’t want people to go there.
The Park Ranger at the Visitor Center was helpful though. He gave us precise directions to locate the beach:
Once you get back to the road, you’ll see a first right turn. Don’t take it. Then, you’ll see a slightly hidden second right turn. There’ll be a sign there that says : “Narrow Road”. Take it.
And so we took that narrow road, only to be stopped on our tracks by another Park Ranger who told us that some unfortunate soul had crashed their car and there was a big pile up. Sigh! No Raiders of the Lost Ark epiphany for us.
We drove to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park instead, did a small 30 minute walk and headed back on to the road. While Big Sur is a great spot to camp, it doesn’t have a good hotel scene for the budget traveler. Most of the indoor places are B&Bs, resorts & spas where a rowdy crowd like ours would’ve been frowned upon.
So, we drove further down South, through the winding hills, past overpriced gas stations ($5 a gallon! WTF?!) overhearing the loud, amorous grunts of elephant seals by the water and into the town of San Simeon where we halted for the night in a motel aptly called Sands by the Sea.
For more details on the places we visited, check out my Yelp Reviews at http://www.yelp.com/list/road-trip-along-the-pch-part-1-carmel-by-the-sea