along the pacific coast

Saturday afternoon at the beach, but first, lunch at the Lazy Daisy in Santa Monica with Bridget’s college friend Katie and her boyfriend, Eli. Katie works at Live Funny or Die and Eli has a job at NBC Studios and they’re both loving the good life in Santa Monica. The only downside of living in Santa Monica is having a job not in Santa Monica, unless of course you enjoy rush hours on the freeways in and out of LA five days a week. And if you can’t get enough congestion in your life, head down to the beach on the weekend, where the cars inch along from one stoplight to the next. We are just two among thousands who all have beach on their minds this beautiful Saturday in April – and most of them, it seems, are heading to Venice Beach in their cars. We simply follow the crowd, heading south from Santa Monica along Ocean Ave. until we hit Venice and then the hunt is on for a parking spot in a town with a conglomeration of one-way streets that serve only to confuse … you know how it goes, right? Driving along, you see what could be a spot on the street to your right, but you can’t turn right because it’s one way the wrong way, so you go around, hoping to circle the block and come in from the other side; you take the first right you can, and another right, and by your third right, you’re 14 blocks away on a side street going nowhere … but it has an open spot, so we grab it and follow the sun in a westerly direction to the beach.

Venice has its beach …

and its boardwalk …

and its canals …

Venice has summertime fun written all over it – bars, restaurants, stalls chock-a-block along the boardwalk with 2/$10 items you don’t need, all filled on a Saturday afternoon with people out for a good time, spilling out onto the beach. The beach, too, is full of sunbathers, Bridget and me included, and I wonder if come July and August, Venice beach is standing room only. But it’s still April, and there is plenty of room to get prone, take a break and catch a few rays to mark the starting point of our journey north along the California coast.

Soon enough, though, we had to get a move on, find the car and point it in the direction of Highway 1. We picked it up at the southern edge of Santa Monica, and off we went.

Our plan was to drive through Malibu and go as far as Ventura, about an hour north of Santa Monica, where we were going to camp out at Faria Beach Park. The tantalizing photos of the park on their website showed tents perched on the sand with the ocean in the background. I had my heart set on camping on the beach and falling asleep under the stars with the sounds of the waves crashing onto the shore a few feet from my head. We pulled into the park shortly after 6 p.m., and the place was packed with tents and campers, not an open spot to be had. Faria Beach Park is first-come, first served, no reservations, and it turns out that if you want to camp on the beach in Ventura, you should plan on arriving long before dinnertime to assure yourself of a spot. Tent sites are cheek by jowl, and while they’re close to the beach, they’re not exactly on the beach; as we drove away in search of an alternate place to lay our heads for the night, I didn’t feel so bad – I imagined that the sounds at Faria Beach that night would have been more the human kind, less the nature kind.

North of Ventura, the coastline runs more west than north, through Santa Barbara and on to Las Cruces, where Highway 1 turns north and moves inland, changing its name to Cabrillo Highway. The sun has long since set. We’re inland about 10 miles with no chance to hear waves anywhere but in my dreams, so we pull into the town of Lompoc to find a room at the inn. In the end, it turns out, we’re lucky to find one. We’re not sure why – maybe a convention in town – but No Vacancy signs abound. We do get a room finally at what must have been the last motel in town … and 10 minutes later, as we were walking over to McDonald’s for our last coffee of the day and to use their Wi-Fi, the no vacancy sign was up on our motel too. We never saw more than a half dozen people while we were out and about … it must have been a very quiet convention.

Heading north out of Lompoc in the morning, we passed by workers in the strawberry fields in the miles leading us through towns with names like Guadalupe and Callender before Highway 1 finally met up with the coast at Pismo Beach before jogging back inland to San Luis Obispo then back to the coast through Morro Bay and Cayucos and north to San Simeon. More than a few people had told us that Hearst Castle in San Simeon was a must-see, but we took a pass on it, vowing to return another day. Instead, we stopped at Piedras Blancas – a viewing point on the side of the highway a few miles north of the castle entrance and home to a colony of elephant seals, where they come to breed, molt and rest. Today they were working on the resting part big time, so much so that when I first looked at them lying about, I thought they were dead. But after several minutes, for a change of pace, a few of them flopped around a bit in the sand – that was it, just another day at the beach.

The drive along the Pacific coast through Central California is nothing short of spectacular. Winding roads that rival the steep climbs of Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula had us laughing on some of the curves and holding our collective breath on others in awe of the picture-postcard views at every turn. And so it was all the way to Big Sur – at once exhilarating and humbling, impossible to do anything but soak it all in – the magnificent cliffs that reach up to the sky and sink down beneath the pounding surf below – this is it! Magnificent.

Big Sur(f) indeed!

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