Given the choice of flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco, or driving the famous Highway One, the decision was easy.
Highway One is one of the most scenic coastal drives in the US. While it is preferable to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles (you will be on the right side of the road to stop and enjoy the views), our itinerary was such that we drove north – it was still spectacular – and we got to stay in beautiful Carmel.
This drive really warrants a couple of days to see the sights, however we had one day to drive from Los Angeles to Carmel for an overnight stop. To give you an idea of timing, it is about 550 kms between LA and Carmel, or nearly seven hours driving time.
Starting the drive in Santa Monica the road follows the coast. It was frustrating to whizz through Malibu and by-pass Santa Barbara but we were heading for Hearst Castle, a four-and-a-half hour drive away.
If you can only make one stop between LA and Carmel, this is it. Hearst Castle was built by William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947. It is an enormous and lavish estate located on top of a high hill with spectacular views. The property was donated to the State of California in 1957 by the Hearst Corporation and is open for public tours.
On arrival, it was easy to find a park in the surprisingly small car park. We were there in January, the quiet season, and can’t imagine how busy it must be in the summer months. In the Visitors Centre we bought tickets for the Grand Tour. There are a few different tours to choose from however the Grand Tour is recommended as an introductory tour. Buses take visitors on a steep and winding road up to the estate where a guide is waiting. The tour took us to the outdoor Neptune Pool, through one of the guest cottages, through the main rooms of the ‘castle’ and the indoor Roman Pool. The guide was very entertaining and informative. Most tours take one hour and 15 minutes and it is recommended to allow about 30 minutes for the bus trip each way.
The Visitor Centre includes a gift shop and museum shop, snack bar (cafeteria) and espresso bar, and a theatre where you can view a film “Hearst Castle – Building the Dream”.
Hearst Castle to Carmel
Driving time from Hearst Castle to Carmel is about two hours and the views along this section of Highway One are among the best on the trip and include the area known as Big Sur.
Driving into Carmel after dark was quite enchanting. Fairy lights covered many of the buildings and Christmas lights lined the streets. However, it was generally very dark and we had a little trouble finding our accommodation as street signs were hard to see. Fortunately our accommodation was located at the intersection of two streets as there are no street numbers in Carmel!
We had booked the Dolphin Inn, corner of 4th and San Carlos Street. Considering the price we paid, this hotel was disappointing and is one of those places that look good on the internet but is a little tired in real life. Having said that, reviews on TripAdvisor for this establishment are generally good so it may well be worth giving it another try.
Our room was large, had two double beds and a big bathroom so was comfortable for the four of us.
The Dolphin Inn is in walking distance to the main street of Carmel. On the recommendation of a local, we found Dametra Café for dinner and what a wonderful night we had – great food, atmosphere and super friendly staff. Highly recommended.
The next morning, seeing Carmel in daylight, the words ‘picture postcard’ came to mind – that’s how Carmel is. The centre of Carmel is quite small and easy to walk. The quaint buildings, small streets, flowers boxes and abundance of trees give Carmel a village atmosphere. There is a strong sense of community. The boutiques and galleries are generally upmarket and a little expensive however well worth a visit. At the end of Ocean Avenue, Carmel Beach is also very pretty. Winter is probably a good time to visit – there are no crowds.
We found a reasonably priced place serving a delicious breakfast – The Cottage Restaurant, on Lincoln Avenue (between Ocean Avenue and 7th). This family-friendly restaurant has an extensive all-day breakfast menu.
Carmel is a place you could easily use as a base for a couple of days. There are so many wonderful things to do including:
- Visit the Carmel Mission
- Visit Big Sur for galleries, hiking and fabulous views (especially at Nepenthe Restaurant)
- Visit Hearst Castle at San Simeon
- Take a walk in Point Lobos State Reserve
- Stroll around the shops and galleries of Carmel
- Have dinner or Sunday brunch at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch
- Do a guided walking tour of Carmel
- Take the scenic 17-Mile Drive
- Visit Monterey for the Aquarium and Cannery Row
- Visit Cypress Inn, co-owned by Doris Day
17 Mile Drive
It was recommended that we take the scenic 17-Mile Drive as part of our trip from Carmel via Monterey up to San Francisco. We attempted this however found the route badly marked and the map hard to follow as some of the roads were not marked.
We entered through the Carmel Gate (on San Antonio Avenue), drove through forests, past mansions and along the coast but eventually found ourselves at the gate where Highway 68 meets Highway One (Cabrillo Hwy)! It was all a bit frustrating as we were hoping to finish the drive at the Pacific Grove Gate on Sunset Drive.
Someone in our party had driven 17-Mile Drive in the other direction (from Monterey to Carmel) a couple of years ago and he said the drive was better signed and easier to follow.
If you want to do this drive, make sure you have a good map and preferably ask someone knowledgeable at the Carmel Visitor Information Centre (on San Carlos between 5th and 6th) to highlight the route. Have a look at Wikipedia for a quick overview of 17-Mile Drive or at the 17-Mile Drive website, and at the Pebble Beach Interactive Map to get an idea of the route.
On the day we did this drive, it was cold and windy, so we didn’t think it was all that spectacular. If you are driving north on Highway One, you would already have seen much more spectacular scenery at Big Sur however it may be worth doing if you are driving from Monterey to Carmel. Many people like to stop at Roys at The Inn at Spanish Bay for lunch however we didn’t get that far!
Carmel to San Francisco
Once back on the highway it was about a 2 hour drive to San Francisco.