A drive down the ribbon of road along the cliff-hugging Pacific coast isn’t just romantic. Here’s how to see it my way
The ocean, the rows of palm trees, pretty bungalows and a melting sun – the Santa Barbara county looks amazing through the train’s large window. And then, the Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere.
Minutes later, the attendant announces: “There is an incident. We’ll be late by at least three hours.” Two amateur photographers were busy shooting the sunset from the track and didn’t see the train coming, we learn later.
This Amtrak train is supposed to be going along the edge of the Pacific coast to San Luis Obispo (SLO). From there, a family of four will pick us for a road trip on Pacific Highway, one of America’s fabled roads, toward San Francisco (SFO). Instead, the train rolls back to the nearest station. My wife and I are the only passengers sporting a smile. “We’re from a country where almost no trains run on time,” I tell a bemused co-passenger.
Another hour passes and I remember my childhood friend Prantik’s advice that a rented car from downtown LA for SFO is a better option. “It’s even cheaper if you book it between two airports,” Shamik, a Pleasanton resident, later told me.
But I am a victim of nostalgia. After all, my memories of vacations from Calcutta are vivid with trains and Howrah station.
Darkness descends by the time the Surfliner moves again. Another passenger and I chat about his life in the cornfields of American hinterland. But when I tell him about India’s communist movement, he is unable to approve.
Five hours behind the schedule, we arrive at a cold, dark San Luis Obispo. Prasun and Tanuka are tired waiting for us at the station. In the minivan’s rear seat, their two lovely daughters are already in dreamland.
There’s another bad news. Hotels in SLO are full and we have to settle for a Holiday Inn at Santa Maria. It’s a bad place to stay, especially, when LA Marriot’s memories are so fresh. Next morning, we hit the Pacific Highway after breakfast at a Subway. Through rolling hills and vineyards, grasslands and tree-shades, we leave lonely cottages behind for a one-of-its kind Danish delight on US soil: Solvang.
As the car goes uphill I suggest: “Michael Jackson’s ranch (5225 Figueroa Mountain Road, Los Olivos) is nearby. How about a detour?” My wife, who never appreciates my break-dance, gives a hard look. Prasun and Tanuka are mum. The car continues on the same road.
Solvang, where a group of immigrant Danes had settled a century ago, has a vintage charm. I jump into a horse-driven tram that’ll go around the town. The young guide is more eager to talk about his horses than Solvang’s history. Elverhøj museum, where an old Dane lady answers tourists’ queries, is the place to learn about the town.
Soon, we are back on the cliff-hugging Highway 1 between the Pacific Ocean and the green hills. Prasun negotiates a few bends on the silk-smooth road and I see rows of tourist cars, some with surfboards on top or boat trailers near the narrow, clean beaches.
We stop the car to walk almost half a kilometre on sand in Morro Bay to see how an extinct volcanic cone has popped up in the ocean, creating a dramatic seascape. There’s a museum of natural history but I am happy to miss it.
San Simeon, our night halt, is far away but the car needs to stop. The day is coming to an end. A vast wilderness, with a few mountains eclipsing one side of the horizon, sets the perfect backdrop to see the September sun slowly sinking in the deep blue. San Simeon doesn’t have high-end hotels. We check in at a motel next to a beach. The receptionist hands over the keys and a few slips, “Use these breakfast coupons in the Best Western next door.” It’s night. It’s time to sit and listen to the crashing waves under a star-lit sky.
After the pastureland near settlements of Lucia and Plaskett, comes the Big Sur, the most picturesque part of the journey. The elements of nature – hills plunging into the world’s largest ocean, tall redwood groves hiding the sky, and rocks bashing waves to froth – explain why all guidebooks have unanimously voted for this trip.
We pass the Hurricane point to reach the frequently-photographed Bixby Bridge. The road goes uphill. After a while, we start feeling hungry. I suggest a light Chinese meal. Tanuka finds a few choices: “In the next crossing, we can go either right or left. Both sides have good Chinese joints.” By the time Prasun and his wife could agree to a direction, the crossing is gone. We try our luck at the next red light.
The rusticity of Highway 1 leads to the upscale village of Carmel-by-the-sea with colourful buildings that had come up around one of those missions established long ago by Spaniards. This place also boasts of a big beach. “You can go there to watch pelicans and kingfishers,” says the manager of China Delight, which serves sumptuous seafood fried rice.
The car zooms past semi-urban landscapes at 100 miles/hour speed. I dig into my notes that say beyond the former Californian capital Monterey, the road will negotiate with jungles and hilly terrain before diving into San Francisco.
Just then Prasun delivers a googly: why not divert to Fremont (their house) for luchi and kosha mangsho? I can always see SFO next morning, he points out.
I take a second to make up my mind. The road to home is always the best.
From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016
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