CARMEL, Calif. - Highway 1 stretches 656 miles down the coastline of California, and it's all beautiful. But there's a certain stretch, about 90 miles long, that will take your breath away - the road that runs along the Pacific Ocean from Carmel to Big Sur and Hearst Castle beyond.
John Lloyd, general manager of Carmel's Pine Inn, as well as Tally Ho, an upscale bed-and-breakfast, says in spite of its small size, Carmel, with a population of just under 4,000 and also known as Carmel-by-the-Sea, boasts a world of charm, flavor and fun.
"Carmel is famous for its white sandy beach, first-class restaurants, art galleries, wine tastings and retail shops, not to mention the eclectic hotels and inns," he says.
Plus the fairy-tale cottages that line the street. Many celebrities make their homes in Carmel, most notably Doris Day, who only recently passed away. Clint Eastwood owns the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant and lives on a mountain in nearby Carmel Valley. And former NFL coach and commentator John Madden enjoys spending time at his seaside home on Carmel beach. So keep a lookout. There's no telling when you might spot a familiar face.
While you wait for a celebrity sighting, there's so much to do around the area, starting - or ending, depending on which way you travel along Highway 1 - with Pebble Beach and the 17-Mile Drive that snakes around the golf course and the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps the most-famous drive in the world, 17-Mile Drive is a magical place. There's a $10.50 charge per car - no motorcycles allowed - to enter at one of five gates, and with it comes a guidebook with numbered sites that are important stops to make.
There are more than a dozen sights to behold, so be prepared to spend an hour or more on your self-guided tour past beautiful homes, golf courses and Mother Nature at her most awesome. Once you get inside the gates, you'll find signs to help you follow the route, which includes skirting some of the most-famous golf courses in the world, including Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill and the Links at Spanish Bay.
And there's more to see:
* Pescadero Point. This landmark offers great views of the ocean and, in winter, waves that are legendary, reaching up to 50 feet high as they slam against interesting rock formations.
* The Lone Cypress. With the exception of California's giant redwood trees, this cypress, perched high on a coastal rock, is probably the most-iconic tree in the state. It's the logo for many Pebble Beach golf products and has been called one of the most-often photographed trees in the country.
* The Ghost Tree. This area of Pescadero Point gets its name from the gnarly cypress trees in the area, as well as from the Lady in Lace, a spirit that's said to wander silently near the tree, thus its name.
* Fanshell Overlook. You'll gaze down at a beautiful crescent-shape beach with rocky points along its borders. It's also a popular spot to see harbor seal pups if your timing is right (April to early June).
* Crocker Grove. Home to only one of two surviving stands of Monterey cypress trees, this small forest contains the largest and oldest.
* China Rock. This interesting area where Chinese fishermen once made their homes is also a place where the kids can expend some of their energy climbing rocks.
* Point Joe. Located at the southwestern end of Spanish Bay, this was the home of a Chinese man who lived alone in a house he made from driftwood. Due to rocks and rough waves, it's also the site of several shipwrecks. It makes for an interesting stop along the way as you imagine how a man could live in a driftwood house on the rocks.
Carmel lies about 4 miles south of Pebble Beach. It's a wonderful place to stop for the night, with numerous inns, shops and restaurants. The downtown village area is small and easily walkable at just 1 square mile. You'll find much to do, including wine tastings at 20 tasting rooms, wine bars and bottle shops. If you're staying in the village, just park your car at your hotel and walk - no need for a designated driver. During your outing, tour some of the more than 40 charming courtyard and passageways. The village is a secret garden come to life.
In addition to numerous chain motels, there are several inns and hotels that provide a memorable experience. Among the choices are:
* Tally Ho. Across the street from its sister property and the town's oldest hotel, Pine Inn, circa 1889, Tally Ho was once home to Jimmy Hatlo, a cartoonist who created "They'll Do It Every Time." Today, the property houses 12 elegant rooms, many of which overlook the sea. Complimentary breakfast is served in the dining room of the historic Pine Inn, the oldest inn in town. Dinner is served in the award-winning Il Fornaio Italian restaurant.
* The Cypress Inn. Co-owned by actress Doris Day for the last few decades of her life, this place is pure 1920s elegance with a strong dose of Old World charm. Day, well-known for her love of animals, made The Cypress Inn one of the first dog-friendly hotels in the country. Lunch, drinks and dinner in Terry's Lounge are memorable.
* The Vagabond's House. This boutique bed-and-breakfast inn dates from the 1920s as evidenced by the warm and inviting English Tudor-style architecture popular in the era. Enjoy free afternoon wine and cheese in the lobby. Most of the 11 rooms have fireplaces and kitchens.
* Clint Eastwood's Mission House. The actor-director's hotel and restaurant are located on a 22-acre former dairy farm, just a 10-minute walk from Carmel beach. The rooms are comfortable and housed in 10 buildings, some with ocean views. The rustic American restaurant features pasture views, a fireplace and terrace. There's also a piano bar with nightly live music.
Dining with a view at restaurants, such as Mission House and Il Fornaio, is not a problem in Carmel. Other not-to-miss eateries include:
* Rocky Point Restaurant. A 15-minute drive from Carmel, this place is a must if you want a dynamic view of the ocean and foods from the sea. Mouthwatering oysters, shrimp, crab cakes and clams Bordelais might begin your meal, followed by a beautiful Shrimp Louie salad for a light, refreshing entree or shrimp scampi in white wine-butter sauce with sun-dried tomatoes over linguine. After dinner, enjoy a glass of wine on a bench outside. Just sit for a while and enjoy the scenic surroundings.
* The Bench at Pebble Beach. It's open for lunch and dinner daily overlooking the 18th hole and the water at the famous golf course. Enjoy cocktails at the bar, dine in the expansive dining room or eat outside around the fire pit. Wherever you decide to dine, you'll be in for a treat with dishes such as Dungeness crab pappardelle pasta, a smoked pork panini, burgers and salads. With a purchase of $35 or more, your $10.50 gate fee will be reimbursed if you show your receipt.
* California Market at Pacific's Edge. With great views from every table, this Hyatt property also boasts a 1,200-square-foot deck offering al fresco dining and dramatic views of the ocean. The restaurant focuses of local foods and is committed to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which promotes sustainable fishing practices. The restaurant serves breakfast through dinner and offers a weekend brunch.
On to Big Sur
One hundred eleven. That's how many times I said "Wow!" according to my sister/traveling companion who, unbeknownst to me, began counting about a mile down Highway 1 from Carmel. If you're looking for action or something to do as you head south, just look to your right with sweeping views of the Pacific.
The distance between Carmel and Big Sur is just 25 miles, but it will take you at least an hour to get there - more if you get behind a slow car or a team of cyclists. On busy days, places to pass are few, but this is a stretch of Highway 1 that you won't want to hurry through. The scenery is jaw-dropping - rocks jutting out of the sea, playful seals and otters, and the incredible Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel that spans a canyon with the Pacific Ocean and California hills all within one view. Grab your camera. This is definitely worth a stop. The bridge comes upon you rather quickly, so if you miss getting a good picture, there's a turnaround on the other side.
And don't leave your binoculars at home. If you do, some hotels, such as Tally Ho, have a pair you can borrow if you plan to return for the night.
As you head into Big Sur, Big Sur Campground lies beneath the redwoods with cozy cabins, as well as areas to pitch a tent. Plan to have dinner at nearby Nepenthe Restaurant, famous for its place on the cliffs offering views of breathtaking sunsets.
Also along the way, there are a handful of interesting art galleries, inns and eateries, such as Deetjen's, known for its amazing breakfasts. And no drive along this stretch of Highway 1 is complete without a stop at Big Sur Bakery for one of its mouthwatering pastries or dinner at Big Sur River Inn and a taste of its fresh catch of the day.
The sights, the sounds, the flora and fauna found between Carmel and Big Sur - it's hard to believe that this beautiful, serene area is sandwiched between the state's largest and most-congested cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Madison Quiring, communications manager for Visit SLO (San Luis Obispo) California, says the best time to drive Highway 1 is in the spring and fall, when there's less traffic on the road and the weather is nice along California's Central Coast.
"The southern towns of Pismo Beach and Cambria, as well as Carmel and Monterey to the north, offer close proximity to wineries and agriculture with fresh produce, grape-harvest events in the fall and sunny sipping with a view," she says. "Springtime seems to enhance the natural beauty of the incredible journey along Highway 1. From spotting whale spouts near Carmel to the blooming hillsides of Ragged Point, the rushing water of Salmon Creek Falls to the green hills of San Simeon where the zebra graze near Hearst Castle, the spring months of March and April offer an array of fresh sights."
Continuing south, the land begins to level out and the road starts to straighten. San Simeon, a charming village with its own winery and beach bar and grill, is home to Hearst Castle, built by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst.
In his youth, Hearst visited the property overlooking the hills and ocean with his father, U.S. Sen. George Hearst, who struck it big in the silver mines of Nevada in the 1870s. It was a place where father and son often came to rough it, spending nights in a tent high atop the hill where the mansion now stands. Upon his father's death, Hearst inherited 50,000 acres and built his castle, reportedly telling architect Julia Morgan, famous for her work following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, "We're tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon, and I would like to build a little something."
That "little something" turned out to be a 90,000-square-foot castle with twin towers overlooking one of the most-magnificent coastlines in the world. The mansion boasts 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, two pools (one indoor, one out), a movie theater, an exotic animal zoo and a 1.5-mile-long pergola filled with fruits for all to enjoy while hunting or horseback riding. Every room and the surrounding gardens are filled with treasures Hearst accumulated during a lifetime of art and antiques collecting.
The newspaper magnate hosted elaborate parties at his castle on the hill, attended by the top stars of the day - Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Charlie Chaplin and others.
Hearst Castle is now owned by the California Park System, and visitors can choose from several bus tours that make their way up the twisting road to the top. The drive takes about 20 minutes, and along the way you'll be listening to a recording narrated by "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek telling of interesting facts and sights you'll see.
The most popular of tours is the Grand Rooms Tour, which winds through five elaborately decorated rooms, including the Refectory, a dining room that was an inspiration for the dining hall used in the Harry Potter movies. Following dinner, Hearst's guests would make their way to a 50-seat movie theater where movies were screened - sometimes before they had been released to the public.
Tours start at $25. The Grand Rooms Tour takes about an hour, but visitors may linger as long as they like, strolling through the gardens and other outdoor areas around the castle. For more information or to buy tickets in advance, log onto hearstcastle.org.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.