Note: This post is published in partnership with Expedia Canada and Food Bloggers of Canada. All recommendations and opinions are my own.
I had long wanted to go on a road trip on the California coast, perhaps ever since peeking through the box containing my mom’s slides of when she had done so with her friends while in her 20s. I have always admired her moxie: she took that amazing trip at a time when it was not that common for women to embark on such adventures. And it was an ambitious expedition too: along with two friends, she drove from Quebec, to Vancouver, California, Death Valley, Salt Lake City, Yellowstone, and then back to Quebec. All in all, it was a one-month and 9,700-mile itinerary. That’s an impressive roadtrip if I’ve ever seen one!
But I was not as adventurous as my mom was as a teenager, and I was way too introverted to leave on a backpacking type of trip. When I finally caught the travel bug in my early twenties, there were so many places I wanted to see. The California road trip was still on my mind, but it moved down the list, after Paris, Italy, and several other destinations that felt more exotic.
When my good friend Melanie recently got married in Northern California, I felt like it was at last time to indulge in that teenaged dream of mine. I was pregnant, and it was to be one of our last vacations before the baby was born. We decided to rent—what else—a convertible and to make our way down scenic Pacific Coast Highway 1. The nine-day itinerary would take us from San Francisco through Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Santa Monica, and finally, Los Angeles.
Bixby Bridge, an 80-year-old architectural feat.
Of all the beautiful places we drove through, the one that left the strongest impression was the Big Sur region. This ragged coastline, along which the road twists and turns, offers countless viewpoints, each one more stunning than the last, made us realize we had barely scratched the surface of what California had to offer nature-wise. I had long known this trip would be fun, but I had always thought it wouldn’t offer the exotic kick we experienced in foreign countries. It was exactly the opposite: We drove through Big Sur unable to catch our breath in between each of the stops we made to snap pictures. We ended up slowing down to enjoy more of the region, which had us cut out some of the other stops we had planned on the trip, but we never regretted it.
Big Sur is not a city or a town but rather a region that includes approximately 90 miles of coastline from Carmel-by-the-Sea down to San Simeon and extends 20 miles inland to the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. The region is primarily driven by tourism, with people flocking to gawk at the coastline or enjoy some of the many outdoor activities the area offers. Indeed, Big Sur’s many state parks guarantee you’ll get a big bowl of fresh air, and a generous dose of slowing down too. Given I was not at my most active self, we did not get into long hikes, but most parks offer short and easy walks with gorgeous viewpoints. Some of our favorites included the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Julie Pfeiffer Burns Park, both of which feature tall and narrow waterfalls that seem to flow right out of the rock.
One of Big Sur’s most famous views: the 80-foot McWay Falls flowing into turquoise waters.
Given how sparsely populated it is, I wasn’t entirely sure what our dining options would be—there is no urban center, only gas stations, shops, motels, hotels, and restaurants dotted along the way. It turns out that while there isn’t in fact an abundance of offerings, I found that it was easy to find a great restaurant. The region seems to be fueled by an authentic will to function sustainably and to serve seasonal, local, and often organic food.
If you are plotting a California road trip, be sure to leave plenty of time to explore the Big Sur region and don’t forget to plan your rest stops, too: the following restaurants offer gourmet experiences that rival big city happenings.
Big Sur Roadhouse’s modern dining room.
A surprisingly design-driven restaurant part of the Glen Oaks Motor Lodge, Big Sur Roadhouse serves sophisticated and beautifully plated meats and fish prepared using classic techniques but served with seasonings and accompaniments inspired by cuisines from around the globe. We loved the “Small Bites” menu, which allowed us to enjoy a wider range of the chef’s creations. Equally delicious for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (yes, we went more than once) but especially nice for cocktails and bites on the cozy outdoor terrace fitted with comfortable sofas and a central fireplace.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Closed for dinner on Tuesday. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Find the region’s best coffee and pastries at Big Sur Bakery.
Risotto with peas, fava beans, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, and corn at Big Sur Bakery.
Probably the “it place” of the area, Big Sur Bakery is great enough to compete with the best Brooklyn or San Francisco artisanal spots—except that this is not just a bakery, it’s a gourmet restaurant, too. Set in an unassuming ranch house half hidden under the region’s signature giant trees, it serves an amazingly fresh, vegetable-driven cuisine. Stop for an expertly pulled espresso drink, a delightful scone, a colorful salad, an earthy wood-fired pizza, or all of the above—I can nearly guarantee that if you go once, you’ll be back again. It’s your home away from home.
Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
A 60-year-old institution, Nepenthe seems to have it all: the panoramic view, the comforting menu, the laid-back ambiance, and the friendly service. Although Nepenthe’s cuisine is more rustic than that of other restaurants on this list—both in flavors and in presentation—it shows the same impeccable freshness, with the added bonus of an addictive finger-licking-good quality. It’s the place where you’d love to be a regular, if only it weren’t so far away from home. You simply must be seated on the terrace: come when the weather is good (check out the live webcam to make sure) and enjoy the view while slowly sipping one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails.
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.
Ventana Big Sur’s elegant lodge-inspired interiors.
On the higher end of the spectrum—both literally and figuratively—sits Ventana Big Sur, an elegant resort sitting on an impressive piece of land, high above sea level. The restaurant’s dining room feels like a chic lodge, with its dimmed lighting, auburn wooden beams, and copper fireplace. There is a vast terrace too, with lounge and dining areas, both with beautiful views over the land and the sea. Although the setting is undeniably elegant, we appreciated the breezy service and the unfussy lunch menu. For a unique dinner experience, request the table located in the restaurant’s beautiful wine cellar.
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.
If you can’t afford the extraordinarily lavish rooms of the Post Ranch Inn, treat yourself to a gourmet meal at the resort’s excellent restaurant, Sierra Mar. Chef John Cox’s cuisine makes the most of local gems, such as seafood, cheeses, and vegetables, and treats diners with luxurious touches such as caviar and truffle. With a glass dining room perched on the cliff, multicourse tasting menus both for lunch and dinner, and the region’s most extensive wine list, the restaurant offers a fine dining experience you’re likely to remember for the rest of your life.
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Reservations highly recommended.
One very private house on the Big Sur coast.
Main Sights in Big Sur