California Road Trip | Santa Barbara to Big Sur
From Malibu, we headed north to Santa Barbara where we stayed for one night before taking a day to road trip up to Big Sur. While I loved seeing Santa Barbara (bike riding from our hotel down the beach was a really nice way to stretch our legs and get a little feel for the place), one night stops are kind of strange in how transitory they are. You arrive somewhere just in time for sunset, have dinner, go to bed and by the time you have breakfast you’re kind of needing to pack up and plan when to leave. If you’re doing many one night stops on a trip, accept them for what they are. You’ll never really get to see much of a place in one night and will always leave hungry for more time. On the flip side, they’re a great way to break up your journey, stay in nice surroundings or try out that restaurant you’ve heard lots about when you don’t have tonnes of time.
Because our time in Santa Barbara was so fleeting and our trip up to Big Sur had so many great stops, I thought I’d combine the two and document our journey from SoCal to NorCal up the 101 and tell you where I stopped.
First up, Santa Barbara. We stayed at the Four Seasons Biltmore which was perfect for us because it wasn’t in the thick of downtown Santa Barbara, but rather is tucked away 5 minutes on the beach from the highway so it’s an easy hop off from our route up the coast. It was great staying somewhere like this for a night so we could get some laundry done and the service makes everything easy. They have their own bike for rent too so we were able to do a bike ride without faffing around searching for a rental spot when we only had a couple of hours before it got dark. I’m not such a fan of big, old school hotels like this and the interiors don’t wow me nearly as much as somewhere like Surfrider but you can’t fault the service that’s for sure. It was definitely a treat to be able order a plate of dark chocolate and a hot ginger tea while falling asleep in front of a movie. The hotel grounds and the location are stunning for sure, it’s just the inside that feels a little tired to me but I think that’s more my taste than anything else. But all in all it was the perfect place for us to stay given how brief our stop was.
After a bike ride, we headed for some wine and then dinner in town and opted for dinner at a place called The Lark we’d been recommended. Every restaurant in California seems to be revolving around the farm-to-table, family-style food right now and that’s A-Ok by me as The Lark was delicious.
From Santa Barbara, we headed north with a few stops, both planned and unplanned along the way. We took a minor detour to go and see The Cold Spring Tavern, an old stagecoach inn tucked away in the Santa Barbara hills and a million miles away from the Nancy Meyers breed of California (which I’m also a huge fan of just FYI). I saw this on a Goop guide and also on Luke Edward Hall’s instagram and wanted to swing by for a photo op. I imagine if you’re passing at lunch and it’s a bit rainy or grey, this would make such a nice spot for a cosy lunch or just a hot coffee. We were there purely to check it out as we had a long journey ahead but it was fun to see.
After this, we might or might not have had a little run-in with the CHP (that’s Californian Highway Patrol)… Essentially, watch your speed in Cali kids! One ticket and heart in mouth situation later (‘licence and registration documents ma’am’) we were back on the road again, only this time not one mile over the 55mph limit (if I could insert a clenched teeth emoji here I would).
We briefly stopped in Los Olivos, a tiny little town with a couple of cute wine bars and grocery shops. It’s always fun to see as much as possible but I wouldn’t put this on your list if you’re doing the full schlep up to Big Sur. We carried on up north and stopped off in Los Alamos next. Los Alamos is definitely somewhere I would recommend stopping off. Matilda Goad told me about this place and we loved it. It’s a real mix of old school delis with Western-style architecture, and more contemporary taco joints and wineries. I bought a picture from a little antiques shop (no idea what it’s called but it’s the picture below with the flowers over the picket fence) and we stopped by the beyond lovely Bodega Los Alamos, a bright and airy wine shop and deli stocking Sqirl jams and pink crystal salt with a big garden and firepit outside for consuming your wine. The owner was so charming and after we helped her rescue a stuck hummingbird, she super sweetly gifted me a pot of jam and let us wander around the gardens despite not being open. For sure swing by here if you can, I think the motel here could even be a great place to stay for a night too.
After Los Alamos, we stopped in San Luis Obispo for lunch and a mandatory quick tour of the infamous Madonna Inn. My boyfriend did some googling and found a sandwich shop for us to stop at for lunch. I’ll admit I had kinda low expectations but it might just have been the best sandwich I’ve ever had. High Steet Deli is a real institution in this town with both locals and passers-through queuing up for the doorstep-thick pastrami reubens (you can make everything and anything you want from their extensive ingredients). The kind of concoctions you need dozens of napkins to soak up all the deliciousness that gets all over your chin and hands so get ready to get stuck in.
We swung by the Madonna Inn, a sickly-sweet pink palace that is as kitsch as Dolly Parton covered in Rhinestones at Christmas. It’s a fully-functioning motel that’s been family-run for decades so if you’re into brocade eiderdowns, gold baroque furniture and luminous cocktails in equally luminous cut-glass goblets, this is the place for you to stay. I was kind of glad we just popped in to have a look (I bought a Christmas bauble from the gift shop) but it’s definitely a sight to behold and I can imagine if you there with a group, a hilarious place to bed down for the night. A friend told me she’d had her Hen do there which I thought was amazing!
Carrying on towards Big Sur, we stopped at San Simeon beach so my boyfriend could avidly jade hunt (the Big Sur coastline is famous for naturally occuring jade but also famously hard to find) sadly to little avail. The beach is right off the highway and yet feels amazingly rugged, wild and windswept and almost cinematic in how fresh it is. Winding our way up the amazing coastline, you really start to feel you’re entering NorCal as the cliffs get higher and the coastline craggier. Every corner you turn, there’s a view, a patch of beach or a nature trail, so much so we had to get quite strict on ourselves and not stop every 15 minutes. We pulled over for the seals lounging around on the beach and caught the sunset at Jade Cove, another jade mission for my boyfriend and a chance to get over excited at taking pictures of the ridiculously gooey sunset light seeping through the pampas grasses. I was obsessed with how pampas grass grew like weeds in this area which I’m sure sounds mental to anyone else native to the area but it’s just not something we get over here. Honestly this coastline is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and the absolute dream to wind your way up in a car with The Star is Born soundtrack blaring out.
We got to Big Sur in the thick of darkness having driven the last 30 minutes alongside an almost violet-tinged sunset (and you know I love my sunsets). We checked in, got in the bath with a glass of champagne and were ready to not move very far for the next two days.
More from Big Sur next time.
Pink trousers | Apiece Apart Leopard top | Rouje
Patchwork bucket hat | Ganni
White vest top | Brandy Melville
White top (on bike in Santa Barbara) | Rouje
Stripe trousers | Brandy Melville
Trainers | Superga
Bag | Loeffler Randall
Ph. all my own.