The Siren Song Of California's Route 1

We packed our bathing suits and hiking boots. We brought plenty of sunscreen, and even rented a red convertible for our drive up California 1, the tortuous, two-lane road that snakes between jagged mountains and crashing surf along the midsection of the coast. We had heard about the unusually warm weather in recent weeks and were looking forward to glorious days and dramatic sunsets. As it happened, we ran smack into one of the worst storms to bash the area this century.

Next time, we'll wait until winter ends. Rather than suffer washed-out roads and hotel rooms with no power, we'll more likely be treated to spectacular views, wildflowers, and calm weather. In late spring and summer, at least, the adage that it never rains in California is almost always true.

Spring is the best time to go. The skies will be dry, and the coast road will be relatively free of traffic; most people making the 450-mile trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco zoom up the inland freeways. In summer, Route 1 is a more well-worn path. Even then, it remains a visual and sensual treat, passing windswept rocky shores, aromatic redwood groves, and tranquil coves named by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portol.

VOLCANIC PEAKS. It took Portol months to complete his trip up the coast. You can do it in a weekend or a week. A good starting point is San Luis Obispo, 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Once a dusty cowtown, it has grown into a thriving college community brimming with cafes and bookstores. It also has plenty of what passes for ancient history in California. Begin a short walk at the mission, built in 1772, where every summer the locals host a Mozart festival. Across the plaza are old Western-style buildings, including the Sinsheimer Brothers department store, with its fine cast-iron facade, built in 1874. If you decide to put up for the night, stay at the Madonna Inn, with its eclectic rooms for $87 to $210 (800 543-9666). Some feature cave-like bathrooms with waterfalls.

From San Luis, head northwest along a pretty valley punctuated by nine small volcanic peaks, the last of which, Morro Rock, juts into the ocean. Despite its ticky-tacky wharf, Morro Bay boasts one of the few remaining estuaries on the coast. We took advantage of our only sunny day to spend the morning in Morro Bay State Park, where each year hundreds of great blue herons nest in a eucalyptus grove.

In summer, "clam taxis" ferry visitors across the bay to a sand spit to dig for large pismo clams. Hikers should check out the 8,000-acre Montaa de Oro State Park a few miles south, where poppies bloom in April and May. Nearby Los Osos Park features 85 acres of sand dunes and dwarf oak trees.

Route 1 tracks northward from Morro Bay. You'll see Cayucos, which looks like a Mediterranean village from a distance, nestled along a hilly bay. Before reaching the Santa Lucia mountains, you may want to detour east on Route 46 to one of several local wineries. Back on the coast road, make sure not to rush past Cambria, a former whaling town tucked into a valley shaded by Monterey pines.

From Moonstone Beach just outside of town, it's a 10-minute drive to San Simeon, an almost obligatory stop. Built from 1919 to 1947 by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the opulent castle strikes some as beautiful, others as gaudy and excessive. Either way, it's fascinating. The Moorish 100-room castle is jammed with rare antiques. Persian rugs in one baronial room give way to Egyptian sculpture in the garden and Greek and Roman statues around an immense pool. Expansive views of the hills and ocean spread out in all directions. The two-hour tour costs $14. Book in advance (800 444-4445).

A few miles north, the road enters a stunning and isolated landscape, never straying more than a few hundred yards from the cliffs and crashing surf below. Pay close attention to the frequent hairpin turns as the road threads through deep canyons. And always keep an eye out for falling rocks.

Unfortunately, in our case, we were dodging small mudslides. But we were rewarded with mist-shrouded vistas of green slopes dotted with cattle, rocky outcrops, and oak and redwood clusters. In nicer weather, you may pull over at the many vista points to scout out sea otters. Make sure you tackle this 75-mile stretch in plenty of daylight. It's by far the most spectacular--and gut-wrenching.

The highlight of our trip came farther up the road at The Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur (408 667-2200). Secluded and closely attuned to its natural setting, the inn features 30 private units cleverly blended into a hilly ridge 1,200 feet above the surf. We stayed in a treehouse, wedged among ancient oaks. Modern, angular, and looking like a spacecraft on stilts, our little hideaway swayed and shuddered at the height of the storm but kept us warm and dry.

HIKER'S HEAVEN. In more placid weather, guests can take a nature walk through the resort's 98 acres of woods and meadows or wake up with a yoga class on a platform overlooking the ocean. For more energetic souls, Big Sur offers extensive hiking trails. Room rates range from $265 to $525 per night with breakfast. A sumptuous dinner at the inn's Sierra Mar restaurant costs $55 per person, not including wine.

We had hoped to see Carmel and Monterey, but the storm blocked our path. On our next trip to San Francisco, we'll make an easy side trip to Point Lobos, where sea lions bask in great numbers. Next time, too, we'll visit the Monterey aquarium and Cannery Row, famous from the novels of John Steinbeck. Who knows, maybe we'll even get to put down the convertible top.

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