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Posted by on Sep 25, 2014 | 0 comments

Airstreaming the Pacific Coast Highway

A few weeks ago, I challenged myself to embrace a different kind of travel. Despite having spent two decades traversing more than 100 countries in all manner of ways, I had never been in an RV. And yet, hitting the road in one of these self-contained mobile domiciles is exactly how thousands of fellow travelers see the world. What was I missing?

I picked up a road atlas and plotted my route: The Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to San Francisco, an iconic ribbon of road and birthplace of the farm-to-table movement. My journey was well-timed, during peak harvest season, and my chariot well-chosen: a 23-foot Airstream International towed by a white Chevy Silverado.

Santa Barbara's Arroyo Burro Beach is known as Hendry's Beach by locals. (Photograph by Damian Gadal, Flickr)

Santa Barbara’s Arroyo Burro Beach is known as Hendry’s Beach by locals. (Photograph by Damian Gadal, Flickr)

The duo turned out to be surprisingly easy to navigate (my biggest fear as an RV greenhorn), and I quickly discovered that it’s also kind of fun, and certainly convenient, to cart along your own hotel room: no checking in or out, and the room is always ready.

Contrary to the solo journey I had imagined, traveling in an Airstream was an instant magnet for meeting people. A request for directions at one stop over led to a retired high school teacher sharing the coordinates to a hidden beach nearby.  “Anyone who rides a silver bullet is a friend of mine,” she said, revealing one of many road-warrior terms for my recreational rig. It was like I had acquired entry into a secret travel society. Airstream calls it “Living riveted.”

My biggest challenge quickly became where to park the Airstream each night. Most state parks fill weeks in advance (be sure to book way ahead, which I did not) and overnight RV parking can be pricey, topping $100 at some private campgrounds. Faced with limited options, I decided to approach some hotels along the way to ask if I could park in their lots.

For example, the Fess Parker, a sweeping oceanfront resort in Santa Barbara with an equally sweeping parking area, does not normally allow overnight RVs, but I asked and they agreed. While I wouldn’t count on this tactic to work every time, when it did I was happily put within walking distance of nearby attractions, and my faith in the kindness of strangers renewed.

Here are a few highly recommended highlights from my five-day land cruise:

Kate Grassini does the honors at her sustainable family winery. (Photograph by Costas Christ)

Kate Grassini does the honors at her sustainable family winery. (Photograph by Costas Christ)

Santa Monica: A giant solar-powered Ferris wheel, bike lanes everywhere, and locals with sunburned teeth from smiling so much. What’s not to like? (Okay, the sunburned teeth are an exaggeration.) Everywhere I went in this uber-green town seemed to hum with good vibrations.

  • Dine In: Beachside for lunch at One Pico, a culinary landmark at Shutters on the Beach. Among his farmer’s market creations, chef Isaac Gamboa’s Tuscan kale salad was so tantalizingly good that I ordered a second helping in the same sitting. At night, head to Rustic Canyon, a trendy wine bar and seasonal kitchen where locals flock. 

Santa Barbara: Out of duty to my fellow travelers, I felt a nagging obligation to hit the tasting rooms of the Urban Wine Trail in the town’s rising Funk Zone (a former industrial area turned Bohemian ‘hood) in order to report back accurately.

My recommendation: Head straight to Grassini Winery, a boutique family operation where a smiling Katie Grassini readily pours some of California’s finest Sauv Blancs and Cabs. The Grassinis produce their vintages with a deep and abiding commitment to sustainable farming, right down to the winery itself, built from reclaimed timber.

  • Big Sur's Santa Lucia Mountains offer stunning views of the coast. (Photograph by Jack French, Flickr)

    Big Sur’s Santa Lucia Mountains offer stunning views of the coast. (Photograph by Jack French, Flickr)

    Dine In: Santa Barbara is an omnivore’s nirvana, especially for local and natural food enthusiasts. (Exhibit A: Every Tuesday afternoon, municipal officials close the busiest main street in the city, transforming it into a huge open-air farmers market.)

  • It’s hard to go more fresh and seasonal than dinner at The Lark (try the Dungeness crab and house-made gnocchi), or more affordable and original than Sama Sama Kitchen, where So-Cal cuisine meets Indonesian street food.  

Cambria VillageEver heard of this tiny enclave about midway between L.A. and San Francisco? Neither had I, until I pulled into this one-street town and parked my Airstream at El Colibri Hotel at the far end. Cambria is the real deal—no malls, no McDonalds, just off-the-radar California living.

  • Dine In: As resident Jay Somers, owner of the stellar Indigo Moon Café, explained: “We all know each other and are here for the same reasons—laid-back living, surfing, hiking in the hills, a chef’s bounty of fresh produce, and really good wine.” Note to self: Come back.
A green-roof guest room at Big Sur's famous Post Ranch Inn (Photograph by Costas Christ)

A green-roof guest room at Big Sur’s famous Post Ranch Inn (Photograph by Costas Christ)

Big Sur: Before I drove the Pacific Coast Highway from Lucia to Point Lobos, I was convinced that the most beautiful drive in the world was Cape Town’s Chapman’s Peak pass. But that takes second seat to what Big Sur delivers—thousand-foot drops into sparkling seas on one side and remnants of ancient coastal redwood forests on the other.

At this epicenter of almost surreal natural beauty lies the Post Ranch Inn. Long on my list of must-see ecolodges, Post Ranch lived up to its green credentials, defining California’s place in the sun as a model for more sustainable living—and traveling.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.

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