In Review

The Pacific Coast Highway: One of the world's great road trips

Take the clifftop route from San Francisco to San Diego and soak in the Californian sunshine

It goes by many names – California State Route 1, the Cabrillo Highway, even El Camino Real. But most who follow the long and often winding road along the westernmost fringe of the United States know it best as the Pacific Coast Highway.

It's a drive as diverse as the great state of California, connecting fogbound San Francisco with sunkissed Santa Monica, the wild crags of Big Sur with celeb-rich Malibu and surfer-chic Santa Cruz with the country-club Republicans of Orange County.

Here's how to make the most of it.

The car: Something roofless and sporty. The Pacific Coast Highway is thick with convertible Mustangs – and so it should be – but you'll stand out from the crowd with the smarter, sleeker and sharper Mazda MX-5 Club.

The luggage: Space is at a premium in the compact MX-5 boot. Choose a soft-sided duffel bag – John Lewis's leather Gladstone holdall (£200) looks the part.

San Francisco

The Pacific Coast Highway is best tackled from north to south: driving on the right-hand side of the road, your views will – fingers crossed - be unimpeded by oncoming traffic.

That means starting in San Francisco, which is no hardship. Spend three or four days here riding the streetcars, strolling along the Embarcadero, escaping from Alcatraz [http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/] (book online at least two weeks in advance), dropping in on the hippie holdouts in Haight Ashbury and ogling the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stay: The Galleria Park Hotel (from £270 per double room per night) offers smart rooms in a classic San Francisco building two minutes' walk from Union Square. The leather-upholstered Gaspar bar serves up cognac cocktails and a 1920s vibe.

Eat: San Francisco's best diners attract long queues for breakfast, but pick one and join it. It will move quickly and you won't regret the wait. The Magnolia pub and brewery in Haight Ashbury offers a huge range of beers, excellent coffee and a wide range of stylish snacks. This being California, many contain kale, avocado or both, but there's burgers or fish & chips too. Head to the Castro for dinner at Poesia, where expertly mixed cocktails sharpen the appetite for the voluptuous delights of aubergine parmigiana and shredded lamb shank ragu over fettuccine.

Santa Cruz, Carmel and Big Sur

Set out early from San Francisco, forsaking the Bay Area's tangle of multilane highways for the more leisurely Route 1. Strictly speaking, this northern stretch is not the Pacific Coast Highway, but if it were any closer to the ocean it would be in it. Santa Cruz, with its beachfront boardwalk and laidback cafes, is a good spot for breakfast.

The road widens and cuts inland for the next hour or so, before setting you back by the seaside at the southern end of Monterey Bay. Take the turn-off to Pacific Grove and spend some time nosing around the rocky headland before lunch in upmarket Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor.

Next up is Big Sur, a 75-mile stretch of coast where the Santa Lucia mountains plunge into the foaming sea. Take it slowly and try to keep at least one eye on the road - more often than not there's a sheer drop just beyond your right elbow. Take a break from driving at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a thousand acres of beech, oak and redwood forest, crisscrossed by hiking trails.

Eat:  Pick up a breakfast burrito from the Picnic Basket and head for a bench looking out over the Pacific; lunch at The Cottage, the quaintest restaurant in Carmel, where the all-day-breakfast - American or Mexican - competes with salads and soups; and dinner at your hotel...

Stay: The Post Ranch Inn's collection of boutique luxury cottages (£600), some of which have private plunge pools, are perched on the cliff tops for uninterrupted views of the ocean. Its restaurant offers a six-course tasting menu and wines from an award-winning cellar.

Hearst Castle

As you leave Big Sur, you will tack inland again around the town of San Simeon. Take the turn for Hearst Castle, a grand hilltop folly built by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Begun in 1919 and never completed, the 115-room mansion melds medieval, Renaissance and neoclassical features – in some cases, literally: centuries-old ceilings and wall panels were shipped in from Europe and cut or extended to fit Hearst's vision of worldly sophistication. Sir Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin are among its many guests over the years.

Eat: Breakfast is included at the Post Ranch, so you may be able to skip the canteen at Hearst Castle. The Ventana Grill at Pismo Beach serves hearty Asian and Mexican-infused dishes, with a justifiable bias towards seafood.

Stay: The Cottage Inn by the Sea (£160) in Pismo Beach looks motel-like from the road, but once you're inside it lives up to its name. Ask for a cabin with a sea view.

Los Angeles

Route 1 merges with the faster US 101 a little south of San Simeon, but it's worth splitting off again before you reach the big city. Hug the coast then slip into the LA traffic via Malibu and Santa Monica. Then it's up to you: trawl the Hollywood strip, climb up to the Griffith Observatory, sip rooftop cocktails in Beverley Hills, explore the newly hip downtown or find yourself a pavement cafe and watch the Los Angelinos at work and play. Four or five days will pass in a blur.

Eat: Rouse yourself for brunch at the M Street Cafe, which serves "comfort food done right" a couple of blocks from Santa Monica beach. Isaka-Ya, near the Beverley Centre, is ideal for lunching on high-quality sushi at sensible prices. For dinner, seek out Clifton's, a vast downtown hipster-magnet serving up classic Americana and highly ironised kitsch.

Stay: The Grafton on Sunset (£200), well located in West Hollywood, offers stylish rooms and a rooftop pool.

San Diego

Most visitors call off their coastal crawl in Los Angeles, but press on to the end of Route 1, south of the city, and join the mostly rather unlovely Interstate 5. It leads to San Diego, a handsome, bullish town perched between the desert, the ocean and the Mexican border. Bathed in year-round sunshine and cooled by sea breezes, it's built for the outdoor life: Balboa Park carpets 1,200 acres of the city centre and the seafront is one long footpath. Between the two, the Gaslamp Quarter is the town's historic heart – a collection of beautiful 19th-century buildings whose bars and restaurants come alive as evening falls. 

Eat: Breakfast at Richard Walker's Pancake House, where a baked pancake enriched with apples and cinnamon would feed a platoon. Lunch, if required, will be light: repair to the well-heeled suburb of La Jolla, where George's at the Cove serves fine fish tacos on its sunny terrace. When your appetite returns, head to Bottega Americano in the East Village, and don't let the corporate exterior put you off.  If the wine list doesn't win you over, the inventive Italian-inspired food certainly will.

Stay: For the Gaslamp Quarter, check into the Andaz San Diego (£146), a slick, high-design property moments from the city's best bars and restaurants. Or plump for its sister hotel, the Grand Hyatt (£144), whose 40-storey towers offer unmatched views of the shimmering skyline.

British Airways flies direct from London to San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. Open-jaw tickets, flying into one city and out of another, are available from £700 per person

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