Down the California Coast

Down the California Coast


California’s coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the most dramatic seaside drives on the continent. Business folks make the one hour flight, with hardly a glance at the ocean. Harried travelers blast up and down the state’s freeway spine, also known as the 5 and catch only a glimpse of the wonders closer to the coast. Our decision was to scoot up the 5 from Los Angeles and spend a week moseying south along the coast. Our daughters (ages 8 and 10) would be a barometer of coolness.  Fortunately, we were seeing and doing cool things most of the trip.

The coolest part of our trip may have been our first night in San Francisco.  We decided to stay along the waterfront, the destination of many folks who set sail for California over the centuries. The Argonaut Hotel, situated next to Ghiradelli Square and the cable car turnaround, is luxurious and steeped in history.  Our girls were astonished by the suite, decorated in nautical motif and overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf.  The hotel’s classic brick building hides a modern décor, with spacious bathrooms and comfortable beds.  We kept the girls away from the flat panel TVs in our suite. The lobby offered a wine tasting, before we shifted into the adjoining Blue Mermaid Chowder House for samplers of the eponymous soups. Also off the lobby is the Maritime Museum, providing us various hands-on experiences of life along the San Francisco Bay. The Argonaut is part of the Kimpton collection, which infuses a story into each of its properties. Our daughters were enthralled at the stories of mariners ancient and modern.  From the hotel we could see a few of our imminent destinations: Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

We promised our daughters that the visit to Alcatraz was round trip, and that we would not be partaking of purported sleep over opportunities. A pleasant stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf brought us to Pier 33, our departure for the boat ride to the prison island.  As part of the Golden Gate National Parks, Alcatraz is not only a prison museum, but a bird sanctuary with impressive tidepools.  The short boat ride is a nice prefatory lesson in the blustery nature of the bay’s gusty winds and swirling waters.  Arriving visitors get an introductory chat from a Park Ranger and/or a documentary film looping indoors in several languages.  The self-guided audio tour is included in the reasonable admission price ($26 adults, $16 kids). A climb up the pathways with the audio introduction sets the stage for the cell blocks, cafeteria and tales of escape attempts.  The prison closed in 1963, and held an average of 260 prisoners. Returning prisoners were often given their original number, so no one is sure how many of the 1,576 inmate numbers represented repeat visitors.  Our kids, like most everyone, wanted to know about escape attempts. For the nearly three decades that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 36 prisoners tried to escape. All but five prisoners were recaptured or accounted for; those five became the basis for Clint Eastwood’s film. Far more bucolic was the backstory of the families of the guards who lived on the island, the kids leaving for school every day on the boat and returning to well-tended gardens in the afternoon.

No trip to San Francisco with kids is complete without a cable car ride, so we watched the engineers slowly spin the car in preparation for its ride back up the hill into the city.  Hanging off the car like true tourists, we pulled our kids close when another cable car passed.  We glimpsed the top of Lombard Street, looking out to the fireplug-shaped Coit Tower, and promised the kids we’d return by automobile. 

Clang clang clang went the trolley, all the way up Hyde Street.  We jumped off at Washington Square for a glorious lunch at Rose Pistola.  The array of fresh Italian dishes worked for everyone. The open kitchen was a treat, and the bevy of small dishes provided a variety of tastes.


Once back in our auto, we pushed across the Golden Gate Bridge, whose expanse only seems to grow with each visit. The history of Golden Gate Park in the 60s was appealing for our daughters, who hoped to glimpse vestiges of the counterculture.  A few slices of pizza at Haight and Ashbury and a dutiful trip to Mecca, er…Amoeba Music down the street fulfilled the need. 

Squeals of delight emanated from the backseat as I maneuvered our minivan down Lombard Street. Our daughters settled down as we headed for route 1 and the journey south.


At Pebble Beach we meandered along the fabled 17 Mile Drive, stopping at various spots to marvel at the Monterey cypress trees and the shocking seacsapes. Residents of the impossibly beautiful homes ignore the parade of sightseers, and the five golf courses tucked along the way swallow myriad wayward tee shots. Much has evolved in the hundred years since fisherman built shacks in the area.

Monterey Bay was once a colorful niche of a town for fishermen and the haphazard economy that supported them.  Once the sardines left, Cannery Row stumbled into depression and abandonment.  More recently, the area has been revitalized with a world class aquarium and a stunningly beautiful InterContinental Hotel. Undoubtedly due to intrepid townfathers demanding that the town’s architectural integrity remain intact, The Clement Monterey recently opened to acclaim.  With accents of wood, glass and marble, the hotel’s interior is welcoming. The exterior courtyard overlooks the bay, and we imbibed in several appetizers and a few beverages as the sun began to set.  Otters and other aquatic life were spied in the near horizon, and the discreet heatlamps kept us warm and late for dinner.  A well-appointed health club overlooked an outdoor heated pool and whirlpool, into which we all jumped upon arrival.  This Clement is a worthy addition to the InterContiental’s properties.


Next door, the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a full day’s visit.  The jellyfish were mesmerizing in their variety (tiny and cute to bulbous and creepy).  A newly-opened seahorse exhibit was equally enthralling.  The classic seahorse reminded us of how our daughters first learned to swim: vertically.  But the various other species of seahorse were otherworldly, and looked more like exotic swimming plants with tentacles. The penguins and otters and sharks behaved themselves.  The Aquarium has plenty of guides and volunteers, making the visit especially enjoyable.  The displays are generally huge, and we barely noticed the crowds.

Carmel-By-The-Sea is Monterey’s sleepier cousin to the south.  We stayed in The Carmel Mission Inn, which has been recently refurbished.  The crisply designed bathrooms are an undoubted improvement over the originals.  The breakfast in the restaurant was worth the wait, but we were dismayed that the pool heater was either on the blink or hoping for warmer weather.  We let our older daughter prove her internet prowess in choosing our dinner venue.  She chose Casanova, aptly described as “Carmel's most romantic restaurant.” The setting and food were magnificent.  A rustic blend of Italian, French and Spanish cuisine, our daughters discovered they love gnocchi and cannelloni.  The evening stroll around Carmel had us wondering how all the art galleries find customers.


Of course, the earliest expression of huge artistic vision was that of William Randolph Hearst and his castle outside of San Simeon. The venue is so expansive that each visit provides discoveries. Having not visited in years, I was pleased about the new Imax theatre.  We were able to get a great historical overview in the mostly evenhanded documentary about Hearst. The bus ride up to the castle takes about 15 minutes, which serves to confirm the vastness of his holdings.  Of course, once at the top, the guide told us to look as far north as possible; the mountains in the distance were barely “the edge of his backyard.” The informative guide kept us on pace and on the appointed path, but we were able to see the vast dining room and several living quarters.  As a special treat, the main pool had been drained for some filter work.  The depth and capacity of the T-shaped pool were shocking.

Once back in our auto, we doubled back north on the coast for a few minutes until seeing the turn off for the molting seals.  After migrating thousands of miles the elephantine creatures wallow in the dry sand dunes, occasionally bellowing when one of them disturbs the pile of sleeping mammals.  Squeals of laughter are the consistent reaction of first arrivals, and our daughters were no exception.

No trip down the coast is complete without a stop to see or stay at The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. This motel seems to be the kitschy antithesis of Hearst’s Castle just up the road. Each venue represents a singular vision, both venues have hosted guests from all walks of life, but the Madonna Inn is more accessible and still functioning.  Each of the Madonna Inn’s rooms is themed.  We were in the Pony Room, which meant a merry-go-round horse was planted in the middle of our suite.  Various equestrian motifs rounded out the look.  Although the pool has recently been renovated (and the adjoining health club is impressive), the rooms we were able to peek into seemed a bit frumpy and worn.  The restaurant and gift shops are almost too much to take.  I never saw Neverland and I have yet to visit Graceland, but now I think I know what to expect.


The Argonaut Hotel




Cable Cars


Rose Pistola


Amoeba Music


The Clement Monterey


Monterey Bay Aquarium


Carmel Mission Inn




Hearst Castle


Elephant Seals


The Madonna Inn


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.