California Coastal Road Trip: Where to Stay, Eat and Play from San Francisco to San Diego

Whether you’re looking for a historic B&B or a luxury beach resort, these hotels in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, Carmel, Cambria, Santa Monica and San Diego will keep you well rested, fed and entertained  

Credit: Aaron Barr

Cruising down California’s coastal Highway 1 is the perfect sunshine getaway, especially when you know you’ll be stopping to enjoy some of the most gorgeous accommodations along the way

Last month, my husband, parents and I flew to San Francisco and rented a car for a week-long road trip down the California coast to San Diego.

We drove along Highway 1, which hugs the coast and offers knock-your-socks-off views of beaches, birds, surfers and whales, and stayed in six unique and incredible accommodations along the way.

Here’s a look at where to stay, eat and play at each stop along the California coast.

Credit: Aaron Barr

San Francisco

STAY: Mystic Hotel by Charlie Palmer

Conveniently located in Union Square, only a 15-minute walk from the waterfront, the Mystic Hotel by Charlie Palmeris a newly opened boutique hotel in a character 1904 building. The 79 guest suites feature exposed brick, original steel beams, white linens, and poppy-red accents.

Rates start from $219 and include complimentary wi-fi and a continental breakfast.

EAT: Burritt Room and Tavern

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Mystic Hotel owner Charlie Palmer is a Michelin-starred chef, so it’s no wonder the hotel’s restaurant, the Burritt Room and Tavern, boasts a great menu created by executive chef Luke Knox and team (we loved the lobster risotto, $22, with spring peas and mint, and the local halibut, $30, with housemade chorizo and lemon smashed potatoes). Stick around to hear some of the city’s best jazz musicians perform and sip one (or two) classic cocktails by head bartender Josh Trabulsi.

EAT: Pier 39

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Embrace you inner tourist and join the flocks of visitors at Pier 39. Over 30 years ago, the Simmons family transformed the pier from industrial drab to vibrant tourist destination and owns a number of the pier’s restaurants including the Wipeout Bar and Grill, Pier Market, and Fog Harbor Fish House.

DO: Alcatraz Cruises

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Get a San Francisco city photo op from the water, a little tour of the bay, and an in-depth self-guided audio tour of the famous prison for $30 with Alcatraz Cruises. Plus, you can wander around the island to see the numerous plants and animals that have made this island home.

DO: City Sightseeing

[Image: Aaron Barr]

A bus tour is one of the best ways to get a feel for a new city, and City Sightseeing is the only bus company to head across the Golden Gate Bridge and around beautiful Sausilito ($29). There are actual guides narrating the tour – our guide, Spencer, was informative and a real hoot – so you don’t have to listen to any crackly, pre-recorded messages.

Credit: Aaron Barr

Half Moon Bay

STAY: Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

Relax in style at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, a sprawling cliffside resort where you’re just as likely to see a celebrity as you are a pod of dolphins or magnificent sunset (we saw all three). Fill your day with strolls along the gorgeous Coastal Trail, a visit to the fitness centre, and a soak in the spa’s coed Roman mineral bath. At night, sink into an Adirondack chair around one of the glowing fire pits, order a boozy hot chocolate, roast your own s’mores with a deluxe s’mores kit, or sip a local wine from the featured winery of the month.

Rates start from $495.

EAT: Navio

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Treat yourself to the Navio Tasting Menu ($95 per person, wine pairings start from $65 per person) where executive chef Xavier Salomon, chef de cuisine Sean Eastwood and sous chef Kevin Tanaka craft exquisite dishes like tender baby octopus with fennel, frisee and watercress, and melt-in-your-mouth togarashi-spiced ahi tuna with yuzu aioli and pickled carrots, using the region’s abundant produce and seafood as well as locally sourced meat. The dining room, which just underwent a million-dollar renovation, overlooks the golf course and Pacific Ocean where you’re likely to see a sunset of dazzling proportions.

EAT: It’s Italia

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Located on Main Street in Half Moon Bay, It’s Italia is a busy Italian restaurant serving decadent pastas, pizzas and “Cal-Italian cuisine,” and was opened by Hawaiian music teacher Betsy del Fierro in 1997. From the rustic dining room you can see chefs in the open kitchen preparing dishes like the to-die-for Iacopi Farms English pea bruschetta with feta, mint and chile oil, $9, and the mesquite rotisserie Fulton Valley free-range chicken with panzanella of heirloom cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, and summer squash, $22.

DO: Pillar Point Harbour

Make sure to see the famous Mavericks surf spot [Image: Aaron Barr]

Stop by the marina to see what the fishermen have brought in at Pillar Point Harbour – likely salmon, crab, squid, rockfish, albacore tuna, sole and halibut, depending on the season – and follow the Coastal Trail to see the famous Mavericks surf spot from the top of a bluff.

Credit: Cypress Inn


STAY: Cypress Inn

The Cypress Inn is an impossiblylovely hotel co-owned by American screen legend and animal rights activist Doris Day. The 1929 Spanish Colonial Inn, only blocks from stunning Carmel Beach, has just underdone an interior renovation with its 44 guestrooms lavished in “Glam-Meets-Morocco” design. In the breezy courtyard, fireside living room and Terry’s Lounge, you’ll find guests, locals and their four-legged friends mixing and mingling.

Rates start from $245 and include complimentary wifi and a continental breakfast.

EAT: Terry’s Lounge

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Diners and dogs enjoy Yappy Hour – you read that right – at Terry’s Lounge, the restaurant and bar at the Cypress Inn, featuring small plates for sharing (like the creamy smoked trout, $8, with apple and horseradish on pumpernickel) and entrees (like the Moroccan chicken, $14, served in an authentic tagine), and proudly serving Seafood Watch certified sustainable seafood and lots of fresh, delicious produce. The cocktail menu is playfully organized by spirit with anecdotes from some of Doris Day’s leading men, like Ronald Reagan, her costar in 1952’s “The Winning Team”, who fancied the Orange Blossom cocktail, $9, with gin, sweet vermouth and fresh orange juice – served with a side of jelly beans.

DO: Wine Walk by-the-Sea

[Image: Aaron Barr]

What’s a visit to wine country without some wine tasting? The Carmel Chamber of Commerce makes it safe and easy to visit more than a dozen tasting rooms within a six-block-span with its Wine Walk by-the-Sea Passport, $65. Be sure to include a stroll on Carmel Beach in your self-guided tour – sunset is a great time to take in some spectacular views.

Credit: Olallieberry Inn


STAY: Olallieberry Inn

The Olallieberry Inn is about as charming as bed and breakfasts come. A 120-year-old Redwood tree stands guard outside this 139-year-old nine-room inn and a colourful well-kept garden out back, fronting Santa Rosa Creek, is the perfect spot to enjoy a good book, sip and savour complimentary afternoon wine and canapes, or feast on your three-course gourmet breakfast featuring scrumptious freshly baked Olalliberry danishes, pancakes and waffles with Olallieberry syrup, and frittatas or scrambles with amazing homemade salsas.

Rates start from $150 and include wine and hors d’oeuvres from 5 pm to 6 pm and a three-course breakfast.

EAT: Robin’s

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Robin’s international menu reflects the world travels of owners Robin and Shanny Covey, with “handcrafted global cuisine,” like Robin’s “all-time favorite” salmon bisque (we can vouch for the accuracy in its name), $7, Roghan Josh, a North Indian lamb curry, $21, and Thai green chicken curry, $19. Local products and ingredients feature heavy on the menu with regional wine flights and, our favourite, the simply delicious grilled California artichoke with lemon butter, $9.

DO: Hearst Castle

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Finished in 1947, the Hearst Castle is the former residence of newspaper magnate, film producer and politician William Hearst, and was designed in collaboration with Julia Morgan, one of the first female architects in the US and the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the Ecole Nationale et Speciale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The 165-room castle houses an unbelievable collection of ancient artifacts and was host to countless lavish parties during the golden era of Hollywood, with guests like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in attendance. The state park site runs like a well-oiled machine, with guided tours, $25, running daily.

DO: Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Set on 430 acres right in Cambria, the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is an oceanfront park home to a wide array of animals – we saw a fox, deer and her fawn, elephant seals and pelicans – and miles of walking paths from which to spot them. We walked along the marine terrace trail that follows the edge of the bluff and made our way back to where we started along the Santa Rosa Creek trail.

Credit: Aaron Barr

Santa Monica

STAY: Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows

Just a block from the Santa Monica pier on Ocean Ave and Wilshire Blvd, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows is an oasis in the city, with its massive Moreton Bay fig tree to greet you at the door and a secluded palm-tree-lined courtyard with lounge chairs to laze in by the pool. The 32 garden bungalows, with French doors leading to private patios overlooking the courtyard, feel wonderfully secluded, and 302 guestrooms, located in the Ocean Tower and Palisades wing, offer the usual Fairmont flare for attention to detail.

Rates start from $450.

EAT: Chipotle Mexican Grill

When you’re looking for a quick, affordable, healthy meal, Chipotle Mexican Grill is the place to go. I’d never heard of this chain before and was very pleasantly surprised to not only have a fresh, tasty meal – I had a burrito, $8, with adobo-marinated chicken, black beans, guacamole and salsa – but also to learn that all of its animal products are ethically sourced.

DO: Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach

Santa Monica Pier [Image: Aaron Barr]

Head up Wilshire Blvd to Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only street with lots of interesting shops and restaurants, and then walk down Santa Monica Blvd toward the oceanfront walking path andSanta Monica Pier.

Venice Beach [Image: Aaron Barr]

Also within a short drive is Venice Beach, which was more gritty than I thought it would be but definitely worth a visit.

Credit: Aaron Barr

San Diego

STAY: Hotel del Coronado

The Hotel del Coronado is a living legend, one of the very few remaining resorts from the Victorian era – the hotel turns 125 this year – when wealthy guests arrived by horse drawn carriage. These days you’ll feel that same air of grandeur but with all modern luxuries of afive-star retreat – chic rooms in soothing seaside palettes, a well-appointed fitness centre and spa (with hydrotherapy tubs and a private outdoor infinity pool), and half a dozen restaurants including a fine dining terrace and a classy sports bar called Babcock and Story.

Rates start from $330 per night.

EAT: Babcock and Story

[Image: Aaron Barr]

Babcock and Story has indoor and outdoor seating that looks out toward the Windsor Lawn and the beach beyond, and serves tasty pub fare like lamb, salmon and beef sliders (three for $21 or $8.50 each). We lingered over cocktails and wine on the terrace listening to Gonzo Gonzales, a local cover musician playing toe-tapping hit after hit in his own unique style.

DO: San Diego Zoo

[Image: Aaron Barr]

On our last morning in California, we got up early to be one of the first in line at the San Diego Zoo. We only had 90 minutes before we had to be at the airport for our flights home – my parents to Victoria, us to Vancouver – so we were happy that they offered a bus tour so we could sit back, relax and get all of the highlights from one of the world’s most famous zoos. The $44 adult admission includes the guided bus tour, express bus, and Skyfari aerial tram.

California Coastal Road Trip