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Santa Barbara over Malibu every time - hitting Highway #1

Malibu, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and Cambria - our great Californian adventure continues.

semi-overcast 21 °C

When I agreed to skip Death Valley, Joshua Tree and even San Diego, I had expectations. To start with, I expected to lounge in the sun on these famous Californian beaches whilst doing some serious people watching. I expected a parade of silicon-enhanced Baywatch style beach babes and Mr. Muscles roaming up and down the clean white sand, flashing their Hollywood smiles and demonstrating what we could all look like if we didn’t eat and spent 5 hours a day with our personal trainers. I also wanted them all to talk on their diamond encrusted mobile phones whilst doing all of these things. And there was obviously the added benefit of not having to rush along the cost on our way to San Francisco because we just spent a week in the south east instead. I can already say that reality deviated from my expectations in a number of points:

1. Nobody told us about the almost-permanent fog cloud covering the coast in the summer
2. The cleanest beaches we came across were inhabited by elephant seals
3. Only saw 1 silicon enhanced beach babe and she was approaching retirement age (could be due to point 1)
4. Not a single diamond encrusted mobile phone!
Bird footprints at the Malibu beach, California, US

Bird footprints at the Malibu beach, California, US

The only redeeming point was the number of Mr. Muscles advertising themselves along the sometimes not so clean beaches each morning, whilst running or playing beach volleyball. Some even braved the cold wind and fog and took off their tops. Respect! And obviously, Californian coast is beautiful, even in the rubbish weather. But still, nobody warned us about points 1-4.

There was one other thing I was not too keen on and that was the Los Angeles highway spaghetti system. It was my turn to drive and god, did I suffer. Firstly, overtaking from both sides seemed not only allowed but also encouraged. Secondly, highways intertwine so often that being in the right lane is an art mastered by the locals only. And thirdly, oil pumps, pipe work and electricity pylons are some of the first views visitors get when approaching LA on highway 14 from inland. The idea of having to spend prolonged time on the road in LA was so unappealing that we made a bee line for Malibu, avoiding LA altogether. Most people we spoke to beforehand did not rate LA too highly in relation some other parts of California, which was echoed by the Duke who happened to visit around ten years ago. When we added our brief LA driving experience into the mix, it just confirmed our decision to skip it. Our impressions were, obviously, based on seeing probably unrepresentative snippets of the place and many Los Angelos would argue otherwise, but here we were with only a few days left and we decided to cherry pick our experiences.
Malibu beach sands covered in algae, gelly fish and bird droppings

Malibu beach sands covered in algae, gelly fish and bird droppings

When we arrived in Malibu, initially we failed to notice we were actually there. The main road copies the coast with houses on each side, only rarely allowing glimpses of the elusive beaches. Having consulted our map and concluded we indeed were in Malibu, The Duke and I took turns asking in various hotels and motels for an available room. Whilst some had rooms, we were not prepared for the extortionate prices they were charging. In no doubt the high prices were driven by the ‘Malibu’ name tag, we had the bright idea to drive just out of Malibu and try our luck there. Although we managed to find a hotel with the only available room being a ‘mini suite’ but costing half the money we were asked elsewhere, it turned out to be rather revolting.

The hotel, opportunistically called Malibu Inn, and our mini-suite were fine, with everything we needed. What we were not too impressed with was the cleanliness, or rather the lack of it. The bed sheets looked like they were used a couple of times before, black hairs decorated the basin and towels, and when we ventured to use the indoor mini-Jacuzzi, the bubbles and water turned creamy grey, suggesting it had been a while since the bath saw any water. To make matters worse, during our morning routine I took a supposedly ‘clean’ towel from the basket, only to realise my mistake when I unwrapped it and found a dark brown smudge all over it with, what I dread to even think, were some pubic hairs. Yuck Yuck Yuck!!!!!! And the price for worst hotel goes to....... Or maybe that was just that one room? Hm. I think not.
Early morning in Malibu with surfers waiting for the right wave, California, US

Early morning in Malibu with surfers waiting for the right wave, California, US

Determined to spend the least possible time in the room and keen to explore Malibu, we took the car and drove to nearby Zuma Beach. Our goal was simple – find somewhere to eat, ideally a fish restaurant. That we managed a couple of minutes later, when we stopped at a seaside restaurant with great views. You might argue it wasn’t worth the drive but a) did we know our way around? and b) we were in the US. Once again we were treated to fairly high prices, but this time the food was great and we got to see a number of ‘Californians’ with Tom Jones sun tans, skinny legs and D&G sunglasses worn indoors. This was also when we saw our beach babe. Apologies to all Americans and Californians, who might be reading this, but please let us indulge in our love of stereotyping. We spent a nice evening watching people inside the restaurant and outside on the beach, enjoying nice food and wine and chatting until we could no longer delay getting back to our room. The Duke took care of the evening entertainment, when he tried to pay for dinner with our Annual National Park pass. Good try.

Before we settled in for the night, we went through a Malibu property magazine, courtesy of Malibu Inn. Imagine the most extravagant, luxurious and over the top properties you can think of and that is exactly what we were looking at. Price tags corresponded to the pictures, with many mansions being available for as short a time as a week, charging anything from a couple of thousand to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. If any of you out there are the proud owners or tenants of a similar place, can you please do us a favour and tell us what you do for living.
Birds waiting for waves to deliver their breakfast, Malibu, California, US

Birds waiting for waves to deliver their breakfast, Malibu, California, US

One of our ambitions was to see a sunrise so we set-up the alarm clock for some stupid time in the morning. When it had gone off, through the window we could just about make out the nearby mountains and roof tops, covered in clouds. Not the best weather for sunrise watching so we made an executive decision to stay in bed for a tiny bit longer. Years ago, The Duke and I introduced the concept of Cosy-times to our relationship. Cosy-times generally involve bed-socks, books, DVDs, cups of tea, duvet, games and similar cosy things. What we haven’t done though, was to define the duration of a single measure of cosy time. The Duke fixed that the very same morning when after several unsuccessful attempts on my side to find out if our cosy time was up yet, he indulged me by defining ‘a cosy minute’. In total, that morning we had 5 cosy minutes in bed, which moved us a couple of hours into the morning. According to The Duke, ‘a cosy minute’ is as long as it takes to get cosy. Admittedly not the most easily measurable unit of time but it works for us.

When we eventually got up, we took a stroll on the beach where we hoped to witness the young and beautiful getting their morning dose of exercise. The ratio of men versus women was 50:1. I was the 1. Not something I would want to complain about but thought it was worth mentioning here. A number of trainee life guards was running up and down the beach, the local fire brigade was playing beach volleyball with a fifth member lifting weights, clearly fascinated by watching his arm muscles, and early morning surfers were waiting for the right wave. If it was not for the fog, cold wind and clouds of birds polluting the beach, it would have been rather idyllic. Excited by seeing the famous Baywatch towers in real life, I made The Duke pose on one and took a couple of pics. The cleanliness of the beach was a little bit disappointing, with not only bird droppings, algae and other sea deposits covering substantial part of the sand, but also food wrappers, cigarette buds and bottle lids every now and then visible in the previously turned over and flattened sand. However, given the early hour of the morning, we gave it the benefit of a doubt that the cleaning squad arrives at a more sociable hour to prepare the beach for the ladies.
Santa Barbara roof tops, California, US

Santa Barbara roof tops, California, US

Truth to be told, we were leaving Malibu with mixed feelings from a large part caused by our failure to spot any sunshine and partly to our high expectation before we got there. Our next big stop was Santa Barbara where we hoped for a better experience. However, there were a few things we wanted to do beforehand. First of all, we needed a breakfast. The Duke, as you might have already noticed, is a big fan of traditional American diners with unlimited coffee and huge portions of blueberry pancakes; so when we spotted one of these in Oxnard, we had to stop. Oxnard, being tiny bit away from the coast, even had some sunshine and with full stomachs, our mood immediately lifted. From there, we took it directly to Santa Barbara, having not seen anything of an interest along the route.

Despite some cloud cover hanging above our heads, the sun pushed its way through and when we arrived in Santa Barbara, it was a bit chilly but sunny. Without a firm plan but to see the famous Santa Barbara mission, we got a map from the local tourist office by the harbour and left to explore the town on foot. What a difference to all the other coastal places we just saw.

Refreshingly, Santa Barbara is consistently built in a Mediterranean style with plenty of arcades, water fountains at every corner and trees and flowering hedges along the streets. Houses only have few levels and benches are scattered throughout the town, providing plenty of opportunities to have a rest in nice surroundings. State Street in Santa Barbara, California, US

State Street in Santa Barbara, California, US

Although the centre was once again open to cars, this time we did not mind too much as the town felt very pleasant and relaxed. We walked around the main ‘historical’ centre spanning across a dozen blocks between State Street, Ortega Street, Santa Barbara Street and Figueroa Street. Cosy restaurants and cafes mixed with boutiqy shops lined the streets and looked very inviting. Every now and then we ventured into one of those arcades, like El Paseo, to find ourselves in a flowering, fountain decorated oasis of calm with quirky outlets, or just benches to chill on. Completely uncharacteristically for the majority of other American places we visited, Santa Barbara had an architecturally uniform and feel-good feel to it, designed to be functional as well as esthetical. As we learnt, the town owned its appearance to a lady called Pearl Chase, who after the 1925 earthquake drove and shaped the re-building of Santa Barbara in this charming Spanish style. She was also lobbying for the planting and preservation of large trees and the creation of extensive parks. Her efforts were instrumental in for example protecting the massive Morton Bay Fig tree we came across earlier on, which is thought to be the largest ficus tree in the country.

Following our trusted travel guide, we visited the Santa Barbara Presidio, with well preserved buildings and good exhibitions, although a main road leads through one of the sections giving it a rather fragmented look. Like already many times before, we marvelled at the seemly indifference with which the few historical sites are treated in the US, a place where history is a rare commodity. El Paseo arcades in Santa Barbara, California, US

El Paseo arcades in Santa Barbara, California, US

The perhaps most impressive site we visited in the centre of Santa Barbara was the Spanish colonial style County Courthouse. The entry from the road does not do justice to the interior and the half-courtyard at the back. When we walked through the main door, we found ourselves in a completely different world. From the old chairs, tiles and random pieces of furniture in the halls to the archive-like library and elaborate ceilings, it was like stepping back in time. To our surprise, although we half expected to be asked to leave at any minute, we could walk pretty much everywhere and took our time doing it. Really impressive building and a must-see site in Santa Barbara. That extends to the courthouse tower, from which one has 360 degrees view, greatly enhanced by the greenery studded, red roofed streets below and hills to the east of the town. To get the best view of the courthouse itself, it pays to venture to the half-enclosed grassed yard at the back, from which one can truly appreciate the complex.

By the time we left the courthouse, we were both in love with Santa Barbara. For us, it has been one of the most visually appealing towns in the US so far. Walking back towards the harbour to pick up our car and drive to the Santa Barbara mission, we agreed to try and get a hotel in town for the night. It was quite a surprise when we made it to the tourist information just to find out it was already five o’clock. Presidio, Santa Barbara, California, US

Presidio, Santa Barbara, California, US

There went our plan to see the mission and staying over night suddenly made even more sense. Fortunately, one of the helpers at the office embraced the challenge of finding us a central yet reasonably priced motel and before we knew it, we were driving back through the ‘old town’ to our pad for the night, Motel Presidio. It turned out to be a very simple but practical and most importantly clean place, with a feature wall covered in a wild flowery pattern, giving it a young feel. Ideally placed just north of the historical town centre, we were glad none of us had to drive that night. A friendly guy at the reception recommended a number of places for dinner and after a refreshing shower, we hit the town.

One of the recommendations we got was a Hungry Cat. A fish restaurant with vibrant crowd and limited seating. Whilst we toyed with the idea of prebooking, needless to say we didn’t quite manage to transform our idea into action. Recognising getting a table was a bit of a long shot, we were pleasantly surprised when the waiter managed to squeeze us in. Always happy to tuck into a fish platter, we ordered a cold selection of sea food with some extra king prawns instead of oysters, which neither of us likes. When I say we ordered a cold platter, I mean we ordered a fish platter which we later realised was cold. But lovely nevertheless. Being a little bit off the main street, Hungry Cat had a nice mixture of patrons with arty looking crowd mixing with young couples and dressed-up ladies, sprinkled with the occasional tourist. The County Courthouse in Santa Barbara, California, US

The County Courthouse in Santa Barbara, California, US

Although it was a school night, we were ready for some night life and after the dinner we headed back to the main street, hoping to find a nice bar or a club. Surprisingly, Santa Barbara is more of a day-town and not quite knowing the hot spots, we kept to the main areas. Eventually, we anchored in one of the Italian bistros for a couple of drinks, although despite us being the last people to leave the place, by the time we were walking back to the hotel it was nowhere near late enough. Still, we had a great night and agreed Santa Barbara rocks.

As we so far failed to visit any mission, Santa Barbara mission was a must-see for the morning. Without breakfast, we checked out of the motel and departed towards the Mission Street. After a couple of wrong turns and an unintentional but nice drive through the residential area, we parked outside our destination. I can honestly say our feelings about the mission were mixed, less so for the actual site but more so due to the history it is linked to.

The complex of buildings is well maintained and the self-guided tour through the mission offers a good insight into the way the mission was used over the decades but also the not so glorious history of the early California. Santa Barbara mission, California, US

Santa Barbara mission, California, US

The exhibits provide non-biased insight into the law enforced genocide of the Native American Indians where all Indians were assumed hostile, the bio-genocide carried out through spread of European deceases such as measles and the poor treatment of Native inhabitants often compared to slavery and forced labour. This contrasts to some of the other exhibits where descriptions talk about harmonious collaboration between missionaries and natives where aboriginal arts and crafts were used to decorate the many buildings of the mission and its church, with the Indians often voluntarily seeking the shelter of Santa Barbara due to the access to food and shelter. One area of the mission which is very disappointing is the cemetery though. Referred to in many of the exhibits as a place where the native American Indians rest alongside many prominent missionaries, we expected a peaceful site offering opportunities to sit down and reflect. Irrespective of the rather compact size of the cemetery, we were not prepared for a fairly wide tarmaced road running in a loop around the enclosure, often covering remainders of graves. Since there could not have been a need for such a road given the small size and close proximity to the church, we were once again lost for words at the way some historically significant sites are treated.

When we left around lunchtime, we were painfully aware we not yet had any breakfast and decided to drive back to town before finally continuing up the coast. One of the things about Santa Barbara is the number of cosy-looking eateries everywhere. We constantly felt like we had to sample as many of them as possible. One of Santa Barbara's arcades, California, US

One of Santa Barbara's arcades, California, US

After a stroll through the town we ended up in Jeannie’s Café in one of these arcade places. Here we each had a killer omelette with some pretty bad coffee. Well, can’t have it all. On our way back to the car, we stopped in a couple of shops, one of which was a French boutique with great collection of old hats. I looove hats and tried close to hundred of them on before The Duke managed to drag me out of there.

As we quite like to mix town stops with a bit of nature, on the map we located a Chumash Painted Cave State Historical Park. Our attempt to drive there failed miserably, after we encountered a road closure sign which we drove through, only to get stuck at a second sign advising of the recent land slide that made the route unusable. Hm. We were quite disappointed, not only because this was the second Native American Indian site we did not get to see but also because we just drove quite a distance through very windy mountain road, only to turn back again. Having re-joined the coastal road, after a bit more driving we stopped at Solvang, a self-prophesised Scandinavian style town with a concussion of shops and restaurants offering anything European.

Solvang had an interesting history attached to it. Starting as a Danish settlement built in the typically ugly early Californian style under the wing of two priests and a teacher from Denmark, after an article published about the place in a major US paper the visitors started flooding in. This was when Solvangers decided it is time to rebuild their town in a slightly more representative style.
Windmill in Solvang, California, US

Windmill in Solvang, California, US

The Solvang of today is a picturesque small town with charming houses and quirky shops selling anything European from German pretzel to Danish chocolate (since when are Danish known for chocolate?). The occasional windmill decorates the streets and outdoors seating places are plentiful. Despite the slightly kitsch feel to it, it was nicely done and since the sun was out, we enjoyed walking around through this strange mixture of outlets. I feel like a broken record but one thing we found quite annoying was the huge number of cars everywhere. Once again, the concept of pedestrian zone had not made it to Solvang so the otherwise picture-perfect streets were surrounded by car parking lots and to cross the street was always a hazard. This made it hard to appreciate the town for what it was, as many of its great features were obscured by parked cars and it was impossible to get a distance to see some of the houses without being run over by a car. Ok, rant over. Hopefully one day someone will take a notice.
Town street in Solvang with nice architecture and plenty of greenery, California, US

Town street in Solvang with nice architecture and plenty of greenery, California, US

Continuing north along the coast, our guide suggested the town of Lompoc is known for its many colourful flower fields, making a drive-through very scenic especially during the spring months. Concluding we were a few months too late and failing to spot any sizeable flower fields along the route, we carried on towards Pismo Beach. Although the route is marked as scenic, we beg to differ. The lowlight of this stretch of the road was Guadelupe, with its boarded shops and decisively dodgy looking outlets. Needless to say we didn’t linger and only stopped once we hit Pismo. Already when approaching the town, the sand dunes on the left side provided a good sight. Whilst the travel guide warned us the beach, thanks to its compact sand, is also open to cars, we were not ready for a ‘toll booth’ asking for $5 for the privilege to pollute their seaside with our Ford Escape. We politely declined and decided to take a walk instead. Although the idea of driving on the beach did not seem that appealing to us, we were clearly in the minority given the number of tuned cars and buggies making their way through the fog on the admittedly hard sand.

Having declined to participate, it was strange watching the stream of traffic driving along the sea. It was the first time we had to take count of the approaching cars when crossing a beach. One of the many tuned cars roaming the Pismo Beach, California, US

One of the many tuned cars roaming the Pismo Beach, California, US

We took the opportunity to climb up the sand dunes around the area, quite surprised about the variety of plants growing up there. It was good to see the area was protected and, luckily for us, hunting was not permitted. Somehow being on the beach is much less fun when it is covered in a cloud of fog so after a while, we decided it was time to get warmed-up in our car and shaking the sand out of our trousers we drove off. Time flies when you’re having fun and once again on the road, we checked the clock to find out it was already 5 o’clock and we had not had our tea yet. Positively starving, our map suggested Morro Bay was the place to stop for a nibble.

When we reached the harbour, a number of eating options opened up in front of us. Eventually we stopped at a restaurant with an excellent view of the harbour and the Morro Rock, which took care of the dinner time entertainment. Right underneath our noses sea lions played in the water, pelicans were diving in for fish and fishing boats were returning to off load their days catch. Pismo Beach view from the sand dunes lining the coastline, California, US

Pismo Beach view from the sand dunes lining the coastline, California, US

The food was also great, although conscious we had to drive on to find a place for the night, we passed on the wine this time. After dinner we took a short trip to the Morro Rock, which used to be a quarry but nowadays is a wildlife preserve hosting hundreds of birds. Majority of the area is closed to public, displaying warning signs of the treacherous waves breaking on the rocks nearby. The waves were getting stronger with the increasing hours and before we left, we spent a while watching surfers in their wet suits attempting to hitch a ride with various degrees of success. Although we had to give it to them; the quality of surfing in the Morro Bay was so far the best we had seen on the coast.

Time is generally a problem when we are on holiday in as far as there never seems to be enough of it. Even though we cut out a number of places from our itinerary, we still found ourselves racing up the coast, barely able to spend sufficient time at the key sites and more often than not only driving through some of the not so famous but still probably visit-worthy places. Despite the less then optimal weather, dense traffic and high prices on the coast, we were sure there is much more to the Highway #1 route than we were able to see in the little time we had. Just like many times before in this situation, we consoled ourselves by concluding this is a fact finding trip and one day we come back to properly travel through areas we could only fly through this time.
Ox-drawn carriage at the Santa Barbara Mission, California, US

Ox-drawn carriage at the Santa Barbara Mission, California, US

A place we did not want to miss though was the famous Hearst Castle. A couple of people we met on the road suggested we should see this and judging by the coverage in our guide, they had a point. Leaving Morro Bay, the sun was by now completely obscured by thick cloud cover and although it was only 7 o’clock, it felt like 10. In order to get ourselves positioned for the morning, our goal was to reach Cambria or San Simeon, from where we could then easily get to the castle. Our efforts were slightly delayed by an attempt to apply common sense to the layout of Cambria, when we naively drove direction coast, thinking there will be ample opportunities to find a motel for the night. Anyone familiar with Cambria’s layout will confirm the residential area along the coast is pretty much self-contained and after over half an hour driving amongst some admittedly great properties, we ended up where we started. This time we took an opposite turn away from the coast and found ourselves driving through an interestingly strange looking high street full of arts and crafts shops. Still, finding a reasonably priced motel with vacancies was not as easy as we anticipated. It took another ten minutes of driving back towards the coast but this time towards the ‘hotel mile’, where we finally stopped at a White Water Inn motel, swayed by the offer of breakfast in bed. This is actually not a joke but the White Water Inn addressed the lack of breakfast facilities by delivering breakfast in bed each morning. Obviously, we could not say no to that.

With few hours driving behind us, we were keen to stretch our legs before getting ready for the night. Outside our hotel was a wooden path on a platform stretching approximately three miles alongside the hotel studded coast, which allowed us even with minimum lighting to take a stroll by the sea without getting swept by a giant wave or hit by a car. An hour on fresh air got us nicely tired and although it was no later than 9 o’clock, we were tucked in bed with a bottle of red and a story book about the early history of California we purchased at the Santa Barbara mission earlier on that day.

Posted by TheDukes 10:15 Archived in USA Tagged california highway_1

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I'm so glad you all enjoyed Santa Barbara! It is definitely my favorite city in California. It's so much less of a busy, concrete jungle than LA and the weather is probably the best in the whole state. Next time you stop through I would definitely suggest checking out the Seven Falls hike. It's right by the mission and is a beautiful hike with natural water slides, lush greenery, and crystal clear pools to swim in. Also, if you enjoyed the quaint feel of the town, check out the hotel The Sandman Inn (www.thesandmaninn.com). It's much nicer than most of the cheapy motels downtown and is very budget-friendly. In addition, the staff is so helpful and nice. There's also an American diner with plenty of blueberry pancakes right up the street =)

by Jean Garson

Hi Jean - Thank you for the Seven Falls hiking tip - the Duke and I both agreed that next time we go to CA, we need to take our time to do more hiking and this particular trail sounds great! Just like you, we absolutely love Santa Barbara and are definitely planning to get back sometime in the future. Thanks for reading ;-)

by TheDukes

I love both Malibu and Santa Barbara but I have to agree; Santa Barbara is a much more solid choice. Great and CLEAN beaches, a whole lot to do downtown as well. Of course Malibu has LA right down the way but the smog and traffic is just so unappealing, at least to me, I rather take a getaway to SB any day. I was actually just there and had a great time kayaking and hiking in the wonderful weather. The views were spectacular as well. We stayed at the South Coast Inn (www.santa-barbara-hotel.com). So elegant and the perfect place to escape all of the city noise.

by Rachel

Nothing tops Santa Barbara! Malibu is nice and has great parts but it isn't much of a town and the PCH is so dangerous, I couldn't imagine managing that every single day. I wish I could live in SB but I am only limited to weekend getaways. I miss it there so much! Good points in your blog about both cities though, I really enjoyed reading it! This makes me miss Santa Barbara so much though, I'll have to go back soon. I hear the surf has been excellent recently and the weather as well! Summer in February!

by F.S.69

You really had a lot to say about Santa Barbara being better then Malibu and I have to agree with every point and even the comments on the page as well! Of the top of my mind, the beaches are so much cleaner and not as crowded and basically just better. The surf is a toss up, Malibu has some excellent surf but so does Santa Barbara so it really depends on the swell and where it is hitting. There is more to do in Santa Barbara and you don't have to deal with PCH and the traffic and fear of being hit when crossing it at various times during the day! I miss both these cities though and I am so glad I have a So.Cal trip planned so I'll be able to go to all my favorite spots soon enough.


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