I Will Drive 500 Miles…A Family of 5–and a Dog–Do California by Car (Part 4)
San Francisco (2 nights)
The 300-mile drive between Santa Barbara and San Francisco is one of the prettiest in the country, with sweeping stretches of ocean views and natural landscapes. I’ve done it in one fell swoop many times, five to six hours depending on traffic. But this can easily be its very own weeklong adventure, with destination towns like Paso Robles and Monterey along the way. With the general goal of making it to the City by the Bay for dinner, we made our own tried and true stops throughout the day.
In just the last five years, Los Alamos, an hour’s drive north from Santa Barbara, has become a culinary refuge for travelers along the 101. Even with a high food bar, though, its cowboy heritage prevails. A stop at Bob’s Well Bread for brunch is a must: Fresh breads and baked treats that are among the best in the state. We shared fire-grilled chicken sandwiches and canelés – soft custard center, caramelized crust and flavors of rum and vanilla – and took a signature baguette to snack on the road.
Just after San Luis Obispo, travelers can veer off Highway 101 and onto historic State Route 1, which brings you to Central California’s quaint and rustic coastline. Our pit stop in Morro Bay included a bathroom break and snacks, and we watched fishing boats cruise the docks. Morro Rock, a volcanic plug that’s a veritable landmark here, is a dramatic visual. The laid-back town of Cayucos is just up the coast, with a pier popular with whale watchers (though we didn’t spot any). With our recharge complete, we rejoined the 101 and embarked on our final stretch. Dinner in San Francisco: check.
- Tip: State Route 1 through San Luis Obispo brings you to a large elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas and the historic Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The famous coastal drive through Big Sur and Monterey Bay continues to the north.
The Sir Francis Drake is a landmark Kimpton property in a prime location along the legendary Powell Street cable car line, and it’s walking distance to Chinatown. This glamorous property features those Beefeater doormen who are bona fide institutions here; we were greeted by Tom Sweeney, who’s been here since 1976! Home to a fantastic lobby bar and the sexy Starlight Room on the 21st floor, there’s a constant buzz in the air here. Our room featured a great view of nearby Union Square, which – attention fellow dog owners – offers some of the very few green areas in this part of the city.
- Tip: Leaving your dog behind in your room? Don’t forget the “Do Not Disturb” sign and, in case issues like incessant barking arise, leave your cell number with the front desk.
We took the city by foot, mainly. Our 1.5-mile walk to Pier 39 took us through Chinatown, where we shopped for knick knacks, and Little Italy, where we had delicious oversize slices at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Walking this city allows you to see things, including some fascinating architecture and urban art, that you’d totally miss behind the wheel. Just wear comfy shoes, since those famously hilly streets are a workout; we took turns pushing the umbrella stroller.
- Tip: Overnight parking rates in San Francisco hotels can range from $50-$80 a night, so budget accordingly.
Pier 39, one of San Francisco’s great waterfront attractions, turns 39 this year, and it remains chock-full of restaurants, shops and tons of entertainment. The Aquarium of the Bay has a super-cool underwater shark tunnel and plenty of hands-on ops. My boys battled zombies on the 7D Experience twice. Unique boat tours of the bay launch from the marina here and the dining, from wine and sake bars to high-end seafood, is remarkably good.
Dinner at Scala’s Bistro, back at the Sir Francis Drake, is always dependably awesome, too. It’s a buzzy, busy spot where the bistro experience reaches new levels and the service is memorable. The burrata with tomatoes and grilled bread was fresh, the sage-roasted chicken with spinach and crispy smashed potatoes was juicy and the king salmon with creamy polenta, blistered tomatoes and grilled corn was outstanding.
- Tip: To play it safe on the road, don’t let your gas tank dip below a quarter tank.
We began reminiscing about our journey as soon as we checked out of the Drake. Seven days on the road, with three kids, with a dog, will always include curveballs. I didn’t write about the night when our daughter’s interrupted sleep pattern kept us all up, or when Milo barked too much, or the many occasions when the threat of “no dessert” was used as leverage against arguments and complaints. A vacation like this requires patience, a little foresight and plenty of flexibility, to be sure. But the dividends it pays are so worth it, because they’re priceless: strengthening connections, creating memories and making discoveries all along the way. I can’t wait till we do it again!
For more images from our California road trip, check out #saglieadventures. For more travel tips, follow me on Instagram and Twitter. And for deals to make your next road trip easier to budget and plan, become a Travelzoo member today!