Take the slow road along the pinniped-friendly coast from Santa Cruz to Pacifica.
There’s a lot you can learn from an elephant seal. Spending hours loafing on the beach, these multiton behemoths bask in the sun, bellow like Harleys, and roll and dip into the smashing waves. Viewing them from a platform at Año Nuevo State Park along California’s Highway 1, I decided to follow their low-key lead and take my time along this famous stretch of ocean road.
Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Pacifica—variously known as the Pacific Coast Highway and the Cabrillo Highway—traces 63 miles of iconic seaside landscape with jagged cliff sides, pelotons of cyclists, wet suit-clad surfers, and, just to the east of the highway, scenery of artichokes and organic greens in row upon row, abruptly giving way to Monterey pine–studded foothills. Here you can stop roadside for fresh fruit from one of many stands, head into a state park for an early-California environmental education, and generally make like a seal as you sample some of California’s best landscape and food.
Año Nuevo State Park Twenty-two miles north of the fishhook interchange in Santa Cruz where Highways 1 and 17 split, you come to the park. The beaches on this windswept promontory, discovered by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, are the breeding ground for one of the world’s largest mainland breeding colonies of northern elephant seals, some of whom make it their year-round playground. Get a free permit from the ranger station, then take a two-mile stroll to the beaches, where volunteers will point you to the best viewing spots. You’ll need advance reservations to visit during the hectic seal-breeding season from December 15 to March 31. (650) 879-0227, parks.ca.gov.
Costanoa A couple of miles past Año Nuevo(at the 24.8-mile mark),a eucalyptus-lined road leads to Costanoa, which, like California, has a little bit of everything: a KOA campground, Douglas fir cabins, wood-floored tent bungalows with heated mattress pads, RV hookup spots, a general store, and a stylish, environment-friendly lodge designed to show off what’s outside. It’s a suitable stop for those on a budget and those willing to pay up to $220 a night. Mixing among guests is encouraged with barbecues and a bar. Costanoa can be a serene hideaway spot to enjoy views of rolling hills, or more of a festive parking-lot party scene on holiday weekends. 2001 Rossi Rd., Pescadero, (877) 262-7848, costanoa.com.
Pigeon Point Light Station One of those “you-can’t-miss-it” sites, the 115-foot-tallbeaconjuts out of seaside cliffs at the 28.8-mile point on the drive.While the lighthouse itself has been closed to visitors since some pieces fell off its exterior in 2001, the surrounding state park offers tours of the historical grounds (the lighthouse first blinked in 1872), and where the lighthouse keeper’s house stood there is now a hostel. 210 Pigeon Point Rd., Pescadero, (650) 879-2120, parks.ca.gov.
Duarte’s Tavern Take a two-mile detour inland from the highway (turning at the 34-mile mark) into the old farming and ranching community of Pescadero. The highlight here isthis classic small-town restaurant where, if you don’t order one of several tasty artichoke dishes or the green chile soup, the old-school waitstaff may look at you askance. Duarte’s is also known for healthy portions of locally sourced pork chops and—when live crab’s available—cioppino. The bar looks as if it’s right out of an old western movie, and at more than 116 years old, Duarte’s benefits from being grandfathered under package-liquor laws, so you can pick up a bottle here to keep you warm at the campgrounds. 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, (650) 879-0464, duartestavern.com.
Half Moon Bay Kayak Company Want to stop looking at the seals and play like one instead? Get out of your car and into the water. On Highway 1, about 52 miles from Santa Cruz, turn left at the light onto Capistrano Drive, heading toward the waterfront tents at Pillar Point Harbor. Beginners and kids are welcome on kayak tours of the harbor and bay as well as in paddleboarding classes. Experienced paddlers can rent kayaks by the hour or the day, get out into the harbor, and maybe meet some flippered friends. 2 Johnson Pier, Half Moon Bay, (650) 773-6101, hmbkayak.com.
Sam’s Chowder HouseAfter you’ve worked up an appetite from paddling, head nearby to this East Coast–style seafood eatery, which has expansive views of the harbor, friendly staff, and food that pleases even the snobbiest of West Coast diners. As the restaurant’s name would suggest, the chowder is excellent, but so are the ahi tuna poke and oysters Rockefeller, never mind the award-winning lobster roll sandwich.Despite multiple luxury cars in the lot, it’s a casual place that encourages lingering. 4210 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, (650) 712-0245, samschowderhouse.com.