The Only Way From L.A. to S.F.

One definition of heaven: A week, a t-top Camaro, and the Pacific Coast Highway.

The American road trip is the stuff of novels, dreams, and notebooks full of song lyrics. It's a Kerouac-inspired montage of ´50s convertibles, flickering neon signs, roadside diner cheeseburgers, cheap souvenirs, and long stretches of dusty highway -- scored by Willie Nelson warbling "Blue Sky" over tinny speakers.

And if most of us aren't Benzedrine-fueled, poetry-writing Beatniks, living here means we are fortunate to be a mere freeway exit from the ultimate Sal Paradise road trip: the Pacific Coast Highway stretching north to Oregon and south to Mexico.

My boyfriend had a meeting scheduled in L.A., and we recently acquired a dark gray, t-top Camaro, so we decided to cruise down I-5, spend a few days in L.A., then wend our way up the legendary Pacific Coast Highway.

The Getty Museum and its 
zillion-dollar view.
Lisa Crovo
The Getty Museum and its zillion-dollar view.
The Hollywood Downtowner has 
edge to spare.
Lisa Crovo
The Hollywood Downtowner has edge to spare.

Seven or so hours after leaving home we arrived at the Hollywood Downtowner Inn. "The pool's open till sundown," the desk clerk with rotting teeth and a vaguely French accent told us. The place was absolutely sketchy -- no "visitors" allowed, and you had to be buzzed into the office from the street even in broad daylight. Our wood-paneled room overlooked the garish motel sign above the Strip and had an aura of junk sickness and low-budget porn. If you want to stay in a David Lynch film set, this is your kind of place.

I hadn't been to Los Angeles in years, so I wanted to do cheesy tourist things -- slum around Hollywood, stroll down the Walk of Fame, put my hands in Marilyn's impressions (amazingly tiny) in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre, drive by celebrity death sites (Lenny Bruce, John Belushi), kick it at Venice Beach, have drinks at the Viper Room, and eat breakfast at Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles. Roscoe's was just as I'd remembered it, a haven of soul comfort food in a vast wasteland of fast food joints and taco stands. Tourist cheese consumed, we decided to go highbrow and pay a visit to the Getty Museum. The Getty collection aside, it's worth a trip to L.A. to revel in Richard Meier's astounding Modernist architecture and Robert Irwin's breathtaking Central Garden while marveling at a view of the Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains that only big oil money could ever buy.

We left Tinseltown, headed for the coast, passed rolling hills dotted with mustard-yellow scotch broom and purple lupine between the sleepy, coastal towns from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay, and stopped for our first extended loiter in the affable seaside town of Cambria, which has the distinction of being exactly halfway between L.A. and S.F. The town reflects the sensibilities of both cities; overly tanned beach bunnies in sports bars and aromatherapy herb-shop patrons coexist in harmony. The commercial area is almost cloying in its charm, crammed with high-end gift shops, galleries, gourmet cafés, and antique stores. Lodging is plentiful and reasonable, especially if you head west to one of the many beachfront motels on Moonstone Beach Drive.

Cambria is also home to the late Art Beal's eccentric, folk art mess known as Nit Wit Ridge, a multilevel house made entirely of recycled and found objects -- sea shells, beer cans, beach glass, discarded appliances, even toilet seats.

In stark contrast, six miles north of Cambria, William Randolph Hearst's ostentatious, Julia Morgan-designed Shangri-la looms on a hill above San Simeon. An embarrassment of riches, the compound of 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, three guesthouses, two ornate swimming pools, and a theater is a mishmash of styles, from the gloomy medieval Refectory (where Hearst and his mistress, B-actress Marion Davies, dined with guests) to the sparkling, sunny Grecian-inspired Neptune's pool. It's worth a visit, if only to comprehend the staggering breadth of Hearst's wealth. We opted for the Experience Tour, which includes a screening of a National Geographic movie about the castle's construction, but four others are offered.

From here, we took a slight detour inland to experience the highly regarded, somewhat overlooked Paso Robles wine country. It reminded me of Sonoma County but with space -- narrow country roads winding through vineyards and horse pastures, pairs of quail bobbing alongside wooden fences, wild turkey rushing about neurotically, and live oak trees fringed with lacy Spanish moss. The area's history of grape growing and winemaking began in 1797 with the Franciscans at the Mission San Miguel. Today there are more than 60 wineries, many small, family-owned, and not crowded. We headed for the Justin Vineyards & Winery, in a remote corner at the end of Chimney Rock Road.

We checked into the Sussex, one of three sumptuous, idyllic, and ridiculously romantic suites at the Just Inn, a B&B on the vineyard. The pedestal canopy bed, a towering cloud of fluffy down pillows and a double-weight feather duvet, was accessed by a wooden step stool. Our previous budget accommodations receded from consciousness as though we were waking from a dream. This was pure fantasy -- vaulted ceilings, a stone fireplace, trellised English gardens. We dined that evening on braised rabbit strudel, seared sand dabs, filet mignon, and a warm fig turnover at Deborah's Room, the winery's cozy yet elegant dining room, steps from our decadent lair. After a few glasses of the award-winning Isosceles (a well-balanced, fruity Cabernet blend -- Justin's trademark wine), we slipped into the hot tub beneath a canopy of stars.

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