Your fantasy California road trip involves nothing more than renting a sexy convertible, blasting the summery tunes, and letting the road take you where it goes. Woo-hoo, California dreamer! Too bad the reality looks usually more like a month of web searches, map-making, and hotel booking. It doesn't have to: Gentedimontagna's Tess Falotico planned the perfect week-long road trip from San Francisco to Monterey and back. All you have to do is follow.
SAN FRANCISCO – My best friend Kelly and I were a little ambitious when we planned a week-long reunion along Highway 1. See the redwoods. Shop local designers and thrift shops. Dip toes into Pacific. Bond with sea lions. Eat everything, spend nothing. Make it a road trip, but fly in and out of one airport. We did it all, and still had time for a few drunk nights catching up in our hotel room (completely necessary for long-distance BFFs). Excuse us while we pat ourselves on the back.
DAY 1: SETTLING IN
We land in San Francisco absolutely starving. We Google the closest In-N-Out to SFO and go immediately. (It's at 11 Rollins Road in Millbrae. You're welcome.) Happily stuffed with what are truly the best fast-food burgers in America, we head into the city and check into Americania Hotel. It's cheap and safe. (Shout out, Best Western!) For two female college students traveling alone, cheap and safe is really all that matters. Wiped out but determined to make the most of our first night, we sit at the bar at Bloodhound for as long as our jet-lagged bodies can manage. (We last 47 minutes.)
DAY 2: THE MISSION
This day is all about shopping and eating. Our hotel is in SoMa, so we stop at BrainWash for breakfast on our way into Mission. Strong black coffee and eggs on local sourdough in a sun-soaked, industrial space, and we're fueled and ready to shop. The Mission is packed with vintage and thrift shops, but if you can only get to one, make it Mission Thrift (2330 Mission St., +1-415-821-9560). If you're up for a full-on hunt, brave the racks of dresses spanning the 1960s through '90s. We also score at Community Thrift Store (623 Valencia St., +1-415-861-4910), which has bins and bins of records and awesome Nikes from the '70s and '80s.
I fall in love with Little Paper Planes, a shop on Valencia that brims with a tightly curated selection of clothing, jewelry, home items, and art prints. It shares space with Owl Cave Books', a very cute emporium of used books and indie magazines. We find more great local designers and magazines at Needles and Pens, where the jewelry is particularly insane. I pick up great gifts for my boyfriend and my brother at Fellow Barber, a manly man's barber with a shop stocked with manly man's items. We loop back around to Mission St. for lunch at Gracias Madre, a little gem serving amazing vegan Mexican food (hey, don't knock it til you try it). After our Mission District marathon, we relax with iced tea at Café Sophie. Their advertisement doesn't lie. They really are "colder than your ex's heart." Dinner is take-out from a tasty but unremarkable Vietnamese joint. We eat in our room, watch movies, and pass out.
DAY 3: MUIR WOODS
On our way out of the city we stop in Outer Sunset, a blissfully laid back surfer neighborhood on the ocean. We do a little (more) shopping at Mollusk Surf Shop, a mainstay that carries locally made surfboards and beach gear, and General Store, which epitomizes beachy California design, everything from jewelry to sofas. We cross the Golden Gate Bridge — a perfect San Francisco experience in itself — and drive up to Muir Woods. The cliffside road is pretty harrowing: winding, narrow, and full of sudden drops. There's a free shuttle on weekends, but we want to avoid the crowds and do it ourselves on a weekday. No regrets: It is stunning and peaceful, and we make it up and down the mountain alive.
Rather than take one of the more challenging hikes, we stay on flat ground on boardwalks made from fallen redwoods. Now it feels like a vacation. I haven't breathed air this pure and clean since I moved to New York four years ago. I leave feeling like a new person.
DAY 4: BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK
We spend our last morning in San Francisco wandering around Ferry Building Marketplace, home to Pressed Juicery, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Heath Ceramics, to name a few of the awesome vendors. We hit the farmers' market out front for healthy car snacks and begin the trip to Monterey.
Our pit stop of the day: Big Basin. We grab a map from the information desk and take the very, very easy Redwood Trail. We feel like Gretel and Gretel on the flat journey through the mighty giants, which are even mightier than the ones in Muir Woods. The small loop of a trail should take twenty minutes, but we spend an hour gaping at the massive beauties. Never before in my life have I had an emotional reaction to a tree. We spot the Mother of the Forest, at 328 feet, the tallest tree in the park, and a flock of marbled murrelets, which look like little flying potatoes. Big Basin splits the drive in half, so it's an easy hour cruising down Highway 1 to Monterey. After another death-defying descent down the mountain, that is.
We check into Embassy Suites in Monterey. There's nothing cute about the choice, but we're getting our fill of cute on the road. (And we don't mind the free happy hour.)
DAY 5: POINT LOBOS
Point Lobos State Reserve is easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. It is absolutely gorgeous. We stock up on guac and chips, drive twenty minutes south, and park at Sea Lion Point beach. We pick it randomly, and any beach will do. They're all perfect. We take our snacks to the water and spend hours (hours!) marveling at the Pacific views. The colors are beautiful: purple pebbles, sparkling blue water, and crystal clear skies. We tear ourselves away in time to stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea for treats from Carmel Bakery (Ocean Ave. and Lincoln St.) and a walk around the charming town before heading back to Monterey for another free happy hour.
DAY 6: MONTEREY BAY
Day 6 will heretofore be known as The Best Day of Our Lives. We spend two incredible hours kayaking around Monterey Bay into animal habitats. We see otters grooming their precious babies and seals peeking their sweet little faces out of the water, checking us out. Sea lions do back flips and pose for photos. (Show-offs.) It's almost hard to bear how cute this whole scene is, and it's nice to think it will stay this way because the animals and the area are heavily protected. We booked our tour through Monterey Bay Kayaks. Being on the water was a little chilly. We warm up in the hotel lobby. We're wearing our pajamas, and nobody minds.
DAY 7: ON THE ROAD AGAIN
We get an early start and hit Santa Cruz in time for lunch at Cafe Gratitude. We needed the detox, and their quinoa bowls and fresh juices hit the spot. Then we take a back slide at Penny Ice Creamery on rhubarb crisp ice cream and blood orange sorbet with homemade raspberry preserves. Downtown Santa Cruz has great shopping: Stripe and Stripe Men for well-designed clothing and home goods, and Synergy for soft, organic cotton everything. We were really hoping to get to Swanton Berry Farm on Highway 1 — pick-your-own berries and a refurbished Airstream lounge seemed too cute to pass up — but it was too early in the season. Next time. That's right, I'm already taking notes for next time.
My cousin and his fiancé live in San Jose, so we stop at their house for dinner. Dinner is in the oven with five minutes left to cook. When they hear the only Mexican we've had in California was vegan, they turn off the oven and take us to their favorite taqueria, Adelita's. My eyes are always bigger than my stomach, so I order a super taco platter with carne asada and al pastor, rice and beans, and a Mexican Coke. My cousin was right: Tacos with pork are better than tacos with zucchini. It's the perfect end to a perfect trip. We drop off the car and take a cab to a hotel by the airport. We try to stay awake and talk about our magical week of wonder, but we pass out hard and dream of carne asada.