The forest felt enchanted. Looking up, the bright Californian sunlight was penetrating the forest canopy, tens of metres above, creating filtered shards of light that pooled on the ground. The towering coastal redwoods, among the tallest trees in the world, are remarkable not only for their height and size, but also for how they absorb noises within the forest. The thick fire-retardant bark of each tree seems to silence any echoes, and to dampen the sounds of footsteps, voices, and wildlife. Here, surrounded by the stillness of giant sequoias, sheltered by steep mountains, one cannot help but be calmed.
This is the essence of Big Sur, a vast area of wilderness, with a stunning coastline of almost 150 kilometres. It is about three hours' drive south of San Francisco's international airport, and among the most beautiful stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway.
In a country of epic routes that pass through remarkable communities and landscapes, the California State Route 1 remains iconic - and certainly the most scenic in America. The highway runs some 1000 kilometres from the forests of northern California to the warmth of San Diego.
Although open since the 1930s, everything was to change in 2017, when devastating landslides caused part of the highway in the southern part of Big Sur to be buried by falling earth and rock, cutting off rural communities and closing the route to traffic. Almost eighteen months of works were needed to rebuild the road and replace damaged bridges. Eventually in the autumn of 2018, route 1 reopened, and visitors were once again able to experience this remarkable coast-hugging highway.
Picking up a hire car and embarking on a road trip is to create a memorable driving holiday, enjoying the freedom embodied by America's love of the open road. The Pacific Coast Highway can be driven at a leisurely pace, discovering rich experiences, encompassing nature, culture and cuisine along the way.
However, renting a car abroad can so often be fraught, with delays at pickup and hidden charges at drop-off. I played it safe and chose Hertz for my car hire. Collection was easy. Upon landing at the airport, I switched on my phone and received an email with details of my hire car and where to find it in the Hertz car park - there was no need to visit the office or sign any papers. Everything was taken care of with the online booking. I just got in the vehicle, where the keys were waiting, and drove away. I simply needed to show my credit card and driver's licence at the exit to confirm my identity. It really made renting the car a stress-free start to the road trip.
El Sur Grande
Big Sur was once known as 'el Sur Grande' to the early Spanish settlers in Monterey, since it was such a vast, undiscovered area. Now centuries later, surprisingly little appears to have changed. Although the climbing and descending Pacific Coast Highway, with its vertiginous views, has opened the area up to the world for a century, development has remained limited. While the route allows motorists to navigate this once almost impenetrable region, the zig-zagging road is one of the few noticeable impacts of man.
The protected rugged coast remains an exceptional sight. Take for example McWay Falls, where water tumbles 25 metres onto a pristine protected beach.
Then there are the forests. Many ancient trees in Big Sur escaped the threat of the logging industry thanks to the area's historical inaccessibility. Within Pfeiffer Big Sur Park, one of the state parks that protect swathes of wilderness, one finds trees as old as 800 years towering up to 90 metres, and some that are older than 1,200 years with circumferences of 10 metres!
Residents number in just the thousands, with many families able to trace their heritage back to the early settlers that established ranches here. This is a wild, beautiful place.
Take it slow
Allow time to truly explore the area. Many itineraries suggest that visitors can travel the Californian route 1 in just a few days. It's true that theoretically one could drive from San Francisco to San Diego in ten to twelve hours. Yet the truth is, you need time to discover each portion of the trip; and Big Sur deserves at least a stay of two or three nights.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is the gateway to Big Sur. It's an affluent community on one of the most scenic parts of the coast, where luxury homes and small hotels sit among the twisted Monterey pines. Within half an hour driving south from here one reaches the first of many iconic sights, the Bixby Creek Bridge. Here you might see sea lions or elephant seals on the beaches, and whales spouting out at sea. This is the start of the wild nature of Big Sur.
There is no town to speak of in Big Sur. The bakery café, general store, and filling station is pretty much it, and here you are most likely to meet locals and bump into other road-trippers. Easily accessible from the highway are well-equipped campsites, eco-lodges, historic inns, upscale resorts and notable restaurants.
Yet the best moments of your road trip will surely be taking in the views along the coast or experiencing the peace of the majestic redwoods.