Big Sur Road Trip: Drive the PCH in a restored VW Van
Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, photo by Jade Broadus
Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, photo by Jade Broadus
Elephant Seals in Cambria photo by Jade Broadus
Clam Chowder at Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach, photo by Jade Broadus
Camping at Fernwood in Big Sur
Ostrich Land in Solvang
VW Van Highway 1
A road trip from Los Angeles to Big Sur had been on my California bucket list for years. Big Sur had become this mysterious place that, because I still hadn’t been after living in LA for so many years, seemed unattainable. I had only ever been as far north as Santa Barbara on the 101 and I always missed Central California whenever I flew to San Francisco. After dreaming of this trip for so long, I finally planned a road trip with my husband in a pretty unique way.
Instead of driving our cars and renting a cabin or staying in a luxury hotel in Big Sur, we rented a fully restored VW Van from Vintage Surfari Wagons in Orange County. During the off-season the van is only $100 bucks a day or $650 for the week, a very reasonable price considering you get the car and your hotel for the night. This brightly colored van immediately took me back to the 60’s and 70’s, a period of time that, even though I didn’t grow up in, I always felt connected to.
Our van was bright turquoise, with a big steering wheel, tape player and manual windows. The van topped out at about 65 miles an hour and tuckered up hill at a little less than that. The top popped up to allow sleeping for 4, with a sky light at the very top. The gas-powered stovetop could cook almost anything you wanted to eat and if hooked up to a campsites water supply, could even provide running water.
It was awesome.
While I knew that the road trip would be unbelievable, I didn’t realize how much of a positive experience it would be for my marriage.
We started off on the 101, heading north towards Pismo Beach. A small beach community known for Splash Café’s famous clam chowder and very wide beaches, Pismo Beach was merely a quick stopping point on our trip. We waited in a twenty-minute line for one bread bowl with piping hot clam chowder (a little salty and spicy) to share on the beach. Even though it was overcast that day, there were dozens of surfers on the 4-foot waves and even more people copying our chowder and beach blanket dining experience.
About two hours before sunset, we continued driving to Morro Bay and our beachside camp for the night. Booking the spot online the week before, we knew we had a single spot hook-up with electricity and running water. Hooking up the gas, water and electricity for the first time was quite the experience. Well, I should say it was an experience for my husband because I just stood there and held the flashlight. After what seemed like an hour but was actually only ten minutes, we had everything hooked up, the top of the camper popped up and we were cooking our food. It took a little teamwork to get everything up and running, but it was enjoyable and we were joking and laughing with each new thing we tried to do.
Showering in the community showers reminded me of my backpacking trip through Europe and might have been a little more of the roughing it side than I wanted. Luckily I packed my waterproof flip-flops and the quick shower wasn’t so bad.
In the morning we woke to the sound of sea gulls and ocean waves. It was early; the sun was barely coming up, especially considering we had gone to bed after midnight. Lying under the covers on the top level of the camper van, I woke up being snuggled by my husband. I was shocked- this never happens. We are definitely not snuggle people. We kiss goodnight and roll over to our sides of the bed. Maybe it was the romantic nature of a camper van or the fact that it was actually pretty chilly on the beach in a camper van, but either way we both noticed and appreciated the difference in our sleeping pattern.
Listening to the birds go on and go for twenty minutes or so, we figured they weren’t letting up and we climbed down to the bottom level to make breakfast and get on the road again. While my husband cooked, I packed up our bed and put everything back in its place. Before too long, we were all ready to be on the road again.
We continued north until we arrived at Piedras Blancas Rookery a few miles north of San Simeon, otherwise known to us as Elephant Seal beach. This free attraction might have been my favorite stop along Highway 1, because of the close natural animal encounter and its ease from the highway.
The elephant seals call this stretch of the beach home because of the position of the beach and protective cove. It is a great nursing ground for newborn seals and the cove protects them from sharks that swim further out in the ocean. If you stop by you are guaranteed to see dozens if not hundreds of elephant seals lying on the beach. Some teenaged seals might be out in the water, wrestling and playing with each other and some babies might be snuggled up with their moms. If you’ve ever wanted to see elephant seals in their natural habitat, this is the place for you.
By the afternoon, we had hit the Big Sur area and stopped at all the main sites. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and waterfall was one of our favorites, but we also loved Bixby Bridge and the Lighthouse. I especially loved just stopping along the road and taking photos of the cows along the bluff (what a gorgeous view they have every day) and sunset drinks at the cliff side restaurant, Nepenthe.
We were camping at Fernwood Resort and this spot could not have been more beautiful. Located right along the river, our campsite was under huge trees on all sides, with the sound of the running stream in the background. We built a huge fire, roasted marshmallows and made dozens of smores and drank a bottle of wine. While it was a more rustic location (no running water or electricity to our van), it was so much more beautiful. We spent hours watching the burning fire from inside the back of the van and even more time looking up at the endless stars.
We were even colder that night (maybe we should have brought more blankets) but that made it even better. Escaping the traditional luxury hotels, we were unexpectedly forced to spend more time with just each other. We didn’t have a TV to distract us. Somehow being in the wilderness, having this first time experience with each other made us grow so much closer.
The next morning we again woke up snuggling each other. I could get used to this, I thought as I squeezed his arm. We heard a rummaging sound around our camper and looked outside our back window. There were two small squirrels eating any small drops from our smores the night before. The fire was completely out but it still smelled like campfire and smoke.
We showered and packed our stuff up again to get on the road. One great thing about waking up to the sounds of the Earth is that you get an early start on the day. By 8am, we were all packed up and headed back down south. Deciding to stop in different areas on the way back, we visited the Ostrich Land and the quirky Dutch town of Solvang. We filled our day with a few wine tastings and stopped by the store to buy more food to make by fire that night.
Exhausted, we set up our campsite a little earlier that night and decided to really cook a fire pit dinner. We made kabobs with steak and shrimp, asparagus, onions and red peppers. It was (and still is) one of the best meals of my life. Something about the campfire brought out the unique flavors of the organic central California meat and vegetables. We felt great about buying locally harvested and farmed food and could taste the difference.
Even though the trip was only half way over and only three days in, I already felt a huge difference in our relationship.
The trip was supposed to be a fun road trip, but it turned out to be so much more. The unique, one of a kind experience really forced us to rely on each other in ways normal everyday life doesn’t. While I wanted to take a road trip to Big Sur, I had no idea that trip would strengthen my marriage and brings us closer than any other vacation.
This, I thought as we fell asleep, was what vacation was all about.
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