LOS ANGELES -- When I began planning a California road trip with my best girlfriend, I had Hollywood snapshots in my mind, something like "Sideways" meets "Thelma and Louise." Two women take off in a convertible, leaving their men behind in New York, for a week of coastal driving, wine-tasting and superb eating. Our boyfriends were unnerved by the cinematic inspiration.
The plan was to take Route 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then spend a few days touring wine country before returning.
We began with a quick tour of the L.A. area, strolling Santa Monica and Venice Beach, people-watching and window-shopping on Rodeo Drive. As I sat poolside in the afternoon, sipping a glass of Champagne at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I began to wonder if we shouldn't just stay.
The road was calling, however, so we were up the next morning at dawn. It was chilly and misty, but we sped off with the top down, iPod pumping and hair flying.
As we approached Malibu and Santa Barbara on Route 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway, the sun and the fog defied each other as the waves crashed and foamed on the shore. Coastal California was as wild as I'd envisioned it.
The ocean air made us hungry. We stopped in Morro Bay, a small fishing town, for fried cod sandwiches dripping with tartar sauce.
The afternoon sun beat down on our heads and shoulders as we neared the twisting roads cut through the cliffs from San Simeon to Monterey. The stretch is touted as one of the most scenic in the country and it was the part of the drive I'd been looking forward to the most. There were few cars on the road with us; I was glad we'd picked a spring Monday to begin our journey.
The 20 mph signs are there for a reason. The vista changes at every turn, and the biggest challenge for the driver, as you wind your way up to Big Sur, is being able to take it all in without running the car off the road.
Fortunately, there are plenty of places to pull over and admire the scenery -- so many, in fact, that you're often alone when you do. Here the craggy cliffs meet foaming waters under skies that seem to change from cloudy to vivid blue in mere moments. It was more stunning than I had imagined.
We stopped for the night -- shivering, top still down, but the heat now blasting -- about an hour south of San Francisco in Half Moon Bay.
After briefly worrying that the whole town was already closed for the night -- "We roll up our sidewalks around 8 o'clock here," the bartender at the saloon on Main Street told us -- we found a lovely restaurant where we savored a local pinot noir and dined on the homemade pate, a fritto misto (mixed fry) of asparagus and artichokes, and roast Cornish hens. We trudged into our hotel full-bellied and weary.
Another early wake-up and we were quickly in San Francisco, which Route 1 traverses, offering a brief glimpse of the city and a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.
The coast soon gave way to rolling vineyard-covered hills as we arrived in wine country. We drove straight to the Lodge in Sonoma to check in.
Its proximity to the highway is deceiving. A serene hideaway on sprawling rose-covered grounds, the Lodge cottages were bright and airy, each with a sitting area, comfortable feather beds, fireplace and patio.
For breakfast in the adjoining restaurant, Carneros, we had omelets with applewood bacon, a perfect cushion for morning wine-tasting.
There are a few hundred wineries in the region so unless you are there for weeks, it's impossible to experience them all. We chose a different road each day and just hopped from one winery to the next. From small producers that have simple tasting rooms, to the more commercial establishments with almost garish grounds, they vary greatly, but each has something special to offer.
One of my favorites was Domaine Carneros, where tastings are served tableside, while you snack on a cheese plate. The 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet at Silver Oak was good enough for me to consider buying a bottle at $100, while the homespun family feel of V. Sattui warmed me.
A good tactic, we found, is to share a tasting, or to only taste what you are particularly interested in. And make use of the spit bucket! We quickly learned to dump what we didn't love. Otherwise you can end up drunk, with a tired palate.
One way to combat midday tipsiness, which we showed symptoms of one early afternoon, is to break with a big lunch and much sparkling water.
We stopped at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, just north of Napa, where you can sit in lush but casual surroundings and eat a wonderful homey French meal. We had butter lettuce salad that tasted as if its leaves had just been plucked from the backyard (and I imagine they had); quiche that was to die for, and a tomato soup "en croute" that I would eat every day if I were lucky enough to have the bistro in my neighborhood.
The rest of the afternoon is best spent hitting the wineries again, since most close around 4:30 p.m. We had dinners near our hotel in Sonoma, where we could have more than a sip of wine without worrying about driving. Everybody in town recommends The Girl & The Fig as the best eating, and with good reason.
The cozy restaurant features regional ingredients prepared with great care. We had chilled asparagus and steak au poivre and finished with a cheese plate. We couldn't get enough of the fresh produce and after dinner ordered green salads.
Our last morning in wine country we were ready for a nonalcoholic activity, so we booked appointments at the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs. Calistoga, which resembles an old cowboy town, is about an hour north of Sonoma. We weren't sure what to expect, but after being dipped into mud baths (a combination of peat moss and volcanic ash from nearby Mount Saint Helena), mineral waters, and then steamed and massaged, we walked out rejuvenated and rosy-cheeked. The whole treatment, which lasted almost two hours, cost $96 each.
A helpful local advised that wines not exclusively for sale in the wineries can be found for better prices in the stores.
After debating whether to save time by taking the interstate back, we decided the views on Highway 1 were stunning enough to merit a second look.
Going southbound the winding roads seemed even more spectacular, though more stressful to drive, with the Pacific now practically within arm's reach and often no guard rail between you and the water.
A must-stop along the way, which we had missed the first time, is Nepenthe, a restaurant and bar perched in the cliffs, 800 feet above sea level in Big Sur. The food is simple and healthy and pricey, but worth the view.