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Driving through Big Sur at sunset – Monterey, California

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Sunset drive along Big Sur

Sunset drive along Big Sur, with Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance

Leaving the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the late afternoon, we wanted to make our way further south towards Los Angeles. Leaving Highway 101, we opted for the more attractive coastal road. Highway 1 passes through an area called Big Sur – 90 miles of undeveloped cliff-side road.

Despite being sandwiched between LA and San Francisco, it still feels like a wilderness. Giant Redwood trees grow all the way down to the coast and the waves crash against the ragged rocks below. The narrow road twists its way southwards with very few places to stop. There are only a handful of hotels allowed in the national park, and a brave few drivers seem to stop their RVs illegally in the occasional turnoff. There are only a few points where it’s easy to get down to the shore 500ft below the road. These are popular spots for divers and kite surfers.

Bixby Creek Bridge at Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge

Twenty kilometres south of Monterey is Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the highlights of  the coastal road. The bridge was opened in 1932. Before that the residents of Big Sur were all but cut off during the winter months .

The rocky coastline at Big Sur

The rocky coastline at Big Sur

Cambria

When we finally reached the other side of the park we entered a town called Cambria. Cambria was short on cheap motels. We’d passed a few chain places on the edge of Big Sur, a long way outside of town, but had continued on in the dark in the hopes of getting something more central. A search on a couple of mobile apps came up with nothing under $200 so we ended up stopping at the cheapest family-run motel in town.

I’m always for supporting the local community, but after a long day this place was just such a disappointment. The room was right next to the noisy road; there was no internet, no breakfast and only 7 channels on the TV, all of them fuzzy. Worst of all, it was $93/night.

I can see why the hotels chains are taking over in the US. The largest chain seems to be Choice Hotels. Their cheapest brand is Econolodge, where for $59 you get a quiet room with internet access, a fridge and a simple breakfast. Nothing fancy, but everything you need.

Going through Priceline or Hotwire, a room at Econolodge or Extended Stay America can be found for as little as $34. I know the family run places can’t compete on price or economies of scale, but they could on quality of service or simple friendliness. Guests would hopefully accept that the slightly higher price was actually better value.

All of the family run places we tried were either considerably more expensive, or had no amenities. Those we stayed at down the West Coast were often a bit grumpy at the front desk. The friendliness of the family run places improved considerably once we reached the Gulf Coast, but by then we were tired of taking the chance and usually tended toward the cheapest option.

A shame really, and I’m sure there are exceptions in many hotels, but it was such a contrast with the warm welcome we’d always receive in restaurants, bars and shops throughout the US.

Big Sur at Sunset

Big Sur at Sunset

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Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

23 comments

  • Pingback: Penny Sadler (@PennySadler)

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  • Pingback: Penny Sadler (@PennySadler)

  • We’ve gotten to the point where we like to know where we’ll be staying one night ahead on a road trip. I’m all for a spontaneous experience, but have learned the hard way it can ruin the joy of the drive. Nothing squelches the enjoyment of a freewheeling day faster than searching late into the night for a place to lay your head.

    I love the “Mom & Pop” motels along the road, and have found that Trip Advisor is very helpful when trying to differentiate. The chains in the US (which vary in popularity on a regional basis) are more consistent, but not it’s always a given that they are the same everywhere–again I count on Trip Advisor to help with some prequalification.

    We’ve only done bits and pieces of the Route 1 road in California. Definitely on the list to go either “all the way up” or “all the way down” the coast!

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  • Last time I did that drive it was with kids and dogs in the days where we used a AAA guide book to find hotels, and with no cellphones, we had to stop to enquire about availability. So much easier to find a hotel these days, even if they aren’t cheap. Honestly, anything under $100 is pretty good for the coast.

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  • Love your pictures. This is one of my favorite areas on the face of the earth — I love how the terrain and the feel of the place changes so dramatically as you drive from Monterey and Carmel down past Hearst Castle. Sorry you have a bad experience in Cambria. I’ve always liked that little town and its quirky, local restaurants. That said, I’ve never spent the night.

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    • I do regret missing Hearst Castle – there’s always next time.

      I should have mentioned that there’s an impressive selection of restaurants in town – excellent for dinner or brunch.

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  • Great photos. They bring back such great memories of my road trip. My co-worker & I had a conference in LA. Afterwards, we decided to extend our trip, rent a cherry-red convertible and drove south to San Francisco along the coastline – beautiful!

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  • God. If the accomodation is that expensive everywhere in the US I don’t think we’ll ever be able to afford to go.

    Great pictures as always Stephen.

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  • Beautiful photos! The Monterey/Carmel area is my favorite place in California, which is saying a lot since this state is so special. Hwy 1 is definitely an experience everyone should have. Too bad your lodging experience was not very positive, though. It is generally very expensive there.

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