South West Road trip 2010

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay

Elephant Seals in Monterey Harbor

Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco is filled with wildlife watching experiences, so it seemed natural to sign up for a whale watching tour to see some of nature’s largest mammals further off the coast of California. Little did we expect to have to hold on for dear life out on the open sea when we signed up for a whale watching trip in Monterey, and one of us spending more time clenching on at the back of the boat feeding her breakfast to the birds.

We GlobetrotterGirls were expecting a boat trip filled with images like this:

Or at least something like the sightings shown here.

The reality, however, looked a bit different…

Migrating whales pass California’s coastline at all times of the year – grey whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska in April and back down south in December, humpback whales pass through California in the Spring, Blue Whales can be seen between June and October.

This popular whale-spotting location is home to countless whale tours, many of which boast guaranteed whales or your next trip free. So,

We decided to take the tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watching, one of various whale tour operators in Monterey. They seemed to offer the best value for money – the longest tours, marine biologists on board, over twenty years of experience.



However, as we were followed by the Pacific Explorer, a boat of another tour operator, during the entire tour, in retrospect any ol’ tour operator would get you the same whales at a lower price.

The tour started off well enough, with light blue skies, sunshine, and no wind – that is, until we left the harbor.Out in the open sea we were greeted by meter-high white cap waves which would give us a good shaking for the next three hours. And I am not talking about some light ups-and-downs. We had people throwing up over the railing the entire duration of the tour (one of us, included!).

Everyone who was not feeding their breakfast to the fish was holding on hoping to spot one, two or even three whales to make up for the gruesome (weather) circumstances. The sea must have been even too rough for the whales though. We did not see a single one.

We did spot a school of dolphins who happily swam along the boat, though it was a serious challenge to even hold our cameras to take pictures without fearing a trip overboard.

The dolphin spotting in no way made up for lack of whales, especially considering the miserable three-hour seacoaster ride.

whale watching Monterey

Back in the harbor, we saw a sea otter, pelicans and hundreds of elephant seals sunbathing on top of the quay wall, but the entire boatload of  nauseous tourists did not enjoy tooling around the harbor just so the tour company could justify having taken us out at all. Had we left out that 30 minute harbor tour at the end, we would have only been out for half the time promised in the brochure.

whale watching Monterey

In hindsight, we should have done our homework. The crew didn’t mention a single spotting from previous days – instead they repeatedly mentioned how low the chances are to see a whale, and on the websites of the whale watching tours in Monterey not a single spotting was listed in the last week.  We were given a raincheck and can come back any time for a second round of whale-spotting, but as most of us were out-of-towners, I wonder how many rainchecks will actually be cashed in from this trip.

whale watching Monterey

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Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip (+ PCH Road Trip Tips)


With over a month to spend in California and plans to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, there was no question that we would take the Pacific Coast Highway for a true California Dreamin’ road trip. To drive the Pacific Coast Highway is on the bucket list of many road trippers – but even people who don’t enjoy spending much time in the car will appreciate the stunning vistas along this incredible the pacific coast highwayFrom the moment we set off from L.A., it was clear why National Geographic listed the PCH as one of the world’s ‘drives of a lifetime’.

Our Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Highway 1 is a breathtaking drive past the beaches of Malibu, stunning vistas of the Pacific, the beautiful former Mexican missionary town of Santa Barbara, mountains and redwoods in Big Sur, a 17-mile scenic drive around the Monterey peninsula and finally Halfmoon Bay before entering San Francisco, our final destination for the week. When continuing your trip north, Hwy 1 it will take you right over the Golden Gate Bridge into California’s wine country.

Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

The most breathtaking part of the 436miles (701km) along the Pacific Ocean is Big Sur, ‘Big Country of the South’, named by the Spanish settlers who inhabited it first. Big Sur covers 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south. This part of the PCH is a designated American National Scenic Byway and California Scenic Highway and is legendary for its notorious curves and the pacific coast highwayOn this part of the coastline, redwood groves reach skyward and the Santa Lucia mountain range plunges into the sea where waves crash on ragged rocks.

After snaking around sheer cliffs ranging from 600 to 5,750ft (182m to 1753m), you arrive in the town of Big Sur, where there are several campgrounds, lodges and hotels, a few galleries, cafes and mini-marts – what you don’t find are chains; everything is individually owned and run.pacific coast highway road tripAlthough accommodation in Big Sur is quite pricey, we decide to spend one day hiking in one of the nine state parks and stay in the Big Sur Campground, located right off the Highway.

With proper trekking in South America (Inca Trail) coming up, we thought it might be a good idea to spend the night camping. In the end, though, we stayed in a tent cabin, which is a wooden cabin on the bottom, a queen-sized bed, with tent flaps for a ceiling.This far north, nights in May are more than chilly, and we quickly realized that rather than meeting a sweet spot between camping and hotel room, we actually had a tent top which didn’t close all the way and air slipping through the wooden slats on the floor. Several species of insects, both flying and crawling, also found their way into the tent.

However, the beauty of the place makes up for the freezing at night – Our front porch faced a lazy river, there are trees outside our tent-cabin that are taller than most skyscrapers and who needs heat anyway.After an early breakfast the next morning, we choose nearby Pfeiffer State Park for our hike. (There are 237 miles of trails and 55 designated trail camps in the area of Big Sur to choose from). The hiking there was limited though as many trails were still closed as a result of a destructive forest fire in 2008. This fire managed to ravage through most of the trails including the 4 mile Oak Wood trail and the trail to an upper view of the Pfeiffer Falls.We start our hike on the Mount Manual trail where soon we were greeted by three wild turkeys. Lucky for them, we are vegetarian and it was no where near Thanksgiving.We continued our hike on the Valley View trail which goes uphill for miles but rewards the climb with fantastic vistas of the valley. On the way down we took another trail to the bottom of the Pfeiffer Falls through the wood.The redwoods were so impressive, though equally impressive was the wilderness, from the green clovers running up the mountainside to the bluebirds we had eating out of our hands down by the falls.pacific coast highway road trip

Tips for your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Car Rentals: Do your research

You’ll find the best rates for car rentals through OTAs (online travel agents) like Expedia, Priceline, or Autoslash. I recommend comparing rates on several of these websites and have Autoslash send you a quote, and then decide which rental company to go with. The best thing to do is renting the car upon arrival at the airport – airport car rentals at LAX and SFO usually have great rates. If you’re planning to drive the PCH one-way, ie. dropping the car off at a different end point from your start point, be aware that the fee for a different drop-off point can be hefty. It might be worth driving back to your starting point – you can drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then take Interstate 5 back to L.A., which is a faster, more direct route. That’s what we did and it took us around 6 hours.

pacific coast highway road trip

Book your hotels in advance

Because this is such a popular road trip route, and especially between May and October thousands of people drive the Pacific Coast Highway, I recommend booking your hotels or motels in advance. We waited until the very last minute to book our accommodation and learned the hard way that booking in advance is the smarter thing to do: in several places, we overpaid for a hotel, or we had to make do with the hotels that still had rooms left, and most of them were mediocre (or even worse). For the best hotel deals, I recommend which has been my go-to hotel booking website since 2010.

For the most stunning hotels, check out Architectural Digest’s

17 Beautiful Pacific Coast Highway–Centric Hotels

Thrillist has a list of the 10 best hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway

pacific coast highway road trip

How to find the cheapest gas stations

One thing you’ll notice when you drive the Pacific Coast Highway is that gas is more expensive at the gas stations along the PCH than it is in LA or San Francisco, or along the Interstate. That’s for one because this is a popular tourist route, but it is also a more difficult area to supply with gas.

Fill up the tank before you start the drive (if it’s not already filled up) and use apps to find the cheapest gas stations. GasBuddy is the most popular gas price app – it’ll show you the closest gas stations to your location and how much gas is in each one.

Waze also shows you gas prices, and in addition it provides live traffic information, informs you about accidents, speed traffic control, and other useful information.

Also check if your credit card offers – some credit cards offer cash back for gas at certain gas station chains at certain times of year – it’s worth checking your credit card offers (usually easily accessible in your credit card app) before you hit the road and add relevant ones to your card.

Driving further south?

Check out our five favorite spots on the Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Laguna Beach!

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Along the border – San Diego to Tucson

I-8 in Arizona

After a quick stop off in San Diego, the last stop in California after driving down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco, we headed to Tucson, Arizona. We had scored a housesit on for three weeks in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains and we were ready for a break from “life on the road”. Road tripping is fun, but sleeping in a different bed for weeks on end is exhausting, and we were looking forward to a comfortable bed, a kitchen to prepare our own food, a swimming pool in the backyard, and to a furry companion. All these things are basically why we love housesitting and hope to do more of it as our trip continues.

Now we just had to get to Tucson, about 407 miles from San Diego, mostly on the I-8. The drive would take about six hours, but we were in no hurry. In fact, we were curious to see a part of the U.S. neither of us had been to before, and get a first glimpse of the Sonoran Desert.

As we drove parallel to the Mexican border, we witnessed several extremes from the weather to the landscape to the intense scrutiny of border patrol (without ever having left the country).

This interstate runs through California’s San Jacinto Mountains, then parallel to the U.S./Mexican border and then splits from the border continuing straight east as the border runs southeast once past Yuma in Arizona.

The drive through the Jacinto Mountains was slow, not just thanks to the road construction, but also the relatively rough driving. The road passes through a surreal landscape which feels like the moon. The drive winds around and down and up and through until the intensity bubble bursts and you head out into the great expanse of the desert valley on the other side of the mountains.

Here the heat took over. It filled up the car, relentless in spite of air-conditioning and windows rolled all the way down. We were melting, sweating, laughing and singing.

We didn’t know if we would notice Arizona’s new Immigration Law, which came into force in April of this year. That is, until our first immigration check in California, before even entering Arizona. Interstate 8 literally hugs the border for several miles, you can see the fences, the wires, and the heavy presence of the U.S. Border Patrol, who had set up various check points along the Highway, randomly checking cars for ‘illegal immigrants’.

San Diego to Tucson road tripOur German Globetrotter girl being of legal immigration status, we were relieved when we sped through the border patrol checks, first in California and then again in Arizona. The second time, in Arizona, we had to pull out of line and join the unlucky ones whose belongings were unpacked being sniffed by police dogs.

Having been checked by border patrol twice from within the U.S., plus the growing  tension in the Mexican border cities, we decided to fly into Mexico City after our house sit and Northern Arizona road trip. No need to push our luck at one of the land crossings.

San Diego to TucsonUntil then, we’ll be testing the first real travel&work month, as we both have freelance projects that will keep us busy over the next three weeks – we will see how working remotely goes with a tempting pool and two sun chairs in the backyard…

San Diego to Tucson
The border fence between the U.S. and Mexico

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Top 5 stops along the Pacific Coast Highway – L.A. to Laguna Beach

Santa Monica Beach

Cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to Laguna Beach is exactly the trip you expect it to be. The sun, sand and surfers are just like out of a movie. In fact, on our trip down the coast on Monday, we even saw a film crew on location. Read on for the Globetrottergirls top 5 stops along this stretch of the PCH.
santa monica sunset pier

Five amazing stops on the Pacific Coast Highway (from LA to Laguna Beach)

1. Santa Monica and Pier

Santa Monica beach and pier are pure California, and though right off Interstate 10 not 30 minutes from West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, the town center  runs at such a slow pace you forget how close you are to the celebrity-centric metropolis of L.A.  Shuffle down Main Street and you’ll pass dozens of restaurants and bars, from chic to mom-n-pop, and hundreds of relaxed locals taking in good wine, good food, and plenty of California sun along all the year-round outdoor seating. If you are hungry, have breakfast or lunch at one of these places: Holy Guacamole (Mexican), or the amazing Urth Caffe. Make sure to park at the pier and take a walk out onto this classic American pier.

Pacific Coast Highway LA to Laguna Beach
Sure, it’s family-friendly with it’s ferris wheel, easy roller coaster, funnel cakes and coffees and popcorn, but combined with the amateur fishermen at the end of the pier, the seals, the cheap margaritas at the Mexican restaurant and the fact that the it’s open til 10pm, the pier is well worth a visit for everyone. Even if you can’t catch fish, everyone can catch an amazing golden sunset over the hills.

Parking in the main lot at the pier is $10 at an all-day flat rate, or the nearby lots run at only $1 an hour. Well worth it!

2. Venice Beach

Just a ten minute drive down the PCH is Venice Beach, the punk/cool older brother version of comparably quaint Santa Monica. Home to the famed hard-core Muscle Beach, Venice Beach is also piled up with bars and restaurants and a slightly grungy block of market stalls selling everything from t-shirts and ‘hand-blown glass’ (bongs) to sunglasses, key cutting, donuts and useless but cool knick knacks. The beach here is filled with character (and characters!) and the views out into the water are breathtaking. The morning of our visit there were at least 20 surfers out catching waves, as well as a film crew at Venice Beach, though we don’t know whether it was a movie or a commercial.

venice beach at dusk

3. Seal Beach

Passing through the mega-port city of Long Beach which has it’s own charms (the Queen Mary, trips out to Catalina Island and the shops at the Ports of Call), Seal Beach is just 10 minutes down the highway on a slight peninsula. The beach itself is simple and large, plenty of room to grab a spot and a tan and the pier is plain, though surprisingly open til midnight. You do peek out at a few oil rigs offshore and of course the port is up the coast to your right, but easily ignorable. What makes Seal Beach so great is it’s Main Street. Galleries, restaurants, diners, ice-cream parlors, cafes and benches outside several shops for a chance to just sit and relax as you make your way from friendly shop owner to friendly shop owner. We were both immediately transported to the 50s or 60s (or how we imagine that era to have been) and felt completely relaxed. We picked up some delicious bakery goodies at Sweet Jill’s and ate some excellent pizza at Sunset Pizza & Pasta.

seal beach california

4. Newport Beach

This was a must-see stop for one of us (ahem….you know who you are), as this is the location of the OC. Much larger than Seal Beach and very touristy, this does not harm Newport Beach in the slightest. In fact, this is a perfect place to hang for a longer period of time. You’ve got miles of gorgeous beach and every type of restaurant, bar and tattoo shop you can imagine. We only stopped here for a quick coffee break (at Newport Coffee Company) and some 5 o’clock sun, but I’d definitely like to go back and soak up more sun here at Newport Beach.

Pacific Coast Highway LA to Laguna Beach
5. Laguna Beach

For those of us who prefer reality to a made-up TV show, Laguna Beach was an ultimate destination for a certain fan of MTV’s reality show of the same name  (ahem, guilty as charged). Laguna Beach was much larger than I expected, and very spread out. The beaches are a dream and the marina is giant and breathtaking to think about how many millions of dollars were splashed on those yachts. No celebs were spotted in the making of this post, however.
Pacific Coast Highway LA to Laguna Beach

Have you driven the Pacific Coast Highway Pacific Coast Highway from LA to Laguna Beach? What are your favorite spots along the way?

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