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Going Our Way: A road trip up the California coast

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2011; F02

Mary Lashinsky loves San Diego but has never been to San Francisco; her husband, Nick, adores the latter but has never visited the former. So the Alexandria couple has planned a spring trip that meets both their needs: a seven-day, 560-mile drive up the California coast from one San to the other.

For road trippers, of course, this is the dream drive, with some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery in the country: secluded beaches, crashing waves, rugged cliffs, even sunbathing seals. Ordinarily, a week would allow plenty of time to take it all in. But the Lashinskys want to spend three days in San Diego, two in Carmel and three in San Francisco. That doesn't leave much time to stop and smell the seals.

Still, even if you're rushed, there's no way not to have fun on this trip. Wait, I take that back. If you're susceptible to carsickness, be sure to pack your go-to remedy. This is a twisty-turny drive.

Note that we're actually talking about several roads here. California Route 1 - a.k.a. Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH - is the one that hugs the coastline. U.S. 101 is mostly inland and generally parallels Highway 1, but sometimes merges with it. Then there's Interstate 5, which is what you'll take from San Diego to Los Angeles to save time before switching over to the 101. From there, you might want to take the 101 all the way to San Luis Obispo - the drive's halfway point - before getting on Highway 1. Study a map, consider renting a GPS and check road conditions before you go (800-427-7623, www.dot.ca.gov ).

Getting there: Airfare from Washington to San Diego, and then from San Francisco to Washington, will run about $360 each on Southwest, although you can sometimes snag a sale price closer to $300. A rental car for one week starts at $327 from Budget on Priceline.com. Tip: Try bidding for a car on Priceline, for a potential savings of up to 40 percent.

Days 1-3: Arrive in San Diego, go to the beach, visit friends and family. Stay in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. The Andaz, a Hyatt hotel with a rooftop pool and a four-story nightclub, starts at $537 for a three-night stay, including parking - but shop around. Hotels.com currently has a third-night-free offer, bringing the total down to $399. Parking, however, is not included ($35 a night). (Hotel rates quoted here do not include taxes.)

San Diego is known more for its weather than for its food scene, but Candice Woo, the dining critic for San Diego Magazine, said that things have been improving. For a splurge, she likes A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines (858-777-6635, www.arvalentien.com ) for its farm-to-table food, elegant preparations and ocean view. For a bargain, try the Blind Lady Ale House (619-255-2491, blindladyalehouse.com ), a brewpub serving artisan pizza and house-made charcuterie. Check Woo's blog for more recommendations at www.sandiegomagazine.com .

Day 4: Get up early and drive to San Luis Obispo (about five hours). Along the way, stop for lunch in Santa Barbara, about three hours from San Diego. With its Spanish architecture and ocean-meets-mountains setting, it's one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Rock crab and sea urchin from local waters are the food specialties here; try Brophy Bros. Restaurant & Clam Bar on the harbor (805-966-4418, www.brophybros.com ).

San Luis Obispo, a laid-back college town two hours farther north, has a walkable downtown, great shopping and a 1772 mission. Dining hot spots include Buona Tavola (northern Italian, 805-545-8000, www.btslo.com ) and Novo (global fusion, 805-543-3986, www.novorestaurant.com ). Spend the night at the legendarily funky Madonna Inn. Truth to tell, I'm not crazy about the place, but it does have a certain kitschy charm (800-543-9666, www.madonnainn.com ; rooms from $179).

Day 5: Drive to the Monterey Peninsula (about three hours). Stop at a winery or two on the way: Take the 101 about half an hour north of San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles, with its wealth of vineyards (see the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's site, www.pasowine.com , for a list and map). Another option: Hearst Castle, the impossibly lavish, 127-acre villa built by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s. The basic tour takes just under two hours and costs $24 per person. Reserve in advance: 800-444-4445, www.hearstcastle.org .

Next up: Big Sur, the most spectacular section of the drive. Cliffs, pounding surf, redwoods, cypresses, condors, it's all here. Stop at Big Sur Station for maps and info, try to get out and hike a bit, and have an ambrosia burger at Nepenthe (831-667-2345, www.nepenthebigsur.com ), at an outdoor table perched high above the sea.

Onward, to historic Monterey, with its Cannery Row and aquarium (largest in the country), and uber-quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea. The upscale village boasts fine restaurants, inns, shops and galleries, a gorgeous beach and a 1770 mission. Have a drink at the Hog's Breath Inn, once owned by former mayor Clint Eastwood. Hotel rates are out of sight here; one affordable place is the Carmel Lodge (831-624-1255, www.carmellodge.com ; rates from $152 double).

Days 6-7: Drive to San Francisco (two hours) and settle in for a couple of days. If you have time, hit the classic beach town of Santa Cruz along the way and check out the boardwalk. Another great stop: the cute town of Half Moon Bay. Sam's Chowder House, overlooking the bay, makes a good lunch stop (650-712-0245, www.samschowderhouse.com ).

You don't need SF sightseeing tips from me, since Nick will serve as tour guide. As for restaurants, Post food critic Tom Sietsema is partial to Flour + Water (Italian, 415-826-7000) and RN74 (wine-oriented American and French, 415-543-7474). Looking for a more intimate spot? San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer recently blogged that Gitane (415-788-6686, www.gitanerestaurant.com ) "has got to be the most romantic getaway in the Bay Area. . . . The Iberian-inspired food produced by Bridget Batson is superb."

Stay at the Golden Gate Hotel, a centrally located Edwardian inn complete with a resident cat (775 Bush St., 800-835-1118, www.goldengatehotel.com ; rooms from $165 per night double).

Day 8: Return home.

Cost: Airfare for two (about $720), rental car ($327) and lodging ($1,060) come to $2,107 - and we haven't even gotten to food, gas, admissions and incidentals. Another $1,000 or so should do it.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

Who: Mary and Nick Lashinsky, 34 and 32 respectively, of Alexandria

Where: Road trip from San Diego to San Francisco

Why: To show each other their favorite cities - and check out Carmel and Monterey along the way

When: A week in early May

Budget: $2,000

"We enjoy outdoor activities, wineries and shopping. We'd love restaurant recommendations for San Diego, Carmel and San Francisco."

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