Hugging some of the most beautiful coastline in the world, State Route 1 runs much of California’s length and picks up various names along the way: the Great Highway, the Pacific Coast Highway, Cabrillo Highway. Whatever it’s called in the region you’re traveling, it’s the most scenic way to travel.
And what could be more romantic than cruising together alongside California’s Pacific coast? Pause at a turnout to stretch your legs, and let the wind rustle your hair and revive your energy as you peer out to sea side by side in hopes of spotting whales. Hold hands as you walk on a deserted beach. Stop at a roadside cafe and warm your hands on a cup of coffee as you chat about subjects too frivolous for the day-to-day frenzy at home. Cruise into a tiny coastal town and check into a cozy inn with a view of the sea.
Not far from home, this rugged coast beckons. Start in San Francisco and work your way south; take a week or just a long weekend. By the time you reach Monterey, you’ll remember why you got together and why you love California’s Central Coast.
75 miles from Sacramento on Interstate 80
With San Francisco only an hour or so from home, Sacramentans can spend plenty of time there and tend to turn up their noses at the city’s tourist traps. For this trip, though, head straight for the most tourist-ridden of them all: Fisherman’s Wharf. Go to the far end, where Jefferson Street meets Hyde Street, across from the recently redone Ghirardelli Square.
Love Boats—The 252-room Argonaut Hotel stands at the corner, housed in the historic Haslett Warehouse of The Cannery. Stay here for the night (starting at $359) and you’ll be in the ideal position to explore San Francisco’s maritime history. The boutique hotel has been designed around a nautical theme, its décor heavily dominated by bold blues and rich golds, with boating paraphernalia and captain-style furnishings at every turn. Guest rooms are cozy and luxurious—many with original exposed brick walls or steel warehouse doors—with windows that frame views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower or the Transamerica Building. From the Argonaut’s lobby, wander in to the Maritime National Historic Park visitors center. It’s free and packed with exhibits, including a Farallon lighthouse lens, a shipwrecked boat and letters written from seamen to their sweethearts. Across the street from the hotel, Hyde Street Pier ($5 admission) invites visitors to explore four historic ships. Cruise the decks of the Eureka steamboat with your sweetie, imagining riding the ferryboat together back in the 1920s. Duck up into the wheelhouse and steal a smooch.
Devour Clam Chowder and Sourdough—Grab your lover’s hand and fight the crowds through the crab-stinky sidewalks of Fisherman’s Wharf until you find a vendor selling clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Sure, you’ll look like a tourist, but the potato- and clam-laden soup soaks into the bread bowl to create a delightfully satisfying meal on a brisk San Francisco day.
Get Good Licks—Grab an ice cream cone from Norman’s in The Cannery; it’s a tiny place off the street, and the friendly folks serve a mean cone stuffed with San Francisco’s famous Mitchell’s ice cream.
Walk in the Park—From Hyde Street Pier, take the path past Aquatic Park. Watch for wetsuit-encased swimmers who skim the water’s surface as they do laps offshore, then follow the walkway out onto the sea wall toward Alcatraz Island. When you reach the end, grab a hug and wonder if those guys who escaped from The Rock really made it across the choppy bay.
Hop the Cable Car to Little Italy—Across Hyde Street from the Argonaut, catch the cable car ($5 each way) to North Beach, where Italian food awaits. Cuddle up in the itty-bitty L’Osteria Del Forno, a gem on busy Columbus Street. Meat-eaters should order the milk-braised roast pork and hope it comes with the restaurant’s signature rosemary roasted potatoes and carrots. Other house specialties include ravioli and gnocchi and plenty of vegetable-and-cheese concoctions, hearty Italian soups and, sure to ruin your dinner, a basket of warm and moist housemade focaccia.
Half Moon Bay
30 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1
There will be no question you’ve left the city as you pass through Pacifica and find yourself traveling a hair’s width from the cliff’s edge on the Devil’s Slide portion of Highway 1. The roadside views of the ocean crashing below, more stunning than anywhere north of Big Sur, will beg for your eye, but keep your attention on the road. Prone to mudslides and landslides, this treacherous stretch of highway is halfway through a five-year construction project to build two tunnels that will bypass it. Once past, take a deep breath and enjoy the rest of your drive along the coast toward Half Moon Bay, a rural city famous for its location near the Mavericks big-wave surf area.
Sequester Yourselves—Seal Cove Inn, located six miles north of Half Moon Bay in Moss Beach, tucked in between Highway 1 and the ocean, lures lovers with its fragrant gardens, European-style charm and walk-through-the-forest access to the sea. Reserve the Fitzgerald Room ($325, including full breakfast), with its peaked ceilings, down bedding and French doors overlooking the garden. Check in on a foggy afternoon, light a fire in your fireplace and spend the evening alone together in your room. Sink into the jetted tub for two if you’re so inclined—it fills fast with blistering hot water and warms your bones on a chilly evening.
Spice It Up—Two miles south of Moss Beach in El Granada exists perhaps the most inventive restaurant between San Francisco and Monterey: Cafe Gibraltar. Go for dinner. Snag a low table so you and your partner can sit crisscross applesauce and snuggle up against the plush pillows to indulge in puffy flatbread straight from the oven, accompanied by flavor-infused olive oil and balsamic. The menu of Mediterranean dishes includes organic meat and poultry, fresh seafood and locally grown vegetables prepared with exotic, indescribable spices. Some favorites include the Turkish sigir eti manti: housemade dumplings filled with garlic, onion, oregano and ground American Kobe beef, simmered in aromatic vegetable-beef broth and topped with a yogurt-garlic sauce, and Moroccan kesku biidawi: seasonal wood-roasted vegetables simmered with chickpeas and currants in a saffron-tomato-harissa broth and served with housemade couscous.
Walk on the Wild Side—From Seal Cove Inn, a short stroll brings you oceanside. A trail runs between the ocean cliff and a thick cypress forest. Walk together at low tide, taking turns with the binoculars as you gaze out to sea. Soon the path exits the forest and leads downhill and across a metal bridge to the entrance of Fitzgerald Marine Preserve. Pick your way across the slippery coastal rocks around tide pools, peering at anemones, hermit crabs, mussels, sea snails, and lots of algae and kelp. A short walk the o ther direction from the inn takes you to the Moss Beach Distillery, the cliffside restaurant best known for its resident ghost.
Harbor Feelings—The Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton-by-the-Sea is quiet this year, as salmon season was cancelled due to a low population of the popular fish. Still, catch a whiff of the romance of fishing by strolling out on the commercial pier to eye the crab pots and watch fishermen clean their fresh catch. Dig into some fish and chips at one of the harbor restaurants: Ketch Joanne, Princeton Seafood or Barbara’s Fish Trap. Grab a couple of Mavericks Amber Ales at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and stick around to hear live music on weekend nights.
Go Downtown—Half Moon Bay’s historic Main Street, a surprisingly quaint stretch seemingly plopped among the flat banks of nondescript houses that front the highway, charms with shops, galleries and restaurants. Linger over a romantic meal at Pasta Moon, where housemade pasta dominates the menu and includes such delights as porcini mushroom pappardelle and lasagna with made-on-the-premises sausage. Venture into Cunha’s Country Grocery and poke around the emporium upstairs, where you’ll find an eye-popping variety of merchandise: clothes, greeting cards, pots and pans, candy, candles. Cunha’s is reasonably priced for souvenirs, as is the Harbor Seal Company down the street.
Horse Around—Saddle up at Sea Horse Ranch & Friendly Acres, where a two-hour guided horseback ride ($75) follows trails to the beach at Half Moon Bay. Clip-clop along together at the beach, enjoying each other’s company and the sound of the waves.
60 miles south of Half Moon Bay
The highway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz runs between farmland (lettuce, strawberries, brussels sprouts) and the ocean, with beach views most spectacular the last 10 miles before Santa Cruz. If you’ve got time, a trip to Año Nuevo State Natural Preserve ($5 for a tour) will give you a dose of the area’s wild side—elephant seals congregate at this windswept point to mate, rest and give birth. Visit the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and hostel; make plans to rough it on your next trip to this area—surely there’s romance in sleeping at a lighthouse on the stark California coast. Hike a lush trail through the coastal redwoods at Butano State Park—a favorite is a three-mile loop accessed off Pescadero and Cloverdale roads. Farther south, stop off and watch the kitesurfers at Waddell Creek Beach, or climb the sandy berm at Bonny Doon and race down to the beach, where—you’ll soon discover—clothing is optional. Come on . . . live a little!
Take the Stairways to Heaven—The West Cliff Inn, an Italianate mansion built in 1877, towers above West Cliff Drive in the busiest section of Santa Cruz—across from the Municipal Wharf and the Boardwalk. Ask for room 8 ($250, including full breakfast) and be prepared to climb two staircases to the third floor. This attic room, however, is worth the effort. Narrow and cozy, it looks out on Cowell’s Beach and the wharf. Curl up by the fire in the sitting area, snuggle up in the feather bed or stew your weary selves in a swirling tub for two.
Ride the Waves—Take a surfing lesson with Santa Cruz Surf School ($80 group lesson, equipment and wetsuit included) and learn ocean safety, etiquette and how the tides affect the swells. If this sounds too overwhelming, walk from the West Cliff Inn to the Santa Cruz Surf Museum and, below, watch the experts ride the waves—and fall off. Be prepared for the “Hawaii Five-O” theme to jingle through your thoughts as you watch stiff-haired locals in wetsuits cruise and tumble and eventually climb out across the rocks, mount the stairs and, in many cases, strap their boards to their one-speed bicycles and pedal away.
Scream—Buckle up for a belly-shifting ride on the Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz’s famous wooden roller coaster, on site at the Boardwalk since 1924. Grip your sweetie’s sweaty hand as your car clicketyclacks up the hill, then throw your arms in the air and scream your lungs out as you fly down the other side, salt air stinging your eyes as you laugh and whoop. Afterward, share a puff of cotton candy and take another wild spin.
Wander the Wharf—Skip the parking fees and walk across the street from the inn to Santa Cruz’s Municipal Wharf, where you can browse the souvenir shops, grab an ice cream cone or belly up to the bar for a stiff drink at Riva Fish House. At the end of the pier, plug your nose and peek below at the harbor seals lounging around the decks. As the sun goes down, snag a table at Olitas Cantina and Grille, which affords the best wharfside view and some innovative Mexican-inspired cuisine. House specialties include a seafood stew spiced with ancho chilis and a rib-eye steak with poblano chili mushroom butter.
Let Capitola Captivate You—This tiny, bustling village just south of Santa Cruz teems with energy as about a dozen beachside restaurants call to hungry folks with oceanfront decks and delicious aromas. Step into the Stockton Bridge Grille on the corner and insist on an outdoor table. Not to miss: the Bistro Burger with prosciutto and caramelized onions or the seafood pasta with clams, mussels and prawns. After your meal, check out the shops or take the path that runs between the numerous vacation rental properties and Soquel Creek. On the other side of the creek, you’ll see another restaurant that’s ripe for romance: Shadowbrook. A Santa Cruz/Capitola institution, Shadowbrook specializes in steak and seafood and draws special-occasion diners in throngs.
43 miles from Santa Cruz on Highway 1
Highway 1 becomes a freeway outside Santa Cruz and remains such until shortly before Monterey, around Moss Landing. You’ll pass artichoke and strawberry fields and see workers bent low among the crops. Stop in Moss Landing and rent a double kayak ($30 per person at Monterey Bay Kayaks) so the two of you can paddle around the Elkhorn Slough. When you’ve exhausted your arms, float up to the Sea Harvest Fish Market and indulge in a thick albacore sandwich or a hefty shrimp Louie salad. Then continue your drive to the city of Monterey, where sea otters and dolphins tumble among the kelp beds in the bright, clear bay. Visitors can view the vibrant sea life by scuba diving, kayaking or peering through the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The city’s Cannery Row, its industrial heyday immortalized by John Steinbeck novels, today is packed with shops and restaurants—and tourists.
Sleep Bayside—Book a room at the Monterey Plaza Hotel and you’ll find yourselves in a prime location to enjoy Monterey’s many attributes. The hotel lines the shore of the Monterey Bay on the south end of Cannery Row, providing stellar views of a resident otter family, the gently waving kelp, and the commercial fishing and dive boats charging away from the harbor. A basic ocean-view room ($435) brings the sounds of the bay in through the balcony door—hear seals barking, seagulls crying, otters chirping, waves lapping the rocks below.
Dine With the Locals—Ask Monterey’s commercial boat captains where to go for dinner, and their first answer? Monterey Fish House. Dressed in your comfiest jeans, take a table at the modest-looking joint on Monterey’s Del Monte Avenue. Scallops, halibut, salmon . . . the menu is extensive and, natch, seafood-based. Try the Sicilian-style calamari—it’s a different twist on calamari, served with olives in a tomato-based sauce.
Sail Into the Sunset—Board the Derek M. Baylis, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 65-foot sailboat, for a 90-minute sunset sail ($55 per person). Sip wine and talk with the boat’s naturalist, who will point out otters, seals and dolphins from the deck of the research vessel. Or just lean back and enjoy the California sunset.
Take a Mutual Massage—On the top floor of the Monterey Plaza Hotel, the Blue Vista Spa invites the two of you in for some mutual pampering. Relax alfresco in one of two bubbling whirlpools, then sit by the outdoor fireplace and feast on fresh fruit while you wait for the summons into the couples treatment room. After your side-by-side massages ($360 for 80 minutes), climb into the soaking tub that’s big enough for two.
Lovers’ Path—Experience the elements as you explore Pacific Grove’s seaside trail, which winds along the coastline from Lovers Point Park to Asilomar State Beach. This seaside stroll is windy and salty and fiercely romantic. Watch for monarch butterflies, which begin arriving in Pacific Grove in late October and stay until mid-March, often stopping near the ocean to feed on astors and anemones.
Cruise to Carmel—A few miles south of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea entices visitors with its village of shops, galleries, restaurants and cobblestone courtyards, and its white sandy beach. Walk the streets, marveling at the cute boutiques and anguishing over which restaurant to choose for dinner. It’s easy: La Bicyclette, a tiny French-country place with—you guessed it—a bicycle out front. After a few nights of eating restaurant food, La Bicyclette will feel comfortingly like home, but better. Fresh food served family-style is the specialty of the house. Choose your main course (roasted chicken with sage and balsamic reduction, for example, or salmon en papillote, or filet mignon) and settle back over a bottle of local wine to wait for a green salad, then a copper terrine of fresh, simple soup. You’ll come away satisfied but not so grossly overstuffed that you can’t stomach dessert.