Winchester, Steinbeck, Hearst & Co.

Google map image of our route from Los Angeles to Santa Clara and back.
Our route from Los Angeles to Santa Clara and back.

Usually, Thanksgiving means big family gatherings and lots of turkey — and then not leaving the house for at least 24 hours in order to avoid the insanity that is Black Friday. This year, things were a little different. It was my first Thanksgiving in LA and I opted not to fly back to New York for the weekend. Instead, my girlfriend Donna and I drove from LA to Santa Clara to have dinner with my uncle and then spent the next two days slowly working our way back to Los Angeles.

According to Google maps, the drive from LA to Santa Clara should be a little more than five hours without traffic. This, of course, is if you take the most direct route — the very un-scenic Interstate 5 through the part of California known as the central valley.

We decided to get on the road early Thanksgiving morning, rather than sitting in the rush hour holiday madness on Wednesday night. When we left, there was very little traffic on the road and we made it out of LA and past Grapevine without any trouble. Other than a few vineyards, orchards and farms, there wasn’t much to see for most of the ride, except for the occasional oil rig or pile of giant tumbleweeds.

We stopped for gas and food in Los Banos, a small town about an hour southeast of San Jose. It was founded in the mid 1800s as a trading post, before the modern agriculture and cattle industries evolved. After a great lunch at the Black Bear Diner, we drove west through Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World,” and then north to Santa Clara.

Thanksgiving with my uncle was a simple buffet at a local restaurant, but it was great to spend some quality time with him. The next morning, the three of us had breakfast at the awesome Flames Coffee Shop before hitting the road again.

Our first stop of the day was the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose — 160 rooms of stunning Victorian craftsmanship and intentionally planned architectural weirdness. The opulence of the house itself is overshadowed only by the bizarre legend behind it and the tragic personal story of the woman who commissioned it.

After the Winchester tour, we drove west towards Santa Cruz. We had hoped to visit The Mystery Spot, a gravitational anomaly in the redwood forest, but unfortunately, tickets were already sold out for the day by the time we got there.

Donna in front of John Steinbeck's house in Salinas, CA.
Donna in front of John Steinbeck’s house in Salinas, CA.

From the redwoods, we drove south to Salinas, hometown of author John Steinbeck and the National Steinbeck Center. You don’t have to be familiar with John Steinbeck to enjoy this place. The permanent exhibits are a great introduction to the author and his major works. His childhood home is located just a few blocks away and has been beautifully preserved, although it is now mostly a restaurant.

Our last stop for the day was Monterey. I have been to Monterey several times over the years and it is one of my favorite places in the entire country. I always enjoy walking along the water, listening to the seals barking and looking for otters in the kelp beds. It was already getting dark by the time we arrived, so we decided to save sight-seeing for the next day. After we checked in to our hotel, we wandered down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a nice seafood dinner at Old Fisherman’s Grotto. It wasn’t quite as good as the last meal I had in Monterey at Monterey’s Fish House, but the Grotto did have an amazing clam chowder.

Garrapata State Park, CA
Garrapata State Park, CA

Saturday morning was spent wandering along Cannery Row and taking pictures of the few original buildings and rusty boilers that are still standing. We would have liked to stop at Point Lobos State Reserve on the way out of town but it was mobbed, unsurprisingly, so we continued south along Route 1 towards Big Sur. We did stop at Garrapata State Park to admire some amazing coastline and watch the waves crashing on the beach.

We reached Big Sur around lunchtime and stopped at the Big Sur River Inn. They have a gas station, restaurant, gift shop and general store on the premises. My advice is skip the restaurant and head straight for the back of the general store. BEST. BURRITO BAR. EVER. The burritos were enormous and all of the ingredients were extremely fresh. They are big enough for two people to share, but next time I will be ordering my own.

Hashtag #Selfish. Hashtag #Glutton. Hashtag #NomNomNom.

At the southern end of Big Sur, we came across an elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. Most of the animals sleeping on the beach were females and pups. There were a few large males on the beach, as well as a few in the shallow water posturing for dominance. It’s a great spot to spend 30 or 40 minutes taking pictures. There are no reservations required and it’s free to park.

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

We left the elephant seals to their sunbathing and drove a few more miles south to San Simeon and Hearst Castle, which was absolutely gorgeous, but ten times as opulent as the Winchester Mystery House. We took the 45 minute “Grand Rooms” tour, which was actually a little short on rooms. I would have liked to see more of the interior and hear more about the history of the place, but just walking around the grounds was well worth the trip.

Dinner on Saturday was at Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo. I had the Hearst Ranch Burger, of course, and then went for the ginormous portion of Triple Chocolate Bread Pudding — chocolate studded sourdough in maple syrup sweetened chocolate custard with chocolate whipped cream. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

San Luis Obispo is a really nice town. I stopped there for lunch the first time I drove Route 1 and it’s definitely a place I would like to spend more time exploring. It has a very unique feel, unlike any of the other places I’ve visited in California so far.

The last leg of the trip was very uneventful. There is still a lot of beautiful coastline to see between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles, but at that point, it was already dark and we were both exhausted, so we drove the rest of the way home without stopping. We covered a lot of ground in two days and saw some amazing things, but I am already looking forward to the next road trip.