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Do go back to Big Sur

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By James Stone

I've always presumed that when Conor Deasy, the wheezy-voiced frontman of Irish indie hitmakers The Thrills urged "Just don't go back to Big Sur", it's because he's never actually been there, and just wanted to sound a bit glamorous. After all, it's got a much more enchanting appeal than Razorlight's "Don't go back to Dalston", no matter how inexplicably trendy that particular part of east London might have become of late.

But had Deasy ever actually popped into Big Sur, or driven the Pacific Coast Highway along California's western spine, he'd never have advised steering clear of the area, so bewitching is its appeal.

This reminiscence takes me a few years back now, but the sights, smells and sounds of that beautiful part of California remain fresh in my memory, even making a brief appearance when I make the silly mistake of entering a Burger King and notice the provision of Monterey Jack cheese on the menu (and on that note - who was this Jack? And how did he get a cheese named after him?). It remains so bright in my recollection in part because of its undeniable loveliness and partly because of what preceded it.

I'd been staying in LA with my uncle and a friend, and taking advantage of a relative's generosity by staying in a glitzy hotel on Sunset Boulevard - a far cry from the tiny hostel dorms I'd found myself in just days before. But after a few days of Sin City, we decided somewhere with an actual soul might be preferable - you can only gawp at so many pneumatic blondes after all.

So, a trip onto the Pacific Coast Highway beckoned. Just as Phantom Planet sing alongside the pouting face of Ryan Attwood in The OC opening credits, we began "driving down the 101", before splitting onto State Route 1 at San Luis Obispo and heading up the coast. A brief stop in the lovely fishing town of Morro Bay followed - including a surreal conversation about Midsomer Murders in a bar - before carrying on up to Big Sur. The Santa Lucia Mountains tower above the Pacific here, and the otherworldly isolation of the surrounding area makes it easy to understand why the likes of Hunter S Thompson and Jack Kerouac were moved to compose some of their masterworks in this locale.

From Big Sur, the highway passes across the imposing Bixby Creek Bridge, through Carmel (where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor) before reaching Monterey, a dream location for Steinbeck fans. Though Cannery Row is now more of a tourist attraction than the birthplace of broken dreams immortalised by Steinbeck, it's still a wonderfully evocative street.

Steinbeck country surrounds the highway, with the quivering brush made famous in Of Mice and Men just a few miles away, in Salinas county. However, we had seafood, a big bridge and a legendary prison on our itinerary, so on we powered to San Francisco, just over 100 miles away. It sounds like an exhausting distance, but on a stereotypically expansive American road, with intermittent fast-food stops to power you through, the stunning scenery of the California coast passes by all too quickly.

At 549 miles in length, the Pacific Coast Highway isn't a task to be taken lightly, but if planning a trip from the empty-headed sprawl of LA to the cosmopolitan charm of San Francisco, it's the only route to take. Well, not literally. It's definitely the best, though.

 

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