Since I was in my 30’s back when I lived in New Jersey, a California road trip was always somewhere on my unwritten bucket list. When life and work got hectic, my saying was, “I’m gonna jump on 80W and keep goin’ til I reach wine country!” Well, once we moved to Arizona that road trip moved a couple notches up toward the top of that imaginary list. Finally last summer it was time…gas up the jeep, tie up any loose ends at work and California here we come!

It was just a short drive from home to our first stop…Santa Monica. Since I have SPG points and wanted to use them wherever I could on this journey, our first overnight stay was at the Le Meridien Delfina on Pico Boulevard. It proved to be the perfect stop since it was close to the beach, the Pier and had a shuttle that would drop you off at nearby destinations. (Be forewarned that you are on your own for a ride home though. But that story is for another time when I admit to the many occasions I wanted to strangle my husband!) OK, back to our trip.

From Santa Monica we decided to trek to San Luis Obispo — a destination we learned of from a friend — and have since wanted to give a try. Along the road, we had to stop at one of the many healthy snack shops and had a terrific breakfast at…a Vitamin Shop of all places! It was my first smoothie bowl, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Upon arriving at our next destination, we checked into the Apple Farm Inn. I planned most of our overnight stays and eateries based entirely on posted reviews online and my colleagues in food and travel did not disappoint. The Inn’s location was perfect, as it’s located right off US 101 and just a few minutes drive to the center of town. This quaint Inn also won our ‘Best Breakfast’ award (which incidentally, we got for free with the $5 bakery coupon that was in our room!) It was a flaky pastry folded around crisp maple flavored bacon and topped with melted cheddar cheese. No matter how many times I’ve tried to re-create that recipe,  I simply can’t do it, but I’m still tryin! That, with a cup of their free coffee, was all the fuel we needed to carry us through our fill of downtown exploration. Our favorite food stops here were The Creekside Brewery (which is sadly now closed) and Fromagerie Sophi. I rated them both 5 stars…the Brewery for its ample beer selection and delectable bites and the Fromagerie for, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it that this tiny gem was truly outstanding. After reading its high ratings whenever I searched for “top food spots in SLO” I planned it into our day. So, along with a bottle of wine we purchased, we searched out and finally found this tiny spot and bought way too many samplings of cheeses from around the world, dried fruits and candied nuts. As planned, we were off  to Morrow Bay for a bayside picnic where we laid out our treasures on a picnic table, took a deep breath of the fresh air and had at it…what a great experience that was. (It doesn’t take much to make me happy!) During our 2 day stay in SLO we also took a quick trip to Avila Beach, which we promised each other we’d return to for a longer stay.

OK…off to Carmel. It was along this route on the 101 N that we discovered the most unplanned scenic surprise ever — BIG SUR. I always wondered what Big Sur was anyway…a mountain? A campground? So now I know. It’s a region on California’s Central Coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise out of the Pacific Ocean like some kind of mirage. I mean, I was left in awe by this stunning treasure. I may even return to camp there…well, maybe not, I’m just not the camping type. But I will definitely return to this winding stretch of road to pass through its awesome beauty again.

After checking into Carmel’s Mission Inn — again right off Rt. 1 — we realized what a value packed deal we were in store for. It was clean, updated and with a HH drink purchase you get to enjoy the buffet for free. OK, no 5 star dining here, but good enough to pass for a late night supper. By reserving this hotel through TripAdvisor we received 2 free breakfasts as a perk, which is always nice when road tripping. After breakfast the next morning we drove around town and enjoyed a long beach walk — always a good idea when when trying to work up a lunch appetite. After getting our fill of the downtown shops afterward, we headed over to Namu, a Korean restaurant we discovered near our Hotel. Here we had a wonderful, totally unplanned meal. It was both of our first tastes of Bibimbap, a well known Korean dish served in a sizzling hot stone bowl containing a mix of rice, meat and assorted veggies. The best part was discovering the lightly toasted layer of rice at the bottom created by the heat of the stone bowl. It was so delicious, no other restaurant we’ve been to has been able to match it, not even in the restaurant mecca of Scottsdale where we live. With full stomachs and a slight food high we headed off to Monterey.

I must admit, as we pulled up to the Stevenson Monterey I was a little scared. It looked like an old dump from the outside…yikes, where did my trusted reviewers send me? After parking underground (free) and checking in with a very friendly woman we were quite relieved when we saw the updated, clean room. Never judge a book by its cover! This place was centrally located and just a few minutes walk to the Pier, restaurants, coffee shops and a short drive to Cannery Row. Aaah, just as their site promised. For dinner we chose the Fish Hopper which my husband said had the best chowder he’s ever eaten…and believe me, he’s had plenty. The fact that it jutted out onto the ocean atop a pier with killer views from every table was good enough for me. They could’ve served me cardboard and a margarita and I would have been happy. So with a smile on our faces we headed to Rt to see what San Francisco had in store for us.

CONTINUE TO PART 2