Driving down Route 1, the coastal road that links San Francisco with Los Angeles in one beautiful, meandering whip of tar, is something I will never forget. Do it. If you ever get the chance, rent a Chevvy and drive; just drive and drive and drive. It’s an experience that will be etched onto your consciousness forever. It’s a hell of a long way though and I never learnt to drive. I’m chief navigator/DJ and I take to my dual role with gusto. We sail down the coast leaving the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist and looking lovelier than a big piece of iron should ever dream of looking.
First stop Big Sur. Raggedy cliff faces meet with sequoia and pines, while the mists soar above and Pacific waves crash below. This was where Henry Miller came in the 1950s to ponder his smutty books whilst catching the breeze with Kerouac. We enjoy lunch in the sun at Nepenthe, a bar and restaurant that’s been serving beat writers and hungry travellers since 1949 – they do a fine Reuben on Rye and views to tell the grandkids about.
The road goes on – it is seemingly endless. The major distinction that allows you to monitor your progress is the way the pines get smaller as you move south. Then, there’s a hinterland of pines and palms together; mixed messages from two distinct species with their own opposite narratives. One means Christmas, the other a summer holiday, but here they are 200 miles from LA, side by side with the odd cactus in between. The landscape begins to roll too, green turns to brown and the fields become undulating rather than rocky – this long drive is a wonderfully succinct lesson on American geography. The only constant that lets us know we’re on the right track is the great blue ocean that crashes towards us, wave after wave, inexhaustible in its vigour.
The Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara sits on Channel Drive with the ocean lapping at its toes and the mountains rearing up behind – this is an extraordinarily fine spot to find oneself in. The light is interesting, quintessentially Southern Californian – the pink sky frames the palm trees as we arrive, creating a silhouette akin to those you find on gauche beach towels. The temperature is perfectly Mediterranean: hot in the day, warm at night, but with a saline freshness that seems to lighten everything. From the mid-18th century this area of California was colonised by Spanish Christians looking to bring God and an imagined sense of civility to the Native American people. They stayed for half a century, before succumbing to the Mexicans and left in their wake two things: European disease and wonderful architecture.
The Four Seasons Biltmore pays a debt of gratitude to the wily conquistadores. The main building of the hotel is a beautifully arranged collection of high-ceilinged rooms which fan out around a central atrium. The floors are carved from solid, golden-hued stone and lead through labyrinthine passages that branch out towards corridors of rooms with heavy doors. Our suite is not in the main building, but tucked away across the verdant grounds of the hotel; you have to pass the swimming pool, the lawns and spa and then finally you come upon the bungalow. What a bungalow we find. Patterned stone floors are smooth and warm underfoot and the lighting is low. The dwelling is set out over two rooms, each marked by an ornate sense of ruffled, otherworldly charm. The bed is immense; the bathrooms are decorated with stained blue tiles and intricate terracotta. The shower doubles up as a steam room. We float around marvelling at the complexities of luxury; we sit, drink wine and then steam ourselves senseless.
Morning comes round and we wait, languid and peaceful in bed. In the room there is a sense of calm that I know is transitory, so I lie there in a sweet haze. Breakfast is served on the terrace and is fruit-laden and healthy. I drink two pints of beetroot juice and, in the nutrient high that follows, almost fall into an octogenarian man with an orange face and purple velour tracksuit; he tells me to ‘watch-it’ in a voice that comes straight from The Sopranos and moves off, stoopingly ominous. It’s time to leave once again, the road is calling. Only ninety miles away from the city of angels and already we can already feel the heat, sense the buzz. This will be the final leg of our great voyage, the swansong of the Chevvy: Malibu, Santa Monica and the last strip of the Pacific Coast highway. Time to go…