Italy Meets the California Highway 1

Created by Giulia Grazzini

Road trips are classic American travel adventures and they aren’t going out of style any time soon. Italians love to experience America`s varied and spacious landscapes, especially when those experiences involve sitting in an automobile, feeling an amazing sense of freedom and drinking in every inch of the view. The only dilemma is choosing the itinerary – there are so many good ones. How do you fit all of America into one trip? You can’t. But you can make the most out of a single stretch of road. To indulge our Italian eyes with West Coast panoramas, my parents and I decided to venture out onto the winding California Highway 1, spanning nearly the entire length of the United States’ Western Coastline. Since we didn’t have time to drive the entire length of the highway, we narrowed it down to a 113-mile drive stretching from Half Moon Bay to Lucia, Big Sur.

My parents and I are perfect travel companions. Sitting in a car for hours doesn’t scare us; instead, we like the sense of intimacy that comes with road trips. We do not see things the same way, but what makes us enjoy every second of a family trip is that we have two things is common: curiosity and laughter.

Unlike my parents, who were new to American road trips, I had already done lengthy drives along both the East and the West Coasts of the United States.  No matter how often I have visited Northern California, it never fails to hypnotize me. It took my parents only a few minutes to notice the magnificence of California once we started our journey down Highway 1.

Both of my parents shared the same impression that I had during my first road trip through Southern California three years ago: the perception that time and space changes completely in California. Even though we had to stick to our schedule, we paid minimal attention to time allowing the pleasant road to lead us from one breathtaking view to the next. My parents appreciated the sense of disconnection from home that they felt (nine hours of time difference from Italy helped with that). Furthermore, we enjoyed comparing Italian road trips to Californian ones in regards to “space.” We Italians have so many natural and architectural beauties concentrated in such a small portion of land that it feels almost like a bomb about to explode. In California, natural beauty is obvious, but there is less “beauty pressure” than in Italy as beauty is spread across spacious landscapes and enormous distances. This new perspective was something we all enjoyed.

Known primarily for its Pumpkin Festival in October, Half Moon Bay is probably the most overlooked stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. However, the small town was a hub of agriculture and floriculture centers, where roadside stands sell locally grown fruits, artichokes, greens, root vegetables, beans and herbs. We started our journey with several stops at local vendors and could not resist jam tastings where we discovered the yummy berry-based spreads at Swanton Berry Farm.

I don’t know if I could find a better travel mate than my father. He is a real traveler, creating memorable experiences wherever he goes. At 65, his spirit is full of enthusiasm and he is still surprised and delighted by small things. A few minutes south of Swanton Berry Farm, we stopped at a roadside stand to buy a reasonably priced box of fresh cherries and apricots. While my mom and I were enjoying them and taking innumerable pictures of the ocean, I saw my dad run towards the highway with his camera, intending to immortalize a fire truck passing by. My mom and I started to laugh watching how mesmerized he was. I admit that fire trucks in Italy lack the appeal of American ones, which resemble giant toys.

The fire truck wasn’t the only thing that caught my father’s attention at the rest stop. He had no intention of leaving without taking a picture of himself with the serious looking owner of the fruit stand first. When I saw my dad talking to him in Italian, I eavesdropped into their “bumpy” conversation to make sure the stand owner understood my father’s request, and I got his “ok” to take a picture of the two of them.

One hour South of Half Moon Bay is Santa Cruz, famous for surfing, but also for being the center of the organic agriculture movement and the headquarters of California Certified Organic Farmers. While listening to sea lions singing from the boardwalk and enjoying a breeze reminiscent of a Mediterranean spring, we watched an annual California Beach Volleyball tournament, (perfect afternoon eye candy)!

Back in the car, we continued along the Pacific Highway and arrived in sunny Monterey in the late afternoon. Other than its historic mansions and popular fisherman’s wharf, we enjoyed locally grown seasonal cuisine, including homemade scones with apricots at Wild Plum Cafe and California cherry tomato and artichoke pasta at the vegetarian Tillie Gorts Cafe. Italians are very demanding when it comes to food, so to say that none of us complained about the menu is a compliment I don’t normally give!

It was tiring to always have to translate the entire menu for my parents to make sure they could find something to appease their refined Italian palate. Not to mention how I had to juggle my continuous roles as private guide, chauffeur and interpreter. However, being able not only to satisfy them, but also to immerse our group into the multifaceted splendor of California was an accomplishment. Aside from its majesty, California’s cuisine was exceptional. The high quality and freshness of the ingredients, the harmony of the simplicity and the heterogeneity of the menus and the adorable decor of certain eateries somehow reminded us of Italy and made the distance from our homeland less remarkable.

Caption: My father`s expression in front of his pasta dish as Tillie Gorts Café shows pretty well that I succeeded in my job as a guide.

World-renowned Carmel-by-the-Sea is located just 15 minutes south of Monterey, but we preferred to spend the morning and early afternoon at our final destination, Big Sur, and enjoyed Carmel at sunset instead. Thus, our second day consisted of traveling in a loop from Monterey to Lucia – a small settlement within the Big Sur region. These 30 miles, surrounded by redwood trees on one side and a dinosaur rock coastline on the other will take your breath away. Each mile reveals an incredible panoramic view, including the many times photographed Bixby Creek Bridge. It was on this bridge that my mom inspired me to notice the depth of the sky. In such a bright day in late spring, the blue seemed incredibly intense, as if clouds had never been allowed to form in its presence.

In Big Sur, we gave way to our imaginations as we admired the panorama from the family owned Nepenthe Café. Big Sur is truly singular as it is one of the few microclimates that allow redwoods and cacti to coexist in close proximity. We felt as though the Alpine mountains had married the cliffs in Scotland and produced one of the most unique places on Earth.

We sadly had to start our way back to Monterey in the middle of the afternoon, but the idea of watching the sunset at Carmel was exciting. Rated a top-10 destination in the U.S. year after year, Carmel is as amazing as it is often described. Nestled above a picturesque white-sand beach, the town is small enough to walk from one end to the other in approximately three hours. The village stretched along the coastline from the Scenic Road to Junipero Street, 10 blocks away. A beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary designed villas overlook the Scenic Road. Walking towards Junipero Street there are innumerable inns, tranquil restaurants, art galleries and semiprecious jewelry shops, a mix that makes Carmel an iconic coastal town. It is not hard to imagine that it has been a place where art and romance have sparked over the decades.

As much as we had traveled together, I had never heard my parents compare their small hometown in the Tuscan countryside to other places. Although Tuscany remains their pride, the place where they lived their entire life and prospered, they found Carmel reminiscent of a storybook, just like some of the cozy and romantic villages back home. Architecturally, historically and naturally incomparable to Florence, to me Carmel had something of the intellectual and artistic vigor of Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance. People in Carmel seemed to have a natural appreciation for aestheticism, they seemed to value the arts, music and culture in a sophisticated yet unpretentious way. My Florentine fellows might disagree with my thoughts, but in my opinion these characteristics reflect the same lifestyle choices that people in the city of the Renaissance still make today.

While driving along the California Highway 1, we truly experienced the essence of a family road trip; it is not about leaving behind the perception of time and space, but about “planting” enthusiasm for more family adventures. To quote Ma Jian, “Everything I was I carry with me, everything I will be lies waiting on the road ahead.”

If you are interested in planning your own Highway 1 road trip, check out Immersion Travel Magazine’s Half Moon Bay itinerary ideas.

  • Giulia Grazzini. A Tuscan native, Giulia has been fascinated by travel since she was barely able to walk. She remembers comfortably admiring the Dolomites from a backpack strapped to her father`s back in the summer. Innumerable family trips across Europe have inspired her to learn five languages which she considers the most powerful tools to immersing herself in local communities and discovering places through local lenses. Solo is her favorite travel mode when her brother cannot join her. Giulia lived in France and England before moving to New York in 2010 and she has visited more than 20 countries. Travel is not a luxury but a need for her soul.


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