Starting point: SAN FRANCISCO Begin on the 49- Mile Scenic Drive, which takes you by some of the city's major attractions. After winding through The Presidio (part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area), stop for lunch at Sutro's at the Cliff House, perched high above the Pacific Ocean. Keep heading south, now on CA Hwy. 1, about 75 miles to SANTA CRUZ. Hit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for a ride on the Giant Dipper, a classic wooden roller coaster from 1924. Swing by the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and if you're itching to hop on a board, head to the Santa Cruz Surf School. Shack up for the night at the Pleasure Point Inn, with ocean views and a rooftopdeck hot tub.
Forty-three miles south is the waterfront town of MONTEREY. After checking out Cannery Row (formerly lined with sardine-canning factories, it now hosts restaurants and shops), visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the largest aquarium in North America. Next, get onto the 17-Mile Drive—one of the most famous scenic roads in the country. Beautiful picnic spots abound, so stop by the Pebble Beach Market, found at the start of the drive (Pacific Grove Gate), for provisions. At the drive's end, continue into the quaint, cottage-filled town of CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA. Stroll on the pristine sands at Carmel City Beach, or have a cup of tea at the gingerbread-house-like Tuck Box Tea Room. Also worth checking out: Point Lobos State Reserve (831-624-4909), which offers picturesque coves. Book at least one night at the Post Ranch Inn, 30 miles south of Carmel, nestled above Big Sur's rugged coastline. The accommodations include luxe treehouses built among the branches of oak and pine trees, as well as cabins literally carved into the mountainside.
Continuing south on Hwy. 1, explore scenic spots like Partington Cove and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. If you get hungry, stop for burgers at Nepenthe, in Big Sur. When you reach SAN SIMEON, follow the signs to Hearst Castle, the must-see, awe-inspiring mansion of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Go 42 miles farther south to reach the pretty town of SAN LUIS OBISPO. Stay the night in one of the famously over-the-top rooms at Madonna Inn, each with a kitschy theme, like "Caveman" and "Swiss Chalet."
The next morning, take US-101 south about 15 miles to PISMO BEACH, where you'll find Oceano Dunes, the only beach in the state where you can drive your car onto the sand. In SANTA BARBARA, 90 miles south, poke around the shops on State Street, then head over to La Super-Rica Taqueria (805-963-4940), a favorite of Julia Child's, for cheap and delicious Mexican food. Enjoy a glass of local wine alfresco at Stearns Wharf Vintners, or take a two-hour cruise offered at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center. For authentic Cajun-Creole food and incredible bread pudding, book a table at The Palace Grill. Turn in at the romantic Inn of the Spanish Garden, with deep tubs and private balconies.
When you reach Ventura, switch back to Hwy. 1, and drive 38 miles south to MALIBU. Make a stop at Surfrider Beach, where Frankie and Annette frolicked in the '60s. Heading toward L.A., stop at the Santa Monica Pier, where you'll find the world's only solarpowered Ferris wheel. In LOS ANGELES, spend the night at the Inn at Playa del Rey—it overlooks a tranquil avian sanctuary and the yacht-filled Marina del Rey, plus it's just five minutes from LAX.