Wed, Oct 05, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Highway One is the perfect honeymoon number

Backwater towns, coastline and mysterious encounters lie along the road as it snakes through the US countryside


The sights along the road from San Francisco to Los Angeles have inspired many artists and are an exciting backdrop for any couple embarking on a life together.


Starting south from San Francisco on the afternoon of our wedding day, Mark and I kept fast to the coast road, heading for the cliffs of Big Sur, a legendary oasis of raw beauty whose natural hot springs were our first night's goal. We promised ourselves detours some other day, as we passed old-fashioned towns like Watsonville, framed by strawberry fields, and Castroville, where the future Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen. At the turn-off for Soquel, we saluted Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who, 40 years ago, launched their first Acid Test there.

Even without drugs, there's something hallucinatory about zooming along the very edge of the land, with an eternity of ocean glittering at your shoulder. The turquoise vastness is one thing, but the water is more fascinating in its shifts of mood: glassy dark and still; then sparkling, playing bright staccato; often wild, spitting white gobs of froth. Around Monterey, gigantic underwater canyons churn the waters, spiralling them up, to spew ferocious breakers that attract the world's most risk-loving surfers.

Highway One picks up a turbulence of its own as it roller coasters along the brink of the cliffs. Mark and I were buffeted along, mesmerized by the asphalt's curves and by the sight of what has been called "the most beautiful meeting of land and sea in the world". In the next couple of days we could come back to Monterey (whose Cannery Row is no longer the stinking "poem" beloved of Steinbeck, but polished up for tourists), to artsy, quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea (where Clint Eastwood was mayor and Play Misty For Me was set), or the churchy, Victorian town of Pacific Grove, where the monarch butterflies settle in orange-gold clouds on their way to Mexico. Now, though, we steered through the late afternoon until we reached 17-Mile Drive.

It was hard, in the flush of driving, with the Rolling Stones blaring from the car's speakers, to make ourselves peel off the highway. But this drive through the Del Monte forest is a glory. Our car was ushered through the toll gates on the cusp of dusk, when the road was almost empty. We turned off our music and let the sounds and perfumes of the new night swirl around us. Slowly, we cruised through the inky haze, framed by the blasted Monterey cypresses, which Robert Louis Stevenson saw as "ghosts fleeing before the wind". Gulls shrieked overhead, sea lions barked from the coves. The world smelled dark blue-green and salty.

Back on the highway, with few other cars on the two-lane, almost shoulderless road, our journey grew even more unearthly.

South of Monterey, the highway carves an increasingly tortuous path through the wilderness. Before the road was dynamited out of the rocks in the 1930s, people took days to slope in over the Santa Lucia mountains on mules and horses.

Now, with Highway One ribboning through it, Big Sur still feels remote. Stunningly so. Its praises have been sung by Jack Kerouac, who couldn't cope with the canyons' primal beauty -- drawing hordes of admirers and enlightenment-seekers to the area. And yet only a sparse community lives here all year round, in the verdant mountains, or stapled to the cliffs in cottages with regal views over the Pacific.

There's no town of Big Sur for tourists to stumble upon and spoil. Just a tiny, country gas station (the only one for kilometers), with a post office, a bakery-pizzeria and a corner shop.

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