Road Tripping Along the California Coast Amid the Pandemic

Scenic landscapes meet social distancing

August 7, 2020 9:40 am
Malibu Beach Inn
The Malibu Beach Inn offers fantastic views.
Jake Emen

I’m a light packer, carrying on by rule. Checking a bag is verboten. My packing list is so pared down, and so burned into my mind from repetition, that I’d never forget any of the essentials. Passport, phone, charger, spare battery. Camera, laptop, book. And now my contingent of face masks, hand sanitizers, and assorted protective and cleaning gear.

My first venture since the pandemic began wouldn’t involve flying around the world, or worrying about carry-on luggage or airline mask and cancellation policies, though. It was time to hit the road. I wanted to get a glimpse of the freedom and promise of travel once again, of the limitless potential of the open road with which America’s expanse has always beckoned. And as a New Jerseyan, well, baby I was born to run.

The tools for a Covid road trip.
Jake Emen

After most recently calling San Diego home, I rode out the first months of the pandemic with family in Scottsdale, Arizona (strictly following quarantine procedures — I hadn’t left a 12-mile radius in 12 weeks, socialized with a non-family member, had an outdoor meal or anything of the sort) and a change of scenery was needed. The California coast was calling.

The first stop would be my former stomping grounds in San Diego, an opportunity to socially distant socialize for the first time in months, and an obvious starting point to begin a ride up the nation’s left coast. I checked into the InterContinental San Diego, a sleek waterfront property located along the city’s Embarcadero, taking my first timid steps back into our new makeshift world, and was welcomed with a brochure detailing the hotel’s sanitation procedures. It was a routine which quickly became the new norm.

At the IC San Diego, housekeeping wouldn’t clean your room during your stay, masks were required indoors, and hand sanitizer stations were located by elevators and entrances. The pool was open, though sparsely used, and with spaced out chairs. Things seemed normal, but different. Welcomed, if odd.

While eager for the trip, prior to departing I felt as if I was stuck in place, and as with quicksand, the more you struggle with it, the deeper you’re pulled in and the more entrenched you become. I struggled, and I was entrenched in stagnation. For me personally, then, the mere act of seeing the coast after arriving in San Diego offered a quick jolt of renewal and a sense of purpose.

My first restaurant meal in months came at the hotel’s Garibaldi, a semi-hidden patio space specializing in Italian fare, including freshly house-made pastas, with an herb garden and crafty cocktails. A combination of QR codes and single use menus were proffered, with at-table cleaning products provided, and strictly limited seating. What a treat to be served restaurant cuisine and drinks — how much we’ve taken for granted! — all the while noticing and appreciating the seriousness and sincerity of the measures every staff member was taking to uphold proper protocols.

From San Diego it was a short drive up to Los Angeles for a stay at The Beverly Hilton, an icon noted for its glamorous and star-studded heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and still a stalwart for top-tier service and discretion. Entering their room for the first time, guests see that it’s been sealed shut with a sticker indicating the room was cleaned and sanitized, and nobody else has been inside. A QR code on the sticker takes you to a website detailing Hilton’s latest procedures.

Food at the hotel was grab and go only, offering individually packaged items from its typical menu. Sitting by the pool adjacent to the hotel’s cabana rooms, with Sinatra on the speakers overhead, felt every bit as indulgent as it ever would, even if I continued taking my mask on and off between sips of beer.

The hotel’s gym was open by appointment only, another new-norm which proved to be an effective motivation tactic for ensuring I slogged through some exercise in between drives. A private commercial-grade gym is therefore yours for the taking, and is sanitized between sessions, with a kit of safety gear being provided to each person.

A stroll down Rodeo Drive showcased a different perspective, with lengthy lines out the doors of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and their like. The world of high-fashion waits for nothing.

For as great as revisiting San Diego and then staying in Beverly Hills both were, neither offered the adventure of a proper road trip. Departing Los Angeles via the Pacific Coast Highway was the first chance to truly lean into the road trip vibes. Escaping the city via the PCH is a lesson in instant blood pressure reduction, your worries and stresses washing away with each new vista of crashing waves against craggy cliffs. Around every corner lies another impossibly beautiful bay. Sticking to the 1, as opposed to the 101, will add some time to any trip. But it must be done at all costs. Put the phone down and the map away, stop hunting for the quickest ETA, and trust you’ll get where you’re going and the journey will be a prize unto itself.

I cruised up all the way to funky San Luis Obispo, staying at the Hotel San Luis Obispo. The property is located right in the midst of the city’s historic district and shop-lined streets, and matches the colorful quirkiness of the city, though steering in the direction of contemporary refinement as opposed to kitsch. An important distinction, given much of the rest of San Luis Obispo offers that in full.

I was welcomed by a smiling receptionist, or, well, since I couldn’t see her face, I assumed it was such when I saw the corner of her eyes arch up accompanied by a warm and hospitable voice. The hotel showcases a selection of different restaurants and bars, including a scenic rooftop bar with live music performances, bocce ball, and a vegetable garden. There’s also a large (regularly sanitized) gym, and a (spaced out) pool and lounge deck. The grab and go cafe in the lobby was more my speed given the changing conditions in California as I continued my trip, also making the free snack tray in each room at the Hotel SLO a bonus.

After a morning hike through the hills outside of town, I followed a hot tip to High Street Deli, the type of locals-recommended and approved sandwich joint you – or at least I – dream of discovering in every new place you visit. Brief dreams fluttered in my head about moving to SLO to be in proximity of these sandwiches – and well, the funky little town and the abundant outdoor recreation, too, but mostly the sandwiches. I went three times over a two night stay, flying dangerously close to the sun on wings of pastrami, as one George Costanza might say.

Big Sur
One of America’s singular places.
Jake Emen

The morning I packed up and left San Luis Obispo was July 4th, and a picture-perfect American holiday unfolded as I took in the jaw-dropping seascapes and mountains of a drive on the 1 through Big Sur. I took time to stop at all of the famous viewpoints, such as Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls, and for a hike amid the redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It was a powerful, even emotional, day spent traversing such a special slice of earth, capped off by an invitation to a friend’s barbecue in San Francisco, and finally, a continuation north to Sonoma, staying at the Harmon Guest House in Healdsburg.

The Harmon Guest House is one of three sister properties, along with the Hotel Healdsburg and the H2 Hotel, located along a strip in tiny Healdsburg’s downtown area. The three each take  slightly different positioning in terms of their offerings, while sharing certain amenities between one another; one serving breakfast, one offering the gym, for instance. Safety procedures included abundant sanitizing stations, an effort to keep rooms open for 24-hour between guest stays, and friendly recommendations to use the staircase rather than ride the elevator.

Staying at any of the trio offers an ideal jumping off point into wine country, and the town is stacked with tasting rooms. Luckily for the current times, the main plaza in town has been made outdoor-drinking friendly, allowing you to buy a bottle and enjoy a leisurely afternoon or evening in open space and fresh air.

Next came an incredible sojourn into redwoods country proper, and a few days loaded with drives and hikes through the conglomeration of Redwoods National and State Parks. Leaving hotel life behind for an Airbnb, and with my trunk now stocked with beer from Russian River Brewing Company, I began a trek which saw me fall in love for the second time on the trip. The first was with a sandwich shop. The second was with the big trees.

It’s a land filled with scenic drives known as the Avenue of the Giants, drive-through trees, and named trees and groves which have been known and beloved for centuries, towering more than 300 feet in the air. It’s a surrealistic alien world, but a majestic one. The trees are proud and serene, and awesome in the literal sense of the word, as in, awe inspiring. For the entirety of a 12-mile hike, I walked on slack jawed and neck craned, staring up at the sky in a state of wonderment.

Among the redwoods.
Jake Emen

Sadly leaving the redwoods behind, I nonetheless moved ahead knowing there was more in store for me to find. I drove across the state, stuck in the single-lane season of summertime mountain construction, and found my way to Plumas county, and Plumas National Forest, each forever in the shadow of their southern neighbor, Tahoe. Plumas, though, offers the same natural beauty, with the same types of mountains and crystal clear lakes, and all the outdoor recreation they provide, with a fraction of the crowds and none of the pretension.

See and be seen all you want at Tahoe, but you can have a luxe stay at the Nakoma Resort with far lower interference from Tahoe glitz and traffic. The property’s lodge is set among its own golf course and residences, and the resort also has a new recreation center sporting a pool, bar, climbing wall, movie room, and gym – all appropriately by appointment only and/or spaced. As one does in 2020.

The town of Graegle is 10 miles away, and Lake Tahoe is an hour, so you can hit the water there for an afternoon if you want. And I did, I won’t lie. But stepping away from the madness of Tahoe was a welcome move, and in Plumas, the Lakes Basin recreational area has trails enough to keep you busy for weeks.

Nakoma’s Clubhouse is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed building, the specs of which were never used until they were brought to life at the resort. The building is home to the property’s main restaurant and its pro shop, and boasts Native American influences and stylings, with a circular dining room built around a massive fireplace, all set inside a conical, wigwam-inspired artifice.

California’s forests and lakes treated me well, but it was the coast that spurred on the trip, and when it was time to make my way back down south through the state I knew I needed to revisit it. Criss-crossing the state again and then down through Big Sur once more offered an opposite and equally stunning perspective.

I made my way to the Malibu Beach Inn, with a right turn directly off the PCH onto a barely visible driveway, and voila, an exclusive and lavish world opened to me, the beachfront paradise of Malibu waiting within. The hotel is along Carbon Beach, but more properly atop Carbon Beach, in such proximity to the water that the property’s beach chairs need to be removed during high tide. In-room bars, meanwhile, are so well stocked you can stir yourself up a Negroni or Manhattan without interacting with a soul, ideal for pandemic travel, while a detailed distancing and sanitizing plan is rigorously pursued.

The bliss of falling asleep with my balcony door ajar, lulled by the sound of the crashing waves below, is a memory I’ll hold dear. It’s a reminder of our place in the world and what’s possible, even if the gym was closed down due to a last-minute state order the day before, and even if your suntan is a bit uneven and impeded thanks to your mask.

It was a fitting end to a rejuvenating trip, with 2,750 more miles on the odometer, and for myself, a newfound sense of discovery. For years I’ve overlooked so much of what our country has to offer, gaze fixed to far off and grander seeming international locales. Now more than ever I have a desire to explore what’s available right here in our backyards, along with an unsatiated desire to be on the move. I woke up, soaked in the serene sea, and rather than driving home turned the car back north, heading out on the road once more.


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