Monterey – Good, Bad, and Ugly – I
It’s common knowledge that Monterey in mid-August is the time and place to slake your thirst for viewing, hearing and touching beautiful, exotic, fast, expensive and rare automobiles. If you have not actually attended though, you may not be prepared for some of the other aspects of the experience. One of those is –
Getting There and Back
You could probably name a number of ways to get to Monterey and back. If you don’t drive there though, whatever your travel mode you will need a way to get around when you get there.
A Word on Car Rentals
Once in Monterey, you will have to beg, borrow, or rent a car – or take a taxi, Uber, or Lyft. Public transportation is virtually non-existent. From the preponderance of late model cars in the parking lots with no license plate frame and UPC code stickers in the windows, renting is the overwhelming preference.
The guide that Sports Car Market publishes for the Monterey events starts on the Monday before the Concours at Pebble Beach. It’s worth your while to consult it when booking accommodations and transportation to make sure you don’t miss that memorabilia sale that has the Winton poster you wanted.
Watch the internet though. This year Ferrari held its gathering the following week, and there are events that precede the week itself.
You will be competing with a host of other attendees, so make your reservations well in advance. Different rental companies have different policies, so check on how far in advance they accept reservations.
In Los Angeles you can rent a Lamborghini, but the sportiest car most rental companies can fathom is a Mustang or Camaro Convertible. I don’t know how they manage it (rental companies studiously avoid promising a specific model) but somehow people ferret out every one this side of the Rockies, and they are all on the Peninsula for the week. You can always ask.
Out-of-state attendees will probably fly into the Bay area and drive a rental to the events. Day trips are possible, but if you try that, plan on leaving early and packing a big bag of patience.
Amtrack runs from Oakland to Salinas if that’s your style. That’s within 18.4 miles of the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey, where the RM Southeby’s auction cars are on display. “27 minutes without traffic,” Google Maps says. Right. We’ll get into that in a later blog.
For Los Angeles area residents, their Coastal Starlight train (about $56; Premium “Roomettes” for $126) from Union Station in Los Angeles also takes you to Salinas.
Regularly scheduled flights to the Monterey airport by United are about $200 round trip. Book a year in advance if possible.
You can rent a car at the airport or train station – but once again reserve it a year in advance or so. Practically every available car in a 200 mile radius is sucked up by those who don’t have the option of driving their own car to get there.
Oh, and just so you know, the Concours at Pebble Beach is on August 21st next year. Plan accordingly.
The Great Drive
If you live within driving distance, it’s only natural to go to a car extravaganza in a car. If you live as we do, in the greater Los Angeles area, there are three main routes.
Over the Grapevine onto the San Joaquin Valley via Interstate Five and coastward on State Route 156 from Los Banos is probably fastest, but also the most tedious.
Taking U. S. 101 through Ventura and Santa Barbara, north through Beullton, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo and El Paso de Los Robles to Salinas, and west on State route 68 is the other alternative to the one preferred by motoring enthusiasts.
That’s the Cabrillo Highway (U.S.1, Pacific Coast Highway, or just PCH), that follows the U. S. 101 route as far as San Luis Obispo. For those who love driving, part of the pleasure – and the frustration – of Monterey is in driving PCH.
In our blog, “The Cabrillo Highway – Worst Kept Secret” (08/21/2012), we alluded to them. What it didn’t say is that the drive home by that route serves as an event unto itself, easing the letdown of having to leave Monterey.
August 12, 2015. The drive along the Cabrillo Highway (US1, Pacific Coast Highway, or just PCH) between about San Simeon and Carmel is acknowledged to be among the great scenic motor tours in the world – when it’s like this. What they don’t say is that it’s often fogged in, so when it clears you appreciate it.
While it’s possible to have a great experience driving the Coast, keep in mind that practically the entire automotive world has the same idea. There are both good and bad sides to that, but if you don’t plan for it, it can be ugly. So plan.
The real fun starts here at Ragged Point, where we met the driver of this Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale that had cleared the traffic revenuers from our path just north of San Simeon in 2009. We’d been together since he’d overtaken us near Santa Maria, driving at an entertaining pace.
On the trip up, you begin to meet some of the people and the cars that will be participating in the same events you will be attending. It’s sort of a road-going preview on the way up, and a postlude on the way back. We’ve posted these before, but they illustrate the point here.
More typical weather, Pismo Beach, 2012. Lamborghini Murcielago, California vanity plate “16 OF 50.”
Concorso Italiano 2012. The owner (whose name is since lost) explained that this was the sixteenth of an anniversary edition of fifty examples built. For Star Trek: Voyager fans – no, it is not a Borg designation.
Your pace driving the Cabrillo Highway is up to you.
A leisurely pace allows you to glance over now and then and get a feel for where the best views are – when it’s not too foggy. There are many view points where you can stop, take your time, and get some pictures if you are so inclined. Get it out of your system and then keep your eyes on the road. Please watch your mirrors. There are plenty of turnouts, so you needn’t be a rolling road block.
Driving at competitive speeds is a bad idea. Take a hint from the owners of the exotic machinery you’ll meet, who have the sense to leave that behavior on the track where they don’t put it or themselves at risk. You’d just be frustrated by traffic anyway, and there are rock slides (one once cost me a wheel and tire) to consider. Besides, the California Highway Patrol does maintain a presence.
Drivers of vintage sports cars were caught by CHP Officer Ben Grasmuck at Big Sur Coast Gallery and Cafe as they headed for a rendezvous at Lucia – through the long lens of his Nikon DSLR. In our 2012 interview, while tolerant of recreational driving, he wasn’t about to endorse illegal behavior.
Anyway, cliff faces and steep drops can be unforgiving, and drifting into the oncoming lane if you take a corner too fast is not recommended.
So if someone who thinks he’s faster than you sticks his nose up your tail, don’t speed up. Pull over at one of the many turn-outs and let them by.
Driving as Meditation
The most satisfying approach, we’ve found, is to treat driving as a form of zen meditation. That is, you empty your mind of everything other than the task at hand – no thoughts about where you are going, how you look, when you will get there, or what you will see when you do. Pardon the tired expression, but the idea is for you, the car, and the road to “become one.”
It takes practice to let go of a conscious thought about when to brake, where the corner apex is, when to get on the accelerator, and how much. It’s the delicate balance between intellect and intuition – the left and right brain – that we wrote about twenty years ago when this was a printed newsletter, quoting from the late Denise McCluggage’s “The Centered Driver” in Autoweek.
If you have not tried it before, ease into the practice gradually. A moderate pace helps, as you gradually get a feel for the rhythm of the road. It’s not necessary to go very fast to enjoy it.
Driving at a more elevated pace takes all that and raises it a notch. There are corners with advisory speeds posted from 50 mph down to 20 that are fun to exit at recreational speeds (“slow in, fast out”). In a well sorted-out car with sporting capability, you’ll soon learn how much you can exceed those suggestions comfortably, while making sure you are in the proper gear for a smooth exit, ready to transition to the next corner. In that they are useful.
A word about double yellow lines. It would be irresponsible to suggest you ignore them. On the other hand, some people drive these roads at such a slow speed (and haven’t the courtesy to pull over in a turn-out), that passing them on a stretch of road where you can see a good distance ahead, and you know your car’s capabilities, seems to us no more dangerous than driving around a rock in the road when you can see it’s safe. Use good judgment.
Between the Route 46 cutoff to Paso Robles and Carmel, there is only one narrow, winding road connecting the Cabrillo Highway with any other route in California (Nacimiento Road, from just south of Limekiln State Park to Bradley on US 101). If you have car trouble between Ragged Point and Big Sur there are only a handful of stops with a telephone. Forget about cell phone reception. The contractors who service the road know of a few lookout points where they can make and receive calls, but most of the way you are dependent on the kindness of strangers unless you have one of those satellite-based monitors like BMW Assist or On Star.
The other consideration is traffic. At any time of year the road is crowded with people eager for a view of the pristine coastline. During Monterey Car Week they are legion. Many of them are driving rented compact sedans – slowly.
The Ugly: Construction crews and service vehicles are just two inhibitions to driving enjoyment on PCH. A sense of humor helps. Note the inscription on the honey wagon – “Caution: May Contain Political Promises.”
Others will be driving motor homes, many of them rented, so the drivers are unfamiliar with them and understandably timid in their driving style. Some will pull over and let you by. Really. We’ve seen it happen.
Then there’s construction. The road is built on a cliff for much of its length. Parts of that cliff tend to break off. When it happens below the road, the road often falls with it. If it happens above, it blocks the road, or takes part of it with it down the slope.
Both of these happened so often at a place just north of Limekiln State Park, that after years of rebuilding the highway every time it collapsed and fell into the Pacific or became blocked with fallen rock, CalTrans and the Federal Highway people created two new structures – a bridge over the slide area, and the only project of its kind in the U.S., a rock shelter.
Limekiln Project, 2013. The driftwood effect on the bridge railing (inset above) and the rock texture on the Rock Shelter (below) are creative applications of castings taken from actual rock in the area, and driftwood found along the coast, then artfully dyed in the forms. It’s gratifying to know that the political will, creativity, engineering prowess, and construction skills for such impressive civil engineering projects still exist in the U.S. today.
Outside the Limekiln project, the result of all that sliding is that at any time, there are usually two or three areas where construction has narrowed the road to one lane, with traffic signals regulating traffic so that it only flows one way at a time. If you are trying to make time, this can lead to teeth-gnashing. If you have patience though, it can be an opportunity to start a conversation with the driver of an interesting car.
Beating the Crowd
So what to do if you don’t want to be stuck behind a lumbering motor home for miles of twisting road? Leave early.
Get all packed the night before. Put the camera bag (bring extra batteries – charged up – and the charger), tripod, and clothes bags in the car. Don’t hang stuff from the hooks. They’ll just block your view and fall off in the first 20 mph corner. Put all your tickets to the events and the parking tag for the mirror, the directions to get to them, and the event calendar that Sports Car Market publishes every year in a big envelope and put it in a door pocket. Don’t forget your phone charger.
Put together a bag of non-perishable snacks you’re going to need on the road. There are no fast food joints between San Simeon and Monterey and the convenience store at Ragged Point is very limited. Put it in the footwell behind the passenger seat. If there are two of you in a two-seater, we’ll trust that you’ve figured out how to pack for that.
Everything but your toiletries bag and the cooler of cold drinks (and maybe a Tupperware of cold cuts), goes in the car the night before. Empty the ice cube trays into a plastic bag every night for three nights and keep it in the freezer until departure time when you pack the cooler. You don’t want to have to visit the QuickieMart on your way out of town.
Here’s the hard part. Get to bed early. Get up one way or another at about 3:00 am. You want to get out of Los Angeles early and pass through Santa Barbara before rush hour. If you can hold off on breakfast, you can sleep in another hour or so. Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Buellton opens at 6:30 and it’s just over a two hour drive. Prices are reasonable, service is excellent that early, and the food is home-cooked good. Do not go to the Split Pea Palace
If you leave Los Angeles at around 4:30, you should arrive at Buellton a little over two hours later, just as Mother Hubbard’s opens.
If you need a break, you’ll hit San Luis Obispo at about 8:00 (plus any time you spent at Buellton). Don’t miss the US1 exit if you don’t want to take the more boring route along US101 past El Paso de Los Robles. Roll past El Morro, Cambria and San Simeon (If you want to tour the Hearst Castle, make your reservation for the return trip.), to Ragged Point.
Stop and take a comfort break. Don’t bother checking your phone messages. There’s no cell service. Maybe have a snack, but go light on the fluids. You will want to take advantage of the few restrooms – mostly at campgrounds and picnic areas – before Bixby Bridge. There are none there.
Now is the fun part. If you have done it right, there will be few people in front of you, and those that are may be enjoying the road like you. Last time we got behind an Acura MDX (of all things) that was going at exactly the right pace for us, so we just settled back a ways and followed him.
There are just two real settlements until Big Sur – Gordo and Lucia. We’ve never stopped, but facilities appear minimal. It is to be hoped they’ll have phone service if you need it.
There is one stretch of about two and a half miles where you can safely pass a line of cars so they don’t hold you up in the next series of bends and switchbacks. It’s called Pacific Valley, and there’s a Naval station on the left going north, on top of a tall white rock hill just on the edge of the shore. You can see most of the road ahead from the top of the ridge approaching the valley from either direction, and we have explored 5th amendment speeds on that section. Once again, use good judgment.
If you do this on Thursday, you will arrive at the historic Bixby Bridge just as the cars in the Tour d’Elegance are passing on their way south. Set up your tripod on the inland side of the road and wait. If you neglected our advice about the campgrounds and picnic areas, you may have to look for a bush.
Opened in 1932 thirteen miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Bixby Bridge has become a favorite photo opportunity along the Pacific Coast Highway.
2010. Spectators vie for the best viewing and photo-snapping locations on the bridge as a Kissel Gold Bug (Really. I couldn’t make this up.) leads a Packard, a Rolls Royce, an unknown, and two Alfa Romeos across.
Northbound, the bulk of the recreational driving is over by Bixby Bridge, and certainly by the time the speed limit signs of Big Sur appear. Traffic steadily increases as you approach Carmel. Carmel Highlands General Store at Fern Canyon is our unofficial end of the Cabrillo Highway Scenic Route. We usually stop there to make an entry in the trip log and pick up cell phone messages. Here it’s time to come back to earth and face the other pleasures – and challenges – of Monterey in August.
(Note: This year the Ferrari people had commandeered the General Store and its parking for their hospitality events. There is no guarantee they won’t do the same in 2016. The next opportunity for a break is at Carmel Valley Road.)
The Trip Home
As mentioned above, the trip home, when it includes the reverse route down PCH, is an event in and of itself. Once again an early start is beneficial, but not too early. We planned on breakfast at one of the cozy little restaurants in Carmel, but discovered they don’t open until 7:00. We made do with coffee and a breakfast sandwich at a coffee shop off Carmel Valley Road
Feeling we’d made a good start, after Big Sur we pulled over to let the after-breakfast cobwebs dissipate. It didn’t work. No sooner had we pulled over when a roar of pipes announced the passing of a Shelby GT350, and we were wide awake. Thinking it might be our mechanic, Steve Beck, who had driven his ’65 GT350 number 258 up to the events, we took off in cautious pursuit.
We got close enough to see it was a ’66, so now we wondered whose it was. Steve would probably know, if we could get close enough to read the license number. Eventually we did: EEE TIKT – “Triple E Ticket.” We hoped he’d stop at Ragged Point where we could chat, but he kept on driving. At least we had the benefit of a nice cross-plane V8 sound track for a while. We asked Steve when we got home, if the license is familiar to him, and of course it was. Chris Bolinger is the guy’s name. We’ll look for him at the next Shelby Club Christmas party.
Last year we followed MA DIVA, a Citroën Traction Avant, most of the way down the best part of PCH. A car built for just such a road, the Traction Avant had a combination of three features that was unique in the day, but are nearly universal now – unit body construction, four-wheel independent suspension, and front-wheel drive (thus the name).
Every year is different. Last year I posted a picture of an unfortunate Ferrari driver who found himself stuck behind a Highway Patrol SUV. Fortunately it pulled off eventually, so he could resume his own pace. What about next year?
Why not drive it yourself to find out?
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