101 x 1 - Southern California
By John Poimiroo
In 1769, Fr. Junipero Serra needed a wagon road to connect his mission churches, so with the establishment of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, his first in California, he also constructed California’s first highway. The road began humbly, but eventually strode 600 miles (966 km) connecting California’s 21 missions from San Diego north to Sonoma. The Spanish called the road a “camino real,” a term then used to describe primitive wagon roads, which also translates to “King’s Highway.” For nearly two centuries this royal road, known officially as U.S. Highway 101, was the principal north-south route in California.
With the opening of the super highway Interstate 5 in the late 1960s, most of U.S. 101 was bypassed or assigned to other highways, leaving much of the original route lightly affected by California’s explosive growth. Because of this, Historic U.S. 101 is the route to take for those who’d like to see California much as it was during its first 150 years as a state. Although much of the south coast California portion of Historic U.S. 101 isn’t identified on California maps, just “connect the dots” between the California missions and look for roads named Camino or Coast Highway and you’ll likely be close to the original El Camino Real.
Within a mile of the old route are many historic and cultural treasures that make for entertaining diversions. This trip up “101 by 1” begins at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street - Lat./Long.: 32.7542 / -117.1961). This was San Diego’s original downtown and as you enter the square, your senses are stimulated by the sounds of Spanish guitars and the spicy-sweet aromas of Mexican delicacies. Near several original adobe structures and the mission church that can be toured, old motels have been converted into a street scene reminiscent of early California with restaurants and shops featuring “South of the Border” dishes and goods so genuine that a visiting Mexican tourism official once complained to another about having to travel to San Diego in order to find an experience so authentic.
A must stop before you continue your trip up 101 is Sea World at San Diego’s Mission Bay. Within sight of Historic U.S. 101, this marine playground is surrounded by a necklace of resort hotels. Sea World San Diego is where Shamu, a Killer Whale (Orca) performs in a million gallon (3.78 million liter) pool, much of which gets splashed onto the spectators in the 5,500-seat arena. The difference at Sea World San Diego is that sea life is shown at its most spectacular, with its creatures appearing almost jewel like.
Another gem in the area is La Jolla, Spanish for “the jewel.” Just like its name, La Jolla is studded with charms including many posh boutiques, tantalizing restaurants and zen-retreats like the Hotel Parisi, considered to be one of the top 20 small hotels in America. Beyond La Jolla is the virginal beauty of Torrey Pines State Park Reserve and Black’s Beach above which paragliders soar like seagulls above the ocean spray.
Cultural jewels decorate the South Coast Highway, too. One of them is the La Jolla Playhouse, a regional theater with a national reputation (2910 La Jolla Village Dr.). Founded by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer, the Playhouse is where Tony Award-winning plays and stars are born. The renowned Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is one of San Diego County’s many prestigious scientific institutions. There, you can explore the Hall of Fishes or Hall of Oceanography, perusing exhibits and aquaria or venture into the ocean for guided snorkel and kayak trips. For a nature experience closer to shore, head to Seal Beach (Seal Beach Blvd. and Pacific Coast Highway) where, from the heights of a protected breakwater, you can watch the seals as they lounge and play in an aquamarine cove.
Continuing north, you reach Del Mar and its venerable Thoroughbred Club, which was founded by Bing Crosby and several Hollywood friends to indulge their passion to race horses by the sea. The racing still occurs each July to September. For a taste of the town’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, stop at Sbicca (215 15th St.) known for its fine wine list and new American bistro dishes or its sister restaurant, Meritage, on Historic Route 101 in Encinitas.
The refined tastes of the south coast are exemplified in Solana Beach, well known for its public art. Along its streets, you’ll find such notable works as “Star” by internationally acclaimed modern artist Niki de Saint-Phalle (105 Cedros Ave.). One has to wonder though how an area best known for betting on ponies also became so committed to fine art. Perhaps it was the influence of The King’s Highway, as near U.S. 101 – along its entire length – are found several arts colonies and communities including Encinitas, Santa Barbara, Sausalito, Ukiah and Eureka… In Solana Beach, the Cedros Design District of brightly painted industrial buildings has attracted a vibrant community of merchants, fashion designers, importers and craftsmen. For a taste of the district, enjoy a salad of fresh greens with caramelized walnuts, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette at the Wild Note Café or belly up to the Belly-Up Tavern to hear some of America’s finest rock performances at what Rolling Stone magazine has called one of the hottest clubs on the West Coast.
It seems almost a civic obligation in California to attach superlatives like that to one’s business or community. Near U.S. 101, you’ll pass towns that call themselves the Avocado Capital of the World (Fallbrook), Garlic Capital of the World (Gilroy), the Lettuce Capital of the World (Salinas), The Artichoke Capital of the World (Castroville ), Broccoli Capital of the World (Greenfield), Flower Seed Capital of the World (Lompoc), Strawberry Capital of the World (Oxnard), Pear Capital of the World (Kelseyville) and Lily Capital of the World (Smith River), because they lead in production of those crops.
Encinitas, further north on U.S. 101, has a split personality. This quintessential beach town can’t decide whether to call itself the “surf capital of the world” or the “flower capital of the world.” Made famous by the Beach Boys’ hit song, “Sufin’ USA,” Encinitas’ Swami Beach is one of San Diego County’s prime surf spots. The town is so surf-conscious that it has even intalled distinctive road signs warning of surfer crossings. Yet, Encinitas’ salt air is also perfumed with the floral scents of many flowers that are grown there. A good place to see rare plants is at the Quail Botanical Gardens (230 Quail Gardens Drive) where endangered species from around the world are cultivated on 30 acres, including the largest bamboo plantation in the United States.
Flower lovers are also drawn to Carlsbad where from early March to early May they walk among nearly 50 acres of flowering Giant Tecolote Ranunculus that grow in spectacular crimson, yellow, white, orange, purple and burgundy bands across rolling hills set between the highway and Legoland California, a 128-acre theme park based on the creative play provided by Lego toys.
Carlsbad has been attracting attention since the late 1800s when former sea captain John Frazier dug a well and discovered mineral water very similar to the world-famous Karlsbad-Bohemia resort. The cool sips of mineral water that Frasier offered to thirsty train passengers soon became known for their healing properties. Within three years a 100-room hotel was built and touted as "the greatest seaside sanatorium on the Pacific coast--blessed with mineral wells which effect astonishing cures in remarkably brief periods." While astonishing cures are no longer promised, astonishing relief from life’s stresses is found at three famous area spas: the Chopra Center at the La Costa Resort and Spa, the Four Seasons Aviara Resort, and the original Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa.
As you continue north along Historic U.S. 101 look for distinctive mission bells beside the road. They were first erected in 1906 to mark the route of the original El Camino Real. Some 400 bells were installed, with 600 planned… one for every mile along the route. Over the years, many of the mission bells have disappeared, though one stands in front of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. This mission earned the nickname “King of Missions,” for being the largest in California.
California architecture is a mix of periods and styles, from the graceful white adobe walls and red Spanish tile roofs of the missions, to whimsical space-age themed 1960s “googie” architecture. A classic example of Jetsonesque design is found at the Star Theater in Oceanside where live performances are still presented (402 N Coast Hwy). Another don’t-miss establishment typical of the highway is the 101 Café (631 S. Coast Hwy) that began as a 20-seat diner in 1928; it still serves breakfast all day to locals and road-weary travelers who enjoy an immediate sense of shared experience.
The same sense of community binds San Clemente, one of the picture-perfect places along the California coast. Each shop here is an original, packaged within Spanish Colonial Revival-styled structures that give the village a welcoming atmosphere. This is a perfect place to stroll the beach, as President Richard Nixon often did when he would stay at Casa Pacifica, his Western White House. Though, the residential jewel of San Clemente is Casa Romantica, a Spanish Colonial Revival classic that was completed in 1928 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Homes.
From San Clemente, the El Camino Real bends inward following I-5 to downtown Los Angeles. This section of the road enters Southern California’s vast suburban landscape, though it travels past enclaves of California’s past, such as the fabled and beautiful mission of San Juan Capistrano whose swallows magically return each year on St. Joseph’s day, March 19. Mission San Juan Capistrano typifies classic California Spanish Colonial architecture. Its bronze bells, suspended within arches, call villagers to prayer in what is one of California’s most elaborately decorated mission churches, while a riot of magenta Bougainvillea blossoms embrace the mission’s ancient walls.
San Clemente is timeless, while Los Angeles – the last stop on a tour up 101 along the south coast – is a leap forward in time. Only on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles can the City of Angels’ origins as a humble and tiny pueblo be seen. Immediately east of downtown L.A., 27 historic structures dating from 1818 to 1930 are preserved. A colorful street market, shops, galleries and restaurants are alive with the vibrant tapestry and talents of Los Angelenos.
Not far from this part of old Los Angeles, the high rises of the new Los Angeles soar alongside performances at the luminescent Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, its silvery walls fluttering like sheet music in a Pacific breeze. Beneath downtown L.A., sleek Metro cars speed visitors to Hollywood Boulevard where they can find the star of their favorite celebrity among 2000 that line the boulevard, walk on the stage at the Kodak Theater where Oscars are presented, purchase a Hollywood collectible at the Larry Edmunds Book Store (6644 Hollywood Blvd.), or match their hand prints to those of celebrities that have been impressed on the concrete sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (6925 Hollywood Blvd.).
Beyond Los Angeles, Historic U.S. 101 continues north 750 miles to the Oregon border. It passes through sweetly scented citrus groves, fruit-laden vineyards, Spanish-influenced towns and modern cities, over rolling grassy oak-populated hills and past towering forests of fog-shrouded Redwood trees before leaving California at Smith River.
There are three parts of the route to explore: the south coast, central coast and north coast. This article only covered one of them, but each has different landscapes and diversions to be found within a mile of U.S. 101.
Linking 101 by 1
Visit these Web sites to find more information about traveling U.S. 101.
Belly Up Tavern – www.bellyup.com
Birch Aquarium – www.aquarium.ucsd.edu
California Missions – www.missiontour.org
California Missions Foundation – www.missionsofcalifornia.org
Carlsbad – www.carlsbadca.org
Cedros Design District – www.cedrosdesigndistrict.com
El Camino Real - http://missiontour.org/related/elcaminoreal.htm
Encinitas – www.encinitaschamber.com
Encinitas MainStreet Association www.encinitas101.com/
Highway 101 Association www.drivethe101.com
Hollywood Tourism – www.visithollywood.org
Hollywood Walk of Fame – www.hollywoodchamber.net
La Jolla Playhouse – www.lajollaplayhouse.com
Legoland California – www.lego.com/legoland/california
Los Angeles Tourism – www.lacvb.com
Mission Bells - http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/paffairs/faq/faq62.htm
Mission San Juan Capistrano – www.missionsjc.com
Oceanside - www.oceansidechamber.com/
Old Town San Diego SHP - www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=663
Paragliding – www.flytorrey.com
Quail Botanical Gardens – www.qbgardens.com
San Diego North Tourism – www.sandiegonorth.com
San Diego Tourism – www.sandiego.org
Sea World San Diego - www.seaworld.com/seaworld/ca
Solana Beach – www.solanabeachchamber.com
The Flower Fields – www.theflowerfields.com
Torrey Pines State Park Reserve – www.torreypine.org
Walt Disney Concert Hall – www.musiccenter.org
John Poimiroo is a freelance travel writer, editor and communications specialist based in California. http://www.californiafun.us