Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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I left my stress in San Francisco

Unwind among the sinuous curves and stunning sights of California's Pacific Coast Highway

Once you've tramped up and down San Francisco's vertiginous slopes, basked in the creative glow at the Museum of Modern Art and given the kids their fill of art and science at the Exploratorium, why not venture beyond the Golden Gate? Anything from a half-hour to four-hour drive can put soaring coastal redwoods, first-class vineyards and rugged cliffs overlooking the Pacific's pounding surf within reach.

Little Ride in the Red Woods
You don't have to drive five hours to Redwood National Park to experience the silence of an old-growth forest, where afternoon light draws you into an endless maze of trunks stretching skyward like cathedral arches.

Nestled at the base of Mount Tamalpais at the end of a steep, winding road, Muir Woods National Monument (Mill Valley, CA; tel: 415-388-2595; www.nps.gov/muwo; open from 8 am to sunset) is only 20 kilometres north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This recreation area has 320 kilometres of hiking and biking trails that will bring you to the heart of the forest.

The self-guided nature trail on the canyon floor is paved and flat for beginners and has numbered information stops along the way. From this main trail, three- to nine-kilometre paths lead through redwood canyons, along creeks and up the 770-metre peak of Mount Tamalpais to a breathtaking 360° panorama of ocean, bridges and hills.

Muir Woods is a virgin forest of California coast redwoods, a variety found only within a narrow 800-kilometre strip along the Pacific from Monterey, California up to southern Oregon. Some of these trees are over 1000 years old. Each season brings its own highlights: fog drapes the forest during the hot summer months, the amber leaves of big-leaf maples swirl in the fall and each winter steelhead and silver salmon migrate up Redwood Creek.

On your drive back to the city, stop at Sausalito and walk along the waterfront, where Victorian bungalows perch on hillsides overlooking the bay filled with bobbing boats.

My Way is the Highway
Head south through the mountains on a scenic stretch of California's Pacific Coast Highway, where historic seaside towns and the Santa Lucia Mountains hug the bluffs. You can make this a day or weekend trip depending on how often you choose to get out of your car to stroll along the beach, surf or kayak, or walk the hallowed greens of some of golf's legendary courses.

In Monterey (tel: 888-221-1010; www.montereyinfo.org), the fortunes of gritty and colourful Cannery Row (immortalized by John Steinbeck in his novel of the same name) have changed since the 1930s, but some of the sights remain the same. Many original buildings have been restored as shops, cafés and hotels on the three-kilometre strip. At the end of the street is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can stroke bat rays, get a diver's view of a kelp forest, and watch jellyfish drift.

From Monterey, make a detour off the highway for the Seventeen-Mile Drive. Encompassing some of the most breathtaking scenery on the coast, the drive also passes the Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill golf courses. As you wind through the Del Monte Forest you'll come to the Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old tree perched on a rocky outcrop above the pounding waves.

 

The drive ends in Carmel, a hillside town with eccentric houses, an 18th-century Spanish mission church and a white-sand beach bounded by cypress trees and purple clusters of Pride of Madeira. With one of the largest concentrations of art galleries in the US, this perfectly groomed, upscale little town is worth a stroll.

The most spectacular sight, however, is on the drive toward Big Sur. Exactly what constitutes this fabled stretch of the Monterey Peninsula varies depending on who you talk to, but most agree it includes the drive from Carmel into the Big Sur Valley. After stopping off at the Point Lobos State Reserve to spot seals and sea lions on the wildly sculpted rock outcroppings, you'll pass through the Carmel Highlands before reaching the stretch that this highway is renowned for. The winding road runs along the Santa Lucia Mountains, past remote beaches in state parks and scenic overlooks on rocky clifftops.

After crossing Rocky Creek Bridge you'll arrive at Bixby Bridge whose 95-metre arch spans a deep canyon. An important public works project during the Great Depression, its construction is a marvel of engineering, challenged by its remote location and the strong waves and winds that blast through the canyon.

The highway rises from the bridge to a lookout at Hurricane Point -- you'll understand the name the moment you step out of your car. The scenery, encompassing the plunging bluffs, Bixby Bridge and Point Sur lighthouse in the distance, is so satisfying that it's a good spot to turn around as the route heads inland to the mountains.

Wind Down in Wine Country
With its old wooden water towers rising above Cape Cod-style saltbox houses and clapboard Victorian homes, Mendocino could be an East Coast fishing village. But this former logging town 250 kilometres north of San Francisco is a charming arts community nestled in wine country. The drive up the coast highway alone is worth it. You'll hug the coastline and climb coastal ridges to lookouts then wind through farmland, meadows and cypress groves.

With 40 wineries clustered in the Mendocino Valley, you can stop in and pick up some handcrafted local vintages while exploring the lush hills. The Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance (www.mendowine.com) can suggest driving tours to wineries with tasting rooms.

A few minutes south of Mendocino, you'll pass the Heritage House Inn (5200 North Highway One, Little River, CA; tel: 800-235-5885; www.heritagehouseinn.com). The original 1877 farmhouse, used as a base by rumrunners during Prohibition, is now home to luxury accommodations and superb market fare. Located on high bluffs above the ocean, the inn's dining area and rooms overlook the pounding waves. Guests can walk 15 hectares of landscaped gardens, lawns and cliffside trails, or head to a gazebo perched on the edge of a bluff with a view of the ocean that stretches to the horizon.

Perched on a rocky headland above the Pacific's stormy waters, the laidback town of Mendocino is a perfect place to unwind. The pace of life on the storied Main Street is more in tune with tides than trends. Although it's just a few hours from ultra-wired San Francisco, cell phones don't work in town and locals are trying to prevent the installation of a transmission tower. Residents have also blocked chain stores, supermarkets and motels.

A self-guided tour of its art galleries is available from the arts centre and leads you from a glass studio to a converted water tower. The Artist's Co-op has a variety of studios under one roof as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. In the evening, you'll find artists and winemakers gathered at the MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant while cats roost on fences around the patio.

After exploring the town, you can bike and hike along the bluffs or explore the tidal flats and sand bars. And if you're up for a long walk, head to Mendocino Headlands State Park. There the Headlands Trail leads you along the coast to rock outcroppings that jut into the Pacific. You can sit among the crashing surf as gulls fly overhead and forget, perhaps for a minute or two, that there's anything else that will ever require your attention.

 

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