I began my California Highway 1 road trip on August 6th, my first foray away after isolating at home since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March. 

At the local office of the Automobile Club of Southern California, I carefully mapped out directions—from my home in Santa Barbara to Carmel-by-the-Sea, including an overnight stop at San Luis Obispo along the way. This route is considered one of the most scenic ocean drives in the world. I packed all the essentials for pandemic-compliant travel including maps, masks, sanitizers, disposable gloves, snacks, treats, bottled water and a AAA emergency card..

Editors’ note: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we travel. With so many restrictions in place, many travelers are venturing closer to home, taking day trips, and seeking to spend their time outdoors.

First stop: A new hotel in San Luis Obispo

California Highway 1 Road Trip: Exterior Hotel Cerro

Exterior Hotel Cerro

Quite fortuitously, I received news before leaving home that a new hotel had recently opened in San Luis Obispo. I love the area and was fortunate to be able to arrange a stay. Luckily, the hotel was conveniently situated close to an exit off of the highway.

Located in the downtown area of the city, Hotel Cerro comprises two buildings merged to create a new, ultra-chic property that hasn’t forgotten its past. An entire wall of the lobby and the hotel’s Brasserie SLO restaurant contain the original brick walls of the historic buildings, offering guests the nostalgic feel of old New York or Chicago architecture. 

The property has local owners and is managed by Natalie M. Ward, a warm and approachable woman with a long history in hospitality who came from the East Coast to open the hotel.

My stunning guest room, one of 65 rooms and suites, was located on the top floor and had all the latest bells and whistles: designer bedding, a plush robe and slippers, the latest in high-tech lighting—along with face masks and hand sanitizers. My patio overlooking the chef’s garden offered dramatic views of the sunrise above the rolling hills.

Pool at Hotel Cerro

Pool at Hotel Cerro

The pool on the fourth floor, also with great views, was open for sunbathing but sadly, the spa was closed temporarily because of the pandemic.

Each hotel guest is gifted with a handy water bottle to take home that can be filled at a pure water dispenser found in the ice room on each floor. In terms of style, comfort, quality, ambiance and service, I would rank the hotel as high as any 5-star hotel.

Pandemic dining on the patio

Fig tree patio at Brasserie SLO

Fig tree patio at Brasserie SLO

My dinner on the patio at Brasserie SLO is one I will remember forever. I arrived as the sun was beginning to set and reveled in the light glimmering through the fig trees, only to be followed at dusk by a different light bouncing off the firewall and custom fire pits. Sous-chef Brandon Barksdale shared the secrets of his uniquely delicious English pea coulis and perfectly prepared oak-roasted Muscovy duck breast entrée.

Chef Barksdale's Moscovy Duck

Chef Barksdale’s Moscovy Duck

Many of the citrus, vegetables, herbs and microgreens used in his recipes come straight from his garden or from the local weekly farmer’s market.

Chef's garden at Hotel Cerro

Chef’s garden at Hotel Cerro (Credit: Hotel Cerro)

My Spanish gin and tonic cocktail of aromatic gin, violette liqueur, tonic and herbs overflowed with fresh flowers from the hotel garden, creating quite a fun stir from onlookers. Tracy Day, the brilliant pastry chef who will be managing the new Pie Shop in the hotel, provided a peach melba dessert ending that was truly tasty and refreshing.

Peach Melba by Chef Day

Peach Melba by Chef Day

Due to pandemic space restrictions, only six tables were occupied but we all engaged in conversation together, uniformly pleased with our first experience at the hotel. A young couple next to me said it reminded them of dining al fresco at the Hotel Hassler in Rome earlier in the year. 

Reaching Carmel-by-the-Sea

When I reached Carmel-by-the-Sea, I spent two nights at Hofsas House Hotel, a charming, 37-room European-style property on San Carlos Street. There, too, manager Carrie Theis was taking all the necessary precautions to keep guests safe. 

Guest room at Hofsas House

Guest room at Hofsas House

Browsing at the many shops in this area is a happy pastime of mine. During this visit, I discovered Jan de Luz, an amazing European monogram shop on Dolores between Ocean and 7th Streets that has been creating exquisite monograms on imported French fabric gift items for many years. I also stopped at Carmel Belle, a favorite healthy food and wine shop on the same street, where I people-watched on the outdoor patio over a delicious iced Americano coffee with oat milk.  

Looking back and finding the new normal

The last time I took a road trip along California Highway 1, many years ago, I was on vacation with my four children who were all under the age of 12. 

Driving past Big Sur with all the families camping there now brought back fun memories. Presumably, they were taking what they hoped would be COVID-safe vacations. The numerous viewing points along the coast were filled with the new crop of road trip warriors taking photos, and I joined them to take a few of my own. 

While visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Luis Obispo, I was impressed with how courteous and compliant shopkeepers, restaurant employees, locals and other visitors were about wearing masks. Carmel was alive with people walking pets and chatting through their masks as though things were perfectly normal. And both cities had an abundance of outdoor dining structures, many put up quickly, filled with seated customers and others waiting in line.

And in case you are wondering, yes, I felt overjoyed for the first time in months by a feeling that things were normal—at least for a few hours sitting under that beautiful fig tree.

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler? 

  • San Luis Obispo is a pedestrian-friendly community with excellent shopping and beaches nearby, including my favorite, Avila Beach.
  • Both Carmel-by-the Sea and San Luis Obispo offer visitors a brush with history: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is a renowned tourist attraction and both cities are homes to  historic California missions worth visiting.

Take note

  • Under normal weather conditions, the route of my California Highway 1 road trip is safe. However, if it is rainy or otherwise inclement, I would only strongly recommend travel on 101 North/South Freeway.
  • There are easy to access restaurants with ample parking on Highway 1, including Big Sur Lodge Restaurant and Ragged Ridge Lodge. Both are handicapped-accessible. Most restaurants with outside dining were taking reservations and honoring them.
  • Accommodations at Hotel Cerro are spread over four floors with elevators and the property is fully handicapped-accessible. Valet parking is available for a daily fee, and there is reduced-rate city parking with a hotel coupon located one-half block away.
  • Some of the streets and sidewalks in Carmel-on-the-Sea are old and uneven, so walk carefully. If you are driving, also be cautious because both cities are renowned for their one-way streets.


The distance from Santa Barbara to Carmel-by-the-Sea, with a stop in San Luis Obispo is about 240 miles. San Luis Obispo is about 1.5 hours from Santa Barbara.


The author’s visit was hosted by Hotel Cerro, Brasserie SLO and Hofsas House Hotel. All opinions expressed are her own.

All photo credits: Bonnie Carroll, unless otherwise noted

Editors’ note: This is one in an ongoing series of close-to-home road trip suggested by our GOT Contributors.

Also see:

Save to Pinterest!

Take A California Highway 1 Road Trip