“Woah! That was close!” says my co-driver Emma – well, words to that effect – as our hire car apparently gets within a few inches of the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway, at least 200ft above the ocean.
I say apparently because I’m sunk low behind the steering wheel of a very unfamiliar sports car – a bright red, growling Ford Mustang V6 Fastback – and I’m pretty much guessing what’s happening way over there on the right-hand side.
Truth is, I have never driven on the right- hand side of the road and along California Route 1, heading towards the Big Sur, the scenery becomes ever prettier and more distracting – which probably explains that close brush with the edge of the road.
One of the advantages of a fly-drive holiday is that you can pick and choose accommodation to suit your budget. That could mean medium-price hotels each night or low-cost rooms for most of the trip, with a treat for a night or two.
For most of us, the Ventana Inn & Spa, set in lush hills in the heart of the Big Sur, would fall into the latter category. Our room costs around $850 (£544) for a single night – and that’s a midweek rate.
With its snug lounge area with wood fire, our cabin-style suite oozes opulence. Ventana is very much honeymoon and wedding territory. It even played a part in Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman’s nuptials.
I sit in the Olympic-sized bathtub and take the opportunity to read up more on the Big Sur, which covers almost 100 miles of coastline. The beginning and end is not precisely defined, but the consensus seems to be that it runs from the Carmel River in Monterey County down to San Carpoforo Creek.
As beautiful as the Ventana resort is, I can’t wait to continue my journey. I’d arranged to switch vehicle to a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and from the SUV’s elevated driving position, I can see more of the coast – and, indeed, the edge of the road.
The infamous Highway 1 twists and turns along a path carved by nature over millions of years, with just a little help from men armed with dynamite. It’s a well-kept, with a crash barrier along the perimeter. Crucially, drivers respect the 45mph speed limit and the double yellow lines down the centre of the road, which indicate no overtaking. This is a tourist route after all.
There are many places to pull over to admire the scenery – and you should, regularly. A waitress at a roadside restaurant implores me to stop off at Piedras Blancas beach, near San Simeon. “Honestly, it’s like something out of the National Geographic!” she screams – and she’s not wrong.
The sandy stretch is covered with dozens and dozens of elephant seals competing for space on the beach, completely unfazed by large crowds watching on.
Back on the road, my heart sinks a little when I see a build-up of homes as we approach San Luis Obispo. The beautiful, sparsely populated Big Sur had been and gone in a flash.
Still, the affluent city, known locally as “SLO”, offers its own random delights – specifically, dinner at the gobsmackingly kitsch Madonna Inn, and exhilarating sand buggy racing on the massive dunes at the nearby Pismo Beach.
For the next leg, I switch vehicle again - this time to a Chevrolet Camaro, another gas-guzzling 3.7-litre sports coupe. At least the petrol is cheap here – less than 60p/litre if my calculations are correct.
When I cruise into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, aka the American Riviera, I feel a little like a movie star.
I rise very early to explore the beach and near-deserted wharf. A sea lion appears beneath me on the pier and gracefully swims off. It’s definitely a moment. Then, soon after, two dolphins swim by on the other side of the wharf. Another moment.
In fact, casual encounters with animals became a common occurrence. Aside from the dolphins, sea lions and seals, I also see whales, deer, hummingbirds, eagles and more.
California has many man-made theme parks, of course, but this state is one big natural playground. It’s a place to create your own excellent adventure. Just don’t get too close to the edge.
• Warren Chrismas was a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) which offers a five-night West Coast fly-drive from £1,425pp (two sharing), including scheduled flights from London Heathrow to San Francisco and returning via Los Angeles with room-only accommodation (including a one-night stay at Ventana Inn and Spa) and car hire for a convertible.
For more information on California, visit www.visitcalifornia.com/uk