Travel: Four must-see spots in epic Big Sur

Road trip on epic Big Sur with PhotowalksTV

As those of us who live in our little South Bay bubble know, when we look to make the great drive between here and San Francisco, it usually begins with a basic question: “5 or the Coast?”

The interstate is considered to be a faster route, by at least 1 hour, but it’s not pretty: you’re driving on a big interstate freeway favored by truckers, with little great to look at during the 6 hour drive. (Unless you’re a fan of Buttonwillow and way too many cows stacked atop each other in Coalinga.)

The coast has so much more to offer visually, but there’s another decision that has to be made: 101 or 1?

Once we pass San Luis Obispo from the south, we can either stay on 101 towards San Jose, which gets rather bland after the amazing Santa Barbara, Los Alamos, Pismo Beach and beautiful golden hills of 101, or turn over to 1 and go through all those great small towns like Morro Bay and Cambria.

It’s a big decision, because if you’re short on time, staying on 1 will send you through the long, 90 mile, 3-hour plus stretch between Cambria and Carmel through very windy Big Sur.

But what a drive it is, with the best of California rocky coast and scenic views mile after mile, great hikes and more.

While all of it is pretty amazing, from Ragged Point in the south to Bixby Bridge in the north, I’ve identified four key spots for photography in the latest episode of #PhotowalksTV, which I’d love to share with you today.

As you know, #PhotowalksTV has been exploring Highway 1 for season IV of the travel photography series. We started a few weeks ago in Pismo, then continued to San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Cayucos and Cambria. Next week we’ll be in Carmel-by-the-sea. 

Let’s dive in and look at those four top Big Sur photo spots:

About 20 miles north of Hearst Castle, just outside Cambria, is the first Big Sur town you’ll come to, and you can’t miss it. The “Welcome to Big Sur” sign kind of gives it away.

Ragged Point has a motel, restaurant, gas station and convenience store. There’s a great hike on the grounds of the motel that’s fun to take, bringing you to an amazing coastal view and a 400 foot drop down to the water, if you feel like climbing down and coming back up.

If not, just enjoy the view.

Pfeiffer Beach, home to purple sand and Keyhole Rock

The most coveted parking spot in Big Sur is arguably right here, as you’ll hear in this interview with a Pfeiffer Beach parking attendant in the episode. Pfeiffer is home to the Keyhole Rock and purple sand, but you’ll need to arrive early, before the spots are taken.

Google Maps describes Nepenthe as “Classic California cuisine with a view.” And what a view it is! I always make it a point to ask locals for the best nearby photo spots. David Seefeldt, who sells beautiful jade from the side of the road, sent me to Nepenthe and the iconic view.

Check out the Big Sur posters being sold in gift shops along the way, and you’ll usually be looking at the view from Nepenthe and Bixby Bridge (below.)

The food at Nepenthe is great too, and the view is so incredible, it’s hard to leave and get back in the car. Best time to visit: for lunch.

The iconic Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur by Jefferson Graham for the PhotowalksTV series

The symbol of Big Sur is this historic bridge, built in 1932, soaring some 260 feet above the water. It is so popular Visit California calls it Big Sur’s Golden Gate Bridge, one seen often in TV shows and movies, most notably HBO’s “Little Big Lies,” and the 1970s Clint Eastwood film “Play Misty for Me.”

There are many different places to position yourself for the best photo views, explored in the episode. But here’s a hint: the road shown below is absolutely awesome for photos!

Next week, we continue the Highway 1 series, just about 30 minutes up the road, to the fairytale, European coastal town of Carmel-by-the-sea, where I meet up with my newfound friend, the photographer Manny Espinoza and Lynne Allenspach of the local tourism office. So please come back and check it out.

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16 Must-See Spots When We Can Travel Again

Honestly, it’s difficult to write cheerfully about travel these days. But a few weeks ago, I found some intriguing news in the midst of my pre-dawn doomscrolling. India’s government had thrown down a challenge for dedicated travelers to visit 15 of the country’s highlights before the end of 2022. If they hit them all, the government will pick up the tab.

It sounded good to me. And it got me thinking. What if something like it happened in my adopted country of Portugal, a place that is tiny but wildly dense with different cultures, cuisines, landscapes and experiences? What would an essential, insider’s tour of Portugal—hitting all the highlights but also the best secret spots and most off-the-beaten-path corners of the continental territory—look like?

With that in mind, I challenged one of the smarted Portugal-based tour operators I know, Sheree Mitchell of the boutique agency Immersa Global, to give me a wish list of the 15 must-see destinations for a definitive tour of Portugal.

Mitchell always goes above and beyond. She gave me 16. 

Fortaleza de Sagres

On the southern tip of the Algarve’s Sagres peninsula, this three-sided fort protected the town from North African raiders. “In addition to being an important contribution to Portugal’s historic homeland security strategy,” says Mitchell. “This off-the-beaten path site has fantastic views of beaches, dramatic cliffs and the sea all in one.”  

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos

This is one of Mitchell’s favorite nature visits in the Algarve. “For people who are memorized by the formation and complexity of naturally occurring grottoes, Ponta da Piedade is a must-see,” she says. Visitors can see the caves from above before walking down to examine them at water level. There are boat tours too.

Pena Palace, Sintra

“The palace’s exterior is the most interesting part,” she notes, “from the whimsical architecture and bright colors to the rich symbolism embedded in every corner. The views of the palace gardens and nearby forest are also stunning.” It’s worth hiring a certified guide who specializes in Sintra’s history and architecture.

Sky Bar by Seen at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, Lisbon

Hilly Lisbon has no shortage of lookout points and rooftop bars, but Mitchell chooses the Sky Bar by Seen at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel for its “unique and unobstructed view of the poshest and most historic part of the city as it cascades down to the Tagus River.”  

Biblioteca Joanina, University of Coimbra

Any bibliophile who appreciates ornate Baroque interior design will thoroughly enjoy visiting the Johannine Library (and university campus) in Central Portugal, contends Mitchell. In between Lisbon and Porto, it’s a perfect stop to break up the drive.  

The terrace of the Yeatman Bar, Vila Nova de Gaia

“Any visit to Porto must include a sunset cocktail from the terrace of one of Portugal’s most popular hotels,” she says. “You’ll have a 180-degree view of Porto from the best seat in the house: across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia.”

Mateus Palace (aka Casa de Mateus), Vila Real

“If you’ve ever dreamed of living in an early 18th-century Baroque manor with well-manicured gardens, a reflection lake, a private chapel, and a working winery on site, then Mateus Palace is for you.” It’s in a secluded area just outside Vila Real, which makes it a great half-day visit on the way to the Douro Valley.  

São Leonardo de Galafura Panoramic Viewpoint (Peso da Regua), Douro Valley

“This must be one of the most stunning views in Portugal. You’ll quickly understand how the Douro Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the majestic Douro River that snakes around the mountains to the meticulously carved steeped terraces that have been used to grow grapes for centuries, this is a view that you’ll never forget.” 

Prehistoric rock art site, Côa Valley, Douro Valley

“Seeing replicas of prehistoric rock art in a museum is one thing. Seeing the real deal at night with a local archaeologist in its original environment is another. This is a mind-blowing experience that everyone should make a point to have when they visit Portugal.” Note that access to the site is only possible with a certified local specialist.  

Sanctuary Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

“This site is known for its dramatic white 381-foot zigzag-shaped stairway, which leads up to a stunning Italian-inspired neoclassical church built in the late 18th century. The large terrace outside the church gives you breathtaking views of Braga.” 

The outdoor terrace of G Pousada, Bragança

Mitchell, who specializes in food and wine travel, cites a dinner at this restaurant as one of her favorite experiences because it “combines a Michelin-star experience that highlights the food, wine and people of a very remote region (Trás-os-Montes) with the stunning views of a medieval castle and village at sunset.” 

Wine harvest at Torre de Palma, Monforte, Alentejo

She recommends this seasonal experience to anyone who’s interested in participating in the harvest on an upscale country estate in southern Portugal (one that’s well organized to meet international travelers’ needs). “You can spend an entire weekend picking, cleaning and stomping grapes in the morning and relaxing poolside in the afternoon.” 

The Roman Temple of Évora

This majestic structure, which dates from the 1st century AD, is impressive and a “must-see” for anyone visiting Portugal, she explains, “but perhaps what is even more impressive is learning the behind-the-scenes details of how this temple and adjacent area have been used over the centuries by the diverse groups that lived here.” (Immersa Global can arrange PhD guides to do just that.) 

A private commented tasting in an historic port wine cellar, Vila Nova de Gaia

“Learning about and sampling Port wine with local specialists in the original centuries-old wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia is an unforgettable experience.” Mitchell recommends booking a private tasting at a working cellar such as Taylor’s for anyone who visits wineries in the Douro Valley.  

The Jerónimos Monastery and Imperial Garden, Belém

This impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s best examples of Manueline architecture (aka Portuguese late Gothic). “It’s also a stark visual reminder of the wealth that Portugal enjoyed as a direct result of its global expeditions.” A visit here is not complete without a stroll through the Imperial Garden in front of the monastery and a stop by Pasteis de Belém for an oven-fresh Portuguese egg tart. 

Historic downtown, Cascais

“After a stroll around the quaint downtown area of this fisherman’s village [turned posh enclave], you’ll immediately understand how Cascais has attracted affluent expats and locals for centuries. On the way back to Lisbon, take the seaside drive along the Avenida Marginal, where you’ll see small urban beaches connected by a string of historic forts.” 

It should go without saying that Immersa Global can arrange all of this and more. 

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