So you've decided to drive to the Monterey Bay area from San Francisco (a very wise decision). It's the only way to go. Rent a car from the airport, and make sure to bring your favorite tunes, for you are about to go on a cruise through some spectacular country. It will take the better part of the afternoon. Sure, you can get to Monterey in just a couple of hours if you take the freeway, but the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is just the ONLY way to go. So it takes a little longer, what else do you have to do?
I've taken several routes. The easiest, if you are coming from the airport area in South San Fran, is to turn off the freeway and cut through San Mateo, over the hills through Belmont, and pick up the PCH before Half Moon Bay. You'll get some terrific views when you hit the crest of the hills.
Another way, coming down the Peninsula, takes you through Pacifica and a state park area. It's a nice winding drive through a redwood forest, but if you get car sick, this may get a bit too much. It takes much longer too. The San Meteo route is just as pretty.
Stop at one of the road side produce stands along the way. My companion and I bought a ten pound bag of artichokes for $2. (It seemed sensible at the time, and we had no where to pack them in our luggage. Back home we ate artichokes until we were sick).
Carry on. Up ahead, you'll see Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a picturesque structure with a white picket fence and little gardens, just sitting there all on its own. The site has an attached row of guest rooms that are now a hostel. Might be an interesting place to stay if you are looking for something isolated. Stop and take some pictures. It'll be a good time to stretch your legs, too.
If you have the time, Santa Cruz is a good place to stop overnight, as we did. As you wind into town off the PCH, you'll pass perfect little beachside homes, another lighthouse, and if you look out into the Pacific, you'll certainly see people surfing. There's the amusement pier and fisherman's wharf. If you are into fishing, this seems to be the place. (PS, however, my whale watching excursions from Monterey have been much more spectacular than from Santa Cruz. Maybe the north end of the bay isn't as good for that sort of thing, maybe it was just the day. I'd wait until you get to the south end of the bay.)
The Hippy lifestyle seems alive and well in Santa Cruz. And its a college town, to boot, so there'll be things to do at night. There's a charming little Main street with gift shops and bars. And, of course, the Mystery Spot is nearby. For that alone you should stay. (see my other entry on the Mystery Spot)
Near Santa Cruz is my favorite winery, Bonny Doone. They make some world class wines and have delightful quirky labels and names for the wines. You can't miss it; turn off the PCH onto Bonny Doone Road. It's up in the hills a way about five to seven minutes from the coastal highway.
If you're driving straight through, and not stopping in Santa Cruz, you will come into the Monterey Area just at sunset (how perfect is that?) Get out, take some snaps of a perfect sunset, and come on into Monterey, or carry on to Pacific Grove or Carmel for the night.
I've made this drive several times. In fact, every time I come to Monterey, it's how I go. I go out of my way to build in an extra day to drive. PCH is a good safe road that never seems to be crowded, is relaxing to drive, and without a doubt, scenic.