Hitting the highway in California

by Dan.Hipgrave

Santa Monica in the morning, Malibu in the afternoon... get a Harley-Davidson and the world (or at least California's Pacific Coast Highway) is your oyster

Ever imagined driving down a highway on a Harley Davidson, the sun in your face, the wind blowing through your fingers, Pacific curlers crashing onto the rocks on the horizon, and then finishing the day lazing on a golden sandy beach. Well that’s exactly what I did, and where better to do it than Los Angeles in the grand ole US of A? 
Having grown up idolizing cult biking movie Easy Rider and Seventies cop show Chips, I always dreamt of hitting a highway and driving into the sunset - and frankly the M25 wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to head to the laidback coastal hub of LA’s Santa Monica, where Harley Davidson rental company Route 66 is based.
Santa Monica is a good choice when visiting LA. It is only 40 minutes drive from the attractions of downtown LA but you’re right by the beaches and, more specifically for this trip, perfectly located near the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
My friend Mike and I arrived at LAX airport still arguing who was going to be (Chips character) Poncherello but excited about our few days of sun, sand and bikes. We headed straight to Glen Bartel's Route 66. The garage has an enviable location near the upmarket Marina del Ray, which offers glamorous eateries overlooking the fancy yachts and powerboats.
Route 66 Rentals organise motorbike excursions to fit everyone’s needs. They plan the routes, supply the kit and will even accompany groups if needed. The choices of routes available are varied, including coastal roads, the mid-west desert or, if you’re feeling brave, the mighty route 66.
Mike and I had agreed on a trip along PCH, as this was possible to do in a day. As Glen ran through the legalities, I scoured the garage for the bike of my dreams. I could hardly believe my eyes: the Harleys here are staggeringly beautiful pieces of machinery, and they’re pimped up and ready to ride.
The Ultra Classic Electra Glide took my eye immediately; it’s a hulk of a bike, 98 inches long and weighing 808lbs before passengers or fuel in its tank. Its twin engines are capable of reaching a speed of100mph and the ‘blinged up’ chrome work would certainly turn heads. To buy one of these machines would set you back £12,000 but a day's rental is only £80. You need to have a full UK motorcycle licence; if you haven’t, you can ride on the back with someone who has.
After getting kitted out in thick black biker jackets and Village People ‘half helmets’ (it wasn’t the best look), we saddled the bikes and were ready to roll. The immense weight took me by surprise and the engine’s deep thunder rumbled to the pit of my belly. As we moved away, the acceleration felt sensitive but the steering was relatively easy to handle due to the precision craftsmanship. Even though Harleys are equipped with sidebars to protect your legs, you wouldn’t want to experience a fall, but with Glen on hand I felt safe. We all set off towards Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is blessed with 3.4 miles of golden beaches on its sultry Pacific Ocean coastline. It’s also home to the famous aAll-American Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) that simply begs to be driven along. Otherwise known as route 1, PCH runs the whole length of California, hugging the water's edge so closely at times that you expect the large rolling waves to burst onto the road. The seemingly endless road, lined with tall palm trees and golden sand, is idyllic.
After a couple of hours of windblown riding around twisty roads through the Topanga Canyon and Malibu’s hillside, we were ready for a break and where better than Zuma beach, arguably one of LA’s finest beach spots. After an hour catching some rays and a quick dip, we set off to Malibu, only a few kilometers along PCH.
Malibu is a stretch of stunning beach, with a few rustic beach bars and surf shacks selling boards, wetsuits and sun cream. The glamorous beach houses that Malibu is famed for are mostly tucked away down private roads or set into the rugged mountains that line the coastline, so you hardly notice them. The beaches are public property and have a great chilled-out ‘flip-flop’ vibe perfect for surfers or sun worshippers.
If we were to have continued further north along PCH (that would entail an overnight) you would eventually reach surfers' paradise: Big Sur and Santa Cruz. For us, though, it was time to call it a day and return the bikes. But not before stopping at hip bar Moonshadows, a few kilometers north of Santa Monica. This is where you’re likely to spot some A-list movie stars and where they sell the best $14 margaritas known to man. We watched the stunning sunset and sipped our drinks, thinking of the great day we just had – another dream to tick off the list.
Santa Monica is more European in its layout than other parts of Los Angeles. Santa Monica’s pedestrinised 3rd Street Promenade offers an easy and more recognizable high street approach to shopping than you’ll find elsewhere in the USA. This rejuvenated ‘urban walkway’ is lined with an impressive array of shops with Adidas, Luckies Jeans, Quiksilver and Apple among some of the top brands boasting flagship stores. Santa Monica has worked hard over the years to smarten itself up into an extremely well-presented community. Fairy lights adorn the mathematically placed trees, whilst modern sculptures and water features provide a cultural impetus much needed in an otherwise vacant society. But the real treat along 3rd Street is the wealth of talent among the street performers. Some of these musicians, dancers and entertainers would have Leicester Square performers quaking in their boots. Taking an early evening stroll down 3rd Street between 6 and 9pm is a pleasant, almost carnival-like, holiday experience, not to be missed.
Eating and drinking
The nightlife in Santa Monica is predominantly geared towards a young, hip crowd, with a wide variety of clubs, bars and restaurants. Ye Olde Kings Head Pub on Sunset Boulevard may be an English pub but is one of Santa Monica’s most popular haunts. Photographs of A-list celebs enjoying a night out in this famous pub line the walls; there are large screens that show sporting events and even a darts board. A pint of London’s Pride and a plate of fish and chips costs around £5. Barney’s Beanery on 3rd Street Promenade is a typical American sports bar, with a fantastic atmosphere and an equally impressive menu. As it says on the menu, ‘if we don’t have it, you don’t need it’, with everything you can imagine - pizzas, burgers, Mexican and exceptional breakfasts - at exceptional prices. Burgers start at around £3. For a more stylish night out, some of the flash hotels on the coast are excellent. Shutters Hotel  is where you’re likely to bump into LA’s high society. The restaurant serves spectacular dishes like hand-made ravioli with shrimp, garlic and oregano (£11). You can sit in the beautiful courtyard garden overlooking the Pacific or inside, where the décor is true LA chic, with minimalist, contempory design.






Dan Hipgrave made his name as the guitarist in rock band Toploader. He now travels the world as a journalist, writing regularly for publications such as The Independent, The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He also presents a regular travel item on BBC2's Market Kitchen. Dan believes the best way to truly discover a place is to immerse into local cultures and hang out with locals - they always know best! Favourite places: Andalucia Fes / Marrakech and anywhere in South East Asia