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After an 18-month closure, California’s Route 1 just reopened in late July, ahead of schedule, and at a cost of over $54 million. The highway snakes up the Pacific coast for over 650 miles, from Dana Point north of San Diego, to where it turns inland at Leggett, 200 miles south of the Oregon border. It traverses outstanding scenery—cliffs, beaches, mountains, farms, valleys, dunes, and ancient redwoods—and is, in many places, the keyway in and out of coastal towns. So when a giant mudslide occurs and washes out a section, like the 75-acre slough that took out a quarter-mile of tarmac in May, 2017, near Big Sur, it can have a devastating impact on residents and the road-tripping tourists on whom many depend for their livelihood.
We love cars and road trips, so we decided that the most appropriate way to celebrate this iconic roadway’s reopening was to take a drive, starting in LA, and ending in the Monterey Peninsula. Given our timing, we’d arrive just in time for “Car Week,” an annual automotive and lifestyle bacchanal that includes historic races, reveals of new concept vehicles, and the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, among the most prestigious classic car shows in the world. And what better vehicle to experience the sun and ocean breezes, than a convertible?
Of course, not just any convertible would do. We selected the all-new Ferrari Portofino. The Italian supercar brand’s “entry level” vehicle, the glowingly argent, $215,000 drop-top features delicious curves, razor-sharp strakes, a weather-sealed metal top that folds up into the trunk, four seats (well, two real seats up front and two meager ones in back better suited to a weekend bag or infant,) and a roaring twin-turbocharged V8 engine that produces nearly 600 hp—nearly as much as five Toyota Priuses combined. This is enough to blast from zero to sixty miles per hour in just over three seconds, and to reach a top speed of nearly 200 mph.
We didn’t go anywhere near that fast, especially since we got our start in sloggy Los Angeles traffic. But that did not stop us from immediately dropping the top, and winding out the Italian V8, albeit in low gear and at low speeds. This display delighted (and occasionally annoyed) surfers, strollers, and seaside brunchers in Malibu. As it turns out, this very stretch of the highway was the site of one of the most contentious road construction battles in state and national history.
Frederick H. Rindge and his wife May were the last owners of the 17,000-acre Rancho Malibu, land that they began purchasing in 1892. After Frederick’s death in 1905, May fought and won a series of court battles denying the state access for a road. But Los Angeles County eventually condemned a right-of-way and opened a public seaside route here in November 1921. The Rindge’s battle eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the state’s favor in 1923. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Edward Terry Sanford stated that, “Public uses are not limited, in the modern view, to matters of mere business necessity and ordinary convenience, but may extend to matters of public health, recreation, and enjoyment.”
This officially encoded into the public record Route 1’s status as a highway built primarily for its scenic beauty, and the provision of public access to it. Interestingly, this runs in direct contrast to the highway’s official foundation narrative, which occurred at the far end of our journey in Monterey. Though the road and its construction was spearheaded by Dr. John Roberts, who founded the local town of Seaside, back in the late 19th century as a means of bringing tourists and business into the region—highlighting its natural beauty—state construction funds were not actually allocated until the midst of World War I, when Roberts and state senator Elmer Rigdon highlighted their road proposal as a military necessity, rather than a scenic and touristic one.
Plowing north of Santa Barbara, with the traffic diminished, and the top retracted, we are really able to take in the stunning beauty of this landscape. Not that the interior of the Ferrari is any slouch. Supple and subtly stitched caramel-colored hides wrap the seats, dash, steering wheel, and center tunnel (a matching Ferrari kiddie car-seat is an actual option.) A crisp new 10.2-inch LCD screen performs quick work of navigation, media, and phone functions, and an optional supplemental screen in front of the passenger allows them access to your speed—not that they want to know. It also gives them the ability to provide navigation inputs, a capability that is much appreciated as we meander through the adorable college town of San Luis Obispo (“Mexican Restaurant,”) the beach towns of Moro Bay and Pismo Beach (“Ocean View,”) and the ticky-tacky tourist traps around Hearst Castle by San Simeon (“Roadside Attraction.”)
Just north of Cambria, an overturned produce truck closes the road completely, causing us to turn around and backtrack for hours—always a gamble on a singular road like Highway 1. But we eventually make it up to the breathtaking cliffside twisties near Big Sur, just in time for sunset. Transcendentally beautiful, this area has long been popular with spiritualists and healers, and ashrams, retreats, and spas dot the landscape. This 93-mile stretch connecting Carmel with San Simeon was actually the first built section of the road. But the ghosts of this great highway are not all the kind that can be excised with a sage smudge stick, a soak in an oceanside hot tub, or a deep tissue massage. In 1924, three years after construction began, a shortage of funding and workers forced a stop, and it wasn’t until 1928 that it continued, this time with forced prison laborers from San Quentin. They worked on this often lethal project, living in camps on site until the roadway was completed in 1934.
We tried to move past this ignominious history and find pleasure. The Portofino does its part to help. Like all contemporary Ferraris, it has a computer-controlling toggle on the steering wheel called the Manettino that allows a driver to change the car’s character, softening or sharpening its responses and performance. We click over to from Comfort to Sport, one click shy of the all-out Race mode. The steering becomes heavier, the throttle and brake responses quicker, the suspension firmer. We plow around hairpins, scream through straightaways, watch our avarice-inducing reflection in the eyes of selfie-taking tourists, and generally feel like an Italian playboy.
Then we arrive at Pebble Beach, where preparations for the concours events have already begun. The roads are clotted with cars far more exotic, special, and rare than ours, including many Ferraris that are valued at twice, ten, or even 100 times as much as ours (yes, $21 million Ferraris exist. In fact one is expected to bring up to $60 million at auction this week.) We try not to feel less special. And it works. Our experience was singular and invaluable, a literal and figurative blast.