Crowds cheer, cameras flash; Sadie Beckman feels like a celebrity as she rolls down Highway One in a Cadillac.
Road-tripping in a Cadillac down California's scenic Highway One, hair flying in the breeze, sun on bare shoulders and 70s funk on the stereo sounds like the stuff of movies or dreams, so I had to pinch myself when I recently did just that.
Highway One connects California's northern and southern regions. It's a spectacular coastal route showcasing the glittering Pacific Ocean and the changing Californian landscapes. Driving it is, I would wager, on a fair few bucket lists. Add a classic American car and it would definitely be on a few more.
The road is not just famous and enshrined in popular culture, it is also historically and economically important, so when a giant mudslide in May last year forced its closure, it seriously impacted tourism and transport in the region.
A year and a half, and US$54 million later, 14 acres of debris have been dealt with and the road has reopened after a mammoth construction effort in a very short timeframe.
To celebrate, 200 tourism industry representatives, media from around the world and car enthusiasts who couldn't quite believe their luck gathered at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey where 80 cars — representing all the years the highway has existed — set off on a ceremonial lap, before forming a convoy and heading south.
The event was aptly named the Highway One Dream Drive and organisers had pulled out all the stops to ensure it really was.
Highway Patrol provided a police escort and I wondered who was looking after the rest of the state as every side road, traffic light or turning seemed to be staffed by California's finest, decked out in their shiny boots and aviators, holding back a queue of cars waiting for us to pass.
Waving people and camera flashes popped up on every corner, and a helicopter film crew hovered overhead, capturing footage of the convoy.
In front of the Caddy, a 1970 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray carried dash-mounted cameras, a film crew and, at the wheel, Australian Supercars champion racing driver Craig Lowndes, who had joined the drive to add celebrity power and also check off a couple of his own bucket list items.
"As a racing driver and a first-time visitor to beautiful California, this is a very special experience for me," he said.
"I've ticked off two dreams in one go: hitting the track at legendary WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and driving one of the most spectacular road trips in the world."
After a couple of hours, the convoy's first stop was at beautiful Big Sur, where brunch at hilltop resort Ventana allowed for a recharge, an iced tea and a gawp at the beautiful view over the ocean. Experience taught those of us in convertibles that we should have put something over the sun-exposed car seats while parked, so with slightly warm derrieres, we set off again.
Rolling into Hearst Ranch Winery further south at San Simeon was a joy. Visitors stared, kids shouted with excitement, and in a giant, rustic barn with a gloriously cool interior we were treated to local rose and chardonnay for the non-drivers and tables laden with delicious, fresh, Mediterranean-style delicacies. The car drivers had fun revving for the film crews' microphones and the air throbbed with the sound of the internal combustion engine's evolution over the course of eight decades.
The convoy left San Simeon for the last stretch of the trip, which would culminate in a reception event and beachside celebration at Morro Bay, some 200km from where we started. This part of the coast teemed with wildlife; I saw basking elephant seals, pelicans, sea otters and hawks whirling overhead.
Coming down the hill into Morro Bay was akin to a carnival parade.
It's only a small town, picturesque with its wooden wharfs and characterised by the looming Morro Rock, but it seemed that everyone who lived there or was holidaying had turned out to line the streets. Our convoy sailed past towards the finish line, and jumping up on the back seat of the ever-popular and attention-grabbing Cadillac to wave to the crowds was irresistible and surreal.
As far as American road trips go, I don't think you could top this one, and to experience it in such a celebratory way was a real privilege. I know waving crowds, police escorts, famous drivers and vintage car convoys aren't the usual way to drive Highway One, but at the risk of sounding spoiled, I'd definitely recommend it as the best way.
GETTING THEREAir New Zealand flies from Auckland to San Francisco, with one-way Economy fares from $969.