The road has all kinds of names. It's Sepulveda Boulevard as it oozes past Los Angeles International Airport. It's Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. In Guadalupe, it's Guadalupe.

In the road atlas, it's California 1. People call it Highway 1. We'll call it the Pacific Coast Highway, because that's its name some of the time and because no matter what it's called, that's pretty much what it is.We'll pick it up in Long Beach, south of L.A. Our destination is San Francisco.

This is truly one of the Great North American Drives. We'll take five days.

Day 1

The Cunard people in Britain had planned to call it the Queen Victoria. The reigning George at the time thought naming it for his own queen, Mary, would be a splendid idea.

The Queen Mary's last voyage was in 1967. Today she is parked in Long Beach harbor, serving as a hotel, owned by the city but operated (after some shaky years) by people who know what they're doing.

It's worth an hour to tour before we begin our voyage up California Highway 1 - the Pacific Coast Highway.

A few miles later, we're in Redondo Beach and then Hermosa Beach.

On to Venice. And Venice's boardwalk is, indeed, a trip.

Then to Malibu. I walk down the beach. Surfrider Beach. Four decades earlier, mere steps from where I'm standing, Sandra Dee - the original "Gidget" - discovered hormones.

Malibu's 27 miles of beaches include some of the world's best. Sly Stallone may have his house for sale, but Barbra Streisand doesn't.

Past Las Flores Canyon Road, the congestion vanishes. It's a clear road now, the sea to the left with its rocky shorelines and crashing waves. The golden Santa Monica Mountains are on the right.

Then it changes. North of Point Mugu, the Navy takes over the coastline; the highway cuts east, becomes a farm road, then slows as it creeps through Oxnard, as Oxnard Boulevard. The creeping ends just past Oxnard when U.S. Highway 101, an interstate without portfolio, turns California 1 into a frontage road.

Without shame, I ditch the PCH and take 101 into Santa Barbara.

Day 2

Santa Barbara is mellow, up-scale, touristy, gorgeous, clean, expensive. Great shopping, lots of restaurants and latte joints. It's well-groomed, well-dressed people. Even the town's old mission is well-groomed and well-dressed.

The plan is to rejoin California 1 and take it into Lompoc, but that stretch is closed for construction. The detour takes us away from the coast, again, toward the towns of Buellton and Solvang.

Solvang is touted as a Danish village, which is accurate enough: Solvang was founded in 1911 by Danes. But it existed nicely as an ordinary California farm town until about 30 years ago, when entrepreneurs began converting the place into a Danish variation of a fake Swiss ski resort.

Headed back toward the Pacific Coast Highway, I see a sign for La Purisima Mission.

It wasn't just another mission.

Most Spanish California missions are - like San Antonio's Alamo - in the middle of towns they helped create, which puts a real strain on the imagination. La Purisima is out there by itself, surrounded by hills and trees, just as it was 200 years ago.

Lompoc, two miles from the mission, is the Flower Capital of the World. Seeds are big business here, and travelers are welcome to sniff from a distance. No need to stop.

But Lompoc marks our return to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Day 3

In the minutes just after dawn, Pismo Beach - the beach - is a thing of beauty. The town of Pismo Beach, such as it is, looks like a hangover.

California 1 cuts back inland, to San Luis Obispo. Mission San Luis Obispo is here. Except for the cross on the roof, it looks like a library.

At the Firestone Grill three blocks away, I try my first tri-tip. Done right, it's a chunk of beef cooked slowly over a wood fire, sliced thick, brushed with a little sauce and served on a soft-crusted French roll. It's tender and wonderful.

The town? OK. No big deal.

Once more, the Pacific Coast Highway heads back toward the water - but first, a voluntary detour off the main road. An e-mail correspondent has urged a visit to something called Montana de Oro State Park.

It is a winding drive. There's a viewpoint high above the Pacific, then the road twists through a dense eucalyptus forest that's positively spooky. Eventually the road emerges from the forest, winds a bit more, then reaches the beach.

It is a splendid place - waves crashing on rocks, dunes exploding in color from blankets of flowers.

A few minutes ahead: Morro Bay. Once a fishing village, it still is, though relatively new tourist-aimed businesses and a massive power plant have stripped away much of its charm. Across the bay, reachable by car, is Morro Rock.

From a distance, it looks like what it is: a dead volcano. But up close, you can hear it. It's a rookery for thousands of sea birds, and the echoing sound on a late afternoon of all those birds squawking for whatever it is birds squawk about is unforgettable.

Back on the road, we parallel the water but rarely see it. More golden hills are in the way. We will see water soon enough - in Cambria.

Day 4

It is described as an art colony, and it probably is one, but I've never met any Cambrian art colonists.

The nifty part is something called Moonstone Beach. You get there via a short cutoff from California 1. Watch for the signs. The rocks, piles of bleached driftwood and a natural garden-trail along the dunes combine to make it a most special place. Sunset-watching is big here. It deserves to be.

The town of San Simeon isn't much. Hearst Castle is much.

"What this is," says Steve, our guide (and a great one), "is a giant jigsaw puzzle." Publisher William Randolph Hearst, his architect and his advisers took bits and pieces of ancient and Renaissance art, assembled it in and around houses on a hill well inland, invited the most special guests available (in the 1920s and '30s that meant Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, etc.) and helped define an era.

North of San Simeon, it begins.

I once asked someone where the Big Sur starts. His reply: "It starts when you start saying, `Wow.' "

About 6 miles north of San Simeon, on the west side of the Pacific Coast Highway, is a parking area. If you pass the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, you've gone too far.

Take the path toward the sea. It's about 100 yards or so across a pasture. Bring a camera.

Wow.

On a small beach tucked in one cove, at least a dozen seals - harbor seals and huge elephant seals - are dozing on the sand. Two elephant seals suddenly rouse and battle for space, their barking bouncing off the canyon walls. A baby seal is awakened by the noise and watches, then turns and sees - steps away - people, some of them with cameras. The baby looks at them, seems to smile, puts his head down and resumes his nap.

Even without the seals, it is an amazing sight.

The rest of the drive toward Carmel - about 85 miles of it - is a series of Wows. And some delays. Construction cuts the PCH down to one lane in several spots, the traffic flow controlled by lights. But the waits are rarely more the five minutes, and if you're not trying to catch a plane, the breaks are almost welcome.

Power, grace, splendor. And when the fog comes, a sweet softness.

This is the Big Sur. This is why we made this drive.

Day 5

Carmel, in some respects, is a smaller version of Santa Barbara, only more so. It's a place that lives on tourism and would just as soon not - but if we must . . .

Pebble Beach, its famous golf course, charges $295 a round, if you can get a tee time. Though reservations tend to tie things up early, cancellations do happen. Sometimes.

The famed 17-Mile Drive, which connects golf courses and provides some views (mostly of grand houses) and beach access, costs $7.25, making it probably the most expensive toll road per mile anywhere. It's not even 17 miles anymore; changes over the years have cut it to about 151/2, but the price goes up every two years anyway.

Then there's Monterey.

This was once a place where sardine canneries were the lifeblood. John Steinbeck wrote about that place in "Cannery Row."

A few minutes up the road is Castroville, Artichoke Capital of the World.

Santa Cruz has rides and things on its historic boardwalk. I get close, get frustrated by the traffic and the parking snarl and get out of there. Five minutes later, the coastline is back.

Then it's gone.

Vegetables grow in fields right off the highway. Left of us are more fields.

I see a path guarded by a rope with a "Keep out" sign dangling from it. I ignore the warning, step over the rope and keep walking west. I start to hear the sound of collisions.

I reach the end of the path. A cliff. Below me is a small beach, framed by great stone walls being pounded by the surf. A few people are down there. It is magnificent. I start climbing down but can't pick up the trail and carefully scramble back to the top of the cliff, where a young couple in beach clothes is walking with dogs.

"There's another great beach down that path," said the young man. "You kind of have to shimmy down a rope at the end, but it's worth it."

I settle for another cliff view. It's breathtaking.

From Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay is beaches.

One final sunset on the Pacific Coast Highway before the shimmer of San Francisco. A wonderful thing. A wonderful drive.

And for us, the end of the road.

*****

Additional Information

Miles, meals and hotel rates along the coast of California

DAY 1

Long Beach-Santa Barbara: 126 miles.

Overnight: Cheshire Cat Inn (Mad Hatter Room), Santa Barbara, $150.

Best grub: Local yellowtail, marinated and grilled, $13.95; Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant, Santa Barbara.

DAY 2

Santa Barbara-Pismo Beach: 154 miles.

Overnight: SeaVenture Resort, Pismo Beach, $175.

Best grub: Robin Ventura's Bar B Qued Lamb Quesadilla with brie, papaya, red onions and cilantro, $13.50; Chef Rick's Ultimately Fine Foods, Santa Maria.

DAY 3

Pismo Beach-Cambria: 75 miles.

Overnight: Cambria Shores Inn, Cambria, $75.

Best grub: Broiled halibut with soy-ginger dipping sauce, $18.95; Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant, Cambria.

DAY 4

Cambria-Carmel: 103 miles.

Overnight: Best Western Town House Lodge, Carmel, $86.40.

Best grub: Ostrich scaloppine, pan-seared with a pink and black peppercorn crust, wild mushroom ragout and blueberry-honey sauce, $23.75; Anton & Michel restaurant, Carmel.

DAY 5

Carmel-San Francisco: 159 miles

Overnight: York Hotel, San Francisco, $129.

Best grub: Various dumplings and things, $3.88 (including beverage); You's Dim Sum, San Francisco.

Total miles: 617

Note: Lodgings are listed primarily to provide pricing information and should not be considered recommendations. Miles are actual but include sometimes serious meanderings.