Unlike Route 66, which holds an exalted position in the American consciousness, no songs have been written about California's Pacific Coast Highway 1. The latter, however, enjoys two advantages over its more famous counterpart. One is that on its way north from sunny Orange County it passes some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world and two of the greatest cities in the United States - Los Angeles and San Francisco. The other is that unlike Route 66, which was gradually swallowed up by the Interstate system, Highway 1 still exists for the most part. Although it merges with Route 101 in southern California, on reach-ing the gorgeous Santa Lucia coast Highway 1 becomes a glorious, sinuous stretch of two-lane blacktop. If you plan to drive the road's entire length, think in terms of 10 days at least for a journey that will serve up all manner of California culture and Americana, from urban chic to suburban sprawl, and from small-town Latino to backwoods hippy. A word about wheels: Highway 1 is archetypal California, and although mist may roll in from the Pacific at any time, the views are magnificent and the sunshine fairly reliable. So rent a convertible - crucially one with a fair-sized boot, such as a Ford Mustang. You'll be on the road for at least a week and glad of the fresh air and space. There's no need to travel south from LA to begin the journey: the route is mostly unremarkable through the strip development of Orange County. Instead, point your car towards Pacific Palisades at Santa Monica, from where the road sweeps below as it heads north, skirting the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains towards Malibu. This first day's driving covers only 160 kilometres, as Highway 1 rolls past the gated Malibu Colony then hugs an indented coastline of small, near-deserted beaches. It crosses a low coastal plain of farmland, airfields and sun-baked towns snoozing by railroad tracks before merging with Highway 101 near Ventura and following the coast for the remainder of the run to Santa Barbara. This wealthy university city designed in Mediterranean and Mission-revival style plays host to the media frenzy surrounding its most notorious resident, Michael Jackson. Normally it is a relaxed place where you can enjoy a late lunch on the rickety wooden pier, stroll through tree-shaded streets lined with smart boutiques, browse in intelligently stocked bookshops, and visit the beautiful Santa Barbara Mission (founded by Franciscan monks more than 200 years ago). Set similarly modest objectives for the second day, with a roughly 200km drive to Morro Bay, which marks the southern end of the celebrated Big Sur coast. Highway 1 is intermittently swallowed up by 101 as it runs north and west, at one point rising to a plateau where it skirts the vast Vandenberg Air Force Base, from where the USAF regularly lobs ballistic missiles into the central Pacific. Beyond the mission town of San Luis Obispo the two roads part company, 101 heading inland while 1 makes for the sea. From there it's a brief drive to Morro Bay, a quiet but delightfully unpretentious village whose almost landlocked harbour - home to pelicans, sea otters and a small fishing fleet - is dominated by an enormous plug of volcanic rock and a more unsightly power station. The town is the perfect base for a visit to Hearst Castle, the palatial residence of press baron William Randolph Hearst, which occupies a hilltop perch above San Simeon, about 35km to the north. There is also a relatively short drive for the third day, but a truly spectacular one. The 200km that separate Morro Bay and Monterey take the Pacific Coast Highway high above the deep blue waters and rocky bays of the coast, and into the green and gold mountains of Big Sur. At every twist in the Tarmac another sensational vista swings into view. The countryside is protected by national parks and supports only a handful of tiny villages (Lucia has a population of six - or so a genial cafe waitress tells us, though it does boast a library dedicated to that great libertine of letters, Henry Miller). Eventually you emerge from this magnificent wilderness into the picture-postcard cuteness of Carmel. An ale at former mayor Clint Eastwood's Hogsbreath Inn is de rigueur, but those travelling on a budget must continue up the road (accommodation is ruinous here), though not before visiting the lovely Carmel Mission, dating from the 1770s. Monterey, former capital of Spanish California, lies just across the hill, along with some reasonably priced motels. Although usually associated with its native son, writer John Steinbeck (the sardine canneries immortalised in Cannery Row are now, all too predictably, a shopping mall), Monterey was briefly the home of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island while staying in a local boarding house. Monterey lives off its history, and despite the rampant commercialism is a pretty stop for the night. The fourth day's drive brings Highway 1 into San Francisco's orbit, passing through the university town of Santa Cruz and up another stunning stretch of coastline towards Half Moon Bay, an old resort town whose sleepy mood belies its proximity to America's fourth-biggest metropolitan area. A mere 45 minutes more behind the wheel brings you to the heart of San Francisco's downtown, where a brief stay would do scant justice to this spectacular, sophisticated and European-flavoured North American city. Here a car is likely to be as much of a hindrance as a help, though it will come in handy for trips around the Bay Area, exploring the great green expanse of the Presidio, cruising the byways of Marin County or touring the world-famous vineyards of Napa Valley The final leg of the journey is the longest, with more than 250km separating San Francisco and Fort Bragg. You are heading towards the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest, along another spectacular route that sees fewer vehicles the further you drive. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 1 twists down to the bays and beaches of Marin County towards the lagoon-like inlet of Tomales Bay. Here a dog-leg deviation inland brings you through softly rolling farmland, eventually returning to the coast at Bodega Bay, a sheltered fishing village made famous by Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic thriller The Birds. Heading north again through Sonoma County, the road passes more towering cliffs, lonely villages and beaches. By mid-afternoon you reach Mendocino, a pretty clifftop village of clapboard houses that has been a mecca for artists and tourists since the 1960s. Linger awhile then push on 16km more to Fort Bragg, and your last night on Highway 1. Huddled around the road, but with a sheltered harbour at its southern end, Fort Bragg is a charming spot that serves as the coastal terminus for the California Western Railroad's 'Skunk Train', so called for the noxious fumes it emits. Sink some suds at the North Coast Brewing Co. and grab some sleep at one of Fort Bragg's moderately priced hotels. The final morning brings you to the end of the road. More than 1,000km north of Los Angeles, the Pacific Coast Highway rejoins Route 101 at Leggett in the redwood forests of northern California. This tiny township is home to the 'Drive-Through Tree', a 2,400-year-old redwood in whose base a car-sized tunnel was chipped out. Although it would be regarded nowadays as a severe case of eco-vandalism, doubtless you'll pay your money and drive through - emerging at the other side ready to point your car south down 101, on the inland dash to San Francisco or Los Angeles, and the long plane ride home.