"Woah! That was close!" says my co-driver Emma - well, unrepeatable words to that effect - as our hire car apparently gets within a few inches of the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway, at least 200ft above the ocean.

I say 'apparently' because I'm sunk low behind the steering wheel of a very unfamiliar sports car - a bright red, growling Ford Mustang V6 Fastback - and, to be honest, I'm pretty much guessing what's happening way over there on the right-hand side.

Despite holding a driving licence for more than a quarter of a century, and visiting a fair chunk of the world in that time, I've somehow avoided driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. Until today, that is.

Some friends had expressed surprise that I was planning a six-day trip to travel from San Francisco to LA. It's true that you can do it in seven hours if you take the direct, 381-mile route on Interstate 5. But that's just a car journey - what I'm planning is a road trip. Better still, I'm doing it in style by driving a series of highly desirable cars.

Once on the freeway, any concerns about remembering to stay on the right, or working out which side is the fast lane, soon disappear.

Driving along California Route 1 and heading towards the Big Sur, the scenery becomes ever prettier and more distracting - which probably explains that close brush with the edge of the road.

We stop, along with many other tourists, at the well-known landmark Bixby Creek Bridge, a concrete-arched construction set 280ft above the ocean, which I vaguely recognise from photos.

A few miles down the road, it becomes apparent that we'd actually stopped at its little brother, Rocky Creek Bridge. The lack of cars parked at the real Bixby Creek suggests we aren't the only ones to make that mistake...

One of the advantages of a fly-drive holiday is that you can pick and choose accommodation to suit your budget and requirements. That could mean medium-price hotels each night or low-cost rooms for most of the trip, with a treat for a night or two.

For most of us, the Ventana Inn & Spa, set in the lush hills in the heart of the Big Sur, would definitely fall into the latter category. Our room costs around 850 US dollars (£544) for a single night - and that's a mid-range option at the Ventana, at a midweek rate.

With its view of redwood-lined hills and snug lounge area with wood fire, our cabin-style suite oozes opulence. Ventana is very much honeymoon and wedding territory. It even played a part in both Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman's nuptials.

I sit in the Olympic-sized bathtub, set between the bedroom and bathroom, and take the opportunity to read up more on the Big Sur.

I knew the name was derived from "el sur grande" (or "the big south") and that it covered almost 100 miles of coastline, but I was confused about exactly where it begins and ends. I hadn't spotted a welcome sign on the road earlier that day.

Turns out, the Big Sur is not precisely defined, but the consensus seems to be that it runs from the Carmel River in Monterey County (some 120 miles south of San Francisco) down to San Carpoforo Creek and a little into San Luis Obispo County (around 250 miles north of LA). It's actually around 90 miles - not long at all.

The region runs several miles inland, but most people picture the infamous coastal views, where mountains plunge into the raging ocean with devastating effect.

As beautiful as the Ventana resort is, I can't wait to continue my journey.

I'd arranged to switch vehicle to a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and from the SUV's elevated driving position, I can literally see more of the coast - and, indeed, the edge of the road.

Now driving with confidence, I hook up my iPhone to the car's audio system and premier my carefully curated California playlist.

OK, Guns N' Roses' Welcome To The Jungle isn't entirely appropriate for the Big Sur, but life was definitely starting to feel pretty damn good.

The infamous Highway 1 twists and turns along a path carved by nature over millions of years, with just a little help from men armed with dynamite.

It's a well-kept road, with a crash barrier along the perimeter. Crucially, drivers respect the 45mph speed limit and the double yellow lines down the centre of the road, which indicate no overtaking. This is a tourist route. Anyone in a rush uses Route 101 or Interstate 5, inland.

There are many places to pull over to admire the scenery on Highway 1 - and you should, regularly.

A very vocal waitress at a roadside restaurant implores me to stop off at Piedras Blancas beach, near San Simeon. "Honestly, it's like something out of the National Geographic!" she screams - and she's not wrong.

The sandy stretch is covered with dozens and dozens of elephant seals lazing, snorting, barking and competing for space on the beach, completely unfazed by large crowds watching on from just a few metres away.

Back on the road, my heart sinks a little when I see a build up of homes - and, soon after, traffic lights - as I approach San Luis Obispo. The beautiful, sparsely populated Big Sur had been and gone in a flash.

Still, the affluent city, known locally as 'SLO', offers its own random delights - specifically, dinner at the gobsmackingly kitsch Madonna Inn, and truly exhilarating sand buggy racing on the massive dunes at the nearby Pismo Beach.

For the next leg, purely in the name of research, I switch vehicle again - this time to a jet black Chevrolet Camaro, another gas-guzzling 3.7-litre sports coupe. At least the petrol is cheap here - less than 60p/litre if my calculations are correct.

The Camaro is basically a soft-top version of the Knight Rider car, albeit without a pulsating red light or talking computer - well, unless you count the sat-nav, and she really isn't much company on the 80-mile stretch of Route 101.

At the risk of shattering some illusions, I find it pretty annoying driving with the top down on the freeway. It's noisy and breezy, of course, but I'm also acutely aware that I'm cooking in the harsh Californian sun - and from one side only.

Any inconvenience is soon forgotten when I cruise into the beautiful seaside city of Santa Barbara, aka the American Riviera, feeling a little like a movie star.

I rise very early to explore the beach and near-deserted wharf. A smiley jogger takes the time to say hello and, seconds later, a sea lion appears beneath me on the pier and gracefully swims off into the distance. It's definitely a moment.

Then, soon after, two dolphins swim by on the other side of the wharf. Another moment!

In fact, casual encounters with animals became a common occurrence. Aside from the dolphins, sea lions and seals, I also see whales, deer, hummingbirds, eagles and more in their natural habitat - all without really going out of my way.

California has many man-made theme parks, of course, but this state is one big natural playground. It's a place to create your own excellent adventure. Just don't get too close to the edge.


:: Warren Chrismas was a guest of Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk; 0844 557 3859) who offers a five-night West Coast fly-drive from £1,425pp (two sharing), including scheduled flights from London Heathrow to San Francisco and returning via Los Angeles with room-only accommodation (including a one-night stay at Ventana Inn and Spa) and car hire for a convertible.

:: For more information on California, visit www.visitcalifornia.com/uk