It’s high summer; time for that epic road trip. South of Frisco and north of Hollywood is stretch of unforgettable California coast with the right ingredients for the consummate road trip experience.
California’s Route 1 winds along the coastal cliffs from Monterey Bay to Santa Barbara, providing seemingly endless views of the sun-washed Pacific. You can’t go wrong by sticking to the legendary highway; the road curls dramatically close to elemental beachfront parks, pastel beach towns and picturesque harbours.
If you have the time, add a quick foray inland where you’ll encounter an idyllic mash up of indie vineyards, cattle ranches, small-town general stores, walnut groves and avocado farms.
Here are five places you should stop on Central Coast California road trip:
5 cool stops on a Central Coast California road trip
Big Sur, California
Image: Dawn Ellner
Known for drawing visionary writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Orson Welles, Big Sur is the ideal first stop for city folk looking to decompress in overwhelming natural beauty. It’s best experienced as a series of coastal impressions, rather than a one-stop.
Hit up Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for awe-inspiring hikes among towering redwoods and waterfalls; don’t miss the elemental rock arches at Pfeiffer Beach or the frolicking sea otters. Refuel with a snack at the historic, family-owned Nepenthe Restaurant (Greek for “no sorrow”). Perched on a an 800-foot bluff and cliff-top terrace, the 270-degree ocean panorama makes up for the mediocre grub. A little down the road, Big Sur Roadhouse is the hip spot to sample truly excellent modern California cuisine; think sole po’ boy sliders, organic artichoke heart salad, and a spicy bowl of Big Sur seafood gumbo.
Don’t leave without a visit to the Henry Miller Memorial Library — home to a rare collection of books by Beat and Big Sur writers. Then bid a final adieu to your day-job stress with nude frolic at the infamous Big Sur Esalen Institute hot spring baths. It’s only $20 for this spa experience which comes with an unreal, ocean-front view. Now you’re ready to continue down the coast.
Elephant seals. Image: Anita Ritenour
The pretty girl among coastal California beach towns, Cambria is a picturesque village worth a quick visit. Get your toes wet at the town’s Moonstone Beach, named for the moonstones lucky beach strollers spot in the sand. Nearby, take a gander at the massive Hearst Castle, built architect Julia Morgan for the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst in 1919. The big man used this uber mansion to entertain royalty–Hollywood and the legit European sort. Then take a light picnic and chill out at nearby Piedras Blancas, home to 17,000 tubby and boisterous elephant seals.
Paso Robles, California
Image: Linda Tanner
Save your appetite for an afternoon inland at Paso Robles, an idyllic sleepy town, named after the centuries-old valley oaks that surround it. The pace is slow, but don’t be fooled. Billionaires from L.A. and San Fran have holed up here to fund artisan food and wine passion projects. In fact, Paso Robles was the wine region of the year in 2013, meaning it has the potential to be the next Napa.
Must-visits include La Cosecha, a small plates cantina on the main square with a wine-list featuring the best of Paso Robles Wine Country. After a snack, make your way to Tablas Creek Vineyard, specializing in organically-grown Rhone varietals, an unusual angle for a California winemaker. Finish at Artisan, which serves intelligent, small farm-sourced cuisine like boar tenderloin with fennel risotto, bbq pig wings with roast peaches, and pickled beets with chevre and walnut vinaigrette. If you like what you tasted, scoop up locally-made pantry previsions (California olive oil, vinegars, jam) to take home at Paso Robles General Store.
Morro Bay, California
Image: Dave McSpadden
This is your classic beach town where you should go full-out tourist. Buy sticky saltwater taffy, take in a harbour view while slurping bbq Pacific Gold oysters at Giovanni’s Fish Market and make an easy, exploratory stroll to the town’s big draw, Morro Rock, an impressive 581-foot volcanic plug known as the “Gibralter of the Pacific.” If you have more time to hang loose like a local, check out the surf scene. Morro Bay Surf School offers lessons from $50 for two hours.
San Luis Obispo, California
Image: Linda Tanner
This is a great spot to visit because everyone is happy. Don’t believe me? SLO was ranked the happiest town in America by Dan Buettner, researcher and author of the book Thrive. Oprah picked up on this, visited SLO, and broadcast their smiles far and wide. You should stop here because it’s a lovely and inexpensive base for checking out some of the destination eateries and drinkeries in the San Luis Obispo County winery/rancho area north of Santa Barbara.
For wine, try Laetitia Vineyard in Arroyo Grande Valley. For eats, folks drive for miles to reach Jocko’s Steakhouse. This no-frills temple for the carnivore does not have a website, but it does have a following and a storied past dating to the 1860s. Tri-tip “Santa Maria” style steaks are grilled over red oak and served with cowboy toast (a.k.a. garlic bread) and pinquito (little pink) beans. A little farther down the road, Mattei’s Tavern (a former stagecoach stop!) is the place to try the fancy version of California steak. The tri-tip comes “bavette-style” with red peanut romesco sauce, or as a 32-oz, dry-age, cote du boeuf, smothered in melted shallots.
Getting there: Catch a direct from YVR airport to San Francisco’s SFO and pick up a rental car. Aim it down California’s Route 1. North to south, i.e. Big Sur to San Luis Obispo, is a 4.5 hour drive, sans stops. Obviously, you’ll want to loiter.
Accommodation: There are many chain hotels, boutique hotels and quaint B&Bs along the way. The most budget friendly options include tenting it in one of California’s many state parks or a California vacation rental.
Feature image: Juozas Kaziukenas