I’ll admit it, I was hesitant to venture into the not-my-neighborhood and, daringly, stay multiple nights in not-my-house. I still am and probably will be for months — maybe year (ask me after Nov. 3, or hopefully soon thereafter) — but I do feel much better about the possibility of vacation travel in these unprecedented times.
So, ground rules: Everything below is dog-friendly, kid-friendly and pandemic-friendly (that is to say, observes the norms we’ve come to accept with the coronavirus deal — mask-wearing, social distancing, outdoors, patio dining, you know the drill. Basically, I’m gonna feel like a POS if anybody takes one of my recommendations and gets sick, right? I’m writing in good faith over here and COVID-free (or at least symptom-free, knock wood), if you’re wondering.
Few places are as socially distant as San Simeon. This is a town that was practicing social distancing when William Randolph Hearst was selecting a place to build a modest 38-bedroom charmer on a little piece of land. And while Hearst Castle is usually the highlight of my trip to this lovely region, it wasn’t on my itinerary this time around, as I was looking for activities that I could in good conscience recommend to readers as perfectly safe during a once-in-a-century pandemic. But when this damn thing is over, you better believe I’m taking a dip in the ol’ Neptune Pool.
So, my trip to Daytona Beach — not really, are you insane!? I chose for my destination a location where the COVID is low, where the outdoors are big and where the people are not hostile to either science or common sense. I’m talking, of course, about our neighbors to the north (and west, really; I mean Bakersfield is north if we’re getting nit-picky) along the Central Coast.
Here’s the deal with San Simeon. Not much there. Maybe you stopped once outside of town because you thought you saw a pack of zebras, and figured you should probably pull over and sober up (and maybe that’s true, but in fact, the former media mogul’s zebras do roam the pastures here along with a significant number of grass-munching cattle, known as Hearst Ranch Beef). Anyhoo, the other significant animal kingdom feature here is the elephant seal rookery near the lighthouse of Piedras Blancas. This is wild nature at its finest, not the artifice of a zoo or the guided tour of a safari.
San Simeon is a great place to stay during normal times, but during the pandemic, it’s ideal. Go any farther north and you’re in for the long (beautiful) drive that is Big Sur. I recommend the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort. Situated on a small bluff overlooking the Pacific, the beachcombing — especially with a cup of coffee at dawn — is unforgettable. It’s where you make life decisions. On the plateau in front of the resort, there are park-like lawns featuring bonfire pits that light up at night for the cooking of s’mores at sunset. Back at the room, you can enjoy a hot toddy by the fire and a stunning view of the coastline from a rocking chair on the balcony.
As I said, there’s not much to do in San Simeon itself, but it makes a fantastic basecamp. It’s where you want to find yourself at the end of a day. It’s also a launching point to anywhere in the Central Coast region. Again, there’s Big Sur. As part of my antisocial vacation, I hiked Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, lunched privately on the adirondacks under a big oak at Big Sur Smokehouse, and enjoyed a bowl of chili fries (pandemic food at its finest) on a foggy day at Ragged PoinT Inn and Resort. Keep on driving up Highway 1 across the Monterey County Line and you’ll find yourself in Carmel-by-the-Sea (search the site and you’ll find much ink has been spilled on Carmel).
Now, just south you’ll find the charming village of Cambria, an oasis of artists and craftspeople among the pines (and the best Christmas Market around). You need to go to Linn’s for the olallieberry pie (pro tip: they now have a carry-out location just up the block, so just phone it in). A highlight of my journey was an afternoon of pinot noir at Stolo Vineyard. Grab an adirondack chair, open up a packaged charcuterie plate and forget all about 2020. If you have little kids, this is a great place to forget about them, too. Let me rephrase that… It’s a nice place to let your charming little ones run and play on the grass or pet the goats, and experience a little nature on very safe terms.
Want more wine? Of course you do. So technically, Paso Robles is off the 101, not the 1, but because it’s wine country, it really is a part of this region. I said so. State Route 46 is a lovely winding road (watch out for deer, they’re not watching out for you). Vineyard Drive is a picturesque loop that will take you out to some of the best wineries in this part of the world: Opolo, Justin, to namedrop a couple. Paso boasts an increasing number of good restaurants circling historic Downtown City Park (and Justin has a gorgeous tasting room here with delicious Parmesan truffle fries). My latest discovery is The Alchemists’ Garden. First, duck-wrapped dates with whipped Chevre, citrus sherry lemongrass gastrique, lime zest and smoked sea salt. And then, bone marrow — rosemary-brined femur with cherry-onion jam, chocolate and smoked sea salt.
Finally, Avila Beach. I say “finally” only because I’m on a pitch count, and it’s the bottom of the ninth (sorry, but as I write this, we’re just a couple hours from Game 6 of the World Series, and the Dodgers are on the verge of their first championship since ‘88). The town’s great, yada yada yada. There’s a French joint I’d really like to check out, meanwhile, I settled for some out-of-a-barrel clam chowder from a takeout pizza place.
But I mention Avila because of a special attraction for kids (and by that, I mean parents). Avila Valley Barn is right off the 1, but feels like the heart of the Midwest. This time of year, it’s a giant (and rather sincere) pumpkin patch and sunflower field. The young ones will enjoy seeing farm animals up close — cows, horses, goats that you can feed $4 lettuce to, hens, roosters, even an ostrich. There’s a market (with a long line outside due to social-distancing protocols), photo-op hay bales, roasted corn on the cob and barbecued meats, as well as donuts and other sweets. Time your visit to off-hours, as it can get overpopulated and people have been known to take off their masks (like most of them).
OK, went into extra innings today. Probably should’ve been a doubleheader, but hey, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the mound and my writing arm was feeling strong. This nightmare of a losing streak we’ve been going through is almost over and we’re about to crown a new champ. Go Blue!
I Survived 2020: A Science-Believer’s Guide to a COVID-Free Getaway