The pandemic has people itching for new experiences after being cooped up at home. The American road trip has fueled peoples’ spirits in 2020 as a safer alternative for adventure.
Get reacquainted with California’s grandeur by leaving the big cities for California’s Central Coast. Just halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the peace and calm of wide-open spaces, uncrowded white sand beaches, outdoor adventure, wildlife, wineries, and state parks will not only rejuvenate your soul, but may make you question why you don’t live here.
Savor the Mediterranean climate (sunny and warm during the day and cool at night) and admire wildlife (monarch butterflies, great blue herons, sea otters, elephant seals) as diverse as the land – oak forests, open grassland, chaparral-covered hills, pine-studded bluffs, and wild beaches with seaside cliffs.
Meander up the coast from the 101 in LA to Highway 1, the most iconic roadway in California. The Highway 1 Discovery Route is a 100-mile stretch that weaves through San Luis Obispo (SLO) connecting 10 artisan communities such as San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos, Avila Beach, Edna Valley wine region, and Nipomo. Check out the New Coastal Discovery Trail Map and remember to travel safely.
Don’t miss these unforgettable stops and excursions along the way – from Montecito to Buellton to Nipomo to San Luis Obispo.
EXPLORE AND LEARN
Did you know an ostrich can run 45 miles per hour and their kick can kill a lion? Make a quick detour in Buellton to feed “ferocious” pecking ostriches strutting their stuff or the much calmer more demure emus from Australia. This wildlife refuge with over 100 ostriches and emus is on a sprawling piece of land. The ranch was even featured on The Simpsons. Browse their shop, take home a fresh egg, or find a free feather on the ground for a fancy addition to your hat.
Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps and Petroliana in Buellton
Our curiosity steered us here in Buellton as this private collection has one of the west coast’s largest collections of auto racing memorabilia, old road signs, license plates, gas and oil items, antiques, and gasoline pumps and globes.
Book a private tour with the son or daughter in law of the late Jack Mendenhall, the man who started the collection over 50 years ago. The couple lives above the shop and has tales to tell of Jack’s personal collections. Trophies abound as speed racing memorabilia recounts Jack’s racing legacy like driving 210 mph in a roadster. The carefully orchestrated collection of Americana at its finest needs at least an hour and requires an appointment.
Nature Bathing Mindfulness Walk in Cambria
Release stress and tension from your body. Book in advance a private mindfulness walk/hike with Tula Yoga (www.tula4you.com) in Cambria. As we meandered through the woods in silence we were guided in mindful exercises including meditation and poetry thanks to local Ann Church with Tula Yoga. Walking and breathing in nature felt good for the soul. The beauty of our time here was not only walking through the pine forests but also discovering a new part of Cambria we didn’t know existed that shot us out onto this sprawling oceanside bluff called Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
Luffas grow on plants. Venture into this unique family operation to tour this free Luffa Farm greenhouse in Nipomo to witness how luffas grow like a squishy cucumber. When they dry out on the vine, from green to yellow to brown – the outer layer can be cracked off. Voila! The soft luffa is underneath perfect for a face or body scrub, car or dish sponge, and more. Apparently, the luffa tastes somewhat like a zucchini and can be used like aloe vera. Take home a piece of nature at their small gift shop.
Tiber Canyon Olive Oil Tasting in San Luis Obispo
Arrange a stop at bucolic Tiber Canyon Ranch to sample their award-winning Extra Virgin olive oil and citrus flavored olive oil like yuzu, mandarin tangerine, and Meyer lemon. Feel the fresh air nestled in the rolling hills of the central coast oak woodlands here as the Tuscan olive varietals are made from 10 of the 50 acres planted in olives. Arriving in late December? Perhaps you can join over a hundred of their volunteer friends at Tiber Canyon Ranch to help pick the olives. Owner Will Carlton feeds everyone well and even entertains helpers with bluegrass music during olive picking season.
Montana de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo
No trip is complete without a drive to Montaña de Oro State Park with dramatic rugged ocean cliffs. Walk along the 3.4 miles out and back Bluff Trail for jaw-dropping views of cascading seafoam, crashing waves, deserted coves, beaches stuffed with kelp, and tide pools teeming with sea creatures. Walk down to the beach and explore the rock layers at Corallina Cove. Numerous trails exist in this state park as well as mountain biking and equestrian trails. Due to the varying terrain, you will see why this might just be one of the most beautiful parts of the California Coast.
Marley Family Seaweed Foraging in Cayucos area
One of the most fascinating experiences you can plan is an afternoon with Spencer Marley, a local seaweed expert who dries seaweed from the Central Coast and sells it in Paso Robles at the Farmer’s Market. Voted by Lonely Planet as one of the top foraging experiences in the US, Spencer shared with us how to decipher numerous seaweeds and harvest the wild superfood sustainably. We prepared ramen on the beach with Nori and Kombu seaweed.
Did you know there is no toxic seaweed and only a few varieties taste good? Gain a whole new appreciation for the Central Coast near Estero Bluffs as Spencer takes you to one of only several places in the US to eat uncontaminated seaweed from the sea.
Hike to Cal Poly Design Village in San Luis Obispo
Hike 3 miles roundtrip to this architectural graveyard from the parking lot at Cal Poly by horses, old oak trees, and a stream to discover leftover structures designed by Cal Poly students. This wonderment dots the rolling hilled landscape. If you go, find the underground house that I missed. Learn more here.
Lucky’s Steakhouse in Montecito
Stop for lunch in the upscale quaint town of Montecito and dine outside on their bougainvillea laden patio. Founded by Gene Montesano of The Montesana Group (who also founded Lucky Brand), and helmed by Executive Chef Leonard Schwartz, Lucky’s 20-year history will soon expand to Malibu. Known for its exclusive selection of USDA Prime steaks, live Maine lobsters, cocktails and wine cellar selection, start your midday pandemic outing with crisp calamari and oozing French onion soup before gorging yourself with a cold lobster salad roll and sliced Prime NY Steak Frites switched up with sweet potato fries. We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our 3-year anniversary during a pandemic!
You may not see Miles, Jack, and Maya from the hit film Sideways but you most likely will see owner and wine maker Frank Ostini who was around when the movie was filmed. For an exceptional meal, sit outdoors (not in the tent) under a heat lamp and begin your culinary journey with a Hitching Post Premium wine tasting flight with slow roasted grilled garlic. Spread the warm garlic on crostini with roasted peppers, herbs, and balsamic while the colors drop at sunset like a pastel watercolor painting.
Beef from America’s Midwest is sourced from small packers and cut and grilled over an oakwood fire at Hitching Post, then seasoned with their “Magic Stuff.” This is one place you must dine for wood fired steak. Hitching Post II is popular so book in advance. A night here was the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary.
Lunch outside under a tableside tree after ordering in this repurposed warehouse. This popular dining establishment sandwiched amongst some wine tasting rooms is the smart way to absorb your vino. Sample some of their fresh eats from sustainable farms and food pioneers. We recommend trying an oyster with uni and caviar, a wood fired fennel sausage pizza, a butcher shop favorite, or a crispy pork Banh Mi.
Tavern at Zaca Creek in Buellton
One of the most mind-blowing meals we have experienced in a long time was at the brand-new Tavern at Zaca Creek resurrected after two decades of dormancy. Once an iconic landmark property in the Santa Ynez valley, the exquisite menu surprised us from the start. On a covered patio, Mezcal flights with worm and caterpillar salts paired with varying citrus fruits was a welcome change in wine territory while the JCB Caviar Martini was another unexpected rare treat on the menu.
Besides their impressive wine selection both local and worldwide, the menu is built around 100% American wagyu cattle raised in Santa Ynez with their own butcher shop on site. Menu items include wagyu tartare, Basque chorizo stuffed squid, lamb lollipops, hand cut wagyu steak with various sauces and butters paired with blistered grapes and a sautéed vegetable medley. The wagyu patty Tavern Burger is raved about too.
End your indulgent evening with a strawberry rhubarb pie and 30-year-old Gonzalez Byass NOE, a sweet sherry. The Caviar Flight will be high on our ordering list next time as the pairing includes a carefully curate assortment of caviars and vodkas. Weddings, a boutique hotel, and Treehouse brunch next door are all on the horizon at Zaca Creek. Small town bucolic Buellton will never be the same with this ambitious menu and enchanting setting.
Stop here for lunch or sunset because when you walk straight out the restaurant door to the outside railing, your meal will be served atop of the Pacific Ocean as expansive waves roll in and birds cascade in front of you. Don’t miss the creamy clam chowder, fish tacos, mahi mahi sandwich and other fresh seafood.
Linn’s Restaurant for Olallieberry Pie in Cambria
A cross between a blackberry and a raspberry, try this heavenly pie with a side of vanilla ice cream. Share the raspberry rhubarb pie too and take home one of their many other dessert options like olallieberry cheesecake or olallieberry cream puff.
Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill in Cambria
Watch the sunset dip down below the horizon across the street as you dine on this casual packed patio. Sip a chocolate martini and order fresh seafood like oysters, fish tacos, clam chowder, or Moonstone’s best catch. Watch the sunset dip down below the horizon across the street as you dine on this casual packed patio. Sip a chocolate martini and order fresh seafood like oysters, fish tacos, clam chowder, or Moonstone’s best catch.
We wouldn’t be surprised if this place earned a Michelin star or two. Chef Nicola Allegretta, who also runs Mama’s Meatball next door, created a modern Peruvian menu – one so new to us – but that combines traditional Peruvian with Andean native ingredients with the freshest local fish, seafood, local free-range meats, and nearby produce. Masterfully the chef celebrates diverse Peruvian food with an authentic tribute and extensive menu of unexpected and adventurous flavors.
The experience here is truly exciting. Standouts included the ‘cebiche’ with hefty chunks of marinated fish, halibut crudo, chicken empanadas, and braised short ribs marinated for 24 hours. The grand finale was a clever Machu Picchu dessert where the pastry chef whipped the dry ice cream pearls to recreate the clouds smoking and when popped into your mouth, your bite turned into coffee ice cream. During COVID, Mistura has been offering a 3-course takeout lunch menu for $20.
Farmhouse Corner Market in SLO
This Instagram-worthy mecca across from the airport is a must-visit for fresh food and a slow stroll through the colorful landscape of fun – a curated market of local produce, seasonings, and responsibly sourced goodies, a homemade ice-cream shop, grab and go treats, and an Art O Mat vending machine popping up small artsy handmade surprises.
Eat outside and savor the super fresh cucumber tomato mint feta salad, the Po Boy sandwich with light crisp shrimp, and fried “breakfast” rice with an egg on top. Chef Will Torres keeps the kitchen fresh with daily breakfast and lunch. Stop here on your way to the Edna Valley.
In the evening dine outside in the courtyard next to a firepit bowl (or inside at 1/4 capacity) and begin your aphrodisiac dinner with oysters from Morro Bay, Hot Honey Pepperoni pizza straight from the wood-burning oven, Black Truffle Risotto, and Cast Iron Roasted Oro King Salmon seared and succulent. Dessert options like Crème Brule and Profiteroles with pistachio ice cream remind you that this IS a French-California Brasserie.
Exquisitely prepared food continues into brunch as dining on the charming street with a house- made pastry and coffee feels so very Parisian, but since you are in California, order the Huevos Rancheros.
In Buellton at Industrial Eats, Alma Rosa’s new outdoor tasting room patio allows guests to safely taste wines from the north facing hills of the Santa Rosa Hills in Santa Barbara County. For $20 sample 5 wines from their portfolio such as Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Rhone varietals, and sparkling wines. Wines are changed regularly so there is always something new to discover. The tasting room is next to other wine tasting rooms, distilleries, a brewery, and restaurants.
A short walk from Industrial Eats is another section of wine tasting rooms (now patios). Find hip art adorned McClain Cellars (also in Laguna Beach) where a 5000 square foot outdoor patio offers lounge chairs under umbrellas for your wine tasting pleasure. Bottles come in tantalizing artwork labels with names like Sacred Love or Camping in Clouds.
A standout part of our trip was wine tasting by the ocean. Since the Heart Castle across the street is not currently open, Hearst Ranch Winery is a nice way to spend an afternoon. Order their lavish charcuterie board and for $25 sample 4 wines. Buy 2 bottles and the tasting fee is waived. We took home Hearst Ranch Wildflower Honey along with a 2017 Malbec with Cabernet and Petite Verdot and a 2019 Glacier Chardonnay. Bottles range from $25- $45.
Find award-winning Chardonnay here at this gorgeous tasting room setting in view of the scenic valley set against rolling hills and a mountain backdrop. The coastal climate and rich soil make the Edna Valley perfect for growing cool climate grapes and stellar chardonnay and pinot noir.
Surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills in the Edna Valley, sample a wine tasting flight outside at a Covid-friendly table. Zinfandels are the specialty here that express the natural qualities of the historic estate vineyard. Since 1880 they have been making Zin! Impossible to not leave with bottles of Zin and their light crisp rose.
STAY AND RELAX
Flying Flags RV Resort in Buellton
For an adventurous stay, camp in style, park your RV, or book a vintage Airstream, wine cottage, or luxury safari tent. With over 400 sites to choose from in this 40-acre resort, there is something for everyone in this Santa Ynez valley stay with nearby award-winning wineries and breweries.
The 9 luxury safari tents are the most popular booking complete with heat and AC, refrigerators, top notch shower facilities, windows to allow the wind to blow through, and gorgeous views of the Santa Ynez river and mountain range. Some glamping tents come with king beds and bunk beds.
Stay in a vintage Airstream decked out with different décor such as a cowboy theme or a pink Marilyn Monroe bombshell style. Each trailer comes with a firepit, full BBQ, and picnic table. Choose from a surf lodge or 5 wine country cottages (that sleep 6) with lofts and patios, private backyards lined in grapes, firepits, and natural gas fireplaces. Also, the Santa Ynez Guest Ranch offers 19 swanky cottages on site too.
For us, the best choice was staying in a tiny cottage with outdoor deck to relax. We happened to be staying here during the 11th Annual Buellton Vintage Trailer Bash so we could walk around and admire the countless fun old-school set-ups with flamingo stakes, tiki bars, and other retro décor.
Pet and kid friendly, this RV resort park offers 3 separate pool areas, a dog park, a Splash Zone, and outdoor games. Laundry services and a general store are available while in pre-Covid times bands performed in the amphitheater and weddings could be held in the pavilion.
The Bee’s Knees Fruit Farm in San Luis Obispo
Surrounded by fruit orchards and gardens galore on this incredible property in Los Osos Valley, Bee’s Knees Country Home is the place to get away from it all! Beautifully decorated in country-style fashion, the 5-acre property boasts a wrap-around porch perfect for doing nothing or eating lunch with birdsong. No need to leave here. Stay in and make dinner off the land, bring home fish from local Giovanni’s Fish Market in Morro Bay (a few minutes away) and dream that you own the place.
The orchard’s picking season lasts between May until the end of September and is filled with apple, pear, plum, apricot, peach, and citrus trees along with a variety of berries.
Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon
They may not have the best hotel rooms in terms of new updated décor, but the views are awe-inspiring. Sip champagne as you watch the sunset drip down below the Pacific Ocean from your balcony. Nestled on a seaside bluff close to Cambria and 3 miles from the Hearst Castle (currently not open), this place provides the drive pause you may need, especially after a day sipping wine at oceanside Hearst Ranch Winery.
Hotel Cerro in San Luis Obispo
Located in the heart of downtown SLO, brand new Hotel Cerro is surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, bars and live music venues, fitting every mood and pocketbook. Spacious modern rooms and suites balance private space and open design with penthouse lofts and Garden Suites with private patios and firebowls. Many rooms along with Spa Cerro overlook the Edible Garden, considered the heart and soul of the property. The Edible Garden on the second-floor terrace showcases raised beds with herbs and vegetables used in the chef’s pantry and aromatics for Spa Cerro. We picked a few items to test in our room.
Savor wine in the garden nooks or a sunset on the sensational rooftop Pool Deck with dramatic 360-degree views of the surrounding rolling hills and countryside. Besides the stunning pool area with luxurious pool furniture, room perks included a private garden patio with fire bowl, complimentary pour-over coffee in-room, and a bath tub where the water flowed from the ceiling. Breakfast outside felt dreamy on the adorable streetside with cafes, restaurants, shops, and Scout Coffee across the way. Find Bubblegum Alley behind the hotel too. Walk around charming Downtown SLO to shop or admire the Mission and creative side of the SLO arts district.
The hotel’s own Brasserie SLO serves exceptional food all day from brunch to dinner with fresh seafood, tender steaks, and a wood-burning oven and wood-fired grill to enhance the flavors.
Learn more tips and places to visit in the California Central Coast – Paso Robles, Field of Light, Central Coast road trip, LA Escapes, Where will the road take you?, and Monterey County.
3 thoughts on “New Experiences along the California Central Coast”
Such wonderful things to do and place to eat/drink, of course. Have you been to Pismo Dunes? The boardwalk and dune hiking is wonderful.
Thanks for reading! I love the central coast and yes, really enjoyed that Pismo Dunes boardwalk. I took my dad back one time when he was visiting from the east coast and the monarch butterflies aren’t too far either.