Driving California's Central Coast
When most out-of-staters think of California, the best-known images of San Francisco and LA quickly come to mind: a certain large red bridge; broad, sandy beaches teeming with celebrities; cable cars; cable cars teeming with celebrities going to broad sandy beaches, etc. While the two cities do seem to anchor the state from top to bottom, the vast coastline in-between is a big question mark, and those who've never experienced it would be hard-pressed to describe what's there.
The truth is, this 300-mile stretch of coastline offers some truly unforgettable sights and scenery and is a California all its own. In fact, some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the state are to be found here, and it gets more interesting the further you get away from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. On your trip you take out West, visit some highlights of the "central, Central Coast."
Highway 1 Fun
Start your itinerary at fabulous Hearst Castle, the result of a 28-year architectural collaboration between William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. Hearst Castle is an unfinished symphony -- ill health forced the eccentric mogul to move out and stop construction in 1947 -- but nevertheless, it's nearly as impressive as his newspaper legacy. Spread over 127 acres overlooking the sea, it holds a priceless collection of art and artifacts. It's now designated a State Historic Monument, which means you can tour most of the 165 rooms (though not in one tour; there's too much ground to cover). Reservations required.
Nearby Cambria is a nice place to spend the night, though it's more of a couple's getaway town than a family destination. Skip the galleries, and instead visit Moonstone Beach and hunt for agates, moonstones and other semi-precious stones that give the sand a tantalizingly pretty sparkle.
While you're in the neighborhood, stop and say hi to the elephant seals that colonize this part of the coast. The best place to visit is Piedras Blancas, located just over seven miles north of San Simeon, and visible from Highway 1. There's a viewing area and boardwalk. Visit Elephantseal.org for an up-to-date seal count and more info.
Blink and you'll miss tiny, funky Cayucos, a town so under the radar, most tourist guides don't even list it. The unspoiled beach around the pier is great for tide pooling and wading.
Also great for tide pooling (as well as sunbathing, hiking, picnicking) is Montana de Oro State Park. A 10-minute mini-hike brings you to a remote, beautiful, wonderfully uncrowded beach.
Paso Robles is about 50 miles inland from Cambria on the 101, but this winery town is not great to visit with kids. Save it for a romantic getaway.
Hello, San Luis Obispo
Home to Cal Poly, some say San Luis Obispo's just a college town ... but they don't know what they're "mission" (Ha ha! Made you groan!). When Father Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772, there was no SLO (as the locals call it) -- just a wilderness with a creek and a lot of grizzly bears. Today, the mission is a graceful monument in the heart of a cheerful, bustling community. SLO's a good place to overnight, with plenty of inexpensive inns and motels, plus any kind of restaurant you could imagine.
Speaking of inns and restaurants, there's one you really must see, even if you don't sleep there: The Madonna Inn, with its bubblegum-pink exterior, Alice-in-Disco-Wonderland rooms and Western rococo lounge, is sheer, kaleidoscopic visual overload. Take the kids to the Copper Café for lunch, dinner or a bakery treat.
If you're in town on a Thursday evening, wander down to the Farmer's Market, where more than 100 vendors offer all kinds of food, drink, crafts, artworks, souvenirs and services. There's always a variety of live entertainment (bands, dance troupes, puppet shows), and four times a year, there are actual mainstage concerts.
Colorful and crowded, Pismo Beach, just 10 miles down the coast from SLO, is the quintessential coast town. Central Coast locals consider it over-trafficked, but you may well be charmed by the bustling beach boardwalk, funky souvenir shops and noisy seafood shacks. The beach itself is lovely, though it does get crowded.
Nearby Avila Beach is where insiders bring the fam on weekends. It's got a great, laid-back vibe, an old-fashioned pier, a children's park, and a "Farmer and Fisherman" market held weekly in the summer.