You know what to expect from southern California, with its endless sun, wide beaches, and Beach Boys soundtrack. And San Francisco and northern California are synonymous with sophistication and culture. But the central coast in between, while less well known, is a satisfying hybrid of both worlds, with an extra dose of family-friendliness thrown in. Originally settled by the Spanish and a long-time a center of pioneer-style ranching, the central coast is rugged, laid back, and sparsely settled. Big Sur is all rugged cliffs and pounding surf, Cambria and San Simeon are quaintly commercial, and the beach towns from San Luis Obispo south to Santa Barbara are throwbacks to an era when a summer's day meant eating salt water taffy on the pier. Whether your family's in search of the peace of a wide open beach, or the glamour and excitement of William Randolph Hearst's fantasy castle, you'll find exactly what you're looking for on this stretch of coast.
Anytime is the right time to visit California's central coast. With its temperate coastal climate and position in the middle of California, the central coast has nice weather almost any time of year. Mid-winter from late December through February is the stormiest, and the time of year you're most likely to run into bad weather and difficult road conditions. On the other hand, December to March is peak season for whale watching, and it's also when there are the most elephant seals in the rookery. Prices are much lower from October through April, as well.
Each town on the central coast has a slightly different climate, depending on the location of mountains, wind patterns, and other factors. But in general the central coast has "banana belt" weather, with warm temperatures and sunny days year-round. It doesn't get as hot as it does further south in L.A. or further inland, and it doesn't get as cold and foggy as it does northward in San Francisco. Weather should not be a big concern when planning a visit.
To visit the central coast, you need to get onto Highway 1, the windy, coast-hugging route that makes the area so spectacular that numerous car commercials have been filmed here. You access the central coast either from the north, driving south from Carmel, or from the south, driving north from Santa Barbara. The closest airports are Santa Barbara and Monterey, but you can also fly into and make your way from Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Car is really the only way to visit the central coast, unfortunately. There is bus service to reach the individual towns, but you could not take a central California road trip without a car. Amtrak runs trains from San Francisco and Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, however, and from there you can take a bus out to the coast.
Several websites offer helpful information for sections of the Central Coast. The best information for the Big Sur area is available at www.bigsurcalifornia.org. However, information on the state parks that make up much of Big Sur, including Pfeiffer Big Sur, Andrew Molera, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks, is available at www.parks.ca.gov. Additionally, www.Centralcoast.com has a good list of events and attractions for Santa Barbara, Pismo and Shell Beach, Avila Beach, and Cambria.
The best discounts are going to be had in the towns with lots of lodging options. When it's no longer the summer high season, those hotel rooms are sitting empty and prices drop precipitously. Try San Simeon, Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Shell Beach for the best deals. A great place to start bargain hunting is with the SLO County Passport. San Luis Obispo is the county center, although the town itself is not on the coast. The SLO County Passport is a free visitor card that offers discounts on lodging dining, wine tasting and other attractions. When you register for your passport, you also receive a free visitor's guide. Cambria, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara are popular destinations year-round, so there aren't as many deals, but you will still find off-season prices much lower. Most hotels offer AAA discounts as well as other discounts such as those for military families.
Camping is available in Big Sur, San Simeon, Shell Beach, and many other parts of the central coast, and it's an exremely affordable option. In fact, the campground at San Simeon State Park is the closest lodging to Hearst Castle. In addition to state park campgrounds, there are also numerous private campgrounds, which may have better availability, and in some cases more luxurious facilities. For example, the Ventana Inn runs a private campground that's one of the nicest in Big Sur. It was closed in 2009 for renovations, but hopefully will reopen in 2010.