There is no doubt that the state of California is packed with stunning beaches, and the Central Coast is no exception, but what people often don’t realise is how much more there is to this enticing region than its golden sands. We recently sent our North America specialist Lucie out to visit the counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey, and she was blown away by the huge variety of activities. Here, she tells us all about her travels and why a road trip along the Central California Coast is certainly not to be rushed!
My trip started in Santa Barbara, around 2 hours north of Los Angeles, which is also known as ‘The American Riviera’ and is a must on any road trip up the Californian coast. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, it has a relaxed beach town feel and is packed with pretty Mediterranean style architecture; you won’t find any tacky neon signs here! It is brimming with fantastic restaurants and is the perfect place to while away a few days getting over the trans-Atlantic jet-lag. Be sure to hop on the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour to get an overview of the area, see the historic Santa Barbara Mission and the upmarket town of Montecito, where Oprah Winfrey purchased a property for a casual $48 million. You can easily lose an afternoon enjoying the many shops and museums on State Street, or you can hop on a coastal cruise for dolphin spotting. For a healthy and delicious breakfast I highly recommend Backyard Bowls, which specialises in acai bowls, hot porridge and smoothies – I am still dreaming about my Cocoa Almond Bowl (and mourning the half I had to throw away because the American portions had truly beaten me once again)!
My next stop was San Luis Obispo (known by the locals as SLO), a bustling college town around a 20 minute drive from the coast. It has some great quirky restaurants and bars and is an ideal base for exploring the nearby wineries and rolling countryside. Just a 15 minute drive from SLO is Pismo Beach, the gateway to Oceano Dunes State Park – one of the region’s real hidden gems. We spent the morning exploring these endless dunes on a hummer ride, which was a truly memorable experience! As a big roller-coaster fan I didn’t think much would faze me in a 4×4, and even after seeing the harness-style seat-belt I was being fastened into I felt fairly confident. However, what followed was a huge amount of screaming from our entire group as we flew over the top of the dunes, hung sideways and hurtled downhill backwards… our driver was of course loving terrifying the English tourists! This trip is not for the faint-hearted but it was a huge amount of fun and completely unexpectedly became a highlight of my trip. Just make sure you have properly digested your breakfast before you set off!
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, there was plenty more adventure in store for me in the afternoon! After a delicious lunch at the Ancient Peaks Winery (and a spot of wine tasting to provide the much-needed dutch courage for what was about to occur), my next stop was zip lining in Santa Margarita, just north of SLO. I soon found myself being strapped into yet another harness and set off on the first ‘zip’ over the vineyards, which is a mere 2,800 ft long and 160 ft high. I was hoping to have an action-packed video of this adventure, but it turned out my GoPro skills weren’t as good as I hoped, and in between my loud screams all I managed to capture was 562 stills instead of any actual video footage, which doesn’t make for the most riveting viewing!
After a busy day it was time to head further up the coast to Morro Bay, a small seaside village packed with charm and delicious seafood restaurants. Here, you can grab a kayak and head out to explore Morro Rock and spot some super chilled sea otters and sea lions. Just a further 45 minutes up the coast from Morro Bay is San Simeon, which is worth a visit for the impressive Hearst Castle, sitting 8km inland on top of a hill at an altitude of 1600 ft, and boasting spectacular views. The name is a little misleading so you’ll want to ignore any images of English castles that spring to mind; it is a mansion more than a castle, and was built by the media genius William Randolph Hearst in 1919 and is now open to the public. During its heyday, William hosted many influential people here including Hollywood actors and political leaders. The only way to experience Hearst Castle is on a guided tour, so I really recommend booking one of these in advance. You’ll start by being shown a film in the visitor centre called “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream”, which provides a fascinating insight into how this elaborate mansion was created. After this you’ll head up to the castle on a bus for your tour.
After Hearst Castle, we were back on the road to drive the Big Sur, which is the most famous stretch of Route 1 and runs between San Simeon and Monterey. The drive is stunning and slowly winds its way along the rugged coast with spectacular views along the way. Take the time to enjoy the drive, it is not a journey to do in a hurry; there are lots of great photo opportunities and lunch stops along the way so leave yourself a whole day to do this drive if you can.
The beautiful drive finishes in Carmel and Monterey – whilst you only need to stay in one of these coastal towns, make sure you visit the other too. One of my favourite things about Monterey is the historic Cannery Row, where restaurants, bars and shops are housed in converted factories. The famous Monterey Aquarium is also worth a visit, and a great way to explore the coastline is to join a Sea Car Tour. These little three-wheeled cars are easy to drive and a lot of fun; we felt like local celebrities with the amount of attention we were getting in our convoy of yellow cars! Carmel is just a short drive from Monterey, and is a really charming town with cute European style houses and boutique shops and galleries, which are all within easy walking distance and well worth exploring. And finally, I do have to give the pretty beach a special mention here – it is nothing short of beautiful!
At Imagine North America we spend time really getting to know the areas we sell. When we’re planning your trip, we can tell you about all the unique and exciting excursions available to help you get the most out of your time away. On my trip along the Central California Coast I truly got to appreciate that there is so much more to the area than just driving from A to B. So SLO down, take your time and really make the most out of your trip up (or down) the California Coast. Allow time to really enjoy the journey, you won’t regret it… There really is so much more to this stretch of coast than you think!