California’s Central Coast offers travelers a truly iconic vision of California: a dramatically steep coastline, oak tree-studded hills, and unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean. From distinctive beach towns and boutique wineries to luxurious hotels and restaurants specializing in farm-to-table cuisine, the Central Coast is best experienced slowly and deliberately. And travelers planning a trip to this part of the state shouldn’t miss visiting these off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Some 90 minutes north of Santa Barbara by car, Pismo Beach feels like the epitome of the laid-back California beach town. Book a room at the Inn at the Cove and enjoy direct beach access and a bluff-top swimming pool. At the oceanside Lido restaurant in the Dolphin Bay Resort, Chef Hector Ibarra offers a five-course tasting menu that celebrates ingredients from the surrounding farmland and the sea. Kayakers, or anyone interested in trying out the sport, should take a guided tour with Central Coast Kayaks. As you paddle in the Pacific past sea lions and sea otters, a naturalist will explain the ecology of the region and share insights about local marine life. South of town, travelers can observe one of nature’s most incredible migrations at the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where each year, from October to February, thousands of butterflies congregate around stands of eucalyptus trees.
Eight miles up the coast from Pismo Beach, this town of 15,000 residents is home to a growing number of winetasting rooms, where travelers can sample locally grown chardonnay and pinot noir. The mostly walkable Avila Wine Trail is a great experience for visitors. For wellness seekers, hot springs were first discovered in Avila Beach in 1907, and two hotels, the Avila Hot Springs and Sycamore Mineral Springs, offer day access if you want to soak in the healing waters. Back in town, the Avila Lighthouse Suites is both right on the beach and near the town’s restaurants and shops on First Street. Book a Villa Suite, which offers guests 1,100 square feet, private soaking tubs, and kitchenettes.
Hearst Castle, the fantastically opulent home of the late William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, is a National Historic Landmark that’s open to private tours. In Cambria, the closest town to the south, forests of Monterey pines extend down to the rocky coastline and miles of trails wait to be explored. The Pelican Inn is a good base, located at the north end of town and overlooking Moonstone Beach and the Pacific Ocean—all the suites here have ocean views. Or if you’re coming to Hearst Castle from the north, spend the night at the Ragged Point Inn. At the southern end of Big Sur, this little inn with its own restaurant and general store sits atop 350-foot-high cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
For years the inland community of Paso Robles was horse country and farmland—with fruit and olive orchards in every direction. But in the past two decades, vineyards have taken over, and Paso Robles is now home to more than 200 wineries and 11 different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Rhône blends are the reason to stop and taste here: such grape varietals as syrah, grenache, and mourvedre thrive in the hot summer days and cool nights. Among our favorite producers is Linne Calodo, founded 20 years ago by Paso Robles pioneers Matt and Maureen Trevisan in the Willow Creek District. Book a reservation ahead of time to taste several blends with names like Problem Child, Nemesis, and Sticks & Stones. Clos Solène is a favorite newcomer, and sixth-generation winemaker Guillaume Fabre embodies the next generation of vintners with his hospitable and relaxed approach to welcoming guests. Again, call ahead to book reservations—both these wineries are small, exclusive producers, so tasting at the source (or joining their wine clubs) is the only way to experience their wines. In town, life in Paso Robles is centered on its main square, which hosts a farmers’ market every Saturday morning. In the heart of downtown Paso Robles, the Hotel Cheval is a 16-room boutique inn. Complimentary wine tastings and seminars introduce guests to local wineries, while the spa’s signature massage incorporates other scents you’ll encounter in Paso Robles, lavender and rosemary. The Total Indulgence package, with a massage, body scrub, and facial, lives up to its name.