The Comprehensive Insider’s Guide to the Central Coast

Use this guide to plan a trip to California’s central coast.

Highlights
800 Alvarado Pl
There’s a reason this hotel is named after the Spanish word for “charmed.” An oasis for old-Hollywood stars since the 1920s, this upscale resort offers guests an away-from-it-all feel, even though it’s just minutes from downtown. Sitting on a seven-acre hillside property overlooking the city, the central building and several craftsman-style and Spanish colonial bungalows were recently restored, offering elegant spaces to relax. At the two restaurants—called simply the Dining Room and Terrace—chefs showcase the region’s ingredients in coastal-inspired dishes, which can include herbs from the on-site garden and cheese from the milk of the property’s resident Holstein cow, Ellie. Indulge at the spa with massage therapies, facial and body treatments, oxygen treatments, and skin care products from Beverly Hills facialist Linda Ross. Use the fitness studio for a workout on the Technogym treadmills, exercise bikes, and ellipticals, or take a cardio class. Or just soak in the California lifestyle at the zero-edge swimming pool, with a drink and an unparalleled view of the Santa Barbara coast.
131 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Named for the overnight train that served Santa Barbara from 1910 to 1968, the Lark restaurant showcases the Central Coast’s seasonal bounty. Located in the Santa Barbara Fish Market Building, in the heart of the city’s Funk Zone, the innovative restaurant combines a farm-to-table ethos with a family-style approach. During most months, the outdoor courtyard seating is as convivial as the tables in the dining room. The menu of small plates is organized by their ingredients’ places of origin (farm, ranch, or ocean): crispy brussels sprouts include sweet medjool dates as well as spicy serrano chilies; pickled fennel and compressed Granny Smith apples accompany the grilled Kurobata pork belly; and passion-fruit vinaigrette and fried avocado enhance the flavor of Japanese hamachi collar. Larger platters are meant to be shared, and restaurant regulars often choose one or two (the Baharat spiced cauliflower and Israeli couscous is a favorite) along with several smaller plates. Pro tip: While it’s tempting to fill up on the herbed popcorn that’s delivered to your table the instant you’re seated, slow down, order a craft cocktail, and make sure you save room for the main event.
702 Anacapa Street
Since 1983, food lovers in the know have headed to Santa Barbara’s renowned Paradise Café. Housed in an early 20th-century brick and stucco building with a relaxed atmosphere, the café’s oak wood grill is fueled by Santa Maria live oak—also known as California live oak—a wood that’s essential for the area’s regional style of barbecue. The flavors brought out by the oak in steaks, pork chops, roast chicken, shrimp and sausage, ahi tuna, rainbow trout, and salmon keep added seasonings to a minimum, so fresh ingredients remain the focus of the menu. The crowd favorite, the half-pound signature Paradise Burger, is grilled over oak, topped with Tillamook cheddar cheese, and placed on an onion roll—and best enjoyed with a glass of Paradise syrah, sourced from local vineyards. If you sit on the patio, give the historic mural more than a glance. It features Leo Carrillo, an old-Hollywood actor best known for his role as Pancho in the television series The Cisco Kid; he is locally beloved for his involvement in preserving and conserving California open spaces.
905 Country Club Rd, Ojai, CA 93023, USA
Spread across 220 acres of coastal valley, the Ojai Valley Inn opened in 1923, originally commissioned by an early 20th-century glass tycoon. With white stucco and terra-cotta buildings, the mission-style retreat looks like a dreamy California village wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Topatopa Mountains. Luxurious spa penthouses are ultra-private, and their location in the Spa Ojai building gives guests an easy route to their warm Himalayan salt stone massage or sound energy therapy treatment. The Hacienda Penthouse, atop a hillside villa, brings an air of Morocco to the California landscape. Wallace Neff Historic Rooms, built in the early days of the property, offer the relaxed glamour of that era. Days can be as peaceful or as action-packed as you like and may include golfing at the Ojai Country Club, blending essential oils in the on-site apothecary, lounging next to one of the property’s several pools, hiking, horseback riding, or indulging in retail therapy at two on-site boutiques. Olivella serves traditional and modern interpretations of Italian cuisine, while The Oak’s dishes highlight the resort’s herb garden. Pro tip: Order the signature lavender lemonade.
302 West Matilija Street
For bibliophiles, a beautiful bookstore is akin to a church. Voices hush, smiles abound, and books are handled gently, like precious relics. An old home packed with an extensive collection of used and new titles, Bart’s Books opened in 1964, when Richard Bartinsdale’s collection became so huge that he constructed bookcases outside, so passersby could peruse the titles. Instead of a cash register, he left coffee cans on the shelves so customers could leave payment. Today, Bart’s is the largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the country—and the books outside are still for sale via the honor system. But the offerings extend indoors too. If you’re looking for cookbooks and culinary lore, check in the building’s kitchen. The living room features poetry. Art books are in the gallery. The rest of the place is a maze of bookshelves with corrugated tin roofing and open-air seating areas for reading at your leisure. Don’t worry about rain: The books are fairly well protected, and while a few may be lost in the rare heavy storm, most make it through perfectly fine.
734 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
This stylish wine bar, bottle shop, and all-day restaurant is the brainchild of two food and wine world forces: Jessi Singh, the chef from San Francisco and New York City’s acclaimed Babu Ji, and James Beard Award–winning sommelier Rajat Parr. Opened this year, Bibi Ji, which takes its name from an Indian term of endearment, pays tribute to the women in the cofounders’ lives who cultivated their love for food and hospitality. The seafood-focused menu with Australian and Indian influences changes regularly, depending on what’s available at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market. Oysters are accompanied by pickled green mango butter, sea urchin is featured in the uni biryani dish with fried rice, and the seafood coconut curry can include prawns or vegetables. The presentation is almost so pretty you don’t want to disturb it, but let that moment pass and dig in. Pair your meal with any of the limited-run, small-keg draft beers; the rotating new beers in the beer fridge; wine from the bottle shop—or surrender to the experts and let them do the pairing for you. Whether you sit indoors or outside, the California spirit blends with Singh’s and Parr’s beloved India, making the restaurant what the owners call a “good-time place.”
209 West Ojai Avenue
Walk through the foyer of Ojai’s Beacon Coffee and into this light and airy crafter’s paradise. When you emerge, you may have a new project or two in your hands. Beautifully curated by husband-wife team Kirk and Anna Nozaki (who have a background in fashion and graphic design, respectively) Cattywampus Crafts is filled with all-natural products that seem made for an Instagram or Pinterest feed. The store brings texture to life: inventory includes luxurious fabrics, books, plant dyes, ceramics, jewelry, and clothing. As you look, you’ll realize that they’re more than things to buy—they’re also ideas to inspire your own creativity. Go it alone with a book and materials, or choose an in-house craft class from a wealth of offerings that cover knitting, crocheting, macramé, weaving, stitchery, mending, and dyeing. Pro tip: Cattywampus sells objects by local artists. Don’t miss Margins’ beautiful moon calendars that are available in a variety of colors.
315 N Montgomery St, Ojai, CA 93023, USA
This playful picnic and wine shop is quintessentially Ojai. Set in an old Spanish house, Tipple & Ramble sells indoor/outdoor decor, vintage and new barware, retro games, coolers, and small-batch specialty food items. Stock up on artisanal s’mores kits for your next campout; cocktail mixers and trays for entertaining; or cheese knives and handmade cutting boards for a stylish picnic. Then step onto the patio, which feels like entering a neighbor’s bohemian backyard, a lush landscape of palms, cacti, and hammocks. On Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 7 p.m., the patio becomes a wine bar. Try a cheese and charcuterie board or hummus and seasonal vegetables, paired with wine, beer, or Mexican Coke from the bar, which is built into a vintage trailer. Pro tip: The patio faces east, the essential direction to enjoy Ojai’s Pink Moment—the famous sunset that turns everything a glowing pink. Plan to arrive early enough to get a glass of rosé and snag the table in the front of the yard for the best end-of-day view.
695 Ashley Rd, Montecito, CA 93108, USA
As the name suggests, this 37-acre Santa Barbara garden is horticultural heaven. For more than 43 years, socialite and opera singer Madame Ganna Walska filled the grounds with more than 3,000 plants; after her death, Lotusland opened to the public in 1993 as a nonprofit botanical garden. The species of plants hail from all over the world, and the collection includes succulents, aloes, ferns, bromeliads, and water lilies. Other gardens are planted by theme, like the Blue Garden, Theatre Garden, and Water Garden. There’s never a bad time to visit, but if you’re especially interested in seeing the lotuses bloom, mark July and August in your calendar. Nonmember visitors must make reservations in advance for two-hour tours that include both horticultural and historical information, but the parties are small, so you’ll have a clear view of the gardens. If you want the luxury of wandering the gardens unattended, consider purchasing a membership. Either way, be sure to stop at the garden shop for plants and tools, and dream about creating your own little Lotusland at home.
1208 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Growing up in Indonesia, chef Ryan Simorangkir says he only craved kid’s food. But as an adult, he fell in love with the local street food of his home country and began to cook from family recipes. After attending Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu school, he opened Sama Sama Kitchen, co-owned with chef Tyler Peek, where he celebrates Indonesian cuisine in a warm, casual setting (the name means “you’re welcome” in Indonesian). The menu features renditions of traditional Indonesian street fare, like the signature wings, hot chicken bao, or crispy brussels sprouts. Salads are also a highlight here, including the crispy duck salad, green papaya salad, and market gado-gado. Pan-seared octopus becomes rich with leek and chili oil, as well as rendang remoulade. The black pepper tofu and broccolini may sound simple, but with garlic, scallion, ginger, and chili, it’s a dish that many return to over and over. Don’t skip dessert. Try the banana doughnut fritters or black sesame tres leches with spiced rum milk, and you’ll wonder if you should order an extra to take home.
2860 Grand Avenue
There’s a bit of the Wild West at this luxurious wine country inn. Vintner Fess Parker, of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone TV fame, opened the inn in 1998. Today it’s still run by his family, and you can wade in the nostalgia by visiting the gallery off the lobby, which displays black-and-white images of Parker from his Hollywood days. Each of the 19 spacious rooms and suites is slightly different. Grand Garden rooms have cozy gas fireplaces and views of Los Olivos, while suites with living rooms are expansive enough to spread out and relax. At the Bear and Star restaurant, ingredients for the “refined ranch cuisine” are sourced from the Fess Parker Home Ranch, just seven miles from the inn. Wagyu specialties abound—from carpaccio to burgers, meatloaf to steaks—while the Fess Parker Winery supplies the restaurant with estate-grown rhône varietals. Lounge by the pool, or drop in at the spa for a massage or facial (a highlight: the Heaven on Earth package, which blends the Unwind massage with a customized Elemis facial). Pro tip: End the evening on a nostalgic note, borrowing a Fess Parker movie from the library for guests.
2670 Ontiveros Rd, Los Olivos, CA 93441, USA
Successful first acts often lead to equally successful second acts. After years as leaders and pioneers in the electronic music business, Tom and Judy Beckmen decided to turn their attention to winemaking. Today, with their son, Steve, they’re turning out innovative wines in the Santa Ynez Valley near Los Olivos. The winery focuses on rhône varietals and has two estate vineyards: The 165-acre hillside certified biodynamic Purisima Mountain Vineyard has almost 40 individual blocks of rhône grape varieties; the 17-acre vineyard that surrounds the winery is planted predominantly with syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Swing by to taste (although groups of six or more require reservations) or bring your own picnic and nab a gazebo. For a more in-depth experience, reserve a private tour with a customized wine tasting flight paired with cheese and charcuterie. Four different levels of membership in the wine club offer access to hand-selected bottles, flavor profiles, and recipes to match.
406 E Hwy 246, Buellton, CA 93427, USA
You can’t leave the Central California Coast without filling up on Santa Maria barbecue. This regional style of barbecue dates back to the 19th century, when ranchers held Spanish-style cookouts, grilling simply seasoned top-block sirloin and tri-tip over a native local oak species to add a smoky flavor to the meat. That deep fragrance of red oak hangs in the air as you enter the Buellton Hitching Post II. Opened in 1986, the restaurant has roots in a sister restaurant, Casmalia Hitching Post, which opened in 1952. While the menu is varied, it’s the authentic Santa Maria barbecue, especially tri-tip, that draws crowds. Black-and-white images of generations of horsemen hang on the walls in the simply decorated room that may look a little familiar if you’ve watched the film Sideways, which included many scenes shot inside the restaurant. But the best action is behind the window to the kitchen, where owner Frank Ostini and chef de cuisine Bradley Lettau collaborate at the indoor barbecue. Pro tip: Pair your barbecue with Hartley Ostini Hitching Post wines, crafted by Ostini and friend Gray Hartley.
1054 Alisal Rd, Solvang, CA 93463, USA
This elegantly rustic 10,000-acre ranch tucked into the Santa Ynez Valley encourages you to get unplugged and get outdoors. In fact, there are no TVs or phones in the guest rooms. Instead, guests head to the barn to choose a noble steed and enjoy the 50 miles of riding trails that wind through canyons, past shaded hillsides, refreshing streams, and grazing cattle. Saddle up for the popular morning ride to enjoy a hearty cowboy breakfast featuring gigantic flapjacks at the historic Adobe Camp, which sits among giant sycamores in the nearby hills. If riding horses isn’t for you, you can fish in a spring-fed lake, hike through Deer Canyon, cycle the trails, play tennis, practice your swing at two championship golf courses, or unwind at the spa. Executive chef Anthony Endy expertly blends seasonal California cuisine with Western ranch cooking, whether guests are dining in the Ranch Room or having a meal by the pool. When you sit back in the evening with the distant sounds of the barnyard as the sun sets over the oak-studded hills, you might realize you haven’t checked your cell phone all day.
225 Bell St, Los Alamos, CA 93440, USA
The heart of this Los Alamos restaurant is the 22-ton stone behemoth of an oven that owner Clark Staub built in 2003. Almost every dish at Full of Life Flatbread owes its smoky flavors to it, and all diners share space with it, as it takes up a sizable chunk of the wood-paneled dining room. Guests can watch the thin pizzas bubble in the oven. Flatbreads to try: the popular cheese and herb (sauceless, with garlic oil, whole milk mozzarella, Grana Padano, and fresh herbs), smoke-dried tomato and mushroom (including caramelized onions), nitrate-free pepperoni and peppers (which has ember-roasted pasilla peppers), or Coachella Valley date and bacon (with walnuts, blue cheese, and smoked leek sauce). If the weather is good, choose a glass of local wine, sit outside on the yawning front porch with your flatbread, and slow down.
380 Bell St, Los Alamos, CA 93440, USA
Wine industry workers say that it takes a lot of great beer to make great wine: That is, after a long day in Santa Barbara wine country, winemakers, cellar workers, and grape pickers need refreshing beer to quench their thirst. In the tiny town of Los Alamos, Babi’s Beer Emporium is the place to go. Ale fans won’t miss the absence of wine on the menu, which includes between 40 to 60 bottles of craft brew, along with a small selection of beers on tap. Owner Sonja Magdevski, who makes wine under the label Casa Dumetz (which she owns with her husband, actor Emilio Estevez), chooses her beers carefully, avoiding bottles readily available at nearby chain grocery stores or retailers. Sit at the bar and sample her favorites (90 percent of the tap selections are from California breweries), join in the spirit of discovery, and hunt through the bottle collection for hard-to-find international brews. Or hang out on the outdoor patio with your newfound favorite beer and a plate of pork belly, chicken, or chorizo tacos. Look around—you may just be surrounded by winemakers.
2040 Niderer Road
Romantics may be drawn to Clos Solène for its origin story. Sixth-generation French winemaker Guillaume Fabre promised his love, Solène, their own “clos,” or enclosed vineyard, in the New World if she would come along with him to put down roots. Their Paso Robles winery has even been the subject of a documentary, which was a finalist in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. But the romantic backstory is only a small part of what makes the wine special. Clos Solène produces 11 different wines (mostly rhône and cabernet sauvignon blends), each with its own identity and vineyard site. A year ago, the boutique winery purchased an estate property in the Willow Creek District that has become the new home to Clos Solène Estate—complete with a winery, vineyard, and tasting room. Pro tip: Tastings are available by appointment, and while visitors can purchase a limited amount of select wines, the best opportunity for fans who want open access is to become a member of the wine club (with three- and six-bottle options).
750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452, USA
This sprawling, 165-room mansion may be known as Hearst Castle, but officially, it’s called La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), former owner William Randolph Hearst’s affectionate name for the property. Designed by legendary California architect Julia Morgan to the newspaper magnate’s specifications, Hearst Castle was considered completed in 1947, even though it was still unfinished. Now a national historic landmark and museum dedicated to art and excess, it’s filled with Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities, along with Old Master European artwork, Chinese and Near Eastern art, and art deco items—25,000 artifacts in all. There’s always something blooming in the 127 acres of gardens, whether it’s sweet-smelling hyacinth, walls of magenta bougainvillea, fragrant star jasmine, or orange California poppies (the state flower). Don’t get overwhelmed by the numbers during a visit here. Most tours of the estate focus on certain areas, instead of the entire grounds. Pro tip: The Hearst Castle private tour, a four-hour, in-depth exploration of the lavish grounds and mansion, is well worth it. The customized route can access any areas of the estate that are available to the public, but since it’s limited to a maximum of six guests, you can cover a lot of ground with your private guide and get information that shorter tours can only touch upon.
47900 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, USA
For more than 30 years, the Post Ranch Inn, which sits along a cliff 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean, has been a go-to retreat for devotees who believe well-being starts with a place that honors its natural environment—and treads lightly on it, too. Big Sur architect Mickey Muennig designed the 40 guest rooms that rely on solar power; all were fashioned out of recycled wood, and the structures blend in with the Santa Lucia Mountains. Views through enormous windows face either the Pacific Ocean or the mountains. Wellness plays a role in every experience on offer, whether it’s a reflexology treatment, a shaman healing session, a doctor-led sleep program, or a private guided hike or meditation session in the nearby ancient forests.
47540 California 1
You might drive right by the Big Sur Bakery as you make your way along the wild coastline that artist Francis McComas once called the “greatest meeting of land and sea.” But if you do miss it, turn back. This casual roadside bakery and restaurant—which used to be known as “that place behind the gas station”—is a can’t-miss destination for its freshly baked bread and pastries, as well as sit-down meals. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, perfectly seasoned dishes emerge from the wood-fired oven. Chef Michelle Rizzolo has devoted herself to making the best chicken anyone’s ever had—and you should absolutely order it. But there’s also delicious pizza, homemade meat balls, grilled octopus, and desserts you won’t want to share. Big Sur Bakery is also a community hub, where locals drop by to have a scone and a cup of coffee, and catch up with friends. Pro tip: Go early for freshly baked pastries. Get more than you think you’ll need. You’ll eat them all and you won’t regret it.
52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, USA
One of Big Sur’s most iconic images comes from this state park: tree-topped rocks jutting above a golden beach next to crashing surf. If you’re not an avid outdoorsperson, this is possibly the best reward for an easy hike that exists: Visitors can view the 80-foot McWay Falls as it plummets from a granite cliff to the sandy cove below from the half-mile Waterfall Overlook Trail, which is easily accessible from the entrance gate of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The falls, creek, and canyon are named after Christopher McWay, an early settler and farmer, but the park itself is named after a legendary early pioneer who had a ranch in McWay Canyon with her husband. For a different view, turn to Ewoldsen Trail, a two-mile loop that crosses streams and winds through redwood trees. At its highest elevation gain, the views make any effort more than worthwhile. Pro tip: The Central Coast’s only known colony of double-crested cormorants live just offshore, so birders should bring binoculars—and patience.
71895 California 1
Before glamping was a phenomenon, there was Treebones Resort, its yurts set on redwood platforms with views of the Pacific Ocean. But the swanky yurts at Treebones aren’t the only reason you should stop here. The Sushi Bar at Treebones Resort is the local go-to spot for sushi. The two-seating nightly omakase experience offers an elaborate tasting menu, served against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset over the ocean, visible through the windows behind the chef. The sushi chef thoroughly guides you through the dishes. While the freshest catch is always the star of the menu (which can include scallops with black garlic and yellowtail nigiri), even vegan diners will have plenty to enjoy with sushi options that highlight produce from the on-site organic garden. Pro tips: Only open from March through November, the Sushi Bar offers same-day reservations for off-property guests; with very limited seating, you need to be fast on the phone dial. Even better, since overnight guests receive first priority when they book their yurt, your odds of dining here improve if you stay over, too.
48123 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, USA
New safari tents at an iconic central California coast resort invite guests to glamp under the redwood trees. Nightly turndown service, included. Big Sur is once again open for business following last spring’s debilitating mud slides, and autumn is an especially luminous time to explore this legendary stretch of central California coast, some 20 miles south of Carmel. Big Sur’s magic lies in its untamed wilderness: redwood groves, chaparral-covered hills, and iconic rocky cliffs that sprout improbably from the ocean. Condors circle overhead and sea otters float just offshore. For many, the isolation—and peace and quiet—that Big Sur offers is the reason to return again and again. For travelers seeking a soft landing, the Ventana Big Sur resort recently reopened under new ownership and after a massive renovation. New glamping cabins have been added to the 59 rooms, suites, and villas spread throughout the resort’s 160 acres. Shaded by redwoods, the 15 safari-style canvas tents come equipped with hickory walking sticks, portable lanterns, and access to a bathhouse with teak-lined showers and heated floors. Guests can enjoy nightly turndown service and the use of fire pits for making s’mores in the evening. As part of the renovation, the Ventana also built an on-site gallery to showcase paintings, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, and photography by Big Sur’s most renowned artists. And the new Sur House restaurant—helmed by executive chef Paul Corsentino, who worked in New York and Chicago before heading west—houses a 10,000-bottle wine cellar that highlights small-production central coast wineries. Guests eager to embrace the region’s back-to-nature philosophy might appreciate a soak in the heated, clothing-optional Mountain Pool, undoubtedly more pleasant to ease into than the roiling, frigid Pacific Ocean just down the hill. This appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue.
125 Ocean View Blvd #122, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA
Using an e-bike isn’t cheating—it’s far more environmentally friendly than using a car, plus you get some exercise as well. And those climbs along the coast are much easier when you have a 750-watt assist. Big Sur Adventures offers a trio of e-bike tours for all levels of riders: 17-Mile Drive, the Old Coast Road, and McWay Falls. One of the best choices for intermediate riders is the Old Coast Road route, a dirt road that follows the original wagon trail into Big Sur. There are locals who haven’t been on this road, and the views are magnificent as they stretch along the coast, into oak and redwood groves, and across the Little Sur River. Trips include four to 12 people and typically last three to four hours. Sure, in a car, you can roll down the windows to smell the sea, but exploring the coast by bike gives you a full sensory experience: ocean and forest scents, warm sun on your arms, the sound of crashing waves and wind in the trees, and the feeling of getting a little closer to the wild coast.
48510 Highway One
A fictional medicine for chasing away sorrow mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey gives this restaurant and shop its name. Perched high above the Pacific and in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Nepenthe offers miles-long views of the coast. It’s certainly served its purpose as a lure for poets, artists, travelers, and vagabonds since it opened in 1949—and part of the pleasure of a stop here is listening to fellow diners who are old-timers tell “I remember when” stories. Enjoy it all from a seat on the laid-back patio, or inside the main building, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and made of native materials to blend with the landscape. Three of this restaurant’s dishes are so beloved that the staff is asked daily for recipes: the Ambrosia burger (where quality of ingredients and temperature of the grill are essential), Lolly’s Roast Chicken Dinner with fresh sage stuffing, and the raspberry-boysenberry-strawberry Triple Berry Pie. Even the simplest menu items take on a best-ever taste here, and you wonder if it’s the food, the atmosphere, the view, the company, or all of it wrapped together in an iconic California package that can’t be found anywhere else.
Pfeiffer Beach, California 93920, USA
If you blink, you might miss the turnoff for Pfeiffer Beach. There’s no signage except for a yellow “Narrow Road” warning at the top of otherwise unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, the only paved, ungated road on the west side of Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Big Sur Post Office. From the path that starts at the parking lot, this flat beach may not seem like much at first, but the view unfolds as you get closer. The focal point from Pfeiffer Beach’s wide, sandy beach is Keyhole Rock, a natural arch where the tide sweeps through as waves break on the rock. During low tide periods, you can find tide pools in this area, but always keep your eye on the ocean, which rises quickly. Walk to the northern end of the beach, where purple sand comes from the manganese garnet in the surrounding rocks (the best places to see it are under running streams of water). Pro tip: Those looking for a golden, romantic moment—and beautiful photos—should head here before sunset, to catch Keyhole Rock as the last rays of daylight pass through.
481 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA
Brunch lasts nearly all day at Crema in Pacific Grove, and you need that time to explore the array of separate quarters in the restaurant’s converted Victorian mansion. Investigate the historic photos, antique furniture, and artistic decor in the downstairs espresso café and wine bar; grab a spot with friends in the garden courtyard or in the dining room upstairs; or keep to yourself in the studious Peacock Room. Once you’ve found your favorite nook, enjoy fizzy and floaty drinks, rich egg dishes, golden waffles, or house favorites like the bacon cheddar biscuits that are football-size and accompanied by honey butter. As the day progresses, Crema is a favorite stop for friends to get together, often over games of Jenga, Battleship, Scrabble, and Yahtzee—all available to borrow from the espresso bar. Pro tip: The goblets of fruity sangria and the Micheladas served with a slice of country bacon are as good in the morning as they are in the afternoon.
400 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
While the Monterey Plaza Hotel is centrally located on the end of Monterey’s main tourist drag, Cannery Road, each of its 290 rooms are a comfortable, quiet retreat from the world.
8940 Carmel Valley Road
In a valley only five miles from the Pacific Ocean, Folktale Winery lives up to its name: The Old World French-style château appears like a castle from childhood fables amid the vineyards and oak trees. On arrival, visitors are greeted with a taste of sparkling brut (NV). Like many winemakers in the area, Folktale focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir, but its wines stand out for their bright acidic style and the minerality of the terroir. Daily tasting hours run into the early evening, and individual glasses and bottles are available, as well as flights of Folktale and reserve wines from single vineyards. The restaurant serves such seasonally inspired small plates as brie and pear bruschetta, shared plates (the crispy octopus is a local favorite), salads, and cheese or charcuterie boards. Pro tips: Save room to sample wine ice cream pops, made of rosé or grenache. Tours (which require reservations) include visits to the vineyards, cellar, and barrel room. And check the winery’s events calendar for yoga classes in the vines, special workshops, and concerts.
Those who have only dipped a toe into the Carmel region may think it’s all about the charming coastal community, Carmel-by-the-Sea. But there’s an entire area of Carmel that’s missing from that experience: Carmel Valley. There, the 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch is like a sophisticated summer camp for all ages—a place where you can fill your day with workshops, hilltop yoga, and golf (on an 18-hole course designed by Pete Dye). Nights are for stargazing and making s’mores. The 181 spacious ranch suites are scattered across three neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality—guests can choose views of the valley, the golf course, or small courtyards that attract local wildlife. The ranch grows 7,000 lavender plants, which make their way into treatments at the Spa Aiyana. And because Carmel Valley Ranch is in the heart of one of California’s most fertile growing regions, the area’s wealth of wine and sustainable, organic food is the highlight of the menu at Valley Kitchen. Pro tip: Reserve far in advance for the Wine Dinner Series, hosted by the hotel’s executive chef and sommelier, who match the wines and spirits of Monterey County with locally sourced ingredients.
80 Asilomar Avenue
Standing its ground between a cypress grove and the Pacific Ocean, the Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the U.S. West Coast—and one of seven lighthouses for which Congress appropriated funding shortly after California statehood was ratified. But this lighthouse wasn’t just an aid to navigation; it was also a social hub in early Pacific Grove. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about lighthouse keeper Allen Luce and his piano playing, while a fondness for entertaining inspired locals to call keeper Emily Fish the Socialite Keeper. The lighthouse beacon, a third-order Fresnel lens, has flashed nightly since 1855 and is still used in the tower today—the light is visible up to 17 nautical miles out to sea. Docents are on duty to answer questions as you tour the lighthouse, from the 1890s-style parlor to the 1920s-style kitchen, and up to the Emily Fish bedroom and lookout. Right behind the lighthouse is the El Carmelo Cemetery, one of the most peaceful seaside cemeteries, with deer wandering through to nibble on the grass.
8205 Valley Greens Drive
You don’t have to be a golfer to enjoy spending time at Carmel’s Quail Lodge—but if you are, you may never want to leave. The 18-hole championship golf course—designed by Robert Muir Graves in 1964 and later refined by Todd Eckenrode—features short grass areas that surround the greens for more shot options, as well as grass swales that come into play on seven holes. There’s also an on-site academy for those duffers who want to polish their skills with the aid of a pro. The stylish 93-room lodge is inspired by historic California ranches and Spanish colonial design, with guest room balconies and patios opening up to the grounds. Off the golf course, take advantage of the heated outdoor swimming pool, bocce ball courts, and tennis courts (with a pro on hand for lessons), or rev up at the Off-Road Land Rover Experience Driving School. Reward all that activity at the Waypoint Bar & Deck, with signature cocktails and casual dishes, or at Edgar’s restaurant, with ingredients from nearby organic farms. Pro tip: Friday nights are Cioppino Night at Edgar’s—a local favorite.
120 Highlands Drive
Located four miles south of Carmel on a coastal stretch known as the Gateway to Big Sur, the Hyatt Carmel Highlands feels like a true retreat, one that’s in easy reach of both civilization and wilderness. The 48 rooms (including 11 suites) all have wood-burning fireplaces and views of either the property’s gardens or the craggy coastline. Known since its beginnings in 1917 as the Highlands Inn, the boutique hideaway has been a repeat destination for generations of Californians, as well as legendary celebrities like Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julia Child, and Robert Redford. California Market at Pacific’s Edge sits overlooking the ocean (locals prefer the outdoor seating for lunch, especially after a hike at nearby Point Lobos), and its local, seasonal ingredients are featured in dishes like ceviche, fish tacos, and Dungeness crab cakes. Take one of the complimentary mountain bikes on a local adventure or relax at the heated outdoor swimming pool. In-room spa services and a fitness center keep wellness top of mind, although a workout may be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re enjoying a cocktail at the Sunset Lounge as the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean.
1518 Cypress Dr, Pebble Beach, CA 93953, USA
With its red roof tiles, bougainvillea vines, and verdant gardens, Casa Palmero feels like a luxurious Mediterranean villa. The new hotel also overlooks the first and second fairways of the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links. The 24 rooms all have fireplaces, oversized soaking tubs, and beds that invite deep rest, whether or not you spend the day on the golf course. Indulge in that villa guest feeling by relaxing in the living room, library, billiard room, or heated outdoor pool. Personalized services at Casa Palmero include fresh breakfast baskets every morning, complimentary cocktails each evening, and access to such private clubs as the Spanish Bay Club and the Beach & Tennis Club. All Casa Palmero guests can also access the Lodge at Pebble Beach, and its myriad fine dining restaurants, bars, cafés, shops, and spa. (The Pebble Massage is the most popular treatment, incorporating the heat of warmed, sculpted stones.) After sipping your evening cocktail at Casa Palmero, wander over to Stillwater Bar & Grill for local fresh hamachi crudo and Monterey Bay red abalone.
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, USA
When you stand on the Monterey bluffs and look at the bay, the vast expanse of marine protected areas may inspire you to learn more about conservation of the ocean and its creatures. That’s exactly the mission of the innovative Monterey Bay Aquarium, a window into the habitats and sea life of one of the world’s richest marine regions. More than 35,000 creatures representing over 550 species fill 34 galleries here. It can be daunting to get to everything in a single visit, and one of the best additions to your time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Personal Guided Tour. On this customized tour, aquarium staff can answer any questions you have about the animals and exhibits and then take you behind staff-only doors to watch how the animals and marine life are cared for. The six Southern sea otters are the crowd favorites at the aquarium, so arrive early for the three-time-daily feedings to get a good look at them.
6272 Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach, CA 90803
With a waterfront view, a unique ambience, and a solid happy hour, Tantalum is a great place to meet for drinks or dinner. The dishes and drinks match the exotic atmosphere and are Asian-influenced and sophisticated. Try the Citrus Basil “Tantalum-tini,” full of vodka, Thai basil, and fresh grapefruit juice. And don’t miss the Kobe Beef Burger for Happy Hour.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure
Journeys: Family
Journeys: United States