Jagged cliffs define much of the Central California coastline off Highway 1
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Rugged, jagged, craggy. It’s those physical attributes of the California coast that manage to beguile, and then some. The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel was once lauded as “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world” by landscape artist Francis McComas. Indeed, the park’s jagged cliffs fall off into white surf below, with the changing light intensifying into tangerine and fuchsia glows.
The Golden State’s central coastline proves an effective balm, rejuvenating and inspiring the mind, silently humbling and moving it too. It’s this intangible trait that gets in your heart, and it is what has prompted my husband and me, along with our young daughter, to seek out slivers of blue from Santa Barbara to Monterey and everywhere in between.
Tucked between ocean and mountains, Santa Barbara endures as a favorite stop along the Pacific Coast Highway, and even bills itself as the American Riviera, thanks to year-round blue skies and ocean breeze. The red-tile roofs of Spanish Revival buildings serve as a reminder of how history unfolded here, from the Chumash Indians to the Franciscan monks, who arrived and built the city’s gorgeous mission in 1786.
The heart of modern-day Santa Barbara is café- and gallery-lined State Street, where a much-awaited public market debuted this spring with artisanal coffee, cheese, olive oil, and an organic ice creamery, all under one roof. A pour of pinot is never far either, with 22 wine-tasting rooms downtown representing vineyards across the county and even beyond. And new restaurants such as Indonesian-inflected Sama Sama Kitchen and Scarlett Begonia, where the menu includes oysters and lamb meatballs, are dynamic and popular additions. We salivate over the menus and vow to return, since dinner awaits at Belmond El Encanto. At the 92-bungalow hotel’s wisteria-fringed terrace restaurant, our dinner comprises arrived-hours-ago morels, and we couldn’t be more delighted.
|From Santa Barbara to Monterey, California's Central Coast is a stunning stretch of state that offers charm aplenty. |
We retire to our Craftsman-style bungalow suite to find salted caramels at our bedside. We depart the next day, but not without bidding adieu to the hand-painted ceramic pigs scattered across the hotel grounds, as our daughter insists. We spend the following night at the Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore Santa Barbara, which dates back to 1927, and has seen stars from Greta Garbo to Bing Crosby to Gregory Peck grace its corridors. The 167-foot-long pool at the adjacent Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club (accessible to Four Seasons guests) practically drops off into the ocean and becomes the highlight of our day. Feeding the giraffes at the Santa Barbara Zoo, earlier that morning, is a very close second.
The small town of Cayucos
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Farther up Highway 1, the small town of Cayucos is much more untouched, the last of its kind of California coast towns. Imagine a seaside village with a mile-long strip of surf shops and fish-taco joints. In recent years, the stunningly restored five-room Cass House, the home of the original Captain James Cass, an Englishman who settled in Cayucos and helped build the town’s church and wharf, has really upped the small town’s ante, as has its outstanding restaurant under the helm of chef Jensen Lorenzen. Our meal is rich in flavors and textures from start to finish, with a simple but unforgettable pluot sorbet that we’re still talking about months later. The next morning, we sit in the inn’s garden with a pot of lavender tea and cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company, which is housed in a red barn up the block and an attraction in its own right.
The western border of the Paso Robles viticultural area sits just six miles off the coast, with the town slightly farther inland. With more than 250 wineries and plenty of other foodie pursuits (from Pasolivo’s olive oils to Negranti Creamery’s sheep’s-milk ice cream), we felt remiss to skip it. We arrive at HammerSky Vineyards & Inn’s exquisite farmhouse, surrounded by vines and oaks, and settle into the stylish and cozy digs. The owners leave us almond croissants in the well-stocked kitchen. We plan to visit a few wineries the following morning, including Tablas Creek, Denner, and Daou, then head toward Paso’s inviting downtown by lunch. We dig into fresh burrata with orange peel and cumin almonds and lentil tacos at Thomas Hill Organics, a casual bistro just a block off the downtown square. Nearby, the Paso Robles General Store, stocking local goodies from olive oils and vinegars to jams and honey, sits in the historic Acorn Building. Though this is wine country, Paso Robles got its first craft distillery, Re:Find, two years ago; a further sign of growth in the area. Founder Alex Villicana and his wife, Monica, manage to use the initial bleed from red grapes before they are fermented to make gin and vodka out of the usually discarded juice. The next day, we visit Negranti Creamery (by appointment), where husband and wife Wade and Alexis Negranti are churning out the most delicious and pure ice cream you’ve ever tasted. Our daughter giggles at the sight of the ewes, eager to chase and run around with them. We leave with pints of fresh mint and raw honey.
an aerial view of Carmel Valley Ranch
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BIG SUR, CARMEL, AND MONTEREY
After a few days in wine country, we’re on the road again to what’s arguably the most photographed 90-mile stretch of the coast, from San Simeon through Big Sur to
Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey. As our car climbs steep cliffs and ridges, passing secret coves of bluish-green waters, I notice even the wispy fog here is beautiful. We make the requisite stop at Nepenthe to check out the much-talked-about view from its perch, but dine just up the road at the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant instead. The meal is unfussy, but every bit delicious and thoughtful. Wood-fired bread served with salt-flecked butter. Risotto with peas and fava beans. Carrot cake with ginger ice cream. We make our way to the 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch, where wild turkeys and deer greet us.
Our cozy cottage-size room is outfitted with a fireplace, balcony, and sprawling bath. The next morning, we finally leave the room to tour the property’s garden, where feeding the chickens becomes our daughter’s new favorite pastime. Amid the rows of kale and sunflowers and herbs sits a tiny salt house. Later, I’m suited up at the apiary, where beekeeper John Russo tells us about the secret lives of honeybees as they buzz around our bodies.
Our farm tour continues the next day at Earthbound Farm, where we’re enthralled by scarlet runner beans and raspberries. We consider popping into local wineries such as Bernardus and Boete, but head toward the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with its cypress tree-studded beach and coffee shop-lined streets. We amble away the afternoon, strolling past quaint Victorian-looking cottages and countless galleries; the town has been an artist colony since the early 20th century, having attracted authors like Jack London and modern-day stars like Clint Eastwood. For dinner, we drive to Monterey to Restaurant 1833, set in a heritage building that’s served as the mayor’s mansion, the office of a charlatan doctor, and seemingly everything in between since 1833. The libations, including 15 varieties of absinthe, suit the speakeasy vibe and are followed by cheddar biscuits, beet salad, roasted cauliflower, ricotta ravioli, and bourbon pudding.
Santa Barbara is about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles International Airport. American offers direct flights operated by US Airways from Phoenix to Santa Barbara. Rent a car to take you up the coast before catching your return flight from Monterey Regional Airport.