In Central California, the 100-mile San Luis Obispo County coastline — from Santa Barbara County to Monterrey County — attracts families for all its outdoor activities on land and at sea. There’s plenty to enjoy for non-activists too, along the California Highway 1 Discovery Route. The region’s topographic splendor is obvious even while driving, but it’s a WOW! from the heights of the spectacular, art-filled Hearst Castle. Plus, there are shops and galleries, fun places to eat and drink, and tasting rooms to sample regional wines along The Pacific Coast Wine Trail. (As I was driving, I did more listening than sipping, but I learned about the wines and winemakers.)
Having traveled the route once, on an all-too-short, overnight drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, each four hours distance, to see Hearst Castle, I was eager to return to explore the little towns. This weeklong road trip centered on six scenic, seaside communities on the northernmost, 28-mile stretch of the Central California Coast.
Laid-back Avila Beach boasts a lighthouse, a weekly Farmers Market and a picturesque 2.5-mile, City to the Sea Trail; called the Bob Jones Trail, it’s a lush walking and biking path adjacent to San Luis Obispo Creek along the Pacific Coast Railway right-of-way.
Morro Bay, with its Embarcadero, is best known for Morro Rock, a steep, 581-foot volcanic rock located just offshore its busy harbor, with sportfishing and cruising boats, plus kayaks, paddleboards and boat tours. Landlubbers like the city bike map, the Morro Bay State Park boardwalk and Morro Bay National Estuary Preserve, an 800-acre wetland filled with salt marshes and mudflats home to more than 250 species of land, sea and shore birds, including Peregrine Falcons. Windows on the Water offers waterfront views, along with dishes that Executive Chef Neil Smith creates from impeccably fresh, locally sourced, sustainably farmed and organic ingredients and Chateau Margene offers tastings. En route out of town, I stopped at Highway 41 Antique Emporium Morro Bay, a 12,000-square-foot mall, where more than 70 vendors specialize in vintage clothing, modern items, jewelry, collectibles and toys for all ages. In low-key Cayucos, couples, kids with fishing poles and families gathered on the fishing pier.
The teeny-tiny town of Harmony, (The 2000 census claims “population 18”) houses Harmony Glassworks, a glass blowing facility where a group of artisans work and sell their wares and where children and grownups alike stare with amazement at the magic they produce. Harmony Cellars is on a 140-acre complex, complete with a tasting room with a terrace, a sterile winemaking facility, a gazebo and gardens, and is the oldest (1989) and most established winery along the Northern Central Coast.
Cambria is a walkable, artsy community where Main Street is lined mostly with houses turned privately owned boutiques, galleries, restaurants and tasting rooms: Black Hand Cellars, Cayucos Cellars, Cutruzzola Vineyard’s, Moonstone Cellars and Twin Coyotes. We lunched on fresh Dungeness crab and Olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant and dined, more formally, on fresh farm-to-table fare at Black Cat Bistro. Just outside of “downtown,” up Santa Rosa Creek Road, the multigenerational Stolo Family Vineyards, the only estate vineyard and winery in Cambria, produces wines from grapes grown in a true coastal climate. (Most grapes are grown inland in/near Paso Robles.) On Cambria’s oceanfront, some grand homes have become restaurants and B&Bs facing the Pacific. We brunched at the (deservedly) popular Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.
San Simeon is just 6 miles north of Cambria and where publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst created Hearst Castle, on the high, rough and craggy acres of the place he loved more than anywhere else on earth. The 84,000-acre venue was originally 250,000 acres. Working throughout most of the first half of the 20th century with his remarkable architect, Julia Morgan (the first female architect to graduate from U.C. Berkley), the palatial country estate is as remarkable as any world-class venue and, appropriately, is a National Historic Landmark.
Just across from the castle entry on the ocean side of Highway 1, Sebastian’s General Store (c. 1852) in Old San Simeon Village has an air of the old west. I visited in mid-day, on a weekend, when the parking lot was packed, the picnic tables were full with families and there was a long line waiting for takeaway food. Inside, shelves are stocked with branded clothing, Hearst Grass-Fed Beef, olive oils, gourmet goodies and cookbooks by author Emma Hearst. It also houses the Hearst Ranch Winery’s Coastal Tasting Room, where three servers were busy pouring samples on the inlaid copper bar. (The primary tasting room for the gold-medal wines is located at the winery/vineyard in Paso Robles.)
Like a kid in the backseat, while driving along Highway 1, from one venue to another, I watched with wonder as waves crashed the shores on one side of the road and cattle grazed the rolling hillsides of the other.