The Best Towns to Visit on a Road Trip Down California’s Central Coast for Incredible Food, Wineries, and Hotels
A food and drink expert charts the perfect course from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
By Brad Japhe
Originally Published in the LA Times on May 9, 2023
Los Angeles and San Francisco are two of the most celebrated cities on the planet. Often overlooked by those doing the celebrating, however, are the 350 miles of stunning shoreline separating the two. Don’t make the same mistake. The central coast of California is a dynamic slice of culture, wildlife, and topographic wonder. It is best enjoyed slowly and surely on a week-long road trip between its world-famous bookends. And while you undoubtedly have heard the greatest hits — names like Santa Barbara and Big Sur — that’s just the tip of the scenic spear. It’s time for the deep cuts.
Below you’ll find the ultimate guide to coastal California. If this doesn’t inspire you to pack up your car and head for the Pacific Coast Highway, nothing will. The only thing that’s missing is a full tank of gas. This one starts in LA and heads northbound toward the Bay Area. But feel free to reverse it and leave from SF — or even wash, rinse, and repeat once you get to the other end.
Sandwiched between sea and the Santa Ynez peaks, Santa Barbara is a sight to behold. You’ll feel its calming effects immediately upon rolling into town — which, if you started at LAX would require almost exactly 100 miles on the US-101. Although its status as a weekend retreat for city-weary Angelenos was enshrined ages ago, it has only more recently asserted itself as a global destination in its own right. The abundance of luxury hotels certainly helps.
Book your stay at El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, and you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of all the beauty from the comfort of its country-style cottages. The main building includes a veranda with a bar and restaurant stretching out toward the sea, some thousand feet below. And yet it’s still easy to get downtown: the city’s primary pedestrian thoroughfare, State Street, is just a 10-minute drive.
When you arrive there, Santa Barbara’s signature Spanish revival architecture will be on full display. Go for an afternoon winery crawl, beginning at Frequency Wine Company where independently produced wines express a special focus on single-vineyard selections. If you’re not afraid to get some steps in, it’s just under a mile down to an oenophile’s delight in the aptly named Funk Zone. The former industrial area on the opposite side of the highway now features a cluster of innovative wine shops.
As the evening approaches, explore the varied storefronts as the sky glows orange and amber with the setting sun. When it’s time to dine, your options will be robust. Vegetarians won’t want to miss the natural wine–backed offerings at Satellite. The hot spot is a quaint bottle shop and bar, which doubles as a restaurant.
Meat-eaters can get their fill at the many Mediterranean standouts befitting the scenery. Loquita is a long-running hit for Spanish fare and Toma for Italian. But this scene is increasingly devoted to eclecticism, as evidenced by the popularity of Bibi Ji — a State St. favorite for contemporary Indian.
If you’re looking to get outdoorsy — beyond the obvious surf and sand activities — start your morning with some birdwatching at Andrée Clark Bird Refuge near East Beach. You can also rent some kayaks or stand-up paddleboards from the SB Sailing Center within the harbor. Or if you’re here in between the high season of late spring through early fall, book a whale-watching excursion with Condor Express. You’ll have a good chance of spotting humpbacks or even blue whales on their migratory path up and down the Pacific Coast.
Santa Maria Valley
Venture northward out of Santa Barbara and you’ve got an immediate choice to make; both of them fantastic. You can keep hugging the coastline on Highway 1 to Gaviota State Park — at which point you stay with US-101 up to Los Alamos. Or you can crest the Santa Ynez ridge line on highway 154 and then connect with highway 246 for a drive through the Danish wonderland known as Solvang, with perhaps a stopover to feed the massive flightless birds populating Ostrichland USA.
Either way, you’ll eventually want to break off the highway just before Santa Maria and beeline straight to the charming Wine Stone Inn at the edge of downtown Orcutt. Spacious rooms with balconies start at just $169 per night. This hidden gem is a fantastic springboard from which to dive into the under-explored magic of the greater Santa Maria Valley. And yes, there will be wine.
In fact, there’s a whole dedicated wine trolley to take you around the local producers of the AVA. Beginning each May and running through to the fall, the $15 shuttle carries drinkers to a half a dozen destinations continually throughout weekend afternoons. Hallmark varieties in this part of the world include chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah.
For a markedly more rugged way to explore the vines, saddle up to Presqu’ile Winery’s estate tour by horseback. The $250 experience includes an hour-long ride through the 400-acre property, during which you learn all about the grape growing heritage of the region. You’ll marvel at sweeping panoramas of the neighboring San Rafael Mountains before heading back to the tasting room for a flight of the local juice, paired with garden-fresh appetizers from chef Julie Simon.
At sunset, make your way to the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. The sloping sand forms an ideal vantage point from which to admire the open sky as it fractures into pigments of pink and purple. When it’s dinner time, you’ll find a bevy of options to suit any culinary desire. The Hitching Post in Casmalia is as classic a California barbecue experience as you’ll find anywhere. Prime cuts of filet and sirloin sizzle atop an open flame, directly adjacent to a boisterous, Western-themed dining room. Head back to downtown Orcutt and you’ll encounter some flavorful options within an easy stroll of the hotel. The Cubanissimo Cafe is a local favorite focusing on artfully rendered Cubanos and puerco frito from husband and wife co-owners, Arqui and Chrystal Trenado. If you want to keep it even more casual, you can grab some pints of heavily hopped IPA over at Naughty Oak Brewing and BYOP from Pizzeria Bello Forno directly across the street.
Meanwhile, on the northern side of downtown Santa Maria, there’s a whole other set of wineries worth checking out on the following day. Laetitia Vineyard holds pole position on that list. “I lived here all my life and am still in awe of everything we have to offer in a 10-mile radius,” observes Eric Hickey, chief winemaker for the 40-year-old producer. “We have hiking trails, beaches, water sports, fishing, and great food and drink. It doesn’t hurt that the microclimate — cool in the mornings, warmer during the day and cool again when the fog rolls back in — is ideal for methode champenoise sparkling wine, which we’ve made at Laetitia for over 40 years. Visit the winery and enjoy the bubbles and the ocean view.”
Highway 1/Big Sur
And speaking of ocean views, no assortment of adjectives could possibly oversell what comes next. As you continue north past the Santa Maria Valley, through San Luis Obispo (if you’re into sour beer, stop here for a pint or flight at Libertine Brewing), you’ll eventually be welcomed by the stunning seascape of Morro Bay. From here, you’ve got just over 120 miles of coastline to call your own, as it clings to California’s craggy western edge.
Pull off Highway 1 into Cambria — an idyllic village of less than 6,000 residents. The downtown strip is speckled with cute gift shops and cozy eateries. Linn’s Restaurant is a popular place to start. Part souvenir store and part country cafe, you can load up on postcards and olallieberry pie. Just outside of town, you can hike the hills of Stolo Family Vineyards to work up a slight sweat before cooling down with their sensational estate-grown syrah. Do dinner at Robin’s: a down-home kitchen lifting inspiration from every corner of the globe. From the property’s quaint garden, you can pair local wines with international flavors — crispy Vietnamese spring rolls, Brazilian seafood stew — all of it as robust as it is faithfully recreated. Overnight at the beachfront cabins of Oceanpoint Ranch. Rates at the three-star hotel can go as low as $145 a night when it’s not the peak of the summer high season. S’mores for the on-site fire pit aren’t included in the price but are easily worth the up-charge.
Next up is the world-famous Hearst Castle, just 6.5 miles north on Highway 1. Tours of the sprawling 165-room mansion begin at $30 — though there are a number of longer and more in-depth surveys which range up to $100 per ticket. It’s worth the cost of admission just to come up and admire the view from the crest of its massive ridgeline frontage.
Back down below in San Simeon, Hearst Ranch Winery is offering tasting flights to pair with local charcuterie just steps from the windy beach. Continue five more miles north after lunch and pull over at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. In the peak months of January, April, and October, there are up to 17,000 eponymous pinnipeds crowding these shores. This is the only rookery of its kind in the world that’s easily accessible and free to the public every day of the year.
Now it’s time to kick things into the scenic stratosphere. You’re about to climb up into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This is the California coast of postcard fame, where arched bridges traverse corrugated river valleys. Endless ocean aligns along the left side of the vehicle, mountains soar skyward on the right. Everything about this region exists on a higher plane, even the hospitality — especially if you happen to be staying at the Post Ranch Inn.
What many seasoned travelers consider to be the most luxurious lodge in all of the U.S. owes its exalted status to a few key factors. For one, its positioning is flawless: 100 acres of dense redwood forest suspended 1,200 feet above the Pacific shores. Secondly, the villas here are at once cozy and opulent, affording unimpeded views of the ocean clouds rolling in from the incomprehensibly distant edge of the horizon. Finally, the execution of the food and beverage at Sierra Mar is nearly as awe-inspiring as the scenery. Executive chef Il Hoon Kang plates farm-driven California cuisine that changes weekly and is enhanced by selections from an expansive wine cellar which holds some 3,200 different labels.
When you’re ready for adventure, Big Sur boasts enough hiking trails to keep you occupied for years. But if you only have one day, head down the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which recently reopened after 13 years of closure. Those with keen Googling skills ought to head down the unmarked road leading to Pfeiffer Beach — it’s home to purple sand and a massive rock protruding from the waves. In the middle of the outcropped earth is Keyhole Arch, and if you arrive during the winter months, you can actually spot the sun setting through the hole. Beware: the car park can get super busy during the day, and you’re not allowed to leave your vehicle along the side of the small road.
Rent an e-bike from Big Sur Adventures, however, and you can pedal to parts far less frequented. The easy-to-use equipment is available for $75 per day. You can arrange delivery to a fabulous trailhead — ascending toward the heavens — across from the dirt road entrance to Andrew Molera State Park. (Alternatively, you can head 30 minutes up the road to their shop in Carmel to grab a bike in person.)
It’s time to head back into civilization for the last leg of your coastal California excursion. Thankfully, you are ending on a serious high note. Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the Golden State’s most charming, pedestrian-friendly villages. So secure your overnight at the Vagabond’s House Inn and ditch your car in their complimentary parking lot. The cozy cottages here feature fireplaces, soaking tubs, and a verdant vantage point right in the heart of downtown. King rooms start at $324 per night.
Stroll the streets in search of fine art and vintage antiques, or pull up a stool at one of the town’s 16 wine-tasting rooms. You don’t have to have any specific destination in mind. Though, when mealtime arrives, you’ll want to have reservations at Toro Sushi to enjoy the eatery’s creative rolls of raw fish and outsized list of sakes sourced from up and down Japan. Then, make your way to Carmel Bakery for dessert. The legendary confectioner has been serving up snacks here since 1899.
On your final day, take a leisurely ride along 17-Mile Drive to explore famed Pebble Beach, snap photos of the Lone Cypress, and breathe in the briny ocean air of the Monterey Peninsula. The experience will cost you — it’s an $11.25 toll per vehicle to access the exclusive enclave, but that fee is refunded with a purchase of $35 or more at any of the Pebble Beach resorts.
The opposite end of the drive spits you out in Pacific Grove, not far from Cannery Row and downtown Monterey. Peruse the historic storefronts of Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, book an instructive tour with Sail Monterey — located right next to the Crab House. For $150, you’ll receive a two-hour-long lesson from a seasoned pro. It’ll provide all the basics you need to learn how to sail on your own. And, of course, you’ll get to take in the maritime wonder of Monterey Bay along the way. If that’s too ambitious, they also offer $85 sunset cruises where you won’t have to do anything except enjoy your complimentary adult beverage.
When you’re back on dry land, book dinner at Cella. The hip dining den offers imaginative craft cocktails, a masterful mushroom gnocchi and the best gourmet burger in all of Monterey. For dessert, mosey your way a few blocks down to The Whisky Club. As its name suggests, this inviting parlor specializes in aged brown spirit. In fact, it holds more than 300 expressions of scotch and bourbon — much of it lined up against a soaring backbar, with even more available for takeaway purchase in an adjoining bottle shop. Grab a bottle and pour yourself something special to savor when your trip winds to an end.