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San Clemente Journal

Hitting the Road, Exploring the Central Coast

Nov 23, 2023 10:11AM ● By Mary Colarik

DAOU Vineyards offers a commanding view from its majestic mountain top. winery

by Mary Colarik,

  California is a state filled with endless possibilities for amazing road trips. The expansive coastline clinging to the western edge of the state spans 840 miles, while the inland terrain offers the desert and several mountain ranges.

Walk beneath windswept Cypress trees along the wooden Moonstone Beach Cliff path.


During a vacation to San Diego at age 12, I decided the coastal towns of Southern California would eventually be the place for me, a few years later attending UC Santa Barbara sealed the deal. Those drives between Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Bay Area introduced me to the Central Coast which I rediscovered when I moved back to California after living in the Midwest for 30 years. 

California’s Central Coast begins just north of Los Angeles to just south of San Francisco. The area is comprised of four distinct regions, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey.

The quaint beach towns tucked into this part of the state offer beautiful beaches, with plenty of surf breaks and a slower pace with a calmer vibe than the beaches in LA, Orange and San Diego counties. The region is also known for its selection of great local seafood and fresh produce from fertile farmland and wineries just a few miles inland.

Historic Hollywood Bowl amphitheatre in Bolton Canyon.


When my best friend from Ohio turned 65 last summer, we planned an eight-day, seven-night road trip to California’s Central Coast. Beginning in Los Angeles, our itinerary included many stops and overnights in the middle of the state with one final night in Hollywood.
After picking my friend up at LAX we ate breakfast at Blue Daisy Café in Santa Monica. A delightful spot with friendly efficient service, great coffee and homemade, delicious organic selections to please most palates. Well-fortified we were off to our first stop, Santa Barbara, technically still Southern California, although Northern Californians would love to claim the beautiful town, known as the “American Riviera.” 

There are many lovely hotels in Santa Barbara. We chose the luxurious Spanish Style Canary Inn, centrally located, with easy access to State Street eateries and stores, the Funk Zone, an arts and entertainment district, near the harbor and Stearns Wharf. Ready to stretch our legs we hoofed it to Stearns Wharf. After taking photos of sailboats and paddleboarders on the ocean and the green hills as a backdrop to the east, we decided to linger at the Harbor Restaurant sipping on margaritas accompanied by chips and salsa.

The next morning, we walked up State Street to a coffee/breakfast spot, Caje Coffee Roasters. We enjoyed our breakfast in the large, beautiful courtyard. Although I had hoped to explore Lotusland, a 37-acre lush property in a residential area of Montecito we were unable to secure reservations. So, we opted for the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens located in Mission Canyon. It is the first Botanical Garden to focus solely on native plants. A meditative spot to wander along trails lined with gigantic redwood trees, manzanita bushes interspersed with huge boulders that cling to the hillside, a large meadow filled with flowers with another area is dedicated to desert plants. A nursery on the grounds sells an extensive variety of native plants. 

Legendary Cold Spring Tavern, steeped in history, welcomes all for food, folklore and music.


Leaving the gardens, we took the twisty San Marcos Pass to Stagecoach Road where we stopped for lunch at the quirky Cold Spring Tavern. The old stagecoach stop began operation in 1886. Several original buildings are tucked into the hillside, free parking is along a precarious curve. This spot attracts bikers, college students, celebrities, locals and tourists alike to enjoy the lively atmosphere. Hearty local food is served for lunch and dinner, including their famous molasses bread. Local bands play at the venue outside on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It’s a funky scene sure to amuse and delight people of all ages.

Later that evening we dined al fresco at Lark Restaurant located in the heart of the Funk Zone. The next morning before continuing our journey up the coast we stopped in at Jeannine’s in Montecito known for its fabulous breakfast/brunch menu, including delectable pastries and coffee. Guests sit outside at tables adorned with scalloped edged pink umbrellas. People watching is quite interesting as one would imagine in exclusive Montecito.

Continuing our travels up the coast we headed into Cambria. Our reservations for the next two nights were at the White Water Lodge. The little inn has a 1970s Bohemian California vibe with a modern aesthetic and is located on Moonstone Road directly across from Moonstone Beach, White Water Lodge offers several wonderful amenities, including a lobby where wine, beer and hard cider can be enjoyed with a chef curated board of cheeses, meats and crackers. free bikes and the most unique amenity at a hotel ever, breakfast delivered to a special ledge outside each room in a picnic basket, filled with pastries from a local French bakery, coffee kept hot in a Stanley thermos, champagne and orange juice for mimosas-what a treat! There are 12 little lodges and inns along Moonstone Drive-reservations fill up quick due the gorgeous setting and proximity to Hearst Castle. The first night we walked down the road to the Sea Chest Oyster Bar where patrons waiting for a table at the kitschy, nautical themed restaurant can sip a drink seated in an outdoor area with a fire pit for warmth as the sun sets and the marine layer rolls in. The next morning, I was up and out the door early, taking a misty walk along the wooden beach cliff path. The Cypress trees arch over the path as I make my way to a sandy, rocky cove. My friend enjoyed her shut eye, sleeping in until the “crack of nine.” 

Our reservations for the Grand Rooms Tour at the magnificent Hearst Castle up the road in San Simeon were at 11 a.m. sharp. Guests are advised to arrive 25 minutes before their reserved entry time to be shuttled up the mountainside to the immense estate, aptly named, “La Cuesta Encantada”, -"Enchanted Hill.” Enchanted, indeed, overlooking the Pacific blue to the west and rolling hills to the east. The five-mile-long trek to the top is filled with hairpin turns offering stupendous views of land and sea in every direction. It is difficult to describe the grandeur of the grounds and interior of this incredible architectural gem that took three decades to build. The outdoor Neptune pool and indoor Roman pool each lined with statues of Roman and Greek Gods and Goddesses. Massive rooms where publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst’s well-known Hollywood guests regularly mingled among the sculptures, immense tapestries and intricate artwork collected from the around the world. The parties began in the late afternoon with cocktails by the outdoor pool. Partygoers were ushered inside through the massive doors to dinner in the grand dining room. Afterwards, more drinks, billiards and movies entertained his company late into the night. Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper said, “A visit to Hearst Ranch was a ticket to never-never land. Never has there been such a place and never will we see its like again.” Owned by California State Parks since 1958, reservations are required for any of the tours starting at $30 for adults, $15 for children. 


We spent the afternoon roaming the adorable downtown area of Cambria with its unique shops such as, “Granny Had One” which is filled with objects from bygone days. Late in the afternoon we headed to Harmony, a tiny artisan hamlet, population 18. We indulged in a wine tasting at Harmony Cellars, a boutique, family-owned winery. The views were amazing. The vibe relaxing. Cambria has several good restaurant options; we chose sweet Madeline’s for lunch and Indigo Moon for our dinner in a lovely outdoor garden. 

The next day leaving Cambria, we headed south towards Cayucos, a tiny old-fashioned surf town. As my friend who lived there for many years dubbed it, “the town that time forgot.” We ate lunch at Lunada Garden Bistro-a secret little spot tucked in behind a few storefronts. Afterwards, strolling down the main street we stopped in at the original Brown Butter Cookie Company. Their motto, “the perfect combination of salty and sweet makes for a delicious comforting treat.” The yummy free samples of the cookies made from scratch, hand rolled and baked right on the premises certainly entices one to purchase a few bags of the sweet treats.

Back on the road again leaving the darling coastal towns behind, we headed up Hwy. 46 over the Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range 25 miles inland to Paso Robles. Paso Robles despite being a destination for wine tasting these days has retained its cowboy influence and small-town charm. We stayed right downtown at the incredible Hotel Cheval. A boutique hotel with only 16 rooms each named after a famous horse. Our room was Rinaldo. The hotel offers exceptional services, including a gourmet breakfast served at the Pony Club, (espressos, lattes and cappuccinos made by a barista), in the evening a s’mores butler prepares tasty perfectly made s’mores at the gigantic fireplace in the middle of the courtyard and a candy bar is available to guests in the library. Our room was sizable and luxurious. Paso Robles has many overnight accommodations to choose from including boutique hotels, a few chain hotels and several AirBnB and VRBO options. The draw to this little enclave halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is the many phenomenal wineries located in the surrounding hills. The western allure is still strong; however, the shops and restaurants have a modern, slightly sophisticated appeal. We thoroughly enjoyed walking around the town square stopping into cute clothing boutiques, gift shops and dining at Hatch restaurant. 

We had reservations for wine tasting at two of our favorite wineries, Daou and Hope Family wines. We made an unplanned stop the on way into town at Tooth and Nail Winery-highly recommended by a friend. Daou Winery is situated up a winding road on a hilltop with 360-degree views of the valleys below. We spent a long time there tasting wine and noshing on a charcuterie board. Late in the afternoon we drove to Hope Family Wines-a much quieter, smaller operation in a pretty setting among the grape vines. 

Our last night was spent at the Prospect Hotel in Hollywood. An old-style glitzy Hollywood setting with luxuriant foliage and giant palm trees in the pretty courtyard Our room was glamour personified including a private garden terrace. Nestled on a hill within walking distance to the famed Hollywood Bowl it was a delightful final resting spot. In the evening we took a Lyft to Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles for an excellent Italian meal. Chef Gino Angelini has been described by Times magazine as “hands down the best Italian Chef in LA.” In the morning we walked to the Hollywood Bowl which was celebrating 100 years in 2022. A truly iconic facility filled with the spirit of legendary performances. Our day continued with a hike in the Hollywood Hills above Griffith Observatory. The last few hours were spent in Santa Monica before dropping Carolyn off at LAX for her red-eye flight back to Cleveland. We had a great week leaving the frenzied pace of SoCal and simply slowing down to the peaceful slow vibe of the Central Coast.