California’s captivating Central Coast

The dramatic vista of Big Sur.
Nick Perks/istockphoto
The dramatic vista of Big Sur.
A Santa Barbara vineyard.

CAMBRIA — After a stressful spring, we wanted out.

Los Angeles, where we live, has almost everything a major city should offer — except enough all-night eateries and, of course, true quiet and a sense of calm. Sure, the coastline is picture-postcard impressive, but we’ve gotten so blasé about the local beaches that we hardly ever set foot to sand. Hiking, hotel happy hours, everything suddenly seemed to require too much effort and too much time in traffic.

We needed a break, something not quite vacation but not stay-cation, either.


So we set out to answer a typical query that tourists in Southern California make. No, not “When is the best time to hit Disneyland?” or “Where can we see celebrities?” (For the record, first week of September, when school’s back in session, and Malibu Country Mart and the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont.) The question is: What’s a great, easy way to escape LA for a few days?

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Actually, the answer is the same for tourists in Los Angeles as in San Francisco: California’s Central Coast, a meld of urban and rural that’s easily accessible and achievable on budgets big and small. We opted to go in between, happily gaping at the high-end resorts but getting a room in perfectly lovely but more moderately priced hotels.

That’s indicative of both our style and our means. As are the activities in a swath of land that spans a half-dozen counties and runs from Point Conception on its south end to Monterey in the north: art enclaves, state parks, beaches and boutiques, hiking trails, Hearst Castle, and let’s not forget, wineries. Lots and lots of local wineries. So many, in fact, that frequent signs along the highway encourage motorists to turn in drunk drivers.

It turns out one of us (not me) had never been to Santa Barbara, which is akin to living in Boston and missing out on Cape Cod for two-plus decades. It’s too close and there’s no excuse and it simply shouldn’t be allowed. So that’s where we set out for first thing in the morning, which was supposed to be 6 a.m. but was more like 7:30. Still, that put us at our destination by 9:30, even before the stores opened in the city’s sweeping downtown, with its Spanish-Moroccan feel.

A visitor could easily spend a long weekend or much more relaxing and wandering historic yet hip Santa Barbara, in the heart of horse and wine and coastal country. We intended to give it mere hours before moving onward.


That gave us time for java (a slew of great local coffee shops and bakeries in the immensely walkable downtown, along with the chains); a $6 tour of the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara with its museum and mausoleum, Spanish influence, and gorgeous gardens; and a quick gander at the courthouse, considered a world-class beauty. But we were here for a shopping spree that took us from Old Navy (someone forgot his bathing trunks) to TiendoHo, a sprawling store that specializes in Moroccan and Indonesian clothes where we tried on turbans. Then we left, hat in hand.

Now began the real adventure. We had settled on arty, ocean-side Cambria, nearly smack center along the almost 400 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and 3½ hours from us, traffic permitting (a big if at certain hours).

We chose Cambria in part because of proximity to home, but mostly because it is just down the road from another major draw my traveling companion had never seen: the working ranch and manicured grounds where newspaper and movie magnate William Randolph Hearst entertained guests in what became known as Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Also, we aren’t big drinkers but we are big wine lovers.

Ted W. Smith
The walk along Moonstone Beach Drive in Cambria.

By 4 p.m. we were unpacking at Moonstone Landing, a friendly, family-owned hotel with fireplaces and front rooms that face the Pacific right across a street lined with similar properties. We could hear waves crashing and see the water if we crooked our heads just so from our second-story side window. Still, perfect — price-wise and location-wise. Plus the front desk folks had plenty of time to provide information on what, when, and where, be it kite surfing (all the rage up here), horseback riding, antiquing, or wine tasting. We knocked off the latter two that very night, as well as a long sunset stroll on the wooden walkway that runs just above the driftwood-covered beach.

“We get lots of international travelers and lots of locals from Santa Barbara, a lot of families and a lot of honeymooners,” said Claire Legg, one of the owners. “We get a lot of two-night stays. . . . There’s tons to do, but it’s 100 percent about the castle; that’s our biggest draw.”


It drew us, too, and that’s where we went first thing the next day. Reservations are recommended during high season, and we’d booked the mid-morning tour of the main rooms for $25 each. Hearst Castle, high on the hill, does not disappoint, and is almost indescribably interesting and exotic with its massive rooms, intricate tapestries, hand-carved ceilings, Greek-inspired statuary, and clear pools. Do not miss the free film in the theater, which makes Hearst history come alive with its newsreel footage and home movies of the mogul and his endlessly patient architect, Julia Morgan.

Ted W. Smith
On Highway 1, elephant seals sun at Piedras Blancas.

Afterward we headed to lunch at Sebastian’s Café, where the French dip is made with grass-fed beef from the ranch, which the Hearst family donated in 1957 and has been maintained as a state park ever since. Zebras left from Hearst’s personal zoo roam the property to this day.

But another highlight was in store: the elephant seals lazing by the score at Piedras Blancas about a 15-minute drive north of the castle. You hear them before you see them because these giant beasts bellow like, well, elephants. Mostly they appear to sleep, sun, and swim, turning the cordoned-off beach into one big crash pad. But watching them waddle, elbow each other for space, and cover themselves with sand to keep cool is worth the price of admission, which happens to be free.

That night we dined with new friends at Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill for our second straight night, which isn’t like us. But we liked it so much, especially how much the bartender poured into each wine glass and how little it cost compared with Los Angeles prices, about $6.

Our two days in Cambria were up, and we decided to dip our toes into the territory known as Big Sur. We lunched on overpriced sandwiches ($14.95 for a patty melt) and a $3.25 can of diet Coke at Ragged Point, which is or isn’t Big Sur, depending on whom you ask. But the grounds were gorgeous, the A-frame cabins cool, and the ocean vista as expected.

I’ll keep the next section short. We foolishly decided to go all the way to Carmel, where on an especially hot weekend we had trouble finding a hotel room, much less one for less than $225. We compounded the mistake the next day by continuing on to Monterey, with its world-class aquarium, which, I’m not ashamed to say, we skipped when we saw the crowds, the price, and the late hour. We turned around and headed toward home with one thought: merlot.

Ted W. Smith
Judi and William Hatzman bought wines they knew well and now pour tasting glasses at their Grizzly Republic Wines in Paso Robles.

That’s how we ended up in Paso Robles, all of 40 miles and 30 minutes from where we started in Cambria. Rooms were scarce there, too, but the clean, simple Adelaide Inn welcomed us for $100 a night, modest breakfast and swimming pool included.

And so the wine tasting began in earnest, at Grizzly Republic Wines with a Mendocino wine turned smoky from a fire that damaged the barrels and somehow made the grapes more interesting. It was around 7 p.m. on a Sunday, and Grizzly Republic was one of the few tasting rooms open in the small, old-fashioned downtown with a distinctly western feel.

“All the wineries and tasting rooms help each other out,” said Judi Hatzman, who opened the tasting room with her husband, William, about a year ago. “Our theory is if you succeed, we succeed,” because each success draws more tourists to town.

The same appeared true the next morning, when we punched wineries into our iPhones and up popped dot after dot after dot, each representing a tasting opportunity. The map from the hotel was no help, either, since it was covered in dots, too. We started down the road and stopped. We drank (just a wee bit) and drove some more (not far). We learned about fortifying and true dessert wines from tasting room attendant James Greenway at Robert Hall Winery. He fed us chocolate and information and sold me a 2009 vintage port. “Save it for something special,” he suggested, “but don’t keep it in the car.”

He meant right then. It was hot out, the day was young, and we were close to home but in another world, a wonderland where three wines can be tasted for $5 and there is some to be had on almost every corner.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at