I urgently require a holiday where I can bask in #Instagram-friendly views of the ocean, but without the constant threat of Vancouver rain. Oh, and I’d like to indulge my dormant gourmand. And defy death at every turn. And, um, I only have a few days to do so. Am I destined to forever live a life of disappointment?
Hardly! Welcome to California’s Central Coast, my distressingly pessimistic B.C. friend. Situated between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central Coastal region is a gorgeous and social-media-friendly haven of aesthetic and culinary delights that’s only a quick flight from Vancouver (or 4½ hours for those unlucky souls in Toronto). Whether you want natural vistas perfectly calibrated for maximum #FOMO impact, restaurants where “farm-to-table” is less a rare perk than a delightfully obligatory philosophy or roads that hug the ocean perilously close, the Central Coast is the high-leisure-higher-thrills destination that you never knew you needed.
So I should fly into L.A. and, well, then what?
You could do that ... but why not start your journey in San Francisco? With ideal temperatures between now and September, a bustling cultural scene and a handful of buzzy new properties (including the funky-yet-opulent boutique hotel Staypineapple, a short walk from Union Square), the city by the bay is the perfect starting point for a journey south along California’s Highway 1. From there, you can cruise the ridiculously scenic stretch of road south to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, then on through the redwood-rich Big Sur and dune-filthy-rich Pismo Beach. By then, you can keep going south and fly out of LAX for a nearly-as-quick plane ride home – or drive back north to experience it all over again.
I thought parts of Highway 1 were closed because of a giant landslide? Are you trying to trick me into a nightmare vacation?
I would never! Yes, it’s true that a 2017 landslide dumped six million tons of rock and dirt on a quarter-mile portion of the highway near Big Sur, cutting the region off from its main transportation artery (resulting in an estimated US$1-billion in lost tourism). Yet, less than a year ago, a US$54-million repair project was completed to reconnect travel along the highway, which was recently named the second-best driving road in the world by Avis. For good reason, too – the two-lane highway offers so many gawk-worthy views of the Pacific that you will be forced to pull the car over every three minutes to snap pics. Luckily, the road is equipped with hundreds of pit-stop areas to do just that, plus a wealth of parks to further explore the natural surroundings, including Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (where you can wade in the water or climb the gorge), Pfeiffer Beach (filled with purple sand and massive offshore rocks) and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (home to the stunning McWay Falls). Two points of warning: Cellphone service can be limited along Highway 1, especially in the densely forested Big Sur area, and there are so many tight, zig-zagging curves that the journey can seem less like a typical road trip than a carnival ride – albeit a slow-moving carnival ride, given that every other driver is being as cautious as you should be.
I’m not exactly the picnic-packing type. Are there places to eat along the way that don’t involve warmed-over burgers and limp fries?
The smiles may be free along Highway 1, but mercifully there isn’t a McDonald’s or other fast-food joint in sight. From Monterey all the way down to SLO CAL (that’d be San Luis Obispo County), the dining options are uniformly original, quirky and mega-corporation-free. Just north of Monterey, Whale City Bakery bakes the best rosemary and artichoke rolls that you never knew you needed in your life. The chefs at Valley Kitchen in Carmel turn to their own organic garden, hen house and apiary for much of the restaurant’s rustic, unfussy dishes. The Sur House at Ventana Big Sur offers views of the Pacific that you’d kill for, with a coastal-centric cuisine to match your murderous instincts (try the Crab Louie Salad and the avocado toast featuring lightly smoked Mount Lassen trout) – and all at a price point you’re used to paying at your local, now woefully inadequate-by-comparison bar and grill. Further south in San Luis Obispo, just past Hearst Castle and beaches covered in hundreds of lazing seal elephants, Taste! Craft Eatery serves two-dozen varieties of sliders in the historic Brickworks Building. And at Pismo Beach’s casual-yet-refined Flagship, bring a bottle of wine that you picked up at a local winery such as Tolosa or Autry Cellars and enjoy it alongside a seafood boil as the ocean’s waves crash on the shore nearby.
Am I going to have to pull off to the side of the road to catch some rest, or – worst yet – camp?
The Central Coast offers plenty of camping spots (although: reserve early), but I have a feeling your idea of a vacation involves high thread counts and room service. To that end, there are two must-visit properties along the route. First, Carmel Valley Ranch, a 500-acre luxury resort that is four-quadrant friendly: you could come to the 181-suite compound as a couple looking for a romantic tryst or a family looking for a kid-friendly getaway and leave feeling completely blissed-out. Voted the No. 1 resort in Northern California by Conde Nast Traveler, CVR offers majestic mountain views, a 15,000-square-foot spa, an 18-hole Pete Dye-designed golf course (note to golf novices: Dye is like the Frank Gehry of fairways), a jam-packed kids program and a general hide-out vibe that whispers “Relax, buddy.” In Pismo Beach, you’d do well to check into Cliffs Hotel and Spa, a warm and welcoming property situated on an oceanfront bluff whose generously sized rooms offer unparalleled views of the beach at sunset.
Anything else I should know, besides your fetishistic love of ocean views?
What, you have something against the natural beauty of the Pacific? Okay, here’s one more, non-waterfront tip: Stop by one of the many produce stands dotting Highway 1 to try ridiculously fresh avocados, artichokes and dates. And then bring those treats along while you tour Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library, a woodsy reminder of the Central Coast’s independent-minded history. And then get back to staring at the ocean.
The writer’s travel was supported by Visit California. It did not review or approve of this article.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.