Call it California’s sweet spot. Cutting a coastal swath south of the Bay Area and north of SoCal, the state’s Central Coast is a narrow, winding — and sometimes climbing and plunging — ribbon of asphalt. To drive Highway 1 from Carmel to Morro Bay is to sample California’s embarrassment of riches — from glittering, windswept coastal vistas and verdant pine forests to lush vineyards and golden hills. Your adventure could look like this.
Destinations: Big Sur, San Simeon & Cambria
Assuming you flew into the Monterey Regional Airport the night before (or landed in San Jose and drove the short distance), you should already be nicely settled in at the 20-room Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star L’Auberge Carmel or, slightly inland, the Four-Star Bernardus Lodge. From either, set out early on Highway 1, saving breakfast for your first stop, Big Sur. If you’ve already made the journey here — you’re perhaps staying at the secluded Four-Star Post Ranch Inn with its equally impressive Four-Star spa — the first order of the day is still a hot cup of coffee. And somehow, it just tastes better accompanied by the breathtaking views from Café Kevah’s balcony at Nepenthe, a restaurant known for unbeatable coastline views.
Back in the car, travel the length of the Los Padres National Forest — about 55 miles south — to Ragged Point. This is the start of the Highway 1 Discovery Route, a 101-mile stretch that encompasses 10 unique coastal towns, including a few on this itinerary. At Ragged Point you’ll also witness a stunning change in the scenery as the mountains, rivers and cliffs give way to rolling hills and ridges, beaches and bays. Don’t rush it, though; there are ample places at which to pull over and snap a few panoramic photos.
Just past Piedras Blancas (“white rocks”), with its truncated lighthouse, the next stop is the elephant seal rookery, a surprisingly entertaining spot to take a stroll and watch the giant, lazy sea mammals do giant, lazy sea mammal things. Just stay up-wind of the whole affair. From here, it’s roughly 10 minutes to Old Town San Simeon, Head to the Hearst Ranch Winery for a tasting and order the ranch’s famous local grass-fed beef burgers inside Sebastian’s historic general store. The entrance to the Hearst Castle compound is just across the road, so set aside the remainder of the afternoon for tours and strolls around that lavish attraction.
The next leg, just seven miles, takes you right into Cambria and to the whale-watching haven of Moonstone Beach. Keep in mind, they roll the sidewalks up early in these coastal towns, so plan to eat dinner in the 6 to 8 p.m. range before heading back to Carmel. In Cambria, the place to be is Robin’s, a globally inspired bistro that packs in locals and loyal returning visitors. If you can, catch a sunset stroll on the beach before dinner in the Robin’s garden.
Destinations: Cambria & Morro Bay
You’re in wine country, so begin the day early, when your palate is at its freshest with a visit to Stolo Family Winery, Cambria’s only estate winery. Nestled just a ridge or two back from the ocean, Stolo’s vineyards enjoy all the sun of the inland valley, plus a touch of cool marine fog and breezes. Current tastings take you through their chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, rosé, Creekside vineyard pinot noir and Double Cross red blend.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite climbing to the top of Stolo’s Hillside Vineyard, it’s time to move on to Morro Bay, just 20 miles to the south. Hopefully it’s Saturday when you stroll down the wharf to Stax Wine Bar & Bistro. That’s when freshly shucked raw oysters are just $1, which pair nicely with the house flight of San Louis Obispo County wines, and all the bottles that are 10 percent off.
Make the most of the afternoon by renting beach cruisers from Farmer’s Kites & Surreys on the Embarcadero, and ride out the Morro Rock, a massive semi-spherical volcanic mass that dominates the western horizon. Then, keep the wine theme going with a tasting of the exquisite Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon (yes, Paso makes cabs, and great ones, too!) in the sunny Chateau Margene tasting room.
Now make straight for the La Parisienne Café. No fuss or pretention, just hot, strong coffee and homey, house-made pastry and treats await you here. In fact, you can get a drip coffee, double espresso and gourmet iced cookie in the shape of an octopus for less than $5. Outside, bask in the delightful combination of warm sun and cool breezes or get your pick-me-up to go, and stroll the Embarcadero out to the beach to watch surfers brave icy waters. But don’t spoil your appetite: Your dinner of locally caught sand dabs, abalone and halibut at Windows On the Water should be timed for a just-before-sunset arrival and aperitif.
Destination: Morro Bay to Paso Robles
Starting early to put the three-hour drive to Morro Bay behind you, it’s time to bid the Highway 1 Discovery Route goodbye — it continues on for six more towns — as you head inland to Paso Robles. Hold on tight: It’s a winding, jaw-dropping 45-minute ride through the Santa Lucia Range’s steep ravines to reach Paso’s rolling hills. (You can also take the inland U.S. Route 101 directly from Carmel to Paso Robles, sheering this drive down to a mere two hours total.) However you choose to get there, celebrate your arrival and cleanse your palate with fresh beer — some of which isn‘t found elsewhere — at the Firestone Walker Brewery Company’s Tasting Room. While you’re at it, pick up a Kleen Kanteen growler and bring home some unfiltered DBA.
Okay, now back to the wine. Perhaps no Paso Robles winery offers such a stunning approach and arrival as that of the hilltop Daou Vineyards & Winery. Reserve well in advance for a seat on the patio, or snag a spot at the bar in the tasting room. Small plates stretch the wine flight experience out as you work your way from the zesty Grenache Blanc to the crown-pleasing Celestus to arrive at the Reserve Cabernet, or, if you spring for the Estate Wine Flight, the highly allocated Soul Of A Lion.
From here, it’s a quick hop back onto Route 101, heading north through the Central Valley back to Carmel, Monterey or San Jose. Or should you have more time to spend, a whole new adventure awaits in Paso Robles, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.