A spur-of-the-moment trip to the Central Coast can be yours with very little advance planning, and Oh – The Places You’ll See! Folks come from all over the world to revel in the delights of our coastline, so it’s time to pack the car and head north.
We set out on a Friday morning, which allowed us not only to escape rush hour traffic but to reach our destination (Morro Bay) before sundown. Funny thing about road-tripping: we relaxed the moment we crossed over into Ventura County. Our first destination was La Super-Rica, for a late lunch at the unassuming taco stand on Milpas Street, just off the 101 in Santa Barbara. No matter what time of day you arrive at this popular spot, there will be a line – but, that’s part of the charm. Swap into vacation mode – chat up some other food-lovers while you’re waiting, and you’ll get plenty of advice about what to order. The freshly made tortillas are out of this world.
We were traveling with a friend who had attended the opening of the restaurant in the 80s, and she told us that the owner has been offered expansion and franchise opportunities, but has chosen to stay small and local – perhaps one of the reasons this destination is so treasured by many. Either way, here is a Forbes Magazine describing how Julia Child put the place on the map.
Outside Santa Barbara, your route will send up up into the hills, and the climb into high country offers wide-open horse farms and exquisite views. Each time we travel north, I seem to forget about this special part of the journey. Sadly, you’ll get a glimpse of the mostly dry Lake Cuchama (see how the drought is affecting it here), and can take a detour to gaze at Los Olivos, a picturesque town which is worth it’s own weekend adventure — forty wineries have their wares to peddle — or, if you have time to spare, drive through the tiny main street for some local flavor.
We pressed on, reading in our guide books about the many towns we passed, including the Danish-inspired village of Solvang, and bustling San Luis Obisbo – all the while making notes for future trips. If you need a bathroom break, stop at The Madonna Inn – a so-tacky-it’s-good tourist trap in SLO that has been around for x years. With guest rooms that look like Fred Flintstone’s lair, and a dining room that seems calcified in time, it’s one of the kitchiest oddities of the coastline. Take a gander – someone may rip it down one day in the interest of beautification, and you will want to be able to say you saw it way back when.
Morro Bay is a quaint coastal town that feels like it belongs in New England. Tee-shirt and coffee establishments crowd a short spit of oceanside real estate, but towering above them all is a gargantuan glacial-dropped rock which sits on the town’s barrier beach. We decided to stay here, rather than the more popular Cambria, because of the quiet harbor and proximity to the national parks and Paso Robles.
When looking at Morro Bay from the coastline above or below the town, the rock lies in context of a mountainous coastline. But when you open the window of your hotel room and find it right in front of you – well, it’s a bit unsettling. Seagulls and seals abound in Morro Bay – in fact, we heard the seals all night long. Two hotels to note: Anderson Inn (#1) and Blue Sail (#2). The restaurant at Anderson Inn is quite good – try the local oysters.
We took a leisurely hike in a spectacular State Park, Montana del Oro, which lies south of Morro Bay and encompasses boundless acres of craggy coast. We happened to visit on a particularly rough ocean day, and the waves put on a memorable show.
Frothy and angry, but magnificently and powerful, we took a million photos and admired the few surfers who braved the waves on such a dangerous day.
We spent about four hours in the park before heading to a (another) taco stand just north of the city which gets high marks from locals and tourists. With generous portions and creative dishes, Taco Temple was pretty filling but for our money… wasn’t as delicious as La Super-Rica!
We spent the afternoon exploring nearby Paso Robles which is a classic California town that has become a wine destination. We dropped in on Villa Creek Cellars and spent an hour learning about their wines with a crowd of young wine-tourists. The proprietors also have an excellent restaurant in town, the Villa Creek Restaurant and Bar. The light over the vineyards, and the super moon, made for tipsy fun. The town of Paso Robles is built around a classic Western square, and we were lucky to have a reservation at Artisan, the town’s most renowned restaurant. The ride back to Morro Bay was moonlit and short, and we vowed to come back and spend more time in this charming area.
Paso Robles -Wine Country
If you are interested in a wine-country excursion, this is a pleasing, easy destination containing over 200 wineries and vineyards. The climate offers a long growing season with warm days and cool nights, ideal conditions for rich wines like Zinfindel, but farmers are growing and making Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Voignierm and Roussanne. It’s not as touristy as Napa and Sonoma, still has a natural feel and yet the sophistication of tasting rooms and offerings is improving all the time. Check out this interactive trip-planning map. We found this Food and Wine article very useful in guiding us to the best producers.
Other area attractions
Hearst Castle is California Birthright Bucket List destination. We’d seen it years ago, but it’s so unusual and ripe with history, that you must allow for a half-day excursion. Advance tickets are recommended – book a specific tour – we like the architecture one, and holiday tours are offered through the end of December.
Northern Elephant Seals: Another indelible Central Coast site are the elephant seals that hang out at a coastal rookery just five miles north of Hearst Castle. Here is our favorite place to visit — visit the Point Piedreas Blancas Friends of the Elephant Seal website for up-to-date info — the best viewing times are December to March.
Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove
The time to see Monarchs is between October and February, and the Pismo Beach eucalyptus grove where the butterflies like to congregate is just minutes off the 101. Right now – December 2016 – visitors are reporting up to 20,000 butterflies resting in Pismo so it’s a beautiful spot to visit on the way back down the coast. If you want to dig into this topic for kids, here is a nice resource.
The Ride Home
Be sure to stop into Los Alamos – which is a foodie destination in itself. A delightful, made-for-instagram town which is so cute it doesn’t feel real. We had a wonderful meal at Full of Life Flatbread — kids will love their “pizzas” – and stopped at Bob’s Well Bread for coffee and more sweets (and homemade bread for the week), and then Bell Street Farm (for a half-chicken for later) on the way back to Route 154.
Here is Eater LA’s Guide to “12 Impressive Stops for Central Coast Barbecue”
Here is the Central Coast Tourist Bureau’s description of a perfect road trip.