California’s Central Coast: Where Will the Road Take You?

The Central California Coast – situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco – provides a special lure due to its small-town charm, where time feels like it moves a little slower. Towns like Cayucos, Cambria, Nipomo, and Avila Beach along the Highway 1 Discovery Route remind me of the quaint coziness of the New England villages where I am from.

For our one-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I escaped LA in a new Chevrolet Traverse SUV to soak up the scenic mountain, vineyard, and ocean views for a calmer long weekend. From Malibu, we made a pit stop off the 101 in Los Alamos at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara. Bob is often behind the counter serving small batch homemade pastries, bread, bagels, croissants, sandwiches, tartines, and Stumptown cold brew on tap.

Stay for breakfast or lunch at this rustic hideaway that boasts French patisserie quality products like cinnamon sugar morning buns and quadrilateral-shaped croissants with raspberry cream cheese or tomato, pesto, and asiago – so perfectly buttery and flakey that you want to take a few more to go just in case you never find a place like this ever again. The hefty quiche, the oozy braised short rib sandwich with onion rings and arugula on a ciabatta bun, and the breakfast sandwich made to order composed of juicy herb turkey sausage, fluffy scrambled eggs with provolone on a griddled English muffin are certainly worth the detour.

Just up the 101 in the Santa Maria valley lies Presqu’ile Winery, which Conde Nast Traveler calls one of the top ten most beautiful wineries in California. When you first arrive, the mod sweeping angular architecture design contrasts with the sprawling rolling vineyard landscape. Experience a $20 reserve flight of their cool-climate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs while enjoying the scenery from this hilltop family-run winery. Presqu’ile will change your mind about Chardonnay.

Presqu’ile Winery

From Presqu’ile, get back on the 101 north or meander along the coast and through the beautiful California countryside on Highway 1. Our route took us to retire for the night in Cayucos, just south of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle. This seaside town with quirky antique shops and a few old-school bars and restaurants offers a laid-back surf haven. Stroll down the central restored wooden pier early in the morning or at sunset to marvel at the birds diving for food, the dolphins playing, and the seals poking their heads up from the slow rolling surf sets.

The pier in Cayucos looking back at the land.

A night at the five-room Victorian Cass House Inn in Cayucos is ideal. This restored 1875 home offers elegant rooms that remind me of my mom’s home in Connecticut with wooden shutters, a four-poster bed, and our own fireplace. The cozy room’s porch was a nice place to rest amongst the flowers and admire the ocean views across the street. CassHouse Grill, the restaurant bar behind the inn, provides food from local farms complemented by their wood-burning hearth and pizza oven. Watch your food being created while seated at the outdoor bar and strike up a conversation with the friendly chefs and locals. The light and tender cauliflower empanadas and the beef and red chili empanadas with dipping sauces are a must, nicely accompanied with a bold red Cab. Oak-grilled prawns on arugula are also a nice dish to share, complemented with one of their California beers on tap.

Room views from the Cass House Inn in Cayucos.

Since the owners started the nearby Brown Butter Cookie Company, it is no surprise that there is a bakery on site that makes fresh morning treats too. Although a local popular restaurant with an enchanting outdoor garden called Lunada Garden Bistro lies down the road, it is best to stay at Cass House Grill for quality locally sourced food made with care. There truly is no reason to leave this property.

Cass House Inn in Cayucos with a new outdoor restaurant and bar plus bakery behind the home.

Just north of Cayucos, State Highway 1 leads to Cambria, another place to leave the noise of city life behind. With grand pine trees on one side and narrow beaches on the other, we found ourselves happily where the vines meet the sea – at Stolo Family Vineyards, the only vineyard and tasting room in Cambria. Tucked in the hills behind coastal Cambria just a couple miles inland, this 50-acre property has gardens designed to resemble Monet’s, along with sunflowers bigger than dinner plates. During the Prohibition era, firewater was once made here, while later the land was used as an old dairy farm and home.

Crisp chardonnays, juicy pinot noirs, and exotic whites (Gewürztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, and Albarino) grow in the central California coast due to the cool climate and coastal influences. Ocean breezes and coastal fog make for a long, cool growing season. Pictured here is Stolo Family Vineyards in Cambria, just a few miles from the coast.

Since thin-skinned grapes grow well at Stolo (apparently one of the closest vineyards to the ocean in SLO Cal), sip some of their refreshing whites and pinots. Stolo’s Estate Syrah made Wine Enthusiast’s 2017 Top 100 at number 27. Free concerts occur on Stolo’s gorgeous land on Saturdays from May to October where guests can bring their own food. If time permits, dine at Robin’s Restaurant in the nearby town of Cambria where you can savor a bowl of their well-known salmon bisque in the high beamed ceiling garden patio. Robin’s home was built in 1935 by Frank Souza who was the construction foreman at Hearst Castle.

Robin’s Restaurant in downtown Cambria.

Our second night we moved inland to Paso Robles, home to around 300 wineries. Nestled beneath the Santa Lucia Mountains, take life slow by sipping Bordeaux-style blends paired with cheese at Justin Vineyards and Winery. Their flagship 2015 Isosceles blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot in a ratio representative of their isosceles triangle symbol.

At Daou Vineyards and Winery, share an impressive charcuterie plate with a bold red wine flight atop this mountain setting. Fourteen miles from the ocean with a wind tunnel coming from Cayucos, we met Katherine Daou whose dad and uncle were technology wonderkids and since 1998 made wine in their garage before finding this land. She tells us about the importance of the 8 different layers of soil because the more layers, the more complex the wine. “If the vines stress, you get longer and better tannins.” They took 9 years to find this land, this terroir, this dry farm where drip irrigation is only used for the steep slopes. They wanted to find a place where the soil was like Bordeaux.

Daou Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles.

Another Paso Robles stunner not to miss is the newly opened Parrish Family Vineyards tasting room. The late afternoon sun glow lit up the landscape as we savored a glass of wine on their wraparound porch surrounded by 30 acres of estate vineyards. Swish the complex full-bodied Clone 6 Cabernet around your mouth and ask for a vegan food pairing. To counteract all the vino on your tasting trail, head into the center of town to dine at Thomas Hill Organics where Chef Kurt Metzger serves up black lentil tacos, bucatini and sea urchin with scallops, and tender buttery Painted Hill rib-eye that must have come from one happy cow. Find room for the olive oil cake made with Olea lemon verbena olive oil, and perhaps another tiny-production Paso wine from their broad and impressive wine list.

The newly opened Parrish Family Vineyards tasting room in Paso Robles, California.

When we checked into Allegretto Vineyard Resort, I had no idea what I would find most fascinating about this place was the owner’s extensive art collection gathered from around the world to decorate this Americanized version of a Tuscan villa. Ask the lobby for a docent so you can learn about some of the 300 works of art, antiques, and artifacts, with many pieces from India. Every piece is placed with a purpose or reason so that they function as a part of a harmonious orchestra. The property – shaped like a cello – is filled with spiritual geometry and was thoughtfully created because the owner wants guests to feel that sense of joy and playfulness similar to the etymology of the word “Allegretto.” Numerous games dot the property like bocce ball and ping pong. Upon check-in, a live singer was serenading guests on the grand staircase with Frank Sinatra tunes.

Allegretto Vineyard Resort

Before building this Tuscan-inspired retreat, proprietor Doug Aryes planted 8 acres of vines, and as of 2017, you can sample the old-world style wines in the courtyard dotted with fountains, statues, and 100-year old olive trees. At night, the back courtyard looks even more like an Italian villa with dazzling lights, sculptures, and the Mediterranean architectural style. The hotel now boasts the first of its kind sonic labyrinth that uses motion activated sounds, so while you stroll through the maze you are calmed into a meditative state. After an early morning Zen walk following the curvy ground lines, we took a Chara Melt fitness class (for a small fee) in the nearby stained-glass window abbey where we learned how to roll and move small balls to reduce stress and pain. The self-treatment system that manipulates and rehydrates the connective tissue left us feeling overall relaxed and less tense.

Allegretto Vineyard Resort

For breakfast and dinner at Allegretto, we enjoyed eating seasonal delicacies on the front portico of the Cello Ristorante. Executive Chef Justin Picard uses numerous plantings on the estate in his dishes. We devoured shared plates like tomatoes and burrata, crisp pork belly, and a pot of plump oak roasted Salt Springs mussels.

After two nights in Paso Robles, we drove towards the coast to Avila Bay where as soon as we arrived we hopped on white speedy electric bikes in town from Pedego Electric Bikes. From Avila Beach Drive, we zoomed down the Bob Jones Bike Trail through the woods and stopped for lunch at Woodstone Marketplace Deli for generously portioned sandwiches and salads. Afterward, we whipped around and above the picturesque Avila Bay town and biked with electric ease up hills before flying down to the 1,320 foot Port San Luis Pier where we marveled at about 50 barking seals playfully knocking each other off a barge next to the pier.

Crusing around Avila Bay on Pedego Electric Bikes.

After checking in our kitschy beachy oceanfront suite at Avila Lighthouse Suites, we walked a few hundred feet to the new Sinor-La Vallee Tasting Room, where we met industry veteran Mike Sinor while sampling his luscious Pinot Noir and Syrah Estate wines. To continue our anniversary celebration, dinner reservations were just a few feet from our hotel at Blue Moon Over Avila, a charming restaurant with an almost south of France kind of feel where we dined outside under the stars facing the ocean and esplanade. Our French-inspired meal under heat lamps surprised me with the excellent executions (especially so far from city life) as courses flowed out like escargot with garlic and blue cheese, Lyonnaise style French onion soup, and another tender juicy succulent steak from the central coast that left me wondering why I have never tasted anything comparable in the best restaurants in LA. Later I was told by residents that it must be the cut, but perhaps it is the meat from the nearby free roaming grass-fed cows. Imported beers like Hitochina Belgium White, Chimay Tripel, and Einstock Toasted Porter delighted us since we felt wine-d out although the menu boasts selections from Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, Napa, and Bordeaux. Somehow we found room for Blue Moon’s frozen brownie ice cream sandwiches layered with vanilla and pistachio with a side of chocolate raspberry mousse. Utter indulgence!

Blue Moon over Avila in Avila Bay.

With huge bellies and full hearts, we strolled the chilly promenade back to our Avila Lighthouse retreat to bundle up in the hotel’s bathrobes and drive five minutes down the road to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. Ready to hop in our own private naturally heated mineral springs tub under the stars, we climbed up the hillside stairwell through the chilly darkness surrounded by the dimly lit forest to find our reserved fenced off tub. We luxuriated for an hour in the hot water, sourced from over 100 acres of natural underground resources as an owl perched nearby and hooted under the full moon, perhaps giving us a blessing.

Sycamore Mineral Springs at night in Paso Robles.

Before driving back to the big city, we woke up early to kayak with Central Coast Kayaks on a guided tour. From Avila Beach our paddles, kayaks, booties, and lifejackets were waiting as we paddled into the mist by about 30 sea otters floating in a circle on their backs. The serenity was captivating. Birds glided and dive bombed around us in hopes for a tasty catch as the fog lifted. As we carefully approached the pier and kayaked under it, we were greeted by numerous barking and frolicking seals. Soon enough, we landed on a small beach, where we learned about the area’s history as we climbed ashore towards Avila Lighthouse.

Kayaking in the early morning in Avila Bay.

Our last pit stop on the way home was Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone for a scrumptious wood-fired pizza with grilled pineapple and prosciutto at outdoor Lucky Penny. The remarkable stretch of the Highway 1 Discovery Route (accessible from San Francisco and Los Angeles) takes you through rugged coastline, vineyards, seaside hamlets, grand valleys, oak forests, dunes, boutique shopping, and the great wide open. Into the world or into the wild, where will the road take you?

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