Travel Guide to California

Central Coast

Endless, Uncrowded Beaches

by jill k. robinson

South of the San Francisco Bay Area, the coastal region from Santa Cruz through San Luis Obispo has views that rival the rest of the state. Within earshot of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, this is where many Californians vacation, so it’s the ideal place to slow down and adopt an appreciation of the great outdoors and a laid-back lifestyle.

The three largest population centers of the Central Coast are Santa Cruz, the Monterey Peninsula and Santa Barbara. In historic Monterey, small-town Pacific Grove and fashionable artist retreat Carmel-by-the-Sea, there are beautiful beaches, performing and fine arts venues, outdoor pursuits, stylish shops, epicurean delights and an inland region known for wine and agriculture. Much of the same can be said of funky Santa Cruz, but away from the redwoods, the university town resembles a beachside playground, with its historic boardwalk and many surf spots. Santa Barbara lures travelers with its white Spanish-style buildings, red-tiled roofs, vast beaches, plenty of fine arts venues, bright boutiques, outdoor adventures, culinary tastes and an inland region (the Santa Ynez Valley, featured in the movie Sideways) known for wine and Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Even though the Central Coast region’s main highlight is indeed its coast, the varied geography and moderate climate ensure that there are plenty of treats for visitors to enjoy. Whether your preference is digging for clams, surfing the perfect wave, strolling small village streets, sampling fresh regional cuisine and world-famous wines, or lazing on the beach and watching the changing tide, it’s all right here on the Central Coast—and there’s enough for everyone.

City & Town 

Downtown Santa Cruz lies between the city’s vibrant beach attractions and the redwood-rich mountains, where the University of California at Santa Cruz is perched among groves of the huge trees. Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is steps from the city’s historic buildings that date from the 18th and 19th centuries—before California was part of the United States. The Monterey History & Art Association showcases the second-largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí in the United States. Once a resident of Monterey, Dalí contributed greatly to the region’s talented artist community. Made famous by John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, Cannery Row has morphed from a fishing center to a bustling street with shops and ocean-view restaurants. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is a working-class agricultural city, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Carmel, a freethinker’s retreat born as an artist village, is home to stylish shops, exquisite dining and top-notch art.

South of Big Sur, the coastline is dotted with a necklace of small beach towns. Cambria’s galleries and antique shops perch on pine-forested hills above the ocean. Laid-back Cayucos is an old-school beach retreat with a surf break and fishing pier near the main drag. Morro Bay’s landmark, an ancient volcanic peak emerging from the ocean floor, stands at the entrance to a beautiful estuary. Between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera” because of its Mediterranean climate and red-roofed buildings. Head inland to artist enclave Ojai to unwind and take in the “pink moment” sunsets—the color of cotton candy.

insider's tip

The best views of some spectacular surf moves are from the cliffs overlooking Steamer Lane, near THE SANTA CRUZ SURFING MUSEUM. Grab a spot by the railing to watch top-notch surfers get some sweet rides, and then head on in to the museum to see the best in Santa Cruz surfing history. santacruzsurfingmuseum.org

The Great Outdoors 

While well-known urban areas dot this region, there’s more than enough wide-open space for fans of the outdoors. Take a whale-watching boat tour in Monterey Bay, where you can spot migrating gray, humpback and blue whales. Seventeen-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach winds through forest and along the Pacific coastline as it skirts exclusive golf courses and resorts. South of Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has long been considered the “crown jewel” of the California State Park system. The eerie-looking monoliths of Pinnacles National Park beckon to rock climbers and hikers interested in the added benefits of the explosion of colorful spring wildflowers and soaring California condors in the park. In Big Sur, where rocky cliffs drop into the Pacific Ocean and cypress trees twist in the coastal wind, nature lovers can walk along the beach or hike deep into redwood forests, both places where waterfalls spring to life.

Hike to the top of Bishop Peak, the tallest of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic peaks. Take advantage of some sweet surf spots and catch the perfect wave. Head out from Santa Barbara on a whale-watching tour to see some of the largest mammals in the Pacific Ocean. On the Carrizo Plain, considered the largest single native grassland in the state, it’s possible to see surface fractures of the San Andreas Fault, which puts man/nature cohabitation in perspective. The Los Padres National Forest stretches across the scenic Coast and Transverse ranges, and offers a wealth of opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping and bicycling. Kayak among tide pools and kelp forests where sea otters live in Morro Bay, or just amble along miles of scenic beaches, stop when you want to, and dig your toes in the sand.

Heritage & Culture

Many place names on the Central Coast remain from Native American tribes, as well as from Spanish and Mexican settlers. The California missions and other well-preserved buildings still exist from before 1850, when California became a state. The Central Coast’s inland region has a wealth of land for agriculture—from the salad bowl to wine to olives—but farmers here are just as comfortable taking a quick trip to the wide, sandy beaches during breaks from the harvest.

Family Fun

The Central Coast is a wonderland for families, with historic sites, accessible beaches and outdoor space, and water activities. See underwater without diving at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or be a kid again at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Inland, get a look at California’s pre-statehood past and follow the California Missions Trail along Highway 101—always a good lesson for grade-schoolers and adults alike. South through Big Sur, the variety of hiking paths can lead you to a pink-sand beach or a seaside waterfall.

View underwater life on a semi-submersible tour in Morro Bay. Discover how the ocean has shaped the history of the Central Coast at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Go camping in the Channel Islands or Los Padres National Forest. Even picking your own berries at a local farm is far more fun when you can smell the ocean air and not hear the sounds of traffic.

5 Must See, Do

CALIFORNIA ORIGINS Visit Mission Santa Barbara, established in 1786 and known as “Queen of the Missions.” It was the 10th of 21 California Missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans. santabarbaramission.org

WILD COAST Cruise Highway 1 along the majestic Big Sur coast, where the sky touches the sea. bigsurcalifornia.org

AMERICAN RIVIERA Step off Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara and stroll along the miles of beaches studded with palm trees. santabarbaraca.com

MONTEREY’S HISTORIC DISTRICT Find Old Monterey’s adobes and gardens from the Spanish and Mexican eras, including the site of California’s first Constitutional Convention, scattered near Fisherman’s Wharf. seemonterey.com

NINE SISTERS Stretching between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, the craggy peaks of the Nine Sisters provide beautiful vistas in the Central Coast. Get up close to one of them, Morro Rock, in Morro Bay. morrobay.org



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