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Coasting Along

A rambling road trip along the pinch-me-it's-so-beautiful Central Coast

     I'm being lulled to sleep by raindrops and surf. Snug in our yurt, blankets tucked up under our chins, we couldn't be cozier, even though there's a late-spring storm whipping the trees and lashing the sea below.
     We're at Treebones Resort on the southern end of Big Sur, the second day in our meandering road trip down the stunningly beautiful Central Coast—Pacific Grove, Big Sur, Hearst Castle, wine country, Santa Barbara. Though the Treebones experience in a luxury yurt (so-called “glam-camping”) means we haven't had to pack camping gear, my partner Bill and I have brought just about everything else for our getaway: mountain bikes to explore fire-roads, hiking boots for trails, warm fleece, and water shoes for kayaking.
     But please don't peg us as over-the-top athletes; we just like to get out and play. Plus, Bill has packed slacks and a nice shirt, and I've brought the sparkly summer sandals I plan to wear in Santa Barbara. And there's extra room in the duffel to bring home shopping finds and some bottles of wine from the region's celebrated tasting rooms.
     But first, back to the soft springtime rain.

Waterfalls, wildflowers, and moody fog
     The Central Coast is a land of extremes. Winter storms give way to bright sun in spring and fall. Summer brings coastal fog, usually in the morning, burning off to frame lyrical views by midday. Our late-spring visit, before the summer crush, seems perfectly timed. But Mother Nature has other plans.
     We start in Pacific Grove with dinner at Passionfish , known for sustainably harvested seafood and organic, locally sourced ingredients. My tuna with slow-cooked Mediterranean vegetables and Bill's prosciutto-wrapped halibut are exquisite, as are local strawberries in a sweet cabernet syrup. Sipping espressos, we vow to seek out local, sustainable cuisine for the rest of our trip.
     We check in at nearby Asilomar Conference Grounds , designed by Julia Morgan, California's first female architect. (She also designed a little place down the road known as Hearst Castle.) Our room is on the top floor of a two-story, early 1920s Arts-and-Crafts gem. There are larger, more modern rooms on the grounds, but we like our historic room with its little balcony overlooking the dunes of adjacent Asilomar State Beach.
     The next morning starts with only a few scudding clouds, so we tug on windbreakers and head for Point Lobos State Natural Reserve , a rocky peninsula jutting into the ocean just south of Carmel. I snap photos of the turquoise coves where tiny harbor seal pups wiggle on the sand with their moms, and hundreds of cormorants squawk and squabble on seaweed nests. The wind tosses my hat off, but no rain—yet.
     Back in the car, we start down the Big Sur coast. Clouds part in a visual tease, then hunker down in earnest, sending veils of moody gray mist into the canyons as we snake through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park . We don raincoats and take a quick look at the outdoor Spirit Garden behind must-stop Big Sur Bakery (killer persimmon cupcakes), where Buddha statues crouch incongruously next to Polynesian tiki gods, grinning wooden crocodiles, and Aboriginal didgeridoos. It's vintage alt-lifestyle Big Sur. Windshield wipers in full swing, we continue south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park . There's a lull in the rain, so we take the easy walk to the park's ocean overlook, where 80-foot McWay Falls splashes into the sea. Our exploring stops here—most trails heading east, severely damaged by the massive 2008 Chalk Fire, are closed through 2011.
     Farther down the road at Nepenthe , arguably the best view you'll ever get with a burger, the clouds still dash across the sky and the air is cool. Inside, we enjoy a fireside chat with general manager Kirk Gafill, whose grandparents bought the property in 1947 for $14,000. Kirk tells us what it was like growing up here in the '50s and '60s, when weekends meant unbridled drinking and dancing late into the night with the likes of Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, and author Henry Miller.
     Back on the road south, dusk descending early, we pull into Treebones and our cozy yurt, the rain pattering a lullaby on the canvas roof.
A rambling road trip along the pinch-me-it's-so-beautiful Central Coast

     I'm being lulled to sleep by raindrops and surf. Snug in our yurt, blankets tucked up under our chins, we couldn't be cozier, even though there's a late-spring storm whipping the trees and lashing the sea below.
     We're at Treebones Resort on the southern end of Big Sur, the second day in our meandering road trip down the stunningly beautiful Central Coast—Pacific Grove, Big Sur, Hearst Castle, wine country, Santa Barbara. Though the Treebones experience in a luxury yurt (so-called “glam-camping”) means we haven't had to pack camping gear, my partner Bill and I have brought just about everything else for our getaway: mountain bikes to explore fire-roads, hiking boots for trails, warm fleece, and water shoes for kayaking.
     But please don't peg us as over-the-top athletes; we just like to get out and play. Plus, Bill has packed slacks and a nice shirt, and I've brought the sparkly summer sandals I plan to wear in Santa Barbara. And there's extra room in the duffel to bring home shopping finds and some bottles of wine from the region's celebrated tasting rooms.
     But first, back to the soft springtime rain.

Waterfalls, wildflowers, and moody fog
     The Central Coast is a land of extremes. Winter storms give way to bright sun in spring and fall. Summer brings coastal fog, usually in the morning, burning off to frame lyrical views by midday. Our late-spring visit, before the summer crush, seems perfectly timed. But Mother Nature has other plans.
     We start in Pacific Grove with dinner at Passionfish , known for sustainably harvested seafood and organic, locally sourced ingredients. My tuna with slow-cooked Mediterranean vegetables and Bill's prosciutto-wrapped halibut are exquisite, as are local strawberries in a sweet cabernet syrup. Sipping espressos, we vow to seek out local, sustainable cuisine for the rest of our trip.
     We check in at nearby Asilomar Conference Grounds , designed by Julia Morgan, California's first female architect. (She also designed a little place down the road known as Hearst Castle.) Our room is on the top floor of a two-story, early 1920s Arts-and-Crafts gem. There are larger, more modern rooms on the grounds, but we like our historic room with its little balcony overlooking the dunes of adjacent Asilomar State Beach.
     The next morning starts with only a few scudding clouds, so we tug on windbreakers and head for Point Lobos State Natural Reserve , a rocky peninsula jutting into the ocean just south of Carmel. I snap photos of the turquoise coves where tiny harbor seal pups wiggle on the sand with their moms, and hundreds of cormorants squawk and squabble on seaweed nests. The wind tosses my hat off, but no rain—yet.
     Back in the car, we start down the Big Sur coast. Clouds part in a visual tease, then hunker down in earnest, sending veils of moody gray mist into the canyons as we snake through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park . We don raincoats and take a quick look at the outdoor Spirit Garden behind must-stop Big Sur Bakery (killer persimmon cupcakes), where Buddha statues crouch incongruously next to Polynesian tiki gods, grinning wooden crocodiles, and Aboriginal didgeridoos. It's vintage alt-lifestyle Big Sur. Windshield wipers in full swing, we continue south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park . There's a lull in the rain, so we take the easy walk to the park's ocean overlook, where 80-foot McWay Falls splashes into the sea. Our exploring stops here—most trails heading east, severely damaged by the massive 2008 Chalk Fire, are closed through 2011.
     Farther down the road at Nepenthe , arguably the best view you'll ever get with a burger, the clouds still dash across the sky and the air is cool. Inside, we enjoy a fireside chat with general manager Kirk Gafill, whose grandparents bought the property in 1947 for $14,000. Kirk tells us what it was like growing up here in the '50s and '60s, when weekends meant unbridled drinking and dancing late into the night with the likes of Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, and author Henry Miller.
     Back on the road south, dusk descending early, we pull into Treebones and our cozy yurt, the rain pattering a lullaby on the canvas roof.
Pedal, paddle, and sip
     The next day looks more promising, so we double-back to drive up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a squiggle that twists inland over the Santa Lucia Range. Here we unload bikes and explore the burn area on dirt fire roads heading up 5,155-foot Cone Peak. Rising through a mist scented with lupine and sage, I feel like I'm getting a spa facial for free.
     As we drive south out of Big Sur, clouds lift, and suddenly the full splendor of the Central Coast is unveiled. Rugged cliffs give way to tawny coastal hills, the lapis blue sea stretching endlessly west. Hearst Castle , a monument to opulence, sits atop a lone summit. After our ride, we take a late-afternoon self-guided tour of the spectacular (and almost empty) Hearst Castle gardens and grounds.
     We continue south to Cambria and stroll on wind-tossed Moonstone Beach. Next, it's another great meal at the Black Cat Bistro , where I feast on tender abalone, raised at nearby Ocean Rose aquaculture farm. Bill and I share a local blanc de blancs with delightful chef/owner Deborah Scarborough, and leave full and exceedingly happy.
     Morning finds us traveling south to Morro Bay, where we take a guided kayak trip of the region's wildlife-rich estuary. Our guide from Central Coast Kayaks leads us to soaring sand dunes, where we enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch complete with local wines. That primes us for our next destination, the wine country in and around San Luis Obispo, especially the lovely Edna Valley , where we sample Tangent wines in a former one-room schoolhouse. For the afternoon, we flip a coin between hiking Bishop Peak and riding around Madonna Mountain (Madonna wins); both are ancient volcanic plugs that offer head-spinning views of the region. Finally, we end with a soak in the natural hot springs at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Valley.

An aebleskiver a day
     The next morning I go for a run on the paved Bob Jones City to the Sea Trail and end at Avila Beach, an arc of sand bounded by piers. I chase a wave with a pair of friendly Labradors, then return to pack up with Bill. From here, we swing inland toward Solvang and the fabled vineyards of the Santa Ynez region.
     In über-Danish Solvang, Bill eats an obligatory aebleskiver (apple pancake topped with jam and powdered sugar) while I save my appetite for Root 246 , the ultra-chic new restaurant from master chef Bradley Ogden. Our dinner is over-the-moon good, with “everything 805,” notes Chef Ogden when he comes by our table, referring to the region's area code to denote his commitment to local ingredients. And the wines? With spectacular vintages at his doorstep, Ogden can't help but hit home runs with every bottle. (The 2007 Paige 23 “Tinto Tarantula” might be my BFF in a glass.)
     The next day we head for the hills—specifically the knife-edge ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains. We unload the mountain bikes and ride the almost-deserted Camino Cielo (“road to heaven”), tall yucca plants in full bloom, turquoise sky above. Here, we get our first views of Santa Barbara—the great bend east in the California coast, the lush communities lapping at the base of the mountains. Soon we'll be down there in the “American Riviera,” checking in at our last-night splurge (a sunny suite at the Brisas del Mar ), taking a guided paddle of the waterfront with Santa Barbara Adventure Company , then enjoying a candlelit dinner (of sustainable fish, of course) at Sea Grass .
     But for now, up on the road to heaven, it's just me and Bill and the blue-sky-and-sea view, and not a rain cloud in sight.

—Harriot Manley
Great reads

My Nepenthe | By Romney Steele
Part cookbook, part memoir, this charming book weaves together tales about the infamous Big Sur restaurant started by the author's grandparents in 1949.

Big Sur | By Jack Kerouac
The Beat Gen poster boy penned this novel about alcoholism, addiction, and fear after spending two weeks in a remote cabin here.


Eating local
Where to dine on local, sustainable foods along the Central Coast.

Passionfish (Pacific Grove)
In a region committed to sustainable seafood, this elegant restaurant reigns supreme. Try pepper-crusted sablefish or local spot prawns.
www.passionfish.net

Black Cat Bistro (Cambria)
Chef Deborah Scarborough makes magic with local abalone, handcrafted cheeses, and tender grass-fed beef.
www.blackcatbistro.com

Root 246 (Solvang)
Master chef Bradley Ogden brings impeccable style to this sleek restaurant focusing on local ingredients. An unforgettable splurge.
www.root-246.com

Big Sky Café (San Luis Obispo)
Start the day with traditional pozole (spicy hominy stew) with can't-stop-eating-it cornbread.
www.bigskycafe.com

Sea Grass Restaurant (Santa Barbara)
Dine by candlelight on the pretty porch, savoring local scallops prepared three ways by talented (and tattooed) chef John Pettitt.
www.seagrassrestaurant.com
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