There’s a lot of coastline between Santa Barbara and Monterey—about 300 miles to be exact. The stretch includes some of the most beautiful parts of California, including Buellton, Big Sur, Carmel, and more. We present this itinerary to you as an 8-day road trip, stopping at some of the highlights. Once you’re on the road, allow yourself to be diverted if you see something along the way that piques your interest.
In partnership with Afar.
Start the journey in beautiful and historic Santa Barbara. Check into the Hotel Californian, a newly renovated incarnation of a classic property. The hotel’s Spanish colonial revival architecture is paired with a Moroccan design scheme from renowned designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Just a block from the beach, the hotel is also a short walk to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a mecca for food, art and wine. Each of the 121 rooms offer private balconies and a rooftop pool offers even grander views.
After a long stroll on the beach, drive south toward Montecito and Lotusland, widely regarded as one of the finest gardens in the world. The garden is about 37 acres, but it is subdivided into smaller areas with different themes: Aloe garden, Bromeliad garden, Japanese garden, and so on. The property was founded by Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer and socialite who spent 43 years perfecting it. She died in 1984 and the property was opened to the public in 1993. Note: The garden is open mid-February through mid-November for guided tours at 10am and 1:30pm, so book well in advance. Wrap up the day with dinner at Sama Sama Kitchen, a hip family-style Southeast Asian restaurant that prides itself on incorporating produce from local farms.
Spend the second day of your Central Coast road trip strolling and shopping on State Street or lounging on the beach. Start your walkabout in the neighborhood nearest to the hotel, the Funk Zone. This area between the beach and Highway 101 offers visitors a quirky and eclectic mix of tasting rooms, cafes, galleries, and shops. Peruse vintage and modern home goods at The Blue Door. Explore Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, which comprises nearly 20 wineries.
Head over to the Santa Barbara Public Market for lunch—the upscale food hall is home to the Big Eye Raw Bar, specializing in poke bowls; and Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, a Thai and Taiwanese noodle and dumpling spot. Later in the afternoon, check out the shops at Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara’s open-air mall. End the day back in the Funk Zone at The Lark, a restaurant that—like many in the area—prides itself on sourcing ingredients locally, with a farm to table approach.
The Santa Ynez Valley, made famous by the director Alexander Payne’s 2004 movie, Sideways, is your next stop. This is wine and horse country, and the landscapes—oak-tree-studded hills and miles of grape vineyards—are some of the state’s most beautiful.
Leave Santa Barbara after breakfast and arrive in Los Olivos in the late morning to check in to the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa. This will be home for the next two days. The 19-room inn is charming and romantic, with fireplaces in each room. It’s also within walking distance of the highly regarded Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard. For lunch, sign up for a two-hour VIP Tasting & Tour Experience, which takes you into the barrel room and includes a seated food-and-wine pairing.
That night, after relaxing in the inn’s infinity pool, grab dinner at The Bear and Star, the on-site restaurant. Chef John Cox has put together a menu that spotlights bounty from Fess Parker’s 714-acre ranch up the road. This means just about every dish includes fresh local vegetables and beef from Wagyu cattle.
The only way to truly get to know the 120 wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley is to spend a day sampling the wines. Some worth visiting: Alma Rosa, Beckmen, Bridlewood Estate, and Foxen. If you’re not in the mood to drive, downtown Los Olivos is home to nearly two dozen tasting rooms, all of which are within walking distance of each other. Another option: the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, which is an industrial area that boasts nearly 20 boutique wineries.
However you spend the day, conclude your trip at The Hitching Post II, the quintessential Santa Ynez Valley restaurant. The menu here represents the very best of the region—everything from salads with locally-grown greens and vegetables to Santa Maria-style tri-tip. Make your way back to your hotel in Los Olivos and get ready for an early morning drive.
Many road-trippers along the Central Coast make time to visit Hearst Castle. Considering how unique the castle really is, it’s worth a full day. In order to enjoy your visit to Hearst Castle consider arriving in the late morning and check in immediately for your VIP Tour. While other tours focus on only one or two aspects of life at the “ranch,” the four-hour VIP tour spans the gamut and touches on everything.
Highlights include some of the upstairs bedrooms (there are 56 in all), a few of the bathrooms (there are 61 of those), grand ballrooms, and the famous Neptune pool, where the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst threw many of his legendary pool parties. The VIP tour also focuses on the castle’s collection of art and antiques—all told, there are nearly 10,000 pieces. Your guide may even take you past what used to be the world’s largest private zoo; zebras still roam the property today. Over the course of the tour, your guide will regale you with stories about architect Julia Morgan, who was the first female architect in California; what life was like when Hearst was on property; and how the castle became a California State Park and a National Historic Landmark. You also will learn how the design for the building is a mashup of historic architectural styles that Hearst admired in his travels around Europe.
Following your afternoon at the castle, drive north to Big Sur where you’ll check in at the Post Ranch Inn. The resort is made up of individual cottages that dot the redwood-laden hillsides of Big Sur with unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean, maximizing privacy and encouraging you to unplug.
Today, it’s time to relax. Perhaps that means sleeping in at Post Ranch Inn, maybe ordering room service for breakfast. Or perhaps it means taking an early morning hike around the property, and listening for the barks of California sea lions below. Perhaps it means lounging around and reading a good book. Or it could be pampering yourself at the resort’s world-class spa. Therapists offer a variety of massage options, from aromatherapy to therapeutic. There also are options for couples, and treatments can take place in your guest room. If you prefer facials, the spa offers one that incorporates locally harvested wildflowers, and another that incorporates herbs from the organic garden.
Sometime in the late afternoon, head out from the resort and make your way to Nepenthe, a Big Sur restaurant that dates back to 1925. This eatery is known as much for its Mediterranean cuisine as it is for the panoramic view from its open-air terrace. It also has delicious history: For decades, Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth owned the cabin around which the restaurant is built.
After breakfast, get back on Highway 1 and stop at the Big Sur Bakery for fresh bread and other baked treats for the road. The bakery was founded in 1936 and has operated continuously since then. You’ll want to take the next 25 miles slowly, as the road is windy and the views of steep hillsides jutting into the ocean are simultaneously exhilarating and majestic. There are ample pullouts for stopping to marvel at the scenery.
Plan to arrive in Carmel-by-the-Sea for lunch at Folktale Winery and Vineyards. After a couple light wine tastings and small bites, head over to Big Sur Adventures for a guided VIP e-bike tour of the famous 17-Mile Drive around Pebble Beach. These bikes make touring easy, since a motor obviates the need to pedal. Instead, sit back, relax, and soak up the views as you motor past Spanish Bay, golf greens, cypress trees, and crashing surf, at up to 20 mph.
That evening, head east into the oak-studded Carmel Valley and check into your last hotel for the trip, the Carmel Valley Ranch. This luxury resort offers suite-style accommodations with private decks and soaking tubs. You’re practically bound to see deer and turkeys wandering past. Enjoy dinner at the resort’s Valley Kitchen, where the sommelier will pair your courses with Monterey County wines.
The last day of your epic Central Coast road trip is all about Monterey. For years, the city was the heart and soul of California’s canning industry, a story told by John Steinbeck in his book, Cannery Row. Today, most of the old canning factories have new lives as restaurants, homes, or office space.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium occupies an old canning factory, too. Explore the facility on your own and you’ll spot penguins, otters, jellyfish, and a host of other creatures in various exhibits. The aquarium’s signature attraction is the Open Sea gallery, a giant tank that holds 1.2 million gallons of seawater. The habitat is home to schools of fish, pelagic stingrays, green sea turtles, and more. But the best way to see the aquarium is on an hour-long personal guided tour; guides take visitors behind the scenes and answer specific questions about individual species or exhibits.
In Partnership with Afar.