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Clos Solene
Courtesy of Visit California

Four Hidden Gems on the Central Coast

Four Hidden Gems on the Central Coast
Make sure your next Golden State road trip includes stops at these destinations

California’s Central Coast offers travelers a truly iconic vision of California: a dramatically steep coastline, oak tree-studded hills, and unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean. From distinctive beach towns and boutique wineries to luxurious hotels and restaurants specializing in farm-to-table cuisine, the Central Coast is best experienced slowly and deliberately. And travelers planning a trip to this part of the state shouldn’t miss visiting these off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Pismo Beach

Some 90 minutes north of Santa Barbara by car, Pismo Beach feels like the epitome of the laid-back California beach town. Book a room at the Inn at the Cove and enjoy direct beach access and a bluff-top swimming pool. At the oceanside Lido restaurant in the Dolphin Bay Resort, Chef Hector Ibarra offers a five-course tasting menu that celebrates ingredients from the surrounding farmland and the sea. Kayakers, or anyone interested in trying out the sport, should take a guided tour with Central Coast Kayaks. As you paddle in the Pacific past sea lions and sea otters, a naturalist will explain the ecology of the region and share insights about local marine life. South of town, travelers can observe one of nature’s most incredible migrations at the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where each year, from October to February, thousands of butterflies congregate around stands of eucalyptus trees.

Avila Beach

Eight miles up the coast from Pismo Beach, this town of 15,000 residents is home to a growing number of winetasting rooms, where travelers can sample locally grown chardonnay and pinot noir. The mostly walkable Avila Wine Trail is a great experience for visitors. For wellness seekers, hot springs were first discovered in Avila Beach in 1907, and two hotels, the Avila Hot Springs and Sycamore Mineral Springs, offer day access if you want to soak in the healing waters. Back in town, the Avila Lighthouse Suites is both right on the beach and near the town’s restaurants and shops on First Street. Book a Villa Suite, which offers guests 1,100 square feet, private soaking tubs, and kitchenettes.


Hearst Castle, the fantastically opulent home of the late William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, is a National Historic Landmark that’s open to private tours. In Cambria, the closest town to the south, forests of Monterey pines extend down to the rocky coastline and miles of trails wait to be explored. The Pelican Inn is a good base, located at the north end of town and overlooking Moonstone Beach and the Pacific Ocean—all the suites here have ocean views. Or if you’re coming to Hearst Castle from the north, spend the night at the Ragged Point Inn. At the southern end of Big Sur, this little inn with its own restaurant and general store sits atop 350-foot-high cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Paso Robles

For years the inland community of Paso Robles was horse country and farmland—with fruit and olive orchards in every direction. But in the past two decades, vineyards have taken over, and Paso Robles is now home to more than 200 wineries and 11 different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Rhône blends are the reason to stop and taste here: such grape varietals as syrah, grenache, and mourvedre thrive in the hot summer days and cool nights. Among our favorite producers is Linne Calodo, founded 20 years ago by Paso Robles pioneers Matt and Maureen Trevisan in the Willow Creek District. Book a reservation ahead of time to taste several blends with names like Problem Child, Nemesis, and Sticks & Stones. Clos Solène is a favorite newcomer, and sixth-generation winemaker Guillaume Fabre embodies the next generation of vintners with his hospitable and relaxed approach to welcoming guests. Again, call ahead to book reservations—both these wineries are small, exclusive producers, so tasting at the source (or joining their wine clubs) is the only way to experience their wines. In town, life in Paso Robles is centered on its main square, which hosts a farmers’ market every Saturday morning. In the heart of downtown Paso Robles, the Hotel Cheval is a 16-room boutique inn. Complimentary wine tastings and seminars introduce guests to local wineries, while the spa’s signature massage incorporates other scents you’ll encounter in Paso Robles, lavender and rosemary. The Total Indulgence package, with a massage, body scrub, and facial, lives up to its name.

In Partnership with Afar.

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Alex Farnum

Discover the Central Coast

Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.

The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.

Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.

SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.

San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.

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