Remember what poet Robert Frost said about taking the road less traveled?
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Exploring destinations that may be off our usual radar offers endless benefits and opportunities for unique discoveries. They often have surprising and unexpected rewards – ones we can’t possibly imagine.
One of those destinations is California’s Central Coast. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California’s Highway 1, is a series of sleepy towns and seaside villages against craggy cliffs with jaw-dropping vistas and endless sand dunes. The place harkens back to a simpler time. Tall buildings are scarce. Many towns have few traffic or no traffic lights and most of the noise comes from the sea otters or sea lions populating the beaches. “Morro Bay and the Central Coast are what many waterfront towns in Southern California used to be,” says Jeff Anderson, a 60- year Morro Bay resident who, along with his siblings, owns the Anderson Inn in the heart of Morro Bay. “We have an unspoiled little community. Maybe it’s less sleepy now, but it hasn’t grown. When I was a paper boy 50 years ago, there weren’t much less than 10,000 people living in Morro Bay and there are still about 10,000.” Many of these towns are part of California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route, where rolling vineyards meet the ocean. These are just a few of the great gems of California’s Central Coast.
When in Morro Bay, linger. Meander along the historic Embarcadero lined with galleries, antique and vintage shops and handcrafted jewelry boutiques or stroll along the beach. Once a remote fishing village, the town’s most distinctive landmark is the famous Morro Rock, a 576-foot volcanic formation that covers 50 acres.. This natural offshore sculpture of rock bathed in sunlight is a nesting spot for gulls, peregrine falcons and other birds.
In the heart of Morro Bay is The Anderson Inn, a small boutique hotel perched right on the waterfront lovingly owned by the devoted Anderson siblings, Jeff, Rodger and Mollie. Bliss is relaxing on your balcony and gazing out at sweeping sand dunes and the drama of Morro Rock. Or unwind by the fireplace in your room. Just downstairs is the hotel’s Galley restaurant which sources farm-fresh, pesticide-free produce direct from the chef’s family farm. The premium seafood is popularly made “naked” – simply cooked to perfection, with a selection of light sauces on the side.
Don’t miss Montaña de Oro State Park. 6 miles from Morro Bay, it’s a hiker’s paradise along a pristine stretch of the Pacific Coast. Pictures miles of hiking-only trails that cover a wide variety of landscapes like secluded beaches, coastal plains, rugged cliffs, streams, canyons, oceanfront vistas and hills, like the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak. The park’s name, Montaña de Oro (Mountain of Gold) is due to the blankets of golden wildflowers that bloom during spring.
A short walk along the water towards the beach is Frankie & Lola’s in Morro Bay. Locals love this ocean view eatery for fried green tomato eggs Benedict and their famous cinnamon buns for breakfast or sandwiches like slow roasted tri tip sliced thin with melted jack cheese, harissa and avocado for lunch.
For amazing bay views and a changing seasonal menu with excellent seafood, locally raised livestock and organically grown produce, head to Windows on the Water in Morro Bay. Each dish, like pan seared diver scallops with carrot butter is packed with flavors and an artful presentation. The extensive wine list showcases many local California wines, along with renowned French vintages.
An ideal spot to watch the sunset and savor local fresh seafood, dine at the deck at Dorn’s in Morro Bay, which offers a great view of Morro Rock. While seafood is at the heart of their menu, they also have dishes like pasta pomodoro and chicken marsala.
Set in the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, the Gardens of Avila Restaurant overlooks a century-old stone garden patio and transports guests to a lush oasis. Savor dishes like the heirloom tomato salad, with burrata, olive oil and balsamic vinegar or the shrimp fettuccini with pesto or grilled ribeye with corn pudding. And make sure to leave time for a stop at downtown Avila Beach. Check out the quaint shops, wine stores and stroll along the 1,685 foot-long pier.
One of the best ways to explore the Central Coast is on bicycle. Central Coast Outdoors in Los Osos offers guided half or full day bicycle tours throughout the county – in the wine country regions and along the coast. The Pacific Coast Highway full day biking tour rides along Highway 1 from Ragged Point to Cayucos (there’s a shorter half day excursion). Along the way, pass an elephant seal colony, have a gourmet lunch and drink in the majestic coastal views along the water’s edge.
Head to Cayucos, 15 miles form Morro Bay, and feel transported to a beachy enclave resembling a wild west town straight out of a John Wayne movie. Considered one of the last quiet beach towns,you won’t find street lights or buildings higher than 2 stories. But what you will discover is a parking spot at the ready, a historic 982 foot-long pier and cool shops like Good Clean Fun, a surf store and kayak outfitter. For 39 years, owner Steve Hennigh has been offering kayak tours exploring untouched kelp forests, remote beaches, and the opportunity to see whales, seals, otters and porpoise.
For 2 years, sisters Christa and Traci Hozie owned a little deli in Cayucos where they sold brown butter sea salt cookies that they made from scratch. But their cookies were so popular each day they sold out their entire cookie stock. So in 2008, they closed the deli to make the cherished cookies full-time. The Brown Brown Butter Cookie Company was born. The wildly successful cookie shop is right on downtown Cayucos. Visitors can not only buy cookies there but also see thousands of cookies hand rolled and made on the spot five days a week (the smell alone is wicked). In addition to the original brown butter sea salt cookie (the only one they ship), they also make chocolate chunk, lemon sugar, almond, spice, honey cookies and more.
Approximately 15 miles north of Cayucos is Cambria. This tranquil town is filled with art galleries and independently owned antique and artisan shops and gourmet stores. The oceanfront Blue Dolphin Inn on Moonstone Beach is the ideal hub for exploring downtown Cambria and just 7 miles from Hearst Castle. Each morning, a complimentary hearty breakfast is delivered to rooms. Moonstone Beach, which is dotted with cypress tress and sea lions basking on the rocks, is right across the street.
The 430-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve which runs along the coastline in Cambria is an ideal hiking spot. Walk along the dramatic ocean bluff that hugs shoreline. And spot monarch butterflies, great blue herons, black-tailed deer, and depending on the season, a migrating whale (or two).
For more than 25 years, Robin’s Restaurant in downtown Cambria is a best-of-all-worlds eatery and a local favorite set in a Spanish-style adobe home built in the 1930s. Sit in the vine-covered patio and dine on Vietnamese spring rolls, portobello and spinach lasagna, and peach-glazed baby pork back ribs. Or try the Thai-influenced curries and the large selection of vegetarian and gluten dishes.
Go wine tasting at Stolo Family Vineyards, the picturesque family-owned vineyard. The winery is set in a restored farmhouse and dairy barn dating back to the late 1800’s. The separate tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows has a homey rustic feel. Because of the cool climate, wines like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are crisper. While reds like syrah and pinot noir taste earthier and spicier. Veteran Winemaker, Nicole Bertotti Pope, is an ace at producing the well-priced high-quality wines.
The Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant just across the road from Moonstone Beach takes no reservations nor credit cards. Yet this part kitchy, part old-school Cambria mainstay which resembles a New English seaside cottage, is well worth the wait. Besides you can sip vino by the oceanfront outdoor fire pit before your table is ready. This 30-year old eatery is famous for Oysters Rockefeller, steamed clams and panko crusted calamari steak.
The intimate Back Cat Bistro is beloved for serving innovative farm fresh, sustainable and organically raised fare in a cozy setting. Picture candle lit tables covered with white linen, wine poured in in crystal Riedel stemware, a fireplace and wood floors. Chef/Owner Deborah Scarborough displays her passion in every dish. The menu changes constantly depending on the season, but some dishes have included braised lamb shank, three cheese baked polenta, salted chocolate caramel pot de creme and sticky toffee pudding.
15 minutes north on Highway 1 in San Simeon is William Randolph Hearst’s magnificent estate, Hearst Castle which was called “The Enchanted Hill.” Now a state historical monument, this epic chateau sits high atop the Santa Lucia Mountains with the Pacific Ocean raging 1,600 feet below. Tour the opulent ground floor rooms of 165-room La Casa Grande (the big house) where Mr. Hearst entertained. Be sure to build in some time to idyll on a chaise beside the ornate 104-long Neptune pool with alabaster lanterns and an ancient temple facade.
On Highway 1, 7 miles north from San Simeon is one of the nation’s biggest colonies of Northern Elephant Seals, who habituate on the beaches. Watch them play (and sleep) in their natural habitat. The area, which contains about 17,000 elephant seals is open for viewing every day of the year and there is no admission fee or reservation required. Docents are on site daily from 10 – 4 pm. The ideal times for viewing are late January, late April, and late October.