Your Next Road Trip: California’s Central Coast

Lavender farms, fresh cheese, and wineries line this still undiscovered California region

The two poles of California have long reigned as the state’s main attractions. San Francisco and Los Angeles — both dueling cultural capitals (though neither are really the state’s capital) — have plenty to offer nearly any type of traveler. But there is a section of California’s coast that is home to some of the state’s most charming, down-to-earth, food-loving locales not bound by a major metropolitan city.

California’s Central Coast, bordered to the south by Santa Barbara and to the north by rugged, beautiful coastline, is reason enough for San Franciscans, Los Angelenos, and the visitors that love them to hit the road. From handmade cheeses to small, modern wine tasting rooms and from one woman’s mouth-watering chocolate peanut butter cups to a family selling honey made on their property, this small region is full of people dedicated to honoring organic, fresh ingredients. And with the ever expanding view of the deep, blue sea, it is like a little hidden paradise. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/islandlife)

Starting from the south and traveling north, here is our ultimate Central California Coast road trip.

Santa Barbara

Pull in to the driveway of the Upham Hotel and book a room. It was built in 1871 and is a true bed-and-breakfast with a soft, welcoming appeal, surrounded by redwood trees and greenery. Drop your bags and head to the unfortunately named “Funk Zone.” The “Funk Zone” is made up of mostly wineries, but also shops, and a surfing museum that line its small side streets. Make your way to Municipal Winemakers’ tasting room where, for $10, you can sample five of their exemplary wines made locally. Then, head to Santa Barbara Winery’s tasting room before heading to dinner at Olio e Limone for delectable pizzas. (Photo courtesy of Municipal Winemakers)

Grab a coffee and a couple of famous pastries from D’Angelo’s Bakery before heading back to the highway.

Solvang

You’ll be familiar with Solvang if you’ve seen Sideways, but there is a long list of places to see that the film missed out on. Driving into the very Danish town of Solvang on the 101 highway, stop at the Lily Bee Lavender Farm and take a long, deep breath. Looking out over the soft purple fields and smelling the calming aroma should prepare you to go horseback riding at Rancho Oso.

An appetite squarely in place, stop for lunch at the California-Nordic Greenhouse Café for a Copenhagen omelette, a Nordic burger, or open-faced Danish meatballs.

Back on the road, head toward Los Olivos. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/collinsericksons83)

Los Olivos

Enjoy one of California’s best prime ribs at Mattei’s Tavern for dinner, a fine dining room run by two brothers originally from Iowa. Their prime rib is legendary and comes in 12 oz., 16 oz., and 20 oz. sizes. Set in a white house with plenty of Western accents, the restaurant and its dark wine cellar gives the air of the South, rather than California.

Rest your head for the night at the much loved Santa Ynez Inn — a luxuriously outfitted Victorian home with a small spa and a concierge who will plan local wine tastings for you just outside the hotel.

San Luis Obispo

Grab a coffee at the fair-trade BlackHorse Café and take a stroll around the sweet mission town of San Luis Obispo. Lauded as the town’s best coffee time and again, you can’t go wrong with a fresh-from-the-oven muffin or scone and you shouldn’t leave the premises without a cup of their famous brew. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/datenhamster.org)

Once you’ve taken a look around town, head into the Pithy Little Wine Company’s tasting room. As you gather round to taste five different California wines and, if you’re hungry, order a plate of locally sourced cheeses and dried fruits, buy a bag of locally made Joycup chocolate peanut butter cups sold in the shop. They are made by one woman, only locally distributed, and have flavors like raspberry with merlot sea salt, blueberry lemon with organic Fleur de Sel, and the classic peanut butter cup with espresso sea salt.

Back in the car, make your way to the Stoltey’s Bee Farm. The Stoltey family operates the bee farm just beyond their home and sells their organic, homemade honey with various infused flavors (like apple and sage) in the driveway and at local farmers' markets.

Cayucos

Pressing on with a full belly and sweet snacks in hand, head into Cayucos and drop your bags off at the Cass House Inn. Stately, generous accommodations in a distinctly eclectic Californian style and views of the ocean are on offer here, as is the loved and seasonal Cass House Restaurant. House-cured meats, a local black cod, and honey mussels are only the beginning when there is a dessert like their "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" available. It consists of a Bourbon persimmon beignet, fruitcake with Scotch ice cream, and a vanilla bean stout pots de crème. Their wine list is slightly California heavy, but they offer a great number of wines by the glass as well as an adventurers list of beers by the bottle. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/jshyun)

After breakfast, stop by the Brown Butter Cookie Company for some delicious treats for the road.

Paso Robles

As you pull into the lush wine country region of Paso Robles, you’ll want to give in to the urge to get out of your car at every turn to take photos of the green, expansive horizon. Stop at one of Paso Robles’ numerous farmers' markets for some fresh berries.

You would be remiss to leave Central Coast Creamery off your list. Using local California milk, the Creamery makes hand-crafted artisan cheeses from their goat cheddar to their “Seascape” blend with goat and cow’s milk. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Shelby PDX)

Find your dinner at Artisan. Featuring locally grown, seasonal cuisine like barbecued pork belly, chanterelle toast, Alaskan halibut, and Hearst Ranch flatiron steak. Find a room at the plush Hotel Cheval for the night before heading home or continuing on to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, or Napa Valley.

A road trip like this, with sweeping views of the ocean on one side, rugged mountain ranges on the other, and great Redwood trees throughout can make you feel rejuvenated inside and out. Stay tuned for more California road trips, as well as east coast jaunts to come.

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