Santa Barbara & the Central California Coast

When non-Californians think of the Golden State, I am sure that Hollywood and Los Angeles often come to mind. However, for me, it is the California coast. With that said, I have always been partial to gorgeous coast lines such as the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy and the wild cliff tops of Cornwall, England.

Since moving to the Bay Area in 2001, I’ve been fortunate to visit many California coastal destinations, from Bodega Bay and Sonoma in the north to San Diego in the south. However my favorite stretch of coastline runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

So the next time you think about flying to Los Angeles for a vacation, why don’t you consider taking a few extra days to enjoy the Highway 1 drive from San Francisco instead? I promise you won’t be disappointed. And to help your planning, here are a few places you should visit along the way.

Santa Cruz

It is impossible to talk about Santa Cruz without mentioning its beach boardwalk. Combining the classic beach experience with the thrill of an amusement park (I think I counted about 25 rides the last time I was there), it represents the perfect day out for the young at heart.

Monterey & Carmel

My absolute favorite place to stay when visiting Monterey and Carmel is the Carmel Valley Ranch. Aside from offering gorgeous suites and an excellent spa, it is the perfect home base for seeing the nearby area – whether that is the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Carmel Mission, Point Sur Lighthouse or the 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach.

Carmel Valley Ranch

Carmel Valley Ranch

Point Sur Lighthouse

Point Sur Lighthouse

Big Sur

Every year people flock to the sparsely populated Big Sur region for some rest and relaxation. I myself made a visit back in 2007 and was not disappointed by the natural beauty, spectacular views and majestic redwoods. There are several places where you can stay, but I can personally recommend Big Sur River Inn. You should also consider a bite to eat at the beautifully located Nepenthe.

Big Sur

Big Sur

San Simeon (Hearst Castle)

Most people have heard of Hearst Castle, and the impressive architecture and grounds of William Randolph Hearst’s 20th century creation are certainly well worth a visit. There are also some great campgrounds nearby, in case you want to embrace more primitive accommodations during your road trip.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay is a quintessential seaside village, with one exception: it is impossible to miss the 576 foot tall “Gibraltar of the Pacific” that proudly sits in the bay. A state landmark, the Morro Rock is open to exploring visitors. And, after you have stretched your legs, you should stick around for some fresh fish at one of the local eateries near the harbor. One of my favorites is The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay

Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo

If you are looking to unwind then the quiet coastal town of Avila Beach is definitely a perfect place to stop and breathe. Plus a stay at the Avila La Fonda Hotel will have you relaxed in no time. Avila is also closely situated to the larger city of San Luis Obispo, where you will find a weekly Thursday night farmers market as well as picturesque eateries like NOVO.


A stop in Solvang requires a short inland detour from Highway 1 but it is well worth it; if only for the Danish architecture and food that can be found downtown. And, while you are there, you may want to consider a bit of wine tasting too. The nearby Santa Ynez Valley boasts a number of great boutique wineries (pictured at the top of the post and below), including my favorite: Rusack Vineyards (ask for a glass of their heavenly 2009 Anacapa).

Santa Ynez Valley Vineyards

Santa Ynez Valley Vineyards

Santa Barbara

I am totally biased when it comes to Santa Barbara because I got married in nearby Goleta and make a trip back to the city every year for my wedding anniversary. However I think that most people would agree that Santa Barbara is a great vacation destination. It offers a huge selection of shopping and dining options and there is also a great pier and beach that you should check out. But, if you are looking for romance, consider a stay at the delectable Bacara Resort & Spa. The price tag is worth every penny and I can highly recommend a dining experience at their four-star Miro Restaurant as well. (To say the food is out of this world would be an understatement)!


Bacara Resort


My mother-in-law will surely throttle me for disclosing this little-known gem but, if you have always fantasized about camping on a gorgeous beach, the Carpinteria State Beach can make your dreams come true. Just be sure to book your site well in advance.

Feeling inspired? Then check out for cheap flights to San Francisco.

Happy travels!

Showing 2 Comments

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  2. Jaxon 12:50 PM on March 5th, 2013 |

    Traveling to the Central Coast, especially Santa Barbara is always a solid choice and trip. Beautiful scenery and a whole lot to do, it’s great for any age. I’ve been going there since my time at UCSB, which wasn’t nearly enough. Trust me, I was devastated to graduate and leave! Now when I visit, I’m far from a sorority house and in a nice hotel! The South Coast Inn ( is great since it’s close to a lot of nice wine orchards and the beach!