Central Coast: Laid-back, outdoorsy and sophisticated

By Jill K. Robinson

PHOTO: James Neeley

The coast from Monterey to Santa Barbara is a gorgeous expanse with views that rival the rest of California. Stretching between two of the largest urban areas in the state—the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles—the Central Coast region is the perfect place to drop the stress and pick up an appreciation of the great outdoors and a laid-back lifestyle. This is the place where many Californians go to chill out.

The two biggest population centers are the Monterey Peninsula and Santa Barbara areas. In historic Monterey, small-town Pacific Grove and fashionable artist retreat Carmel-by-the-Sea, there are beautiful beaches, ample performing and fine arts venues, outdoor pursuits, stylish shops, epicurean delights and an inland region known for wine and agriculture. Much of the same can be said of Santa Barbara, but the southern city takes on an air of the Mediterranean, with its white Spanish-style buildings and red-tiled roofs.

The grand Big Sur coastline inspired artist Francis McComas to claim that the area was the "greatest meeting of land and sea," and the wild coast perched on the edge of the continent has lured artists and fans of the great outdoors to enjoy its remoteness as well as its rich restaurant choices—from Nepenthe to the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. On the other side of the Santa Lucia Range lie the otherworldly spires and crags of Pinnacles National Monument, an extinct volcano on a long voyage north on the edge of the San Andreas Fault. Both regions are havens for hikers, bikers, climbers, campers and birdwatchers.

Wine lovers won't have much chance to miss Napa and Sonoma, with a wealth of quality vineyards in the Central Coast region. From Carmel Valley to the Monterey River Road to Paso Robles to the Santa Ynez Valley (featured in the movie, Sideways), there are more than enough award-winning wines to go around.

South of Big Sur, the mountains drop into the background and the coast takes center stage. Here, visitors can tour hilltop Hearst Castle, see hulking elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, relax in the sleepy beach towns of Cayucos and Morro Bay, or find some action in college-town San Luis Obispo. Fresh seafood often tastes best with a view of the ocean, and the old-fashioned piers of Avila Beach and Pismo Beach are ideal spots to take that meal break. Ventura's Mission San Buenaventura is the last of the California missions founded by Junípero Serra. The oceanside town is also a jumping-off point for adventures in Channel Islands National Park, called "California's Galapagos," with tide pools, kelp forests and unique flora and fauna species.

With such rich and varied geography, it's a blessing that the wonders of the Central Coast are laid wide open for residents and visitors to appreciate them. Whether your preference is a charming urban escape, camping under the stars, fresh regional cuisine, world-famous wines, getting active outdoors or a leisurely beachcombing stroll—all can be found in the Central Coast, and nobody's rushing you.

City & Town

Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf is just steps from the city's historic buildings that date from the 18th and 19th centuries—before California was part of the United States. Made famous by John Steinbeck's eponymous novel, Cannery Row has morphed from a fishing center to a bustling street with shops and ocean-view restaurants. Steinbeck's hometown, Salinas, is a working-class agricultural city, known as the "Salad Bowl of the World." Carmel, a hedonist retreat born as an artist village, is home to stylish shops, epicurean delights and top-notch art.

South of Big Sur, the sweep of coastline is dotted with small beach towns. Cambria is perched on pine-forested hills above the ocean, and has galleries and antique shops. Laid-back Cayucos is an old-school beach retreat with a surf break and fishing pier near the main drag. Morro Bay's landmark, a volcanic peak emerging from the ocean floor, stands at the entrance to an estuary and a commercial fishing fleet.

Tucked between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is often called the "American Riviera" because of its Mediterranean climate and red-tiled buildings. Head inland to artist enclave Ojai to unwind and take in the "pink moment" sunsets—the color of cotton candy.

The Great Outdoors

While well-known urban areas dot the Central Coast region, there's more than enough wide-open space for fans of the outdoors. Take a whale-watching boat tour in Monterey Bay, where you can spot migrating gray, humpback and blue whales. Seventeen-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach winds through forest and along Pacific coastline as it skirts exclusive golf courses and resorts.

The eerie-looking spires and monoliths of Pinnacles National Monument lure climbers as well as hikers interested in the explosion of colorful spring wildflowers and soaring California condors. On the Carrizo Plain, considered the largest single native grassland in the state, it's possible to see surface fractures of the San Andreas Fault.

In Big Sur, where rocky cliffs drop into the Pacific Ocean and cypress trees twist in the wind, nature lovers can walk along the beach or hike deep into redwood forests, where waterfalls spring to life. The Los Padres National Forest stretches across the scenic Coast and Transverse ranges, and offers a wealth of opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping and bicycling. Kayak among tide pools and kelp forests where sea otters live in Morro Bay, or just amble along miles of scenic beaches and dig your toes in the sand.

Heritage & Culture

Many place names in the Central Coast remain from Native American tribes, as well as Spanish and Mexican settlers. The California missions and other well-preserved buildings still remain from pre-statehood California. The Central Coast's inland region is dominated by agriculture—from the Salinas salad bowl to Paso Robles wines—while the coast is home to fishermen, artists, surfers and a booming tourism industry. Don't think the model of the easy-going Californian only exists on Orange County beaches. Whether it's a chef from Carmel, an artist from Ojai or a farmer from Soledad—all take time to enjoy the Central Coast.

Family Fun

The Monterey Peninsula is a wonderland for families, with historic sites, accessible beaches, Dennis the Menace Park, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a wealth of outdoor activities. South through Big Sur, camping options abound along the wild coast, and the variety of hiking paths can lead you to a pink-sand beach or a seaside waterfall. View underwater life on a semi-submersible tour in Morro Bay. Discover how the ocean has shaped the history of the Central Coast at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Inland, get a look at California's pre-statehood past and follow the California Missions Trail along Highway 101.

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