Central Coast:
Miles of beaches without the crowds

By Jill H. Robinson

Photo: Bart Everett/Shutterstock

Like a shell necklace, a string of small beach towns lines the coast south of Big Sur to Santa Barbara. While Southern California gets prime beach town attention, it’s the Central Coast region that has it all without trying to pack too many bodies into each sandy square foot. If you’re looking for a place to escape the hustle and bustle, chill out like a local, get some fun and sun, and sample some of the best cuisine and wine in the state, pack your bags and head to the Central Coast.

The biggest population center is the Santa Barbara area, with its white Spanish-style buildings and red-tiled roofs. In Santa Barbara, there are vast beaches, plenty of fine arts venues, bright boutiques, outdoor adventures, culinary tastes and an inland region (the Santa Ynez Valley, featured in the movie Sideways) known for wine and Santa Maria barbecue.

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.

Even though the Central Coast region’s main highlight is indeed, its coast, the varied geography and moderate climate ensure that there are plenty of treats for visitors to find. Whether your preference is digging for clams, surfing the perfect wave, strolling Mediterranean-style village streets, sampling fresh regional cuisine and world-famous wines, or lazing on the beach, it’s all right here on the Central Coast—and there’s enough for everyone.

City & Town

South of Big Sur, the sweep of coastline is dotted with small beach towns. Cambria perches 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, an ancient volcanic peak emerging from the ocean floor, stands at the entrance to a beautiful estuary.

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

Even though Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are larger than the rest of the beach towns, there’s enough space throughout the Central Coast region to find ample breathing room. Hike to the top of Bishop Peak, the tallest of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic peaks. Take advantage of some sweet surf spots and catch the perfect wave. Head out from Santa Barbara on a whale-watching tour to see some of the largest mammals in the Pacific Ocean.

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. 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 on 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 has a wealth of land for agriculture—from wine to olives—but farmers here are just as comfortable taking a quick trip to the wide, sandy beaches during breaks from the harvest. Even though Santa Barbara is the big city in the area, it has a relaxing vibe that would suffocate in a second in downtown Los Angeles.

Family Fun

The Central Coast is rich with adventure for families, including plenty of beaches and outdoor space, historic sites and water activities. 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. Go camping in the Channel Islands or Los Padres National Forest. Even picking your own berries at a local farm is far more fun when you can smell the ocean air.

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