One of my absolute favorite vacations is when we take the time to drive up the coast of California. As most of my savvy readers already know, I live in the SoCal region (Southern California for all you folks not from around these parts). So, our journey really begins when we reach Ventura. The first couple hours from our home in the Inland Valley to the coast is more of an adventure as we make our way through and around Los Angeles and it's neighboring overpopulated cities. When you break through and reach Ventura, you start to smell the salty sea and life takes on a more casual existence. (It is also a great place to stop and pee). Ventura is nicknamed "the city of good fortune" and is known for it's scenic coastline and it's historic Downtown district.
When we drive along the coast we try not to make any one place our destination. We like for the whole drive to be the destination. We stop frequently for those Kodak moments as it seems that every turn we take is another breathtaking scene that we feel we have to capture. Personally I never mind getting caught behind a huge RV struggling around the turns and up the mountain because it forces us to take our time and see even more things.
Our next favorite place along the way is Santa Barbara. We don't usually stop here as a family but we have been known to do a romantic getaway on occasion. We love to walk on the beach and take pictures of the seagulls and all their feathered friends. Then, we stroll along Stearn's Wharf and check out all the cute little local shops before choosing a restaurant. Last time we were there we ate at Longboard's Beach Bar and Grill. It is billed as casual dining for locals and visitors alike. The food was good, but I defintely think it is the local's place to be as it was sure crowded and noisy and it appeared everyone knew everyone else. We did see Dennis Miller there, but chose not to be crazed fans and left him to eat his dinner in peace. We like to stay at The Hotel Oceana, located directly across from the wharf area. The rooms are delightful and affordable, and the customer service is superb. The best time to visit Santa Barbara is when they are having an event such as the Big Dogs Canine Festival, local artists exhibits, or celebrating a holiday such as Cinco de Mayo. It is a very outdoor and casual city.
A few miles north you will have a choice to either continue on Highway 1 or to turn inland a bit on Highway 101. If you do not have a specific destination on Highway 1, I recommend you head inland. This will take you to the sleepy little town of Buellton. The name of the town does not usually stand out in anyone's mind, but many people have heard of Anderson's Split Pea Soup. This is what puts Buellton on the map.
Just a few more miles off the beaten path is Solvang. This little town takes you back in time to a small Danish village where food,wine and baked goods are the main attraction. You can take a tour of the wineries, ride bicycles, or shop in the shops where you will encounter folks dressed in authentic Danish costumes. Whatever you do, don't leave without a bucket of famous Danish shortbread cookies.
The drive through the countryside on Highway 101 will certainly make you feel relaxed and possibly thinking of where you would like to retire. At least that is what it does for me. The rolling hills are dotted with those healthy free range California cows that you see on all the TV ads for milk and cheese. There are some roadside tasting rooms for some of the hidden local wineries along the way, as well as an occassional produce stand or antique store.
We usually head up to San Luis Obispo before getting back on Highway 1, where our next favorite destination happens to be Morro Bay. Morro Bay is marked on the map by it's own natural wonder, Morro Bay Rock. Back in the day, Morro Bay was a busy little port used to import dry goods for farmers and export their dairy, meat and produce. It later became a fishing port, developing a huge abalone fishing industry. Today, Morro Bay is governed mostly by the tourism industry, but is still used as a fishing port. If you are in the market for a fresh seafood meal, this is the place. There are several great restaurants along the Embarcadero where you can count on the "Catch of the Day" being prepared just the way you like it. We chose the Harbor Hut, where we discovered the best clam chowder we had ever eaten. Little did we know at the time, they are famous for it. There is a great view of the harbor and "the rock" while dining in a warm, inviting atmosphere with great service. I could sit there all day with a nice bottle of...well, just about anything!
Morro Bay is also host to many special events so check the calendar before planning your vacation. You might be able to see a kite show, a car show, or participate in an oyster festival.
After leaving Morro Bay, the drive is all coastal. The scenery is breathtaking and there are so many places I want to stop for pictures that sometimes it feels like we aren't making very much progress. There is a very popular tourist attraction along this drive, right near the area of San Simeon. Hearst Castle is rich in history and art and ambiance, along with architecture and beauty. There are daily tours available so you can experience the castle in all it's glory. For more information on the tours and the history behind Hearst Castle please visit their website. Allow a lot of time for this stop. There are several tours and there is a lot to see including the museum and the gift shop.
Every time we make this trip we stop by and see our friends, the Elephant Seals. They are located at Piedras Blancas just a few miles past Hearst Castle. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of Elephant Seals just sunbathing on the beach. There are so many that sometimes you look right at them and don't realize right away that is what you are looking at. It looks more like a rocky beach. To learn more about the Elephant Seals and the folks who work hard to protect them, please visit Friends of the Elephant Seal. For a very special treat, please click on the Elephant Seal Live Web Cam. This will give you a chance to view the seals without getting wind blown, which is usually the case in this area.
Our most recent trip up the coast took us to a new place, The Ragged Point Inn. It was accidental that we ended up there since my original search for lodging was supposed to be for the Big Sur area. Ragged Point appeared in the search results so I assumed it was close to where I thought I wanted to be. I fell in love with the description of the tranquility and the nature and the ocean view from the cliffs where this quaint little place sits, so I booked it immediately. The price was right and it sounded just like what I needed. It was a few days later that one of the family members pointed out that it was about 50 miles south of Big Sur. This could have posed quite a dilemna but instead of changing our location to accomodate our schedule, I changed our schedule to accomodate our location. I am certainly glad that is what I did because as it turns out, we couldn't have been happier with our experience at The Ragged Point Inn. Our room was about 20 feet from the edge of the cliff with amazing views whether sunrise or sunset. The grounds had nature trails and gorgeous flowers, along with butterflies and ground squirrels and wild bunnies. There is a restaurant on site that prepares amazing food and offers some of the best local wines. You can dine indoors or out, and the service can't be beat. They also have a gas station with a little mini market, a coffee bar, and a gift shop. The Ragged Point Inn has been family owned since the late 1950's and you can surely tell because they make you feel right at home while you're there. I can't wait to go back. I hope to make this a yearly getaway.
Our final destination on this trip was about an hour north to an enchanted little place called Nepenthe. This has been a family favorite visiting site for generations so naturally we stop by whenever we are in the area. Nepenthe has always been known as an artist's retreat. It was a place where people went to get away from the hustle and bustle and lock into their creative minds. The first famous owners of what used to be a small cabin overlooking the cliffs was Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. They purchased it as their love retreat, only to never spend a night in it. They sold it in 1947 to the Bill and Lolly Fassett family, who's grandchildren and great-grandchildren operate it today as a restaurant for all travelers and locals alike. The Nepenthe Restaurant serves food that has been created over the years from family tradition. The property now boasts, in addition to the restaurant, The Phoenix Gift Shoppe, and the Cafe Kevah.
The wonderment that surrounds this place can only be experienced in person for the true effect, so I strongly suggest you put this on your list of family favorites when you are driving Highway 1 along the coast of California.