Beethoven’s graceful fourth symphony was described by composer Robert Schumann as a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants, the Third and Fifth symphonies. The 350 miles of peaceful, spectacular California coastline stretching from the busy metropolitan centers of Los Angeles to San Francisco can also be seen in that light.
I had been a reporter for a Southern California newspaper earlier in my career and wanted to see the coastal region’s dramatic mountain cliffs, so the opportunity to take a hosted press trip was thrilling.
The Central Coast is divided into several regions: Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Monterey Bay. Each region has its own identity, all linked by a network of quaint towns, outdoor adventures, amazing seafood, cultural events, and 800 wineries.
All the destinations visited on this hosted trip were magical. They were accessible by train and car and easy to get around by foot. All opinions are my own.
Pro Tip: When to visit the Central Coast? Summers in the West are getting hotter each year. Spring and fall are more comfortable for many tourists.
The Golden State offers outstanding resorts in all price ranges. Here are a few of my favorites known for their beauty, charm, and style.
Santa Barbara: El Encanto
Santa Barbara’s been called the American Riviera by travelers for nearly a century. Thanks to its Spanish Colonial Revival style, rich heritage, stunning natural beauty, and near-perfect weather, it has a continental vibe that appeals to Hollywood celebrities and first-time visitors alike.
The city is a self-contained paradise located between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Distinctive architecture and lush landscapes evoke the aesthetic of the European Riviera combined with a carefree California spirit.
Visitors often feel swept away by the nostalgia of faded Hollywood glamour and glitz. That’s because Santa Barbara was the original Hollywood. Hundreds of silent movies and early Westerns were filmed here. The region is still used as a backdrop for photo shoots, commercials, and feature films such as Sideways, The Graduate, and 20th Century Women.
To get a sense of the destination, try Totally Cali Tours for a mix of driving and walking tours, with lunch and wine tasting. Santa Barbara Trolley Company offers a 90-minute narrated tour of the city and the architectural beauty of the historic courthouse.
El Encanto, a Belmond Hotel, is a 10-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara. It offers a sense of Old Spanish traditions and elegant tranquility. From its vantage point high in the foothills, El Encanto celebrates its 104th anniversary this year. A landmark since the 1920s, it is a Forbes four-star rated resort with 92 luxury designed bungalows and suites on seven acres of lush historic gardens with sweeping views of Santa Barbara.
The hotel features two styles of early Santa Barbara architecture — California Craftsman and Spanish Colonial. The property captures all the romance and glamour that make it a favored getaway of Hollywood’s elite. Chef Bruno Lopez joined the culinary team in 2021 and offers reinvented menus drawing from local seafood and plant-based options. The Spa at El Encanto is a popular luxury retreat.
San Luis Obispo: The Garden Street Inn
From Santa Barbara, the Amtrak Coast Starlight runs regular train service from Los Angeles to Seattle. It is under a four-hour drive to San Luis Obispo by car and five and a half hours by train. Simply called SLO or San Luis by the locals, the city is a cultural and entertainment hub of the scenic Central Coast at the midpoint between Los Angeles and San Francisco on historic Highway 1. It has a sunny climate, a world-class wine region, and thousands of acres of protected open space.
SLO’s low-key personality remains true to its roots as a premier outdoors and arts-focused destination. The charming downtown area is the cultural hub of the city. Tours start at Mission Plaza for a deep look into SLO’s unique character. That’s where I caught up with John Ashbaugh, president of the County History Center. He conducts tours of the plaza, which hosts festivals, fairs, and other celebrations all year.
Ashbaugh notes that San Luis Obispo celebrated 30 years of public art in 2020 and now has more than 100 unique pieces of art on display around the town. Rounding out the ambitious cultural scene are the Repertory Theatre and Museum of Art.
San Luis Obispo’s 1887 Garden Street Inn is ideally situated in the historic core of the town. Its classic décor reflects Victorian charm in a 13-room boutique hotel. Here, I felt a wave of nostalgia that took me back to childhood visits to my Aunt Louise and her collections of fine china and glassware. The inn’s parlor is furnished with books and antiques, and the massive, hand-carved mahogany staircase leads to the second floor. There are no elevators. The spacious outdoor communal deck is a place way to meet other travelers at breakfast, which is also served in the downstairs dining room.
The mansion’s elegant décor is true to the period: stained glass windows, ornate fireplaces, and an antique Clawfoot tub dating to the early l800s.
Train service is a five-minute Uber ride to town. While staying in SLO, don’t miss the railroad museum in the historic railroad district. Kids love to congregate on the train-watching platform. Every May the community celebrates Train Day to observe the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in l894. The importance of train travel in those early years can never be underestimated as it brought small towns to life and ushered in the glory era of travel and tourism to coastal California.
Paso Robles: Allegretto Vineyard Resort
Next stop on our train journey: Paso Robles and the Allegretto Vineyard Resort, an upscale four-star Tuscan-style oasis amidst idyllic hills and stunning vistas. Set on 20 lush acres, the 171-room property’s restaurant, Cello, serves northern Italian fare prepared with fresh organic and locally grown ingredients. The Allegretto resort has an excellent art collection with museum-quality sculptures and rare Asian pieces.
The spa is a sanctuary for travelers eager for a restorative experience. The resort’s new Star Garden Trail offers a guided walk through the estate, stopping at 12 Zodiac-inspired meditation stations.
Paso Robles is all about wine, wineries, and vineyards. Try the DAOU experience for a tour, tasting, and lunch in the nearby DAOU Estate and Vineyards.
Monterey And Carmel-By-The-Sea: Pebble Beach Golf Course, Lodge, and Spa
The Amtrak train hugs the coastline on the way to Monterey. Viewed from a wide expanse of windows, the only thing separating the train from the mighty ocean below and the rolling hills above is a narrow spit of sand. Here, the natural beauty and spectacular vistas are best seen from the train rather than by car.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a friend guide you on your vacation — someone to let you in on all the local secrets? That’s the way it is with Gael Gallagher, who leads tours of the special charms and highlights of Carmel-by-the-Sea, another of the celeb havens on the peninsula.
Surprising stories and scenic views are in store on Gael’s walking tours. Guests explore the storybook hamlet’s wonders: dozens of hidden courtyards, passageways, and picturesque alleys that lace through this one-square-mile hideaway that became an artists colony after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
On a two-hour tour, we amble down cobblestone streets, peeking in at private gardens and fountains, small art galleries, and sweet cottages framed by lavish utopias of flowers and trees. The whole town appears as a work of art.
As a Monterey resident for more than forty years, Gallagher knows the territory. She is a tour director, naturalist, and historian. She shares the lore of the town’s famous former movie star residents like Clint Eastwood, who was mayor here in the ’90s, and the late Doris Day.
“Every footstep is a treasure,” she said.
Monterey County is 110 miles south of San Francisco and 360 miles north of Los Angeles. It is the focal point for world-renowned marine research. Its delightful landscape of wildflowers, seascapes, and dramatic bluffs has been immortalized in film and literature. John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row is heralded on historic walking tours.
The legendary Pebble Beach Golf Course, Lodge, and Spa are located on Carmel Bay six miles from downtown Monterey. Built in 1919, the Lodge has 144 guest rooms and 17 suites. Pebble Beach Resorts are celebrated as one of the top spa and golf destinations in the world. The Stillwater Bar and Grill overlooking the bay was given the Best of Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator magazine. There is a shopping arcade and gardens for easy strolling.
Site of the 2019 U.S. Open, Pebble Beach Golf Links has hosted five U.S. Opens, four U.S. Amateurs, and one PGA Championship.
The Spa at Pebble Beach offers unique treatments such as maternity massage, shiatsu, and mud wraps. It also has a full-service beauty salon. As a recipient of the Forbes Travel Guide 5-star award, Pebble Beach is also home to the California Skin Institute, offering state-of-the-art medical and cosmetic services.
The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel toward Big Sur has one stunning vista after another. Breathtaking views allow you to take in the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. Along the way, the waves crash on the rocks and settle into tide pools below.
Garrapata State Park is a highlight on this drive. It has two miles of beachfront with coastal hiking and a 50-foot climb to a beautiful view of the Pacific. Sea otters and gray whales often frequent these coastal waters.