No West Coast vacation is more romanticized than a drive down California State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway – or PCH for those in the know. But while the scenery is primarily what people talk about when it comes to California’s Central Coast, at this moment the region is also producing some of the best wine and craft beer in the country. So forget driving north to Napa and Sonoma when flying into SFO, grab a convertible and head south instead. You’ll discover pristine beauty, relaxing vistas, and pretension-free tasting rooms. So while other people are waiting in lines and paying high tasting room fees in Northern California, you can have a relaxed, authentic experience on the Slow Coast. Here’s your official guide:
Day 1 – A Visit To The Epicenter Of Wine Geekery
Fly into SFO in the morning and immediately head to the rental car center. Once you’ve graciously asked and received an upgrade to a convertible – seriously, just politely ask, even say the trip is a special occasion, it often works – hop in the car and head straight for the coast. From the airport, point your GPS to Half Moon Bay, which will chart about an hour route that takes you south from the airport and then West across the mountains to hit the PCH.
Once you’re on the highway, you’re about a thirty-minute drive from your lunch stop, but if you’re not starving yet, try and take your time. One of amazing things about Highway 1 is the ability to pull over and take in all of the incredible sights. On this stretch you’re very likely to pull over and view sea lions sunbathing on rocks or a wide variety of interesting birds nesting on the cliffs. If you don’t slow down, you’re missing out on part of the journey.
Twenty-nine miles down the road from Half Moon Bay you’ll find Highway 1 Brewing Company, right next to a well positioned gas station. If it’s a nice day you can sit in the brewery’s backyard, and if you’re lucky there may even be live music. This quaint brewery makes an excellent West Coast IPA, called 1PA as well as delicious burgers, but their true specialty are their buffalo cauliflower bites. How they were able to get cauliflower to taste better than real chicken wings we will never know, but they go perfectly with the beer.
After you’re fed and rejuvenated, hop back in the car and head sixteen miles down the highway to Davenport, CA and your first wine tasting of the trip at Bonny Doon Vineyards. When you arrive you’ll quickly realize Davenport, which is directly off of Highway 1, isn’t as much of a town as a it is a small collection of buildings, but that just means it’s even easier to spot the tasting room, which is smack dab in the middle of the “town” – it also helps that there’s a spaceship on the roof.
Owner and winemaker Randall Grahm is one of the most creative winemakers in the country and a visit here is a must. If you’re a wine geek, this will probably be the highlight of your trip, as Randall and the entire Bonny Doon family can geek out for hours on the interesting grapes and quirky methods they use to make wine. Ask to taste the difference between wines that have been aged in traditional oak or steel and those aged in small glass carboys – the same vessels that are used to homebrew beer – a tactic Grahm started employing in 2008.
And if you want to get really geeky, talk with Randall and the staff about his seeds project, in which he is aiming to create the first true Grand Cru vineyard in the U.S. In Grahms own words: “I’m looking to change the wine industry in a big way. It is part of my life’s work to continue to push the boundaries of this very conservative business. I want to create 10,000 new grape varieties over the next 10 years, and to plant a uniquely heterodox vineyard – each vine genetically distinctive from the other – in the hopes of revealing a new Grand Cru in the New World.” You can even help him raise money for the project here.
When you’ve had your fill of wine geekery, head back to the car and continue to drive south. If you find yourself in the mood to eat – tasting wine really works up an appetite after all – about twenty minutes down Highway 1 you’ll encounter The Whole Enchilada in Moss Landing. Located just outside the marina, this is true California Mexican cuisine with an abounding assortment of fresh produce and seafood. You can’t go wrong. If you’re lucky, you’ll even meet the owner Ray Retez, who still comes around to every table to say hi.
After filling up, continue driving south to Monterrey, your sleeping destination for the night.
Day 2 -Taking In Breathtaking Beauty
Wake up in Monterrey and perhaps take in the city’s celebrated aquarium before heading south. If you’re in the mood to hobnob with the uber wealthy, stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea and snap a photo at Pebble Beach. The town is incredibly quaint, but also very overpriced, so we recommend a simple stop instead of staying the night. Your best bet is actually checking out of your hotel in Monterrey and using Carmel as your breakfast stop. The meal will be pricier than you are probably used to, but it’s an easy way to say you visited Carmel. If you do, we recommend Katy’s Place and From Scratch. From there, it’s off to Big Sur!
Before leaving the Monterrey area, you may want to stop at a grocery store and grab supplies for a picnic. The drive from Monterrey to Big Sur is one of the most breathtaking in the entire world, and you may be so overcome with the beauty that stopping for a roadside picnic will be in order, and if you picked up a bottle of wine from Bonny Doon the previous day, this is the perfect opportunity to open it.
Options abound for accommodations in Big Sur, from luxe to budget, so whether you’re in the mood for camping or being pampered, your tastes will be covered.
One of the nicest things about Big Sur is the ability to unwind and cut yourself off from civilization. With cell phone service being very hard to come by, you don’t have an excuse to look at your phone instead of nature.
If you took your time getting to Big Sur, you’ll arrive in the mid-afternoon, the perfect time to check into your accommodations and then set out on a hike. Incredible hiking abounds in Big Sur but we recommend starting your visit with a trip to Pfeiffer Beach. The views on the beach are some of the most beautiful you’ll encounter in California, so bring a book and sit a while.
After you’ve had your fill of the beach, head back to your accomodations and get cleaned up for dinner. Big Sur is extremely remote, so don’t expect any grocery stores in the area. There are several mini-marts to grab things like eggs, milk and hot dogs, but that’s about it. So if you happen to be staying in a cabin and want to cook, we recommend buying your food in Monterrey before driving down.
But who wants to cook on vacation anyway?! Because while Big Sur may not have any grocery stores, they do have some fantastic restaurants. We recommend grabbing a reservation at Big Sur Bakery and enjoying their delicious food and approachable wine list in a relaxed setting. If it’s a nice night, request to sit on the patio and make sure you order their fresh baked bread and butter to start, you’ll be extremely glad you did.
Day 3 – Explore Big Sur
Start your morning off low key with a short hike to McWay Falls, a gorgeous waterfall that falls from the cliffs above directly onto the beach. After you’ve taken in the view, spend some time exploring the quirkier side of Big Sur with a visit to the Henry Miller Memorial Library as well as Coast Gallery.
After bouncing around the area, it’s off to the swankiest lunch of the trip at The Post Ranch Inn. The hotel’s small amount of rooms perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean are the epitome of high luxury, but you don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars for the view, you just have to make a lunch reservation. The three course prix fixe lunch with wine pairings is a steal at $80 a person and you’ll enjoy classic California cuisine at its finest – though it may be hard to concentrate on the food with the breathtaking view.
Following lunch, consider heading out on another hike or just find a quiet spot to read. In the evening head to a casual dinner at the Big Sur Taphouse and call it a night.
Day 4 – A Slice Of The Mediterranean On The California Central Coast
Hearst Castle is about an hour and a half drive south on Highway 1 from Big Sur, though you should plan for it to take a bit longer if you plan to stop, and it is well worth the visit. Built on the top of a mountain overlooking the ocean, this wasn’t even William Randolph Hearst’s largest home – he used to refer to it as his cottage – but we’re pretty sure you’ll feel his “cottage” is anything but. Take one of the guided tours – they’re the only way to actually get inside the house – and then spend an hour or so wandering around the property. After your visit you’re just a short ride away from delicious wine and beer.
South and a bit east of Hearst Castle sits Paso Robles, the heart of Central California wine country, and the region responsible for producing some of the best affordable wine in the state. While Cabernet is grown in abundance here, just like in Napa, many winemakers in this region are also experimenting with other varietals, and one of those wineries is Tablas Creek. Tablas Creek is a joint venture between American wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-pape, France and was opened when the partners realized that the region had many similarities to the Southern Rhone where the Perrin family had experienced great success. The duo took it upon themselves to introduce California to many of the Rhone varietals – Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre – that are now planted across the state, and became one of the country’s top producers of Rhone style wine. Sit outside on the patio or step up to the bar in the tasting room and have the staff take you through the winery’s fantastic offerings. Then grab a few bottles to take home.
Following your wine tasting, you’ll probably be in the mood for a beer, so head about twenty minutes down the road into the heart of Paso Robles for a visit to Firestone Walker Brewery. One of the largest and most celebrated craft breweries in the country, this is where it all began. You can also grab a bite to eat.
If three stops in one day feels like a lot, you can stay the night in Paso if you prefer, but only a short ways down the road sits a hotel that is well worth a night’s stay if you’re up for the experience, the Madonna Inn. Built in 1958, the Madonna Inn has become a kitschy faux-alpine landmark, each room with a different theme. Grab a drink at the bar and maybe even cut a rug on the dance floor – the hotel has live music every night – but skip the steakhouse and head into downtown San Luis Obispo for dinner at Old San Luis BBQ Company instead. After your meal, take in a movie at the Sunset Drive-In for a classic California experience.
Day 5 – Explore The Urban Wine Trail
After checking out of the hotel and stopping for a quick bite, head south to Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful towns on the California coast, and the best spot for spending a day at the beach. But you’re not here just for the beach, you’re also here for the wine and Santa Barbara’s epic Urban Wine Trail.
The Wine Trail features the tasting rooms of twenty-six wineries that make wine in and around the Santa Barbara area all within walking distance of one another. It’s the perfect way to experience the wine of the Central Coast without having to drive from winery to winery. Each tasting room is a unique experience from the high-end critically acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of Au Bon Climat and Cebada Vineyards to the more party-like atmosphere of Municipal Winemakers and Area 5.1. It’s worth spending the day stopping at each of these unique places to truly get a sense of the fantastic wine being produced in the area.
Once you’ve tasted your way through the city head to The Lark for dinner for a New American feast in a casual setting.
Day 6 – LA & Home
From Santa Barbara set out for your last day traveling down the coast. Take in the scenery, stop at a roadside fish stand in Malibu and ultimately arrive in LA. Your California trip wouldn’t be complete without one more solid burger and craft beer, so head to Father’s Office in Santa Monica for an incredible burger and an astounding selection of craft brews. After that, it’s off to the airport for your flight home, your suitcase full of wine and your camera full of incredible pictures.
Where To Stay
Portola Hotel & Spa – A great base for your night in Monterrey that’s steps from the wharf.
Ripplewood Resort – Basic cabins on the Big Sur River.
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn – A historic inn that feels like stepping back in time.
Post Ranch Inn – With breathtaking views and an incredible restaurant, this is truly a luxurious selection.
San Luis Obispo:
The Madonna Inn – A historic landmark that’s gaudy, kitschy and an experience everyone should have.
Granada Hotel and Bistro – A hip hotel in the heart of downtown.
Marina Beach Motel – A block from the beach, this motel might seem basic but the rooms are well appointed, clean and perfect for a night or two.
Canary – If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, this is your spot.