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Set Your Sights on the Scenic Central Coast

By Christina Orlovsky Page
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With more than 1,000 miles of coastline, there is no shortage of spectacular scenery in the great state of California. The net result is an almost endless offering of road trips—picturesque drives that allow an escape from the everyday without the extra effort of boarding a plane. If you’re itching for a road trip this winter, set your sights on the Central Coast where rural hillsides meet jagged coastline, quaint towns meet welcoming wineries, and an opulent castle peeks through clouds, inviting guests to experience the grandeur of eras past.

On the Road
Your journey up the coast starts just beyond Los Angeles, where Highway 101 finally meets the ocean in Ventura. With the Pacific directly to your left, as you make your way north, past Santa Barbara and its neighboring towns, you’ll feel farther and farther away from the busy city, surrounded by rolling hills and small seaside towns. 

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Sea Life and Luxury in San Simeon

Your Central Coast road trip takes you just a few miles north of Cambria to the small town of San Simeon, notable for two things: mammals and magnificence. For a free glimpse of sea life better than any paid aquarium or amusement park, stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a vista point on the west side of Highway 1, where you can marvel at the massive mammals—17,000 of them—that call this beach home. Winter is birthing time for the female seals, so expect to witness the newborn phenomena if you visit in January and February. 

After admiring nature, prepare to be awestruck in an entirely different way during a visit to San Simeon’s other main attraction: Hearst Castle, the extravagant estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Conceived in 1919, when Hearst inherited 250,000 acres to create a retreat that he called La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), Hearst Castle became a 165-room expanse surrounded by 127 acres of gardens, pools and palatial excess. At one time, the property housed a menagerie of zoo animals and hosted routine gatherings of Hollywood elite. Today, guests take a bus ride—not for the faint of heart and narrated by Alex Trebek—up a windy road into the clouds to experience the lavish estate for themselves. Now a historic monument operated by California State Parks, the museum is truly a sight to behold if only to reflect on the ostentatiousness of old money. 

The Winding Road to Wine Country 

After literally coming down from the clouds, it’s time to treat yourself to another heady experience at any of the hundreds of wineries in the Central Coast region. A 40-minute drive across the breathtaking rolling hills along Route 46 takes you directly into the Paso Robles region, ripe with rich red wines, 26,000 acres of vineyards, and a happening downtown.  Whether you’re looking for an upscale wine country estate or a laidback spot for a vineyard picnic, you can find it in Paso Robles. Two winter festivals—BlendFest, February 19 & 20, and Vintage Paso: Zinfandel, March 18 to 20—showcase the region’s offerings with tasting events, winemaker dinners and more.   

After a day of wine tasting, spend the night at one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts in wine country, or take your overnight stay in Emily’s House, a renovated 1890s farmhouse in the heart of downtown Paso Robles. The inviting three-room house, complete with white picket fence and antique furnishings, is just a five-block walk from Downtown City Park, a town square surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, wine tasting rooms and nightlife. Just off Highway 101, downtown Paso Robles is the perfect spot to spend one last relaxing night on the Central Coast before heading back to the bustle of the big city.

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Quaint Cambria

A little more than two hours north of Los Angeles, some 30 miles north of the hip college town San Luis Obispo, and halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, is your first overnight stop: the picturesque seaside town of Cambria. Set among pine trees and dripping with charm, Cambria is to the Central Coast what Julian is to San Diego County: a dose of Americana along a Main Street filled with mom-and-pop shops, artistic types, and a guaranteed winter chill that will remind you that you’re not in SoCal anymore. The last weekend in January brings the 14th annual Cambria Art and Wine Festival to the Village. 

After spending the afternoon strolling Main Street, spend the night right next to the sea along the scenic Moonstone Beach where a row of oceanfront lodging options provides views as far as the eye can see. Hotels are located one after the other on Moonstone Beach Drive—good choices are Blue Dolphin Inn, FogCatcher Inn, Fireside Inn and Pelican Inn and Suites—and offer amenities you’d expect from cozy beachfront accommodations, including complimentary hot breakfast, wine-tasting happy hour, and in-room fireplaces; most are pet friendly. 

When all that ocean air works up an appetite—especially for seafood—a short stroll down Moonstone Beach Drive takes you to the bustling Sea Chest Oyster Bar, the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset at the outdoor fire pit before dining on fresh oysters and the catch of the day prepared as you like it. 

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