It's really hard to beat a road trip across California's Central Coast. Challenging but spectacular terrain, wine regions rivaling Napa, beach towns ranging from art enclaves to laid back surfer hangouts, and eclectic lodging at every turn drive you forward towards new discoveries. But if Mother Nature isn't cooperating and extreme weather leads to coastal mud slides over the Pacific Coast Highway, here is an alternative approach:
San Francisco Touchdown
There are other logical points of arrival for your Central Coast road trip besides San Francisco like San Jose or perhaps Sacramento to the north but heading straight to SFO puts you within a 20 minute BART train ride into the City by the Bay, perfect for getting your California dreaming on.
A quick walk from Union Square station, cable car, and all that San Francisco has to offer, Hilton San Francisco Union Square is an ideal place for overcoming your jet lag especially upon parting the curtains and realizing you have a private balcony all to yourself with city skyline views of icons like Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge.
Most recently renovated in 2017, 1,919 rooms occupy a three-tower skyscraper, making this not only the largest hotel in San Francisco but the entire West Coast. No fewer than five onsite venues and bars give you an impressive array of choices even before stepping out into the street.
Herb N' Kitchen's gourmet marketplace has fresh grab-and-go seasonal eats including just-made flat bread pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and locally made snacks like Thatcher's White Cheddar Popcorn and Kika's Treats' Chocolate Covered Espresso Shortbread Cookies. Breakfast buffets at Poached can't be missed, with cooked-to-order as well as regional and international dishes.
Urban Tavern showcases the bounty of the Bay area's seasonal ingredients with house specialties like candied pork belly, ahi salmon hamachi poke, devil fried duck eggs, wild mushrooms, and blackened cauliflower. Libations include your choice of 50 wines made within 50 miles of the hotel. A transformed lobby bar and Cityscape Lounge’s 46th-floor panoramic views are a perfect backdrop for savoring evening cocktails like Blackberry Old Fashioned and Cucumber Apple Martini.
At some point you'll be ready to rent a car and push forward with your Central Coast excursion. Head south on I-280 and then Route 85 to 17 over hairpin turns through redwood forests to Route 1 south on the coast arriving in Carmel-By-The-Sea in approximately 2.5 hours.
Carmel-By-The Sea & Monterey
Within 15 minutes of each other and nearly equidistant from Cannery Row, the coastal town of Pacific Grove, and much of what the Monterrey Peninsula has to offer, Hofsas House Hotel and Hyatt Regency Monterrey offer two completely different lodging experiences.
In the heart of Carmel-By-The-Sea, built into a hill side overlooking the mighty Pacific, family owned and operated Hofsas House Hotel offers magnificent sunset views from their fourth-floor deck area. Bavarian chalet-style architecture and outdoor mural painted by Maxine Albro are defining exterior characteristics while inside, many of Hofsas' 38 spacious rooms include fireplaces, private balconies, wet bars, and partial kitchens.
Continental breakfast each morning is a casual affair served in the living room lobby with pastries delivered each morning from a local bakery, French roast coffee, fresh juice, fruit, and yogurt accompanied with trays and carafes for loading up to enjoy back in your room if you wish.
Outside you have access to a year-round heated swimming pool and saunas while walking to the village center just several blocks away takes you past fairy tale cottages and modern ranches clustered around boutique shopping, art galleries, and Arroyo Seco AVA winery tasting rooms like Manzoni Cellars and Shale Canyon.
5th Avenue Deli is the perfect place to gather your provisions for a picnic lunch before heading down Ocean Ave. to Carmel Beach which is spacious enough to be off leash dog friendly while leaving plenty of room for those who instead wish to retreat into serenity. Dinner presents many options but Beach House at Lovers Point in neighboring Pacific Grove overlooking the Pacific is renowned for ultra fresh seafood dishes like panko crusted sand dabs and scallop pot pie while catching a magnificent sunset.
Over on the Cabrillo Highway heading out of Monterey towards Salinas, 550 room Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa nestled on 22 acres which includes 18-hole Del Monte Golf Course is another excellent place to stay on the Monterey Peninsula particularly if you're looking to use your Hyatt points or simply prefer the predictably high standards of a brand name hotel. Business and event based travelers in particular rejoice with 27 suites, along with more than 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space for conferences and weddings.
California-inspired TusCA Ristorante serves up Tuscan favorites with a healthy twist like Tuscan white bean soup, asparagus and lump crab omelet, and an airy ricotta and lemon ravioli. Following their latest $6 million refresh, the hotel pays homage to its Monterrey roots with live Jazz Nights in the Fireplace Lounge every Friday and Saturday night.
Their expansive lobby, filled with cozy chairs and leather couches, is perfect for sipping a cocktail while Marilyn Monroe Spa, two heated outdoor pools, and Knuckles Sports Bar offer additional places of respite when you're not out and about exploring.
While a landslide still blocks the Pacific Coast Route 1 at Big Sur, your only alternative for heading south of Monterey is the El Camino Real (aka the 101). At exit 228 take winding route 46 past steep rolling golden pastures and soaring mountains to the low key coastal town of Cambria.
Boutique shops and eateries like Robin's Handcrafted Global Cuisine abound serving up handcrafted comfort dishes made with farmers' market fresh ingredients. Owners Robin and Shanny Covey started out in the back room of a small health food store but quickly expanded into a restored adobe home on Burton Drive serving the area's largest selection of vegetarian dishes. Seating ranges from spacious garden seating open to the outside to tables in front of the fireplace inside when it's chillier.
Just above town high on a hill surrounded by 2,000 conservation easement protected acres of pristine Monterey Pine forest and rolling pastures with an exquisite view of the Pacific, some of the biggest herds of Clydesdale horses in the world roam free at Covell's California Clydesdales.
Trail rides and farm tours are available by appointment. Ralph provides an in depth history of the place upon arrival while both he and his daughter Tara lead tours over roads on their extensive estate. They also arrange events like weddings and steak dinners accompanied with hay rides and barn dancing.
San Luis Obispo & Surrounding Attractions
Heading inland a bit, your next destination should most definitely be San Luis Obispo. Thanks to Cal Poly, SLO's vibrant pedestrian friendly downtown, roughly a 3x10 block street grid, is lined with historic brick storefronts filled with Mom & Pop shops like no fewer than three locally operated coffee roasters for your morning fix, dive bars and artisan restaurants, and record shops selling classic vinyl accompanied by vintage players lovingly on display.
70-foot long Bubble Gum Alley has walls plastered in chewed gum from passersby over the decades while a block over, a decidedly more appetizing attraction awaits gourmands stocking up for their next wine tasting party. Fromagerie Sophie has an impressively mouthwatering selection of cheeses from across the globe ranging from blue Rogue River Blue to Colston Bassett Stilton. Unique and decadent accompaniments include unique charcuteries, oils, crackers, and syrups.
Right at the epicenter of it all, SLO Brew Lofts directly above SLO Brew Pub & Brewery in the historic 1905 Carissa Building are essentially five dream apartments with fully outfitted kitchens, separate living and dining rooms, and an ambiance that embraces the rustic industrial aesthetic of exposed brick, beamed ceilings, and riveted sheet metal wall treatments. Natural touches include reclaimed wide planked Douglas fir wood flooring and copious paintings & sculpture on display everywhere. The three-bedroom Voyager and Drifter Suites each have their own private patio overlooking SLO Brew's beer garden, San Luis Obispo Creek, and nearby Mission De Tolosa.
Leading the west coast craft beer movement since 1988, SLO Brew is now one of 9 other microbreweries that have opened across the Central Coast. SLO Brew's gastro pub menu features craft pizzas and quirky pub-favorites like street tacos,Nasty Nashville's Hot Chicken Thighs, and bacon-fat donuts. Steam punk influences abound like exposed pipe beer taps and wall sconces made from pipe and gauges lit with Edison bulbs. Their vibrant nightclub and stage spotlights local bands and an occasional big name like Jeff Bridges or Dick Dale.
Just about 15 minutes out of town on the coast in Pismo Beach, Sun Buggy rents out dune buggies for exploring the extensive Oceano Dunes State Park next door. You have to watch a safety video and feel like you're signing your life away but no worries. These belt driven vehicles are easy to operate since they have no transmission and large high flotation paddle tires keep you on top of the sand. And just in case, a four-point safety harness keeps you secure in the unlikely event that you experience a roll over.
If you have an extra day before heading back up the 101, check out either the vineyards of Paso Robles, Edna Valley, or hop on the Paso Robles Distillery Trail sampling the goods of 10 distilleries ranging from Grappa & Limoncello from Manucci Spirits to the Barrel Aged Gin at Krobar Craft Distillery.
Photos: Steve Mirsky, CarmelCalifornia.com, Hilton.com, Hyatt.com. Coverage made possible by participating in a partially sponsored trip.