By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Coastal California is a perpetually flowing source of inspiration for outdoor exploring of all kinds, but is there anything more iconic than hopping into a convertible on a flawlessly sunny day for some scenic central coast road-tripping adventure?
The simplicity and the freedom-loving, the refreshing great outdoors; it’s a rite of passage and a ritual for locals. And these days, it’s the prescription we all need.
But my buddy, Steve, and I wanted something in addition to the classic Pacific Highway ready-made road map; we wanted some back roads and off-the-radar intrigue to nourish the eager inner explorer.
I so wanted to get lost in nature, find great photo ops, live in the moment, mix it up, and escape the static urban energy.
We filled up our top-down black Mustang and were soon off to experience the real deal and discover some of the best of the diverse central west coast.
Santa Barbara, of Course
The American Riviera in the mix is a given, right? Classic Santa Barbara is not overestimated. It’s a sophisticated yet laid-back, sometimes bohemian beach town with its own coastal nook.
Any foodie or wine lover would appreciate its ever-growing menu of offerings. A day or two basking in State Street’s outdoor scene, historic downtown, or in the artsy Funk Zone neighborhood …weaving in and out of tastings like at The Valley Project… it’s a vibe to aspire to.
Its museums are a curated collection of unique history and eclectic interests. Outdoors, the Red Tile self-tour of the ubiquitous Spanish-revival architecture occupied our senses, scoping the historical beauties while wandering or exploring the many bike paths like by Stearns Wharf waterfront and the marina where our Hilton Beachfront Resort sat.
The charm was continually evolving with newly-revamped attractions like Cabrillo Pavilion which offers picturesque coastal views. Santa Barbara’s many remote pockets like Butterfly Beach and Andree Calrk Bird Refuge put nature at our fingertips. Plus, the beachfront offered diverse activities and shops. A relaxed atmosphere with a perfect climate.
One of my Santa Barbara County highlights is tucked up in the hills of Montecito at Lotusland, a sprawling 37-acre botanical museum established in the early 1940s. Curated and created by eccentric opera singer-turned yogi, Ganna Walska, this gem is truly a place to marvel and find some peace in remote nature. It’s a bonafide sanctuary. Read more about Santa Barbara here.
Highway 1 Discovery Route
It was a surreal sight, focused in on the moment as the narrow hilly roads turned sand-swept, sometimes disappearing.
It was only us, quiet with mystery, suddenly engulfed in the vast otherworldly white-washed landscape of the Rancho Guadeloupe Dunes rolling in our fierce black convertible.
We did it… we escaped civilization! Such majestic refuge, speechless beauty, and that roar of the Pacific. Thank you, Mother Nature.
ATV terrain and the informative state-of-the-art visitor’s center experiences are also available at Oceano Dunes and nature refuge. Historic elements of the area include the early Chumash people and the artists’ community of the Dunites who called this area home in the early part of the 20th century. From the start, our rogue journey on the Highway 1 Discovery Route put us deep in explorer mode with this immersive, peaceful nature escape; a piece of heaven.
Cambria, Coastal California
Further on north off Highway 1 at Moonstone Beach, we pulled in to popular classic Moonstone Bar & Grill to refuel and enjoy the spectacular elevated views located in this artsy, laid-back beach town of Cambria, a must on any Pacific Coast trip. It’s a postcard. The community offers some cool shopping and homemade shops like Linn’s for its one-of-a-kind Olallieberry Pie.
There are a few charming overnight accommodations here if the scenic boardwalk hike wears you out, notably nearby El Colibri Hotel and Spa to bask in the beach vibes and unwind with the sunset.
Stewardship of the Coast
An unmistakable highlight further north on the scenic coast towards San Simeon was the magnificent Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. This spot is an essential part of the Highway 1 Discovery Route which is focused on citizen stewardship of the Pacific Coast. Easily accessible and free, the experience put us in respectably up-close proximity of the natural element of these beautiful, mighty mammals.
This beach haven to thousands of elephant seals bestows a glimpse into their routine migration.
It was simply amazing to watch the swaths of these nautical sunbathers frolicking, resting, singing, and doing their thing on the sands along the observatory stretch which also provides an array of fun facts for the curious.
It was impossible to not be entertained by these beauties and the backdrop of the wild, majestic Pacific Ocean.
Is it wine o’clock yet? Of course! Hearst Ranch Winery is situated on the route up along San Simeon Bay, making it the only winery with seating along the coast beneath eucalyptus and olive trees.
Open daily, the winery boasts a considerable following at the ranch and with its wine club featuring four different varietals from the sustainably farmed Saunder’s Vineyards. Although there are events and tours offered, there is no need to be a wine snob to partake.
It was a relaxing delight to chat about the Hearst legacy over a cheese plate and liberal flight with the knowledgeable house manager, Damon Miele, who played host into the sunset. That bottle of ’Lone Tree’ pure velvety bold Cab-Franc that followed me out was a particularly savory souvenir.
Remote Nooks of Santa Maria Valley
Situated just north of Santa Barbara, also accessible from the Pacific Coast Highway, is Santa Maria Valley which is renowned for its barbecue restaurants, of course. But it also boasts a beautiful spot to escape into. It’s tucked away just north of Guadalupe as part of the State Parks; it’s beautiful Oso Flaco Lake. This remote nature refuge boasts public trails within its abundant symbiotic collective of flora and fauna.
It’s a delightfully unexpected setting amidst the waterways. It’s an idyllic peaceful spot to wander and capture some cool pastoral shots.
Foxen Canyon Road, home to an extensive trail of wineries and vineyards, made for a sweet joyride while making our escape from civilization again after our evening at Santa Maria’s Radisson. Nature’s eye candy was just so easy to get swept up while listening to some classic tunes en-route to sample some of Santa Maria Valley’s best in the nestled grounds of Rancho Sisquoc Winery. A long-time family-owned estate farm, the winery’s friendly staff welcomed some regulars and took good care of us newbies as well.
Joined by the resident feline calico, we eased in with our flights beneath the slatted wood canopy, quite comfortably imbibing amongst the sweeping landscape. Before long we set out to explore some of the old town roads, but not without some of Sisquoc’s crisp Sylvan for the road. A little liquid breakfast …when in Rome.
Pit Stop at Historical Museum
While heading to our next destination with rumbles of hunger after a quick pit-stop by the city’s historical museum, Steve and I headed towards The Homestead in a neighboring town, Orcutt, to see what the buzz was all about
with their highly-touted menu and discovered proof that sandwich-building is indeed an art form involving thoughtful layering, combos, and quality craftsmanship. I know, it’s just a sandwich, but it really hit the spot. Relaxed on their bustling terrace, we devoured our eats along with samplings of regional brews from Homestead’s local offerings.
Irresistible Charms of Solvang
Its European vibe, its quaint old-world architecture, its plentiful confectionery shops with lines down the block for a danish; there’s no mistaking when you arrive in the historic Dutch-settled Village of Solvang.
It seems so unlikely that this unique, almost kitschy town with its iconic old-world windmills and wafts of pastry in the air sits in the middle of California’s west coast, nestled just east of Route 101 in gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley.
The very pedestrian-friendly atmosphere beckoned us to weave in and out of its alluring shops such as Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates or The Solvang or Olsen bakeries where lines build early in the morning. After taking a sightseeing spin in our rented Moke vehicle, which is like electric jeep-meets-golf-cart if you’re unfamiliar, we decided to get a more hands-on look.
Noshing on warm freshly baked pretzels, exploring the many charming shops on Mission Drive was irresistible with their
offerings of cultural arts & crafts and refined household items, and cuckoo clocks. So, naturally, I started my Christmas shopping early. It is indeed adorably kitschy here.
We checked in to the simple but comfortable modern Danish-themed Hamlet Inn, naturally. An overnight stay here gave us time to relax and check out the comprehensive Hans Christian Anderson Museum and sit in the adjacent park flipping through a keepsake book.
Solvang’s Local Culture
Elverhøj Museum, in the heart of Solvang, celebrates Danish culture and Danish-American history. The Old Mission Museum is within reach while wandering as well.
Of course, there are wineries aplenty, but the outdoor nightlife is a scene, too. After our drive to sample an outdoor flight at nearby Figueroa Mountain Taproom, Steve and I shuffled over to Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café for a delectable meal with pairings.
For movie and wine lovers, you might recognize the café made famous in the movie Sideways with the infamous “I hate Merlot” scene.
The Merlot is just fine. Back in town, we had a nightcap at lively and hip Coast Range just steps from the Inn where we relaxed in the gazebo, decompressed, stargazing in the California sky.