Travelogue: Central Coast, California (December 2009)


After a wonderful Christmas holiday with my parents (and extended family) in Long Beach—and having rented a Prius!—we drove through Los Angeles (our former home) and onto Hwy 101 to head toward the central coast. After Santa Barbara, we followed Hwy 154 through the Los Padres Forest, past Lake Cachuma, into the Santa Ynez valley. The views as one drives through the mountains are lovely: Oak trees, golden grasses, rolling hills, and vineyards just adjacent, and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I’m never disappointed by this approach into the valley.


Passing by the village of Los Olivos, we came to Foxen Canyon Road and made our way toward the site of our wedding: Firestone Vineyard. I may be biased, but I just think it’s the most lovely setting.

(And now, a few gratuitous wedding shots to corroborate that.)


We’re still wine members, so our tasting was free; we left with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Carbernet Franc Rose, and a bottle of dessert wine—the late harvest Riesling.

 Though there are tons of possible diversions we could have enjoyed in the area, we had a lot of ground to cover; so after taking a quick drive around the site to better see “our” barn and Oak tree once more, we continued up 101 toward San Luis Obispo, where we joined Hwy 1. Just around the time we passed the kitchy Madonna Inn, we started to see those volcanic plugs known as “the seven sisters” (a series of hills which are really plugs from extinct volcanoes) and followed them along Hwy 1 to perhaps the most well-known of them all: Morro Bay Rock.

I remember well the many trips my parents took me on to this part of California—it always seemed so incredibly far away. I couldn’t believe we were already here. (In fact, we had just stopped at In-N-Out—a west coast treat—but we may have considered holding out for fish tacos had we realized just how far we were.)

We pulled up to Morro Bay’s wharf—stopping for salt water taffy, spying a sea lion swimming amongst the docks—and then drove up to the rock to check out the surfers in the distance. We were both taken aback by the sharp juxtaposition of the woodsy aromas of the foothills (that we had just left) and the slightly fishy sea air.


Just beyond the town of Morro Bay, one arrives at the small town of Cayucos. Before we left my parents’ house, my dad had shown Aron where to look for a little spot called The Brown Butter Cookie Company, where he claimed they served the best little, freshly-made cookies. We walked in, greeted by the smell of browned butter and by the friendly co-founder, Traci. She gave us samples of three cookies: their signature Brown Butter Sea Salt, a second variety of the signature but made with cocoa, and a best-eaten-immediately honey cookie.


Knowing that we would soon be in the company of Bruhn family Christmas cookies and California-made See’s Candies, we only bought a small bag of six (3 cocoa, 3 signature), but it was hard. They were, indeed, perhaps the best rendition of a shortbread-like cookie I’ve ever tasted. We’re guessing there are some ground nuts along with that browned butter, and the sea salt added just the perfect bit of savory to the rich, sweet cookie. I wasn’t expecting to like the cocoa as much as the plain (and it probably was my second choice), but I was surprised by just how wonderful it was, too. They use Scharffen Berger cocoa powder, so the flavor is still more buttery than sweet. These were truly amazing cookies. And the town of Cayucos is so small and charming and set right off the beach (another place to which I’d like to return.)

From Morro Bay and Cayucos, it’s just a short drive up the coast to Cambria—where Aron brought me to the J. Patrick House for the weekend after we got engaged. We indulged in some more lovely nostalgia: Aron (re)told the story of how everything was planned and we slowed down to look at some of the places we had so enjoyed that weekend (like the restaurant, the Black Cat). Inland from Cambria sits Paso Robles—another great town and wine region to which I would recommend a visit. We laughed at the memory of our Inn proprietor raving about all of the “Monster Zins” one can find around here.
We had actually returned to this area once before, when we were planning our wedding, to consider this region as a setting for the ceremony. In fact, as we were leaving Cayucos, we realized that we were passing one of the locations we had considered—an old barn owned by a man whose daughter suggested he clean it up and rent out the property for special occasions. In addition to the barn, he also offered that we could get married up on his hill where his cows were grazing. That day, we drove up the hill to find an unobstructed, panoramic view of the Pacific—just us and a few dozen cows (and cow patties). These must be the cows they’re referring to in those “happy cows come from California” ads, we thought at the time. Here are some photos from our visit in January, 2006:
North of Cambria is the turn off for Hearst Castle, in San Simeon. It’s always fun to see who can spot the opulent, former home of William Randolph Hearst first. It’s so enormous that, unless it’s foggy, it’s impossible to miss. I always think of the time my parents and I took the bus up the mountain and passed a zebra running–a remnant of the personal zoo that Hearst created on the 250,000-acre property. I think I’ve scanned those hills for some such sight every time since. It’s really such an odd and fascinating part of the landscape. I look forward to going on a tour with Aron some day.
Perhaps even more fascinating, however, are the elephant seals that beach themselves on the Piedras Blancas rookery—a small plot in San Simeon—every winter after spending 8-10 months out at sea. The large males, who can weigh nearly 8,000 pounds and reach 21 feet at full size (!), arrive in December, followed by pregnant females. We saw several live births during our visit! It was incredible!
Here’s a brief description of what follows, from Friends of the Elephant Seal:

“With the births come the gulls eager for the after birth. The pups are black, noisy and active with a strong interest in the milk from their mother that will take them from approximately 70 pounds at birth to over 300 pounds in four weeks. (The males continue to battle because with dominance comes breeding rights to the females in the dominated area. Breeding takes place near the end of the nursing period and then the mothers, newly pregnant, leave for the open ocean and the weaned pups are on their own.”

We stayed longer than intended—we had seen the elephant seals before, but only a few males—we had never seen anything like this!
The next part of Hwy 1—Cabrillo Highway—is one of the most beautiful stretches. With every turn comes a slightly different vista: craggly cliffs, windswept coast, dramatic waves, and uniquely shaped Cyprus trees that are backed in the distance by redwood groves.
I can’t remember the last time I had seen the coastline of Big Sur, and it was some of the most beautiful, most dramatic coastline I’ve ever seen; our collective imagination was stirred by the few cabins that were perched above the road, looking out onto the Pacific. Apparently, fewer people live here today than did hundreds of years ago, and the waters off-shore are the protected habitat of sea otters, and of gray whales that pass by during their winter migration.


Aron took a hiking trip with our friend, Dave, back when we were living in LA—traveling through Big Sur and visiting the interior hot springs. It sounded amazing.
Our hope was to make it to Carmel-by-the-Sea before dark and have the option of following Hwy17 out along the coast, but it was getting late and the sun was setting by the time we reached Carmel Bay. We still had a long way to go to reach Davis.
That said, Carmel is such a beautiful place and the for-fee drive along 17 is well worth a visit if you’re nearby.
At Monterey, we cut back inland and found our way back onto 101—driving through the garlic capitol of Gilroy, pausing in San Jose for fish tacos at the Calfornia chain—Rubio’s—and cruising over the bay near Vallejo, before arriving in Aron’s hometown (and the setting of our alma mater), Davis. Our nephew, Patrick, visiting from Germany, was at the window to welcome us when we arrived, and we spent the next day catching up on all the goings on of family and celebrating a belated Christmas before returning home to New York.

With only a day, we could only sample a bit of California’s coastline. And most visitors will want to devote a lot of time to Monterey and San Francisco, not to mention that nearly half of California’s coast sits north yet of where we ended our trip. The drive was just enough to remind us of how many travels we have yet to devote to this beautiful state, despite spending our first 28 years living in it.

P.S. We’ve since returned to California! Read more about visiting Monterey, Napa, and San Francisco (or the rest of California).

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