|I've lived near the beach for more than 30 years, but still get excited about the California coastline. There are long, meandering stretches of highway along the ocean that make a car trip an exciting adventure. With that in mind, we took off from our home in San Diego and headed north to the Central Coast and San Luis Obispo County. The area features one hundred miles of stunning coastline, distinctive scenery, outdoor recreational opportunities and is home to a wide variety of land and marine wildlife. The Audubon Society consistently ranks the area as one of the top ten birding sites in the U.S. and the Central Coast is also a sanctuary for migrating monarch butterflies.
We stayed at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. It is tucked away on a wooded hillside of the Avila Valley. In 1886, two men started drilling for oil here. Instead of striking oil, they discovered a sulphur based mineral spring. In the early 1900s, passengers traveling on the Pacific Coast Railway from Los Angeles to San Francisco often stopped at the resort, then called San Luis Hot Sulphur Springs. At that time, the train ride and a two day stay cost $19.00. Guests came to receive treatments to "cure" their arthritis, aches and pains, and other afflictions. In the mid-1930s, the hotel was renamed Sycamore Mineral Springs. Today the full service resort offers a quiet retreat that includes a spa, restaurant with patio seating and bar, hiking trails, redwood mineral hot tubs and a Labyrinth Meditation Garden. Each of the guest rooms has its own balcony spa tub. The Gardens of Avila Restaurant, a locals' favorite, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a comfortable and appealing setting. The food is described as contemporary American wine country cuisine; a long moniker but I can attest that the product is fresh, innovative and delicious. The resort pays homage to local vintners; during the week, one can bring in wine from any of San Luis Obispo County's vineyards and the corkage fee is waived.
Our second morning was spent at the weekly Farmers Market in San Luis
Obispo, followed by lunch at the Big Sky Café. The restaurant is a
casual, high energy place featuring unique fare and a drink menu with a
strong slant toward local wines and beers. I had a very unusual Bloody
Mary made with jalapeno sake. We strolled and shopped in the charming
downtown area. Don't miss the San Luis Obispo Art Center which features
arts and crafts by local artists; admission is free. In the late
afternoon, we returned to the resort for a meditative walk through the
labyrinth, followed by a soak in the redwood tubs and then spa
treatments. (Note: a labyrinth is not the same as a maze. A labyrinth
has single paths that lead to the center and you can't get lost. In a
maze, many paths lead to dead ends. The oldest labyrinth in the U.S. is
3,500 years old. It is in Galesta, NM.) That evening, after a short
drive, we had dinner at the Sea Venture Restaurant in Pismo Beach. It
features exceptional coastal California cuisine, ocean views and live
jazz. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
The next day we drove to Templeton, CA and the Wild Horse Winery &
Vineyards. San Luis Obispo County has over 80 prize winning and premium
wineries. There are two distinct wine regions in the area. The San Luis
Obispo-Arroyo Grande Region is famous for its pinot noirs and
chardonnays. The Paso Robles-Templeton Region produces zinfandels,
cabernets and merlots. Over the past 20 years, Wild Horse has become
one of the Central Coast's leading producers of premium varietal wines.
The winery was named for the wild mustangs which roamed to the east of
the estate and are descendants of the Spanish horses introduced to
California. We had been invited to "A Central Coast Celebration of
Heirlooms" hosted by the Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards. The weekend
was dedicated to preserving history, culture and taste through what is
grown, produced, eaten and drunk in the region. There were tastings,
tours, meals and discussions about food, drink and local environmental
issues. My favorite was the workshop on creme fraiche by Kathleen
deChadenedes of Kendall Farms. It was followed by lunch prepared by
Jill Ogorsolka of Trumpet Vine Catering of Paso Robles, with recipes
adapted from the Crème Fraiche Cookbook by Sadie Kendall. It was a
delightful and educational day.
We motored north to Monterey County for our next few days of vacation.
Monterey County has some of California's most beautiful scenery and is
home to world renowned attractions and an amazing range of activities.
The dramatic Big Sur coastline, charming Carmel, classic Pebble Beach,
historic Monterey and the Salinas Valley are all part of this diverse
region. Our stay was at the fabulous Post Ranch Inn. The resort is
perched 1200 ft above the Pacific Ocean, nestled beside the Ventana
mountain range. It was named Hotel of the Year for 2004 by Small
Luxury Hotels of the World In 2003, the Conde Nast Readers Choice
Awards ranked the Post Ranch Inn the best hotel in North America and it
tied for the number one hotel in the world. It deserves its reputation;
outstanding accommodations, great spa, wonderful hiking, first-rate
service and gourmet food. We stayed in a "Tree House," hiked the
grounds with the family patriarch, Bill Post, star gazed with an
astronomer, ate breakfast and dinner at the resort at Sierra Mar,
relaxed by the pool and, of course, experienced their outstanding spa.
Complimentary guest activities include daily yoga, guided nature walks,
stargazing, a sculpture tour, herb garden talks, Tai Chi and Qigong.
The hotel provides a map, "Exploring Big Sur," that is helpful for
those who want to further explore the area. There are no TVs, no
phones, just a strong connection to the land and the sea. It is a very
special place. Describing the morning meal at the Sierra Mar restaurant
as a "continental breakfast" is a huge understatement. Every morning
guests enjoy a bountiful meal including freshly squeezed fruit juices,
seasonal berries, papaya, mangos, homemade breads, donuts, scones,
jams, granola, coffee cakes, muffins, hot items such as fritattas and
freshly ground coffee, all served in a glorious setting overlooking the
Pacific. But watch out for the Stellar's Jays. They are clever birds
and, if you're sitting outside, will swipe your goodies in an instant.
The dinner menu changes nightly at Sierra Mar; they offer a memorable
four course prix fixe menu but one can chose to order ala carte. The
wine list features 4,000 selections. True to the experience, they grow
their own herbs and buy organic produce from local farmers. This is,
rightfully, one of the great dining experiences on any coast.
The Ventana Inn & Spa is located across historic Highway 1 from the
Post Ranch Inn. We wandered over for a leisurely meal at their
signature restaurant, Cielo. Cielo, which means "heaven," features
coastal Californian Mediterranean style cooking. The restaurant is a
large rustic cedar room with giant windows framing the coast and
forests of Big Sur. We had lunch on the delightful outdoor patio and
enjoyed the views of the Pacific. It's a great setting, the food is
superb, the entrees unique and the extensive wine list (26 pages)
includes local wines along with a huge selection of French and Italian
vintages. In 2003, the Wine Spectator awarded Cielo their "Award of
Excellence." Save room; the exceptional desserts, including ice cream,
are all made on the premises.
The next afternoon we were off to the town of Monterey. We stopped at
the Visitor's Bureau and picked up a free map and walking tour of
Monterey and the California State Parks brochure, featuring free guided
tours of historic buildings in Monterey. It is worth planning your trip
to be in town on a Tuesday. At 4 PM every Tuesday, rain or shine, the
city closes down several square blocks for a fabulous street fair.
Produce, flowers, baked goods, ethnic foods, arts and crafts, jewelry
and collectibles are displayed by vendors and growers. There are
wonderful shops as well, so bring a backpack for your purchases. Don't
miss the Koffman Gallery in the Alvarado Mall. It is a studio whose
art the owner describes as "impressionotech." It's fun; be prepared to
buy something quirky.
That evening we had dinner at the world famous Lodge at Pebble Beach.
Club XIX is an award winning restaurant which offers sophisticated
contemporary fine dining. Both the cozy bricked patio and the
restaurant offer stunning views of the 18th green of the Pebble Beach
golf course and Carmel Bay. Club XIX has an extensive wine list that
features rare and vintage wines, cognacs and ports (the cognac and
cigar inventory alone is worth $100,000). This is upscale dining at its
best and "dressing" for dinner is suggested along with reservations.
Attentive service, quality selections, an intimate setting and the
novel approach to French cuisine puts it on everyone's "A list."
From Big Sur we drove inland to Salinas to visit the Steinbeck Museum
and explore the new Valley of the World wing. John Steinbeck, winner of
the Nobel Prize for Literature, drew his inspiration from this region.
The National Steinbeck Center celebrates his life and the diversity and
culture of the Salinas Valley. There are rotating art and cultural
exhibits, artifacts and memorabilia, research archives, a gift shop and
the One Main Street Café which is a perfect place to take a lunch break
while visiting the museum.
For the last leg of our journey we made a pilgrimage to the Jelly Belly
Factory in Fairfield, CA. They make more than 100 varieties of candy
including chocolates, gummies, sour candies, seasonal confections and,
of course, the world's number one gourmet jelly bean. The sprawling
complex is located off the freeway at One Jelly Belly Lane. The 35,000
square foot visitor center includes a retail store, café, demonstration
candy kitchen and birthday party rooms. The free 40 minute guided tour
takes you around elevated walkways inside the 215,000 square foot
manufacturing facility. Over 475,000 people take the tour each year to
watch where 14 billion jelly beans are produced. After the tour, guests
are given samples. There are 50 official flavors but only the 40 best
selling flavors are carried throughout the entire year. Consumers' most
popular choices are buttered popcorn, very cherry, licorice, juicy pear
and watermelon. Less than 1% of the jelly beans are rejected due to
form, color or size discrepancies. They are bagged separately and sold
at a discount as "belly flops." My personal favorite is their newest
product, JBz; twenty different Jelly Belly flavors with a milk
All vacations end and it was time to travel home. Driving back, just
before the sun set, we stopped to see if the famous green flash would
appear. It didn't happen that early evening but we continued our
journey home knowing that there would be other opportunities along the
San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau: 1-800-634-1414
Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort: 1-800-234-5831 and
San Luis Obispo Art Center: 1-805-543-8562 and www.sloartcenter.com.
Wild Horse Winery: 1-805-434-2541 and www.wildhorsewinery.com
Post Ranch Inn:1-800-527-2200 and www.postranchinn.com.
Ventana Inn and Spa: 1-800-628-6500 and www.ventanainn.com.
Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau: 1-888-221-1010 and
Pebble Beach: 1-800-654-9300 and www.pebblebeach.com.
Koffman Gallery: 1-877-ART-5300 and www.artwithasmile.com.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch: 1-831-375-4658 and www.gowhales.com.
National Steinbeck: 1-831-775-4721and www.steinbeck.org.
Jelly Belly Candy Company: 1-800-522-3267 and www.jellybelly.com
Many thanks to the various web sites mentioned in the article for