The Best of Central California

The ubiquitous California Valley Oak

We get away to Central California as often as we can — it’s a couples’ paradise, with driving routes that hug both the Pacific Ocean and gently sloping hills dotted with gnarled trees.

Within this region of the state you’ll find pristine beaches, historic towns and buildings, excellent wineries, a great meal here and there, sweeping views, little inns, posh resorts, and the new millenium phenomenon known as “upscale camping.”

With all of its attractions between 2 and 5 hours north of Los Angeles, it’s easy to take regular two- or three-day weekends and always feel like you had a true vacation.

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Our favorite destinations here are, from south to north:

NOTE:  Some travel guides put Carmel, Monterey and Santa Cruz on their Central California maps, but to me, those are Northern California destinations. Big Sur just makes it to “central” status by the skin of its rocky teeth.

From Los Angeles, you’ll begin by taking the 101 North, otherwise known as the Ventura Highway.

There’s always some traffic on the 101 between LA and Santa Barbara. The worst of it is always the steep dip into/climb out of the valley at Camarillo (site of the area’s best outlet shopping), and then again in/out of the bottleneck of Santa Barbara. Consider it part of the journey.

If you’d like to skip at least the Camarillo traffic, at Malibu you can detour over the Santa Monica Mountains and briefly trade the illusion of speed for the incredible ocean beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway (also called PCH or Highway 1). However, this detour can add as much as one hour to your journey.

Our favorite cut-overs from the 101 to PCH are the canyons at Las Virgenes Rd. or Kanan Dume; both offer winding roads that cut wide swaths through huge, craggy mountains before gently depositing you alongside the turquoise surf of the Pacific Ocean. If you’d like suggested adventures along either of these routes, please see the posts for Malibu Canyon or Latigo Canyon.

Just before the town of Ventura, PCH empties out to the 101. Two hours later, just after San Luis Obispo and just before Morro Bay, the 101 once again splits off to PCH/Highway 1. This is the route to take for the listed Central Coast destinations from Morro Bay onward.

Night driving on the 101 between Los Olivos and San Luis Obispo, and then again up in Big Sur, can be hairy; the roads are bumpy, poorly lit and in the case of Big Sur, perched on cliffs high above the Pacific. If driving in the dark here can be avoided, all the better.

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