Aug 2021

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Swinging Bridge - Arroyo Grande

During the early months of the pandemic, I scrolled enviously through Instagram as the folks I followed took advantage of remote work by traipsing around California. I was too swamped with my day job and overseeing online learning (and plain chicken shit, to be honest) to plan an excursion before getting vaccinated, so I settled for living vicariously through others for the time being.

Ragged Point Cliffside Trail

It wasn’t until earlier this month that The Astronomer, June, and I were finally able to get away for a weeklong road trip through California’s Central Coast. Our itinerary took us to the wooded forests of Santa Barbara, along the rocky coast of Big Sur, among the picturesque inlets of Monterey, and more. It’d been over a year since we’d vacationed and it was as magnificent as we’d hoped.

For those itching to hit the road and to explore the Golden State too, here’s a glimpse at our itinerary.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The first stop on our road trip was at Cold Spring Tavern. Located in a picturesque setting, the former stagecoach stop from 1886 promised a really good tri-tip sandwich with a side of history. Make sure to check out the Road Gang House located behind the tavern. It was built in 1868 and occupied by Chinese laborers who paved the toll road through the San Marcos Pass.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The tri-tip sandwich served with onion rings ($19) was very good. The meat of the matter, grilled over red oak Santa Maria-style, was equal parts smoky and rare. The trio of sauces (barbecue, apple horseradish, salsa) served on the side were a nice touch and paired well with the sandwich.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

From Cold Spring Tavern, we hopped over to nearby Lake Cachuma. A hike on the Sweetwater trail was cut short when June touched a plant that irritated her finger, so we explored the area in our car while considering a future camping trip here.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Next, we checked into our hotel in Solvang and jumped on the bed. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the feeling of a hotel stay.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We ate more red meat for dinner because my friend Farley insisted that a meal at Hitching Post II was a must-do experience. June thoroughly enjoyed the unbeatably priced kid’s steak that came with fries on the side and ice cream for dessert ($11). The Astronomer and I ate a big ass bone-in rib eye ($75) and sipped a local pinot noir. Farley was right.

Bob's Well Bread - Buellton

We started the next day at Bob’s Well Bread in Ballard because visiting local bakeries is one of my favorite activities while traveling. Between the cinnamon sugar morning bun, a soft pretzel, and a coconut macaroon, we were amped up and ready to roast in the hot Solvang sun at the aptly named Sunny Fields Park.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We arrived at Bell’s in Los Alamos a little sweaty and ready for lunch. June ate a very fancy peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($8), while The Astronomer and I shared tinned fishes ($20), chicken liver mousse ($16), snails ($16), and a salad with pluots ($17). Bell’s was fresh out of its popular mille crêpe on our visit, so I will try to be an earlier bird next time.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

June requested to see sand dunes prior to our road trip and the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes fit the bill. After that, we crossed the Swinging Bridge in the super-quaint town of Arroyo Grande.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Next we stopped by the famously gaudy Madonna Inn to bask in its hot pink glory and to pick up two slices of cake from Copper Cafe for a pre-dinner snack ($10 each).

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

I chose the Toffee Crunch (layers of white sponge cake with whipped cream and covered in crushed house-made toffee), while June picked the Raspberry Delight (layers of white cake filled with raspberry mousse and whipped cream, and garnished with white chocolate shavings).

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We were greeted by Morro Bay’s cold and grey skies while dining at Tognazzini’s Dockside Too Fish Market for dinner.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The chilly air didn’t stop us from feasting on seafood by the water. I wanted nothing more than barbecued oysters ($2.50 each) and clam chowder ($5). June ate salmon cakes ($16), while The Astronomer had three seafood tacos ($4.50 each). We shared an order of the fried calamari ($10).

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We spent the night in Cambria and picked up some burritos from Boni’s Tacos for the road the next day.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Before making our way to points north, we stopped by the beach in Cambria to play among the driftwood.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The elephant seals of San Simeon weren’t out in full force this time of year, but the ones we observed were totally fascinating — 6,000 pounds of flesh!

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We spent the entire day driving north on Highway 1 and stopping at various points of interest. Our first stop at Ragged Point was a highlight, especially the super-steep cliffside trail that we carefully hiked halfway down. The McWay Falls was a much easier hike but the reward wasn’t nearly as great as Ragged Point’s.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Partington Cove struck the perfect balance between rigor and reward.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The view at Partington Cove was pure heart eyes.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We spent the next few days stationed in Monterey and visiting the surrounding environs. Brunch was eaten at Stationæry in Carmel by the Sea. The restaurant’s signature potato pancake was sold out by the time we brunched, so The Astronomer and I shared the kale Caesar ($21), chilaquiles ($19), and a French cast iron pancake ($17). June gobbled up her biscuit with jam ($5) and bacon ($5.50).

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

An obligatory trip to the too-crowded Monterey Bay Aquarium was endured.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Much more enjoyable were the tide pools and various short hikes around Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. I’d skip the aquarium next time and spend more time exploring the natural reserve.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

A few culinary highlights in the Monterey area included the pastries at Alta Bakery. We arrived too late in the A.M. to snag a doughnut, but the ginger scone I tried was excellent. June enjoyed a chia pudding, while the raspberry crumb cake called The Astronomer’s name.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The Paraguayan empanadas filled with traditional ingredients like beef and boiled eggs, as well as more unexpected fillings like pulled pork, from Cafe Guaraní in Monterey made for an easy and very tasty lunch one afternoon. The chimichurri was gold.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

Dinner at Monterey’s Fish House was a very good experience even though we had to wait 45 minutes for a table. Pro tip: Arrive as soon as the restaurant opens to avoid a wait as reservations aren’t available.

The food came out fast and well-prepared. On our table was an order of wood grilled oysters ($15.95), barbecued baby octopus ($12.95), clam pasta ($20.95) with house-made noodles, and a cioppino ($25.95).

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

From the coastal terrain of Monterey, we headed inland to Pinnacles National Park where the barometer was nearing 100 degrees. We only hiked the Balconies Cliffs Cave trail given the harsh heat and June’s capacity for being uncomfortable. Experiencing California’s varied climates and terrains, sometimes in a single day, was a high point of the trip.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The last leg of our vacation was spent in Paso Robles swimming in the hotel pool and dining at a totally unremarkable Thai restaurant. The local wines were lovely though.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

The absolute best food that we ate all week was at Punjabi Dhaba, a truck stop in Bakersfield that Tejal Rao wrote about in the New York Times.

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

We ordered more than enough food for two but regretted not ordering even more to bring home. Our spread included the samosa chat ($8), shahi matar paneer ($11), tawa roti ($1), rice ($4)…

California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

…a magnificent paratha served with yogurt ($6), raw onions, and pickles, a Masala lassi ($3), and a hot chai ($2) for the road. I can’t wait to return to Bakersfield, and I can’t wait to hit the road again.

All this travel talk has me missing pre-pandemic adventures. Here are some of my favorite family vacations from the Before Times:

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11 thoughts on “California Dreaming: Road Tripping Through the Central Coast

  1. So sad that the restaurants were out of so many things you were specifically seeking. Still, you seemed to have done well regardless, though I would have camped out until the next day for one of those potato pancakes. Thanks for the delicious journey.

  2. Hitching Post II is one of my three favorite restaurants in the state. I’m not saying the food is the best, but god I love being there. BTW my parents are celebrating their 50th anniversary in November and going to Carmel, where they honeymooned in 1971.

  3. Missed your posts very much and had the same thought as Paul… sorry you missed some of those dishes. Thanks for the wonderful pictures and stories. That $11 steak sounds like a steal!

  4. Glad you were able to get out again! I hadn’t spent much time on the central coast until last year but highway 1 was breathtaking. While it’s annoying that there’s a fee, the 17-mile drive in Carmel was pretty cool too.

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