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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Grateful Traveler: Driving the California Coast

CRL's travel columnist talks about the right way to experience the Golden State.

So many travelers each year fly from the east coast to San Francisco or San Diego or L.A. for business and/or pleasure. They fly in, enjoy themselves and fly home, but I am here to point out how very shortsighted that is!

Would you intentionally miss Florence when traveling to Italy or Lyon when traveling to France? If you want to see the most beautiful areas representing the “real” and unpretentious towns and enjoy California culture…you would not miss the central coast either. That is why you need to travel mid-state in California to really experience everything that California is: beautiful, welcoming to tourists, offering great food, and of course, great wine!

Mid-way between L.A. and San Francisco is the Central Coast area and driving there is undoubtedly the most fantastic drive of a lifetime.

On a recent trip over the long Labor Day weekend, my husband and I did just that. We landed in San Francisco and within an hour, we were driving to Monterey with a short stop in Santa Cruz.  We arrived in funky Santa Cruz just in time for “Mimosa Friday” at a local neighborhood café and enjoyed fabulous, super fresh fish tacos and of course Mimosas. Just across the street was a retailer that displayed their flannel shirt inventory on their trees.  When I say “funky” in describing a city or town…I mean “funky”.

Carmel by the Sea was the next stop.  Absolutely stunning and very apparently affluent; the store fronts, the beach area, the restaurants, wine tasting rooms and just about everything else is just perfect. We stopped at a very little cottage-like building called the Tuck Box Restaurant, once highlighted on Rachel Rays’ “$40 Dollar a Day” show. It serves up the most fantastic scones that I have ever had, served with whipped cream (not traditional clotted cream).  According to current owner Jeff  Le Towt , the recipe came from long ago from a woman named Elsie Grandfield. “Elsie’s delicious recipes have had the greatest and most lasting impact on The Tuck Box.”  Jeff declined to share the recipe with me, but you can buy the mix online at www.tuckbox.com

We also spent some time in Carmel with a wonderful photographer that just finished his latest book on the cottages of Carmel aptly named Carmel’s Fairy Tale Cottages.  Long known for the quaint, yet gorgeous cottages, Mike Barton captures what you must tour to believe – stunning cottage living.  Maps are provided for touring if you are lucky enough to get to Carmel, but if you can’t, the book will provide you with endless armchair joy. You can read about Barton’s work and pick up a book or two at www.mikebartonphoto.com/product/photo-books

Before you leave Carmel, you may want to drop into the Cypress Inn, owned by Doris Day. It is a wonderful Inn, but you will be struck by the type of guests drawn to this swanky inn and  restaurant….people with dogs in tow.  Doris Day loves her dogs and opens her doors to our furry friends.  I don’t think I saw a single person without a dog and they came in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Some were even in diapers, which I am certain we should have been grateful for. It is great fun to see if you are not fearful of dogs.

Exploring Pebble Beach is a must even for non-golfers; it’s magnificent from the moment you drive through the gates and up to the golf course. It took about two hours to drive, stop, and ooh and ahhh at the stunning natural landscape.  We even did some early shopping for our golfing friends within the two hours we gave ourselves for exploration.

After a good night sleep, we tackled the drive of all drives – Big Sur.  We have traveled the Amalfi Coast in Italy several times and this drive is every bit as hair raising on the curves and stunning in the views.  Dramatic, inspiring and naturally very rugged, we absolutely fell in love with all that we saw. Traveling at 25-50 miles an hour, we drove with little of our normal car chattering. It is hard to chatter when your mouth is hanging open. The state of California certainly picked fantastic stops for vista gazing and if you love to capture your trips in photography, you will never have better subject matter.

I came away feeling that Big Sur should not be written about and only experienced because words cannot describe the beauty.  I will only attempt it by saying…If God took seven days to make the world, he must have used one of those days carefully placing the rocks in the Pacific and along this coast line.

After Big Sur, we made a short stop at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I honestly found the tour to be rushed and very superficial. Worth seeing? Yes, without a doubt, but if you are like me (a bit nerdy) and want to ask the whys and listen to the always interesting answers, you may be disappointed.

Perhaps it was divine intervention that the Hearst Castle tour was over fast, because what came next will forever stay with us as a top destination favorite: Paso Robles.

Admitted wine lovers, we have long enjoyed the wines of the Central Coast of California, but little did we know that the surrounding communities are worth the trip alone.  Paso is something out of the 1950s in spirit, but very much in the present offering wonderful products, services and hospitality.

We arrived at the place where we would be staying – The Paso Robles Inn, which sits supremely across from the town park.  A town park that is constantly in use by the young and old of beautiful Paso, it served as one of the nicest and most patriotic moments that we had ever witnessed in traveling through the US.  It was early on Labor Day morning, we woke to take a walk long before most were awake to find the area Boy Scouts in full uniform, quietly lining the streets with large American flags. When the villagers woke, they would see the flags waving in the gentle breezes one after another and there must have been hundreds.  It was stunning and I am so happy we witnessed this quiet act of love of town and country.

The Paso Robles Inn was lovely.  Warm and friendly people greet you when you check in and the warmth never chills during your stay.  This is an Inn that believes in sharing what they have and making your vacation stay memorable and what they have begins with sitting on top of hot mineral water.
Without getting into too much information regarding geothermal wells and veins and mineral breakdowns, it is enough to know that you have 100 degrees of bubbling healthy waters to soak your tired body in.  The water is tapped and directed into tubs that sit very privately on decks throughout the Inn.  Simply slide open the doors and get into your own mineral water tub and soak away.  I found it amusing that upon checking in, it was explained that the sulfur waters do have a distinctive odor that can be calmed by keeping sliding doors closed and opening drapes to private decks and even using the deodorizing packs placed next to each tub….those of us in the Capital Region certainly know about mineral sulfur smells from Saratoga’s famous waters, but many could be taken back by the distinctive scent. They need only to soak for a few minutes to come to love the effects of the “mildly stinky water”.

One of the many great features of the Inn is their own commitment to fresh foods and sustainability; the owners and chefs challenged each other to excellence by creating a series of chef’s gardens throughout the property.  Strolling the grounds is a feast for the eyes as the vegetables and herbs grow within feet of the guest rooms and restaurant kitchen. With the popularity of combining vegetables and herbs to landscaping traditionally occupied by flowers, this truly has a modern and hip look as well as being yummy.

Having a home-base in Paso in the lovely Paso Robles Inn, we embarked each day on wine and food road trips.  Paso has a quaint, yet sophisticated landscape that is dotted with vineyards for tastings. While we drove ourselves, you could opt to do more wineries in a day with a wine driver or wine trolley.  Many are available and easy to find, but we opted not to do this because we also wanted to explore the gourmet side of the region, as well as the wine.

In between wine tasting, we dropped into Pasolivo Oil Company and the Vivant Fine Cheese Shop. We tasted and picked up several different types of oils from Pasoliovo, as well as fantastic cheeses from Vivant Fine Cheese. You can order directly from Pasolivo at www.pasolivo.com, as well as www.vivantfinecheese.com, if you wish to enjoy the stunning California products and have them delivered to your home.

The knowledgeable staff at each winery took us through their wines and explained what made them each special. At Jada, we loved their Jack of Hearts, Chateaus Julien had a knockout Gewurtzraminer and at The Thatcher winery we fell in love with their late harvest Syrah (a Port that they cannot call a Port).

Tasting in the Paso Robles Wine Country is very different from tasting in Napa or Sonoma.  This is low key, reasonable and unpretentious.  DAOU Vineyards, for example, is perched majestically on the hill area and has views unlike anything I have ever seen. The staff invited us to not only try the wines, but to use their property to have lunch. A great bottle of DAOU Chardonnay along with the Vivant cheeses made for a spectacular lunch in a spectacular setting.

Each night after our days of exploration, we strolled around Paso Robles Park and found wonderful restaurants.  Each dinner was prepared with the freshest local ingredients and served with the customary warmth that we had grown accustomed to in our new favorite California town. We left Paso with a heavy heart to continue onto San Diego.

I am a grateful traveler!

Vikki Moran
Vikki Moran
Vikki Moran is a travel writer and the founder of the Grateful Traveler.

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