So, if *I* was going to fly to San Jose and go on a road trip down the central California coast to LA, then I would be sure to hit the following places...
First, I would try to time my trip to arrive the weekend of the Gilroy Garlic Festival. This year, it's July 24-26, so you might have missed the boat on that. If you DO make it to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, be forewarned that garlic will be oozing from your pours for the next several days. (But it's sooooo good!)
Next, I would wave a magic wand and take a time machine to go back to my favorite restaurant, La Scuola in Castroville, but it looks like they went out of business at least a year ago. :-( (Aside: Sorry Dave and Naomi - I went and got your hopes up telling you that you MUST try this place, and it's not there anymore. [sniff, sniff - dabs at corner of eye])
Okay, so in all seriousness, here's my recommended itinerary:
In Monterey, I would go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It is hands-down the best aquarium on the face of the planet. 'Nuf said?
Next, as long as I was down there, I would go for a walk down Cannery Row. This is where the old fishing canneries used to be, but the old cannery buildings have been revamped with shops and restaurants.
At the southern end of Cannery Row, I'd go for a walk out the Coast Guard pier and see the sea lions. There are dozens upon dozens of sea lions all over the breakwater at the end of the Coast Guard pier, and you can hear them barking from across the bay.
Then I would head over to LaLLapAlOoZa (yelp reviews / restaurant web page) for dinner. This. Place. Is. Awesome. Fantastically delicious food and amazing martinis. My favorite was the 3-mile Island (it was a melon-flavored glowing green concoction like nuclear waste). Even if you aren't a martini fan, you will still enjoy the fun olive-themed artwork all over the walls and the food is worth it. (It's a little on the pricey side, but it's good).
Some people like going in to see Carmel and Pebble Beach. If you haven't been there before and if you're a golf fan, then it might be worth a stop. If you're limited to a 3-day road trip, then I would bypass Carmel and Pebble Beach in favor of some other spots along the coast.
If you have time, I would recommend doing the 17-Mile Drive scenic tour of the peninsula and see The Lone Cypress tree. This scenic drive actually takes you by Pebble Beach if you do want to see it.
I would probably call it a night and stay somewhere for the night around Monterey.
Continuing southbound on Highway 1...
I'd stop and go for a hike in Point Lobos State Reserve. This is by far my favorite park in the area. We loved to go scuba diving and hiking there. We liked it so much we paid for the annual pass and certainly got our money's worth. Definitely stop by, check out the natural beauty and keep an eye peeled for sea otters, harbor seals, great blue herons, and lots of other wildlife.
Point Lobos State ReserveAs you continue south on Highway 1, enjoy the coastal scenery driving through Big Sur and stop for lunch at Nepenthe. You can't miss it. As you head south on Rt. 1, it's a restaurant on the right side of the road like 500 feet up this sheer rock cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The view is spectacular. It's a really nice place. The food is good. Now, all that being said - be forewarned: you are going to pay a little extra for the view from the restaurant. It's not outrageously expensive (we're just talking like deli sandwiches and lunch fare, not fancy 5 course dinners), but you're going to feel a little bit like "that's all I get for that much money?" Like I said, you're paying for the view. Location, location, location. (I think if you go in EXPECTING that, then you will be in awe of the view and just enjoy it.)
This cove was the site of one of the most
awesome scuba dives I've ever been on.
This cove was the site of one of the most
awesome scuba dives I've ever been on.
Continuing your drive south along Rt. 1, be prepared for a 2-3 hour drive at 20-30 mph on winding roads. The scenery is gorgeous. We once saw a pod of something like 50 dolphins swimming down the coast with us.
Just before you get to Hearst Castle, you'll come to a spot where you can pull off the road and see the Elephant Seals. That's kinda neat to see if you aren't in a hurry. There are volunteers who man the site to watch out for and protect the elephant seals and have binoculars for you to check them out.
Hearst Castle is a must. Plan your trip around a visit to Hearst Castle. They offer five different tours here because it would be impossible to see all of the property (the castle and the three guest houses) in one tour. Make reservations in advance - they sell out!
By far the BEST of the five tours is Tour 5, the Evening / Sunset Tour. During this tour, the docents come out in 1920's attire and lounge around the property doing leisure activities as if they were staying there back in the castle's heyday. You feel like you stepped out of a time machine. It really brings the place to life. Unfortunately, Tour 5 isn't offered year round - I think it's only in the spring and fall. If you aren't timing it right for that (I mean, I did already tell you to plan your trip around the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July right, so you can't have your Hearst tour and garlic too.) So if you can't get Tour 5, then I recommend doing Tour 1. They recommend on the website that Tour 1 is a good introductory tour for first time visitors.
After leaving Hearst Castle, continue south on into SLO (San Luis Obispo) and stay the night at the Garden Street Inn. The Garden Street Inn is a very nice bed & breakfast with thirteen rooms each decorated in a different theme. We stayed in the Amadeus Room. When we stayed at the Garden Street Inn, they held a wine-and-cheese reception for us the evening of our arrival, and the following morning the owners cooked us a fabulous homemade breakfast. We definitely got our money's worth.
One of the neat things about Garden Street Inn, there was a journal in each room for the guests to write their thoughts and memories of their stay. We flipped through the pages of the journal in the Amadeus room and found several entries raving about a local restaurant, so we decided to check it out.
I tell you what.
It was SO good...
("How good was it?")
It was SO good that the name of the restaurant has been forever imprinted on my mind.
Needless to say, I recommend walking across town to Buona Tavola (yelp reviews / restaurant website) for dinner. The service and food were both spectacular and far above standards for most other restaurants in the state of California.
If you happened to be there on a Thursday night, then you will have the treat of walking through the local farmer's market on the streets of SLO in between the Garden Street Inn and Buona Tavola.
Another popular place to visit near SLO is the Madonna Inn. The Madonna Inn also boasts the claim of having every room decorated in a different theme, but it's in a more ostentatious, gaudy kind of way. There's a novelty to it though, and if you haven't been there before then you might consider staying at the Madonna Inn instead. (They have like 150 rooms at the Madonna Inn versus the 13 rooms at Garden Street Inn.)
Even if you don't actually stay at the Madonna Inn, stop by and use the men's room in the lobby. When you first walk in, you'll look around and say to yourself, "Self... where am I supposed to go pee? ...Wait a minute... am I... are we... supposed to go... IN THERE?" It's kind of hard to explain. Don't be alarmed when you see women in the men's room. They're taking pictures of the urinal.
Continuing southbound, Highway 101 will take you into Pismo Beach about a half hour south of SLO. Pismo Beach is a nice little community, and my wonderful wife and I went there for our babymoon (weekend getaway as a married couple before the baby comes and you become sleep-deprived zombies) along with our awesome friends Jud & Jill (who happen to also be related to us - Jud is my cousin, and Jill ended up giving birth to their eldest son the same day as we had our ES, but I digress). Anyway, Pismo Beach is a nice little community on the coast with lots of beach hotels and restaurants and shops.
The thing that really stands out in my mind about Pismo Beach though is that is the only place in California where it is legal to drive on the beach. Again, it's kind of a novelty - if you haven't done it before and you have any kind of an SUV or truck, then you might want to give it a try just to say you've "been there, done that." We went for a ride in Jud's Ford Explorer down the beach and back.
From there, I would continue on down Highway 101 and just enjoy the scenery all the way to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a very nice area, too, but I don't much experience there to give you any recommendations what to see or do. You're pretty close to your Thousand Oaks destination by this time, so you might want to push through to the end. If you have the time though, you might check out Trip Advisor for some recommendations what to see or do around Santa Barbara.
Explanation: Some friends of ours are getting ready to fly out to San Jose and go for a road trip down to Thousand Oaks along the California coast. Since we used to live in Monterey and are familiar with the central California coast, they asked us for some recommendations of places to stop and things to see along the way.
As usual, I thought I would answer them with a blog post with links to the places of interest.
Unfortunately, all my time touring the coast was before the days of digital cameras, shutterfly, blogging, or Facebook, so I don't have any photos of previous trips to liven up this blog post. I could go scouring the internet for someone else's photos, but it's late and I need to hit the rack. Maybe I'll come back and add some photos later for future Google searches that come here looking for central California travel advice.
So there you have it, I hope you found some useful tidbits somewhere in my ramblings. :-) Have a wonderful trip Dave & Naomi!
Updated 7/23/09: Many thanks to my friend Corey for scanning some pictures of our time in Monterey and emailing them to me to post here on the blog.