Day One: Sweeping Views + Beachside Stops Along Highway 1
Perfect Pit Stops: Monterey + Big Sur + San Simeon
Start your morning with a quick detour through Monterey for craft coffee and beautiful sweet and savory pastries at Alta Bakery Cafe. A cozy counter opens to the enchanting outdoor courtyard of the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe. Coast Big Sur serves creative bites, fresh salads, and slabs of sourdough focaccia pizza from chef Nick Balla, previously of SF’s Bar Tartine. The place offers all the detail and care of a San Francisco hot spot but in a laid-back garden setting with an art gallery and fabulous view.
Continuing along the iconic stretch of Highway 1, stop for a photo op at the elephant seal rookery in San Simeon where the massive marine mammals lounge along the shoreline. You may catch a glimpse of males fighting, females birthing, or baby seals nursing. San Simeon is also famously home to the grand Hearst Castle, which remains temporarily closed to visitors during Covid-19.
Seaweed Foraging + Sunset in Cayucos
If you’re headed down on a Saturday, book an afternoon seaweed foraging tour with Spencer Marley of Marley Family Seaweeds and get an education in the benefits and uses of wakame, kombu, and nori. A passionate forager and sustainability advocate, Marley will teach you how to identify, harvest, and use this oceanic plant. The 90-minute tours take place near the cowboy beach town of Cayucos and include beachside seaweed ramen. Book through Airbnb Experiences (from $105 per person). Once you’ve finished foraging, head to downtown Cayucos and snag one of the coveted window seats at Schooner’s where the seafood restaurant offering and drinks are standard but the beachside views are some of the best in the region for watching the sun go down.
Beachside Wine Tasting in San Simeon + Global Comfort Food in Cambria
Alternatively, stop at San Simeon’s Hearst Ranch Winery, the only Central Coast tasting room with an ocean view. Savor a crisp glass of Three Sisters White Cuvée or the deep intensity of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from beachside picnic tables. Reservations are recommended. For dinner, find socially distanced outdoor seating or takeout at Robin’s, where small town hospitality meets comforting global cuisine in the form of Thai green chicken and the vegetarian specialty, Robin’s Chow.
Stay at White Water in Cambria
When you’re ready to call it a day, check in at Cambria’s recently renovated White Water at Moonstone Beach, where a vintage-modern vibe and echos of 1970s bohemian culture make for a playful respite. Knit love beads on the doors signal “do not disturb,” and the rooms are stocked with poetry books and bottled cocktails. Each room has a unique design and its own private entrance, and some have gas fireplaces and ocean views. Bikes are available for in-town exploration and the lobby lounge serves up strong drinks and tasty snacks.
Day Four: Sand Dunes + A Butterfly Grove + Avila Beach
Hike to Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes
Birdwatching isn’t just for older folks. Park your car at the trailhead to Oso Flaco Lake and leave urban life behind as you enter this serene slice of nature. Pass through a forest wooded with arroyo willows and wax myrtles where you may catch sight of deer, rabbits, and other critters. Carry on to the end of the causeway and step onto a bridge which will carry you over the long narrow lake where ducks, egrets, ospreys, and pelicans make their homes. End your mile-long hike on the beach with views of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes.
Nipomo’s Luffa Farm + A Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach
Pop over to the small town of Nipomo where the Luffa Farm has been growing heirloom luffa (aka loofah) gourds have for more than 20 years. You’ll learn how the quirky farm got its start, and all about how the cucumber-like plant makes its journey to become the natural, high-quality sponge we all know. Visit the gift shop to pick up organic home-grown luffas and natural bath products made onsite.
Pick up sandwiches or tasty fish tacos at Willow Nipomo on your way to Pismo Beach, where thousands of monarch butterflies overwinter October through February in the Monarch Butterfly Grove. In the grove’s tall eucalyptus trees, butterflies shelter from northern winds by forming dense stacked clusters that are all but invisible until they flutter their wings. Docent tours aren’t currently running, but the grove is open, with trails that easily lead you right to the beach.
Afternoon Kayaking in Avila
If you’re not quite ready to make your way back up the coast, take a quick trip to Avila Beach where you can get up close and personal with sea lions and otters by renting a kayak or stand-up paddle board through Avila Beach Paddlesports. You may not be butting heads with a humpback (which has been known to happen in the area), but you will have the freedom of paddling through the open water, beaching your kayak, and making your way to Avila’s historic Point San Luis Lighthouse (the $25 tours are temporarily suspended due to Covid-19).