Traveling the Pacific Coast Highway - Part II

Well, crap, I didn't mean for a month to go by before writing the second post (in a series of three) about our journey along the Pacific Coast Highway. Let's just say that June was a MONTH. So, without further ado, part deux: The Central (or Cowboy) Coast, featuring Santa Barbara, Ojai, San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle, and Cayucos (whew - that's a lot, but stick with me).

It could be debated as to whether Santa Barbara and Ojai are part of the central coast or not, but just go with it for the blog's sake, okay? Both of these towns have a great California vibe - SB emanating that coastal chic and Ojai, that mountain village cool.

While my daughter and husband spent their entire time in Santa Barbara in the pool (her favorite thing about traveling these days), I went for a wander around town. I expected the beautiful coastline but was pleasantly surprised by the cute downtown - loads of stylish restaurants, shops, and AN URBAN WINE TRAIL. Need I say more?

But my favorite thing about Santa Barbara? Hands down, the courthouse. They don't make civic spaces like they used to, do they?

Taking in the views over Santa Barbara from the gorgeous clock tower.

The courthouse was built in 1929 in the Spanish-Colonial style, with ornate tiles, beautiful staircases, and lovely views from the clock tower. If I could visit just one thing in Santa Barbara, it would be the Courthouse. 

Santa Barbara coastal sunsets.

Ojai is a short drive east of Santa Barbara (and a favorite escape for Los Angelinas), and it exudes California charm. We spent just a brief afternoon there - enough to enjoy a perfect lunch and little shopping stroll ... basically my perfect day. My top recommendations: Azu Restaurant & Bar for delicious tapas, deKor&Co. for gorgeous home goods and Ojai Valley Inn if only to borrow those cute bikes with baskets attached.

As we move north from Santa Barbara towards San Luis Obispo (SLO), you start to reach the true cowboy coast. There are wide open fields and cattle ranchers, and while you still have the gorgeous coastline, there's this sense of the more wilder west that you don't necessarily associate with California.

When you reach SLO, you notice such a distinct change of pace from Southern California. It's slower (no pun intended). It has a small town feel with big city amenities (think great coffee shops, restaurants, and shops). And it has amazing sunsets.

Sunsets in SLO.jpg

The other thing it has is ... The Madonna Inn. I wish I had a good explanation for WHY this place is the way it is, but it truly is one of those places you have to see to believe. (Please forgive the momentary blip in this post's image aesthetic. It's worth it, I promise.)

There is nothing quite like the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.

Since we're on the topic of over-the-top opulence, shall we just jump to the Hearst Castle? Why not - it is just a short drive north of SLO.

The Pool House at Hearst Castle.

I had heard loads about Hearst Castle and always wondered why the hell it was in the middle-of-virtually-nowhere-California (no offense San Simeon), so I was interested to learn that this was family land that William Randolph Hearst grew up on, ranching and camping with his family. The of-the-earth beginnings are certainly in stark contrast to the over-the-top final vision. The design, envisioned by Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, derives heavily from centuries of European design history - think a mix of Medieval/Gothic/Renaissance. Bottom line - the decor and architecture are intense, but stunning, particularly if you have an appreciation for art and architectural history. Even if you don't, go to Hearst Castle for the grandeur and the slice of American celebrity/royalty history. We took the 'Grand Rooms Tour', mostly for time and kid-restraints, but it gave us a great taste of the extravagance of the home.

The only disappointing part of the tour was that the iconic Neptune Pool was still under renovation, but luckily the pool house made up for it.

So one last stop along the Cowboy Coast - Cayucos. This place was recommended to me on Instagram, and I'm so glad it was. It was a bit rough around the edges - typical Central Coast, but still so sweet. Case in point, the Brown Butter Cookie Company, which might have the best cookies I have ever tasted.

But what I loved the most about the area? The boardwalk along the coastline at sunset. What an unbelievable treat.

Part III - coming soon!

Traveling the Pacific Coast Highway - Part I

Ever since we moved to San Diego, we have had a desire to drive the Pacific Coast Highway. To be honest, I mostly just pictured a highway that ran along side sandy beaches and maybe the occasional rocky outcropping, but the PCH is an American icon, and we weren't going to leave before we saw what made it famous. It wasn't until we were well into the road trip that I started to appreciate the variety that California's coastline has offer.

Although the most northern point of our journey was only a five hundred mile (or so) drive from San Diego, we took our time and covered those miles (there and back) over eight days. Because I like to share details of our travel experiences here on the blog - and I have been asked a number of times on Instagram about the various locations we stopped - I am creating three posts to cover our travels: Los Angeles (Malibu and Venice Beach), the central (or cowboy) coast (Santa Barbara to Cambria), and finally the Monterey Peninsula (Big Sur to Monterey). These three regions are so different from each other that it's hard to believe that only a few hundred miles separate them. When they say that in California you can surf in the morning, ride a horse to have lunch, and then ski in the afternoon, that's not an exaggeration. This is where my husband usually informs me that this is the reason why movie studios based themselves in LA in the early 20th century: movies could be set in deserts, snow covered mountains, and everything in between - all within a few hours of LA. While I don't find this nearly as exciting as he does, it was incredible to watch the landscape transform from beach to coast to cliff to redwood forest, sometimes within just a few hours. So sit back and enjoy the highlights of the PCH from San Diego to Monterey.

(Note: the portion of the PCH that is located in California runs well north of Monterey, but given our time restrictions - and the fact we were traveling with a preschooler - we chose that area as the most logical turn around point.)

Los Angeles

Although the technical start of Highway 1 is near San Clemente, a city just south of Orange County, many guides recommend exploring San Diego as part of your PCH experience. Since we live in San Diego, we opted for the quick route up the 5 directly to Los Angeles (please note that "quick" is a relative term when it comes to the 5). Once there, we made a bee line to pick up the PCH in Malibu. Up first: an "only-in-LA" stop at Malibu Farm.

The restaurant and cafe had been recommended to me a number of times on Instagram, and we approached it just in time for a second breakfast. And not fifty feet into our walk down the pier, I had what I would classify as my biggest celebrity sighting ever. As we were walking to the cafe, Julia Roberts and two of her children passed right next to us. I tried to get my husband's attention as subtly as possible, but he - my film-OBSESSED husband - didn't even notice her. I have to say she was pretty incognito (save for some very ridiculous slippers/shoes that somehow DID catch his eye?), but that face is undeniable. I tried to play it cool while I awkwardly tried to keep up/stalk her, but sadly we parted ways when my brood went into the cafe and her brood went into the shop. After a delicious meal (opt for the cafe over the restaurant if you are short on time or have a five year old in tow - it's excellent) and a little souvenir shopping (how much more appropriate can you get than a Hwy 1 PCH pin for your daughter to start off your trip?), we proceeded on our way. But not after noticing that the price of parking had gone from $10 to $20 in the hour we spent there. Oh, Los Angeles ...

While we are on the topic of LA, I'll briefly fast forward to the end of our journey, where we spent our last night in Venice Beach before heading home.

The picture perfect charm of the Venice Canal District.

If you've read my blog before, you know we really, really like LA, but we had yet to spend any time in Venice. Our last stop included a stay at The Kinney (super friendly staff, colorful and fun decor with loads of social spaces), dinner at Cafe Gratitude (my husband's first experience despite it being down the road from us in San Diego), a sunset stroll around the canal district, and breakfast at The Butcher's Daughter (how cute is this place??). A completely LA, completely perfect final stop.

The best (and only) thing about having an early riser: being the first patrons of picture perfect places like The Butcher's Daughter in Venice Beach.

On the next post, I'll share our experience on the central coast, featuring stops in Ojai, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Cayucos, Cambria and Hearst Castle. Stay tuned!