Surf towns on the California Central Coast
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I once heard some parenting advice that actually works. I think I saw it on social media. Basically, when you find yourself irrationally upset with your child, imagine that you are 85 years old and have been transported back in time to this very moment, but only for five minutes. How would you react differently?
These days, I don’t need to use the trick as much. Ever since Twitter was taken over by a man who would be the most annoying character BillionsI spent less time there and more time with my daughter. So I decided to try advice on something else I don’t always appreciate as much as I should.
I like to be near the sea. I like to eat food from it. I love the look and smell of it. But I have a limit on how long I’m willing to sit staring at it. My family is the opposite. They were happily spending the entire day in the sand, which was definitely one of their goals during a recent vacation on the Central Coast of California. Another goal: to find out why a cluster of surf villages, located a few hours north of Los Angeles, portray themselves as “undiscovered,” “hidden gems,” or, more audaciously, “the last great beach town.”
The fulcrum of the journey was Cambria. Where is Cambria? Pull out the map and search for Los Angeles. Then start looking north up the coast, past Malibu, past Santa Barbara, and even past San Luis Obispo. Have you seen Hearst Castle? You’ve gone too far. But not to this extent. Cambria is located just 15 minutes south of where one of the world’s richest people decided to spend his time. High praise.
Cambria’s calling card is Moonstone Beach. This was a beach I could access, made of small, fine pebbles, which, unlike sand, drift away faithfully. Bleached white driftwood is everywhere along Moonstone, arranged in elaborate shelters like rib cages left by Wales on the beach. Ditch your cheap plastic shovels and build your own bone cave instead. Tidal pool. sunset. browse. A moody cliff-top walkway. Moonstone was good for me.
Cambria Beach Lodge (top), Whitewater (middle), Moonstone Beach Boardwalk (bottom)
We divided our time between two hotels: Cambria Beach Lodge And Cataract. They both overlook the Moonstone, from a somewhat different perspective.
The Beach Lodge is in the tradition of great restored American motels. Chic, simple and unassuming, it has a chic surf shack vibe that fits perfectly with the coolness of this semi-secluded town. The highlight of the hotel is the deck. The best location to watch the Cambria sunset in all the world. Or looking for whales.
Second best position? From the white water lobby. A half-mile down the road, it’s as if you’ve crossed the spiritual dividing line between the southern and northern halves of the state. Suddenly, Beach Lodge’s sunny surf town gives way to a shadier, forested feel; Cambria’s characteristic pines hang over the property, reminiscent of the great wild forests of the north.
White Water is a step forward in amenities and design and does something every hotel in the world should seriously consider. Take note, competitors. Every morning outside your door, they leave you a large picnic basket filled with hot coffee, juice, and assorted pastries. Aesthetically, it’s a little bit of Wes Anderson delivered straight to your room. A small gesture that, along with the fireplaces, cemented the hotel’s place in my heart. And this lobby; Already a great place to cruise over the sea, it’s made even better by a smart selection of wines, beers and small plates, plus White Water’s fun staff. Seriously, they’re hanging great.
From Cambria, you’ll never be far from a few of Central California’s best coastal attractions. We mentioned Hearst Castle, home to William Randolph’s roaming zebras and a collection of Greek vases. A little further north you’ll find the elephant seal in Piedras Blancas. And right after that, Ragged Point and the beginning of the legendary Big Sur.
But it was in the south that our trip was primarily focused.
Cambria Beach Lodge and Whitewater
In Cambria, the main commercial stretch is located offshore, separated from the row of hotels and resorts directly facing the ocean.
On Cayucos Island, twenty minutes from the coast, it all comes together. There is a more traditional beach here (which I didn’t have much patience for), and just steps away from the sand is a wonderful row of shops and great restaurants. Our selection of premium accommodations in Cayucos is impeccably designed Pacific Motel. A few minutes south, Morro Bay, with its giant boulders and famous chimneys, is another of Central California’s sleepy surf villages that, if you didn’t know it, you might think only existed in the movies.
Are such cities dying? we will see. It doesn’t quite make sense that a well-documented state like California would have hidden gems of this quality. Although it’s not completely undiscovered, it gives you all the beauty, activities and vibrancy of the destinations with great name recognition, and does so at a fraction of the tourism.
This is what we were looking for. My family and I may not share the same passion for the beach, but we all love flying somewhere far away and road trips to the backcountry. As New Yorkers qualified, the flight from Los Angeles to Cambria was eligible, and the route was full of detours:
Malibu: Follow in the footsteps of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe by spending a night in a bohemian bungalow in John Malibu Hotela quiet and delicious little beach getaway in a hotel-starved location.
Ventura: Take a boat out to the Pacific Ocean to hike Channel Islands National Park and meet the endemic island fox. The trip is often accompanied by pods of dolphins – and fair warning, some dangerous pieces.
Santa Barbara: Banish seasickness and get some much-needed rest Palihouse Santa Barbarawith its idyllic Mediterranean courtyard, delightful character design, and vintage American design.
John Malibu Hotel (top two) and Palihouse Santa Barbara (bottom two)
Solvang: This is the most Danish city outside of Denmark. It’s best to look for it yourself
Poplar: It’s not as famous as Los Alamos Oppenheimer, but it has the same character as a desert stop, with more trendy places to eat and sleep (e.g. Sky View Los Alamos).
San Luis Bishop: An exciting 250-year-old mission, a famous farmers market, and a few first-class accommodations to choose from, including San Luis Creek Lodge.
We also spent time in Pismo Beach, Santa Maria, Los Olivos, Buellton, and more.
And that’s only if you get closer to the coast, or follow Route 101 – the historic El Camino Real – with its distinctive bells, which are used as mile markers to guide the way through an area dotted with Spanish missions. There are multiple thriving wine regions a little inland, from Paso Robles to Santa Ynez. Vineyards, breweries, farms, plenty of great food, and great hotels prove that the land between Los Angeles and La Cuesta Encantada is worth your time.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably really interested in taking this trip yourself. Or wait to see if I have any change of heart about the beach. Let’s just say I loosened up a little. Being forced to do something has a way of eliminating fear. I don’t think I’ll ever fully come back. I still hate any dining arrangement that has you sitting on the floor and eating from your lap. However, I try to stay open. Last thing we did before heading to the airport? A walk on Venice Beach. Who says sarcasm is dead?
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