Our California Central Coast Adventure

We often take the place where we live for granted. People come from all over the world to travel up and down California, but somehow, I never seem to find the time to venture outside the San Francisco Bay Area (and occasionally Wine Country). This year, I resolved to show our California girls more of their home state, so over Spring break, we took a six-day family road trip down the Central Coast.

We chose to focus on the area between Monterey and Santa Barbara, spending 1-2 days at each location to break up the journey. We also avoided staying in hotels for the most part, choosing instead to rent via Airbnb so we could get a better feel for the local community in each town.

Here are our favorite stops along the way:

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium - Sardines

My girls had previously visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium as toddlers, but they barely remember anything from their previous trip! They were far more engaged this time round as elementary schoolchildren—they brought their hand-me-down (and heavily locked down) iPhones to take photos of their favorite fish, and peppered the aquarium guides with questions along the way.

While the aquarium displays sea creatures from around the world, it really showcases regional sea-life found along the rugged California coast. Our girls loved watching the playful sea otters swim upside down, touching the (very tame) stingrays in the shallow pool, and playing various games strewn around the aquarium. Meanwhile, my husband and I enjoyed the Open Sea exhibit—one of the largest in the world, featuring sharks, tuna, sea turtles, a living kelp forest, and huge clusters of sardines—and admired the “live screensavers” of jellyfish beautifully set against fluorescent light.

Jellyfish in the Open Sea exhibit

Plan to spend at least half a day at the aquarium (if not longer) to take it all in. You can also visit nearby Cannery Row (somewhat touristy), or farther afield, the famous Pebble Beach and its scenic 17-mile drive, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Paso Robles

Wine Barrel
Wine barrel from Hearst Ranch Winery

Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles flies under the radar for most California wine enthusiasts. It isn’t internationally renowned like Napa Valley, nor is it the subject of a movie (like Santa Ynez Valley in “Sideways”), but that is precisely its charm! People here take a lot of pride in their town, but are also happy to keep it relatively secret.

The atmosphere here is very laid back—like Sonoma was 20 years ago—and you won’t see buses disgorging heaps of tourists. What you *will* find, however, are many great restaurants and tasting rooms featuring inexpensive wines as good as their more well-known counterparts. A nice discovery for fans of Quality-to-Price-Ratio (QPR) wines!

The Paso Robles town square has a bandstand where locals gather, as well as a great playground and open area for children to run around. Also, most of the wineries in the vicinity are family-friendly and allow for picnicking (and even camping) during the summer months.

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn Sign

The Madonna Inn is a landmark motel in San Luis Obispo and a fun stop because of its dedication to quirky, all-American kitsch. You can’t miss the huge pink-and-green sign off the SR-1/US 101 highway!

Enter the main building, turn left and enter the Copper Cafe to get a hot sandwich and huge slice of cake during the day. If you are there in the evening hours, stop by the Gold Rush Steakhouse and enjoy dinner in one of the pink-and-gold leather booths while bathing in the light of a huge electric conduit tree. (Did I mention it’s kitschy?) And be sure to check out the… unique… waterfall in the men’s bathroom downstairs 😉

Gold Rush Steakhouse - Madonna Inn
The pink and gold booths in the Gold Rush Steakhouse

Alex Madonna, the real estate developer who built the inn in 1958, is something of a legend in the local community. As you tour around San Luis Obispo, you may be stopped by a friendly local who tells you about their memories of the Madonna Inn. It represents a more optimistic and innocent America, and it’s nice to be reminded of that in this day and age.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

Nestled on the top of a hill overlooking San Simeon village, Hearst Castle was built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in collaboration with Julia Morgan (the first female architect licensed in California). The project broke ground in 1919, but Hearst continued to tinker with and expand his mansion all the way through 1947. A decade later, after his passing, Hearst Castle became a California Historical Landmark and was open to the public.

Visiting Hearst Castle for the first time can be a little confusing—there are several tours you can purchase, each of which showcases a different part of the estate. The Grand Rooms tour is the most popular (advance reservations are recommended), where you can tour the opulent entertainment rooms, surrounding gardens and two gorgeous pools.

Since I had previously gone on the Grand Rooms tour, we opted for the Upstairs Suites tour this trip. This tour focused less on the art and antiquities in Hearst Castle, and more on the daily life and expectations of guests. We visited the library, Mr. Hearst’s personal suites and several guest suites, and my daughters were tickled by the fact that having a personal shower facility was a relatively new concept back in the day!

You’ll want to spend at least a couple of hours on the castle grounds. Food and drink are not allowed past the Visitor Center, so get something to eat (particularly if you have children) before loading onto the bus and heading up the hill. On the way out, stop by the Hearst Winery tasting room + Sebastian’s café combo just outside the visitor center, on San Simeon Road.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Elephant Seals - PIedras Blancas
Resting elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

Piedras Blancas is just 5 miles north of Hearst Castle and worth a quick stop. It is a breeding, molting and resting grounds for hundreds (maybe thousands) of elephant seals. While you won’t be able to access the beaches here, you can view these marine mammals in their natural environment from several paths along the bluffs, and ask the helpful park ranger some questions. Nearby, there is a scenic lighthouse (Piedras Blancas Light Station), which is accessible only via guided tour on certain days of the week.


Solvang Town Square
Solvang Town Square

En route to Santa Barbara, we stopped by the town of Solvang for an afternoon. We were quite surprised to see so much old-world Danish architecture here! For lunch, we enjoyed Danish Rød Pølse sausages at an outdoor beer garden, and æbleskivers for dessert. We also purchased a handful of children’s books at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and visited Ostrichland USA before continuing on our journey…

Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara stole my heart many years ago, when I first visited this city. It’s every bit as beautiful as I remembered—gorgeous Spanish Colonial architecture, a thriving art and food scene, great shopping, and beautiful beaches and parks just minutes away from downtown.

You’ll want to stop by the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a prime example of the city’s architectural style, and one of the most beautiful and well-kept public buildings in the country. Mission Santa Barbara is another historic landmark, one of 21 California Missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans and built in 1820. I also recommend taking a nature walk through Ganna Walksa Lotusland (advanced reservation required) or the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to check out the native California desert flora.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Our road trip turned out to be a great educational adventure for the kids, and a family bonding experience as well. When we came home, our girls couldn’t wait to sort through their photos, put them into an e-book (using Book Creator on the iPad), and share it with their classmates at school. They are also starting to plan for another one next Spring!

Have you done a similar road trip with your family? What were some of your favorite stops?


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