A cool 5-hour drive to Hume Lake, a quick breeze through Yosemite, pop over to San Francisco for two days of eating fancy toast, drive down the gorgeous California central coast, one last stop in cute little Cambria, and finally back home to Ventura County…is NOT the road trip we did. We had it all planned out, though. We even had some things booked! And then Joel woke with a swollen uvula the day before we were supposed to leave. A SWOLLEN UVULA. Of all things. Ever given much thought to that tiny little tongue dangling above your actual tongue? Well, it turns out it can derail entire road trips.
And here is where I’d like to insert some really corny Western lyrics to the tune of ‘won’t do anything differently / all the mistakes led me to you’ kind of thing (you know those songs) – because we exchanged our epic long-distance road trip to iconic San Fran and Yosemite, for a more off-the-beaten path, fly-by-the-seed-of-your-pants, short-distance-but-long-days kind of road trip. And honestly, it was probably one of my favourite road trips and long weekends ever.
LET’S START WITH SOME VALUABLE LESSONS LEARNT
HOW TO HAVE A FUN ROAD TRIP
1. Go with friends. This much is obvious. But, fine print: go with friends you have fun traveling with. One of the reasons this was so much fun was because we were roadtrippin’ with two of our favourite travel buddies.
2. Take the road less traveled (or instagrammed). An exponential part of the enjoyment came from not having these huge expectations surrounding places like Yosemite or San Francisco. We stopped over in small towns, without much expectation and very little plans, and we were able to just enjoy a place for what it is.
3. Ultimate road trip ≠ longest possible distance by car. This small, cozy central Californian road trip felt so big and so long – with unique accommodations each night, epic ocean cliff views, lazy pool lounges, and incredible food. And we didn’t even venture further than 3 hours and 16 minutes from home.
BEFORE YOU GO
Rent a car. You don’t have to fall victim to peer pressure and rent the biggest baddest truck or SUV you can find. A small thing with four wheels is perfectly fine.
Open up an Airbnb account if you don’t have one. Use this code for a sweet beginner’s discount on us!
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THE ULTIMATE OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH CENTRAL CALIFORNIAN COAST ROAD TRIP
What then follows is a 3-night, 4-day road trip along the Central Californian coast, stopping at and exploring little towns and staying over at one of a kind motels and Airbnbs. It doesn’t take you super far up and down the coast, but it allows for a sleepy kind of exploring – the road trip version of slow traveling. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? In fact, if you could, it would be even better to do this same route over 5 days, to really slow it down.
You could start at the top, like we did, and drive down to LA. Or you can start at the bottom and work your way up and around. The stops are fairly close to each other, so the order hardly matters.
STOP 1: CAMBRIA
If you blink you’ll miss it, but the 6000-strong Cambria is an underrated sparkling little jewel on the central Californian coast. It’s the best of all the worlds – surrounded by those dark green Monterey Pine forests, home to the lapping waves of the Pacific ocean on Moonstone Beach, run by friendly locals, and heaving under fressshhhhh seafood. The feeling is ultra-californian – laid-back, active, eco-conscious – but with all the authenticity that the Hollywood-ridden south sometimes struggle with (sorry, honest opinion).
Gape at the Elephant Seals
We drove through Cambria in winter once, and stopped to look at the famous elephant seals. We had never seen them before and it was really cool seeing about 50 of them rolling around and being super passive aggressive. But I was shocked – SHOCKED – when we rolled up to the view point to see hundreds (the reactionary in me wants to say thousands) of elephant seals lining the coast like packed sardines.
You won’t believe your eyes. Or your nose (they stink). Do yourself a favour and cruise circa 20 minutes north of Cambria on the 1 and just look at these guys. Watch them roll over each other, watch little fights break out, watch them labour in and out of the waves. And don’t be like that guy who gave it 1 star on trip advisor because ‘no sex or violence’ (LOL. IT’S A REAL REVIEW), just go knowing they don’t do much but you’ll never see so many elephant seals together ever in your life.
Plus, you’re gonna want to drive up that coast anyways (scroll down).
GO FOR A COASTAL CRUISE
The highway along the central Californian coast must be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. You don’t need a plan or an itinerary to appreciate the dramatic views, so just jump in your car and cruise out. We drove up 20 minutes further from the elephant seals just past Ragged Point. The highway was closed from this point on due to construction, but if it’s past 5pm and they’re not working on it, you can park your car and go out on to the highway for a really unique coastal walk.
We didn’t because we were getting hungry, but it seems like a cool thing to do?
TOUR THE MANSION ON THE ENCHANTED HILL: HEARST CASTLE
“Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something,” Hearst wrote to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect. Almost 30 years later that ‘little something’ turned out to be a mansion of epic proportions, decorated by the eclectic newspaperman William Hearst, who was inspired by every corner of Europe. The result is an encyclopaedic pastiche of architectural and decorative styles consisting of hundreds of rooms, multiple pools, almost 40 fireplaces, and a tennis court.
It’s the only place in between San Francisco and Los Angeles where you will see tourbuses of foreign tourists, and it makes sense: Hearst Castle is one of a kind. It mimics everything and looks like nothing else.
It’s expensive ($25 per adult), but I definitely recommend going at least once and doing the classic ‘grand rooms’ tour. The tour itself is just over an hour, and the whole trip will cost you about 3 hours.
Find out everything you need to know before you go to Hearst Castle here.
DINNER: THE SEA CHEST
Man, if I could teleport myself anywhere right now it would be to a table at the Sea Chest with a bottle of chilled white Californian wine and a plate of oysters on ice and horseradish sauce.
The Sea Chest came highly recommended by our Californian parents and we are SO GLAD we listened to our parents this! (Proof: moms and dads know best). It’s above-average price-wise (think 3 out of 5 dollar signs), but it is a remarkably special little place.
The restaurant was set up over 3 decades ago in a little New England type seaside cottage just across from moonstone beach, and has retained a quirky seaside-theme with locals cooking food behind the bar for other locals, exhibition-style.
The Sea Chest doesn’t accept reservations or credit cards (they have a little ATM inside), so you’ll probably have to wait for a table. You can order some drinks from the bar and play a card or board game while you wait, or sip your wine by the fire pit outside. We went for a little stroll along the board walk and returned to the bar, upon which we were immediately seated at a table. They give tables to whoever is waiting on-site.
Honestly, one of the best seafood meals we’ve ever had. Like top 3.
If you’re looking for inspiration: we had the tuna of the day, a plate of oysters, and the scallops over pasta. OMG my mouth is watering right now.
LUNCH: THE CAFE ON BRIDGE STREET
THIS PLACE OUTS OUT A MEANNNNNN SANDWICH! Again, and really I am not exaggerating, one of the best sandwiched we’ve ever had. (Cambria: 2; My Diet: 0).
Bridge Street is just off of Main Street, and the Cafe is just couple meters in. It’s set in a little red house, complete with a white-picket fence and it has a teeny tiny little back yard for some al fresco sandwich scoffing.
We were hungry after Hearst Castle, so we ordered the first thing our eyes met on the scribbled menu behind the counter. Hot pastrami Sandwiches. Oh man. It is GOOD. And it comes with a giant pickle, so that’s a win right there.
And, in true Cambria fashion, the locals who run this place are super friendly. This recommendation was passed on by our Airbnb host and we pass it on to you without any reservation.
Disclaimer: the sandwiches are HUGE and totally sharable (but you might not want to share all that flavour!).
AIRBNB: THE PUB
Staying in Amy’s garden shed, aka ‘The Pub’, was awesome.
First of all, you’re gonna want to meet Amy, who is the epitome of a great Airbnb host. She is so warm and welcoming and laid-back yet on top of it. She has long wild blonde hair, surfs in her free time, and watched nature documentaries because she cares about this world.
And then there’s The Pub. The little wooden man-cave/artist-shed/sanctuary-from-the-world in her lush back yard. Think English pub with a cozy wooden fireplace, a stack of books, and a comfy bed in the back. Add to that some breakfast bagels and coffee, and that right there is the picture of an extraordinary Airbnb experience. If you’re more concerned about the numbers: The Pub has 5 stars and over 1000 reviews.
Find The Pub here (and remember to use the discount if you’re new to Airbnb).
Disclaimer: There’s no plumbing in The Pub, but you’ll feel totally at home to use the bathroom in the main house. There’s also a neat outdoor shower.
STOP 2: SAN LUIS OBISPO
Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach
There are lots of nice hikes to do in the area, but because this is the definitive lazy road trip, we opted to go check out the Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach. I found this spot just by zooming in to Google Maps and checking what’s in the area, and I was surprised to find that none of my southern Californian co-travelers knew about it! Essentially, it is a park on the coast with multiple lookout points to natural caves in the seaside buffs below, and it is GORGEOUS.
I would LOVE to tell you that they found fossilised dinosaur eggs here, but actually it got its name from some guy who decided to build a 50ft concrete dinosaur in the park, which was visible from the highway. He also kitted out some of the caves with kitschy skylights and fake gems. Everyone hated the dinosaur he was busy building, so the county made him stop. The caves collapsed and the dinosaur remained unfinished – headless – for a decade before it was destroyed…maybe by local teenagers who started a fire in its neck? Whose to say.
Anyway, this is kind of more intriguing than real fossils anyways.
Novo is a really popular spot and comes recommended by everyone. They do take reservations, and I would recommend making one. We waited about 30 minutes for a table, but unlike the Sea Chest, the bar area in front is uninspiring.
BUT, this bar area gives way to a beautiful outside seating area (which is totally betrayed by the street facing bar) with soft yellow lights and climbing flora on a deck built around sprawling trees. Not all of our meals were winners in relation to the price point. BUT I did have the Lavender Lamb Chops and I couldn’t BELIEVE how good it was. It was, sincerely, some of the best meat I have ever tasted – and, as a meat-eating South African, I don’t say that lightly.
Erica also won with her order of scallops, which were soft and juicy and buttery and basically everything you want your scallops to be.
Coffee: Scout Coffee
We were led to Scout Coffee by Chris, who has been bragging about this place since forever. Turns out all the praising was on point, because the coffee is good and strong and it the place vibey and cool.
If you’re looking for the best coffee in town, I’m sure you’ll have to look no further.
If you are repulsed by cool coffee shops, avoid like the plague.
Madonna Inn is a landmark central Californian hotel, and it is unlike any other hotel you will ever see.
That is the easy one-liner.
Describing what it is really like is a bit trickier. It is an unashamedly pink and kitschy people’s palace, which has taken lots of its inspiration from nearby Hearst Castle (not surprised). It’s a weirdly harmonious marriage of marble staircases and cherubs, pink and gold dining rooms, extravagant dark wooden detail, enormous blooming pink fake flowers (that light up and rank up the columns and onto the ceilings), pink golf carts, pink street lamps, pink glittering chandeliers, a stable full of horses, and a hot pink tennis court (with pink rackets and pink tennis balls).
And because it’s such a landmark hotel, most guests come dressed for the occasion (pink). So it feels like a sort of Barbie West World, where everyone is in on it.
Yeah, it’s unreal. Surreal. And undeniably fun.
It opened the day before Christmas in 1958 and offered the then 12 rooms onsite totally free to a group of travelers. It now boasts 110 rooms, and each one has a name and is decorated according to its own theme. Some of them are super extravagant, with double stories or stairs climbing into a tower, or waterfall rock showers. Others are more…plainly kitsch, and way more affordable. We stayed in Los Alamos the night before, and decided to lengthen our trip with another night. I had just learnt about the Madonna Inn and suggested it, kind of assuming it will be too expensive. But we actually found and booked a family suite for the 4 of us for something around $70-80, on the Friday that we were gonna stay there. What a deal!
So if you’ve always wanted to go to the Madonna Inn but thought it’s probably way too expensive – we got good news for ya!
We didn’t want to leave the Madonna Inn (you better believe we enquired about staying one more night only to find out is fully booked for a wedding), so instead of leaving after we checked out, we spent hours by the pool drinking, you guessed it, pink drinks.
And before you assume we are the laziest people on the planet, I’ll have you know that we spent an hour or so on the hot pink court before breakfast. How could you not???
Book a room here.
STOP 3: LOS ALAMOS
Los Alamos is the coolest one-street town you never knew existed. If you even think about blinking, you’ll miss it. Population is shy of 2000, and the buildings along the main streets are sparsely staggered. The best part of Los Alamos (as a foreigner not used to anything)? It is an old Western town. The millennial in me wants to say it is ‘Western-themed,’ like I arrived in West World or something. But it is just a small Western town that has been standing strong since the 19th-century. Its history is steeped in what seems like Western fantasy – the hills above the Los Alamos ranch having served as a hideout to a real-life bandit leader who terrorised the new American settlers and sought justice for his people. He supposedly inspired the legend of Zorro.
If that’s not enough Western for you, just take one glance at the Union Hotel, where Johnny Cash once performed, and tell me I’m wrong.
Go Antiquing in Town
At one end of the town there’s a big shed that is basically the antique depot. It is sectioned off in individual stalls inside, each specialising in its own version of junk and jewels. Spend some time wandering around, and see if you can find something valuable in between the decanters and dentist chairs and old poison bottles and racist posters. And when you get tired, take a seat at the working bar inside and fuel up with a cup of coffee!
Drink the day away
When I say ‘drink’, I obviously mean ‘wine taste’ because Municipal Winemakers has a tiny little tasting room right on the doorstep of the Alamo Motel. So taste some wines, find one you like, then drink a glass or two or three (at this point you may as well just get a bottle) on the patio chairs under the trees.
And if you want my opinion, go straight for the Grenache, because it is SOMETHING ELSE. Rich and deep and easy-drinking. Yes please.
Breakfast: Bob’s Well Bread bakery
English muffins, morning buns and coffee at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. That’s all you need to know.
The muffins are soft, the buns are sweet, and the coffee is good. We don’t know if Bob is moody or grouchy or both, but it doesn’t matter because the focus is clearly on the quality. With an english muffin that scrumptious and a morning bun that good, we really don’t care how friendly the supplier is. Just put it in my belly.
Lunch/Dinner: Full of Life Flatbread
Disclaimer: we haven’t actually been here. But…apparently this place serves incredible flat bread pizzas, so incredible that people travel all the way to Los Alamos just to stand in long lines for it. It’s famously known as a diner destination. Also the owner, Clark Staub used to be a big wig in the music industry in LA, even serving as VP of marketing for Capitol Records. He rebooted his life, moved to the middle of nowhere and opened a pizza shop. That back story right there is almost enough reason to eat at this place.
Lunch/Dinner: Industrial Eats
Located in a refurbished warehouse in Beullton, just a 15-minute drive from Los Alamos, is Industrial Eats. I don’t know what else is in Beullton, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is also a diner destination. It is a whole experience.
Go hungry – the food is insanely good. But don’t go starving – we went for Saturday lunch and had to wait for a whole while and I was on the cusp of being super hangry.
The menu is divided into pizzas, sandwiches (the wily and reuben are mouthwatering), and clipboards. The food on the clipboard list is served as small to medium plates, and the trick is to go on flavour preferences. That is, the menu lists the ingredients but little specification of whether it’s a salad, or a whole piece of meat, or something cooked, or grilled, etc. But whatever it is, it’ll be delicious. Add to that giant carafes of Californian wine and you’re good to go.
PRO TIP: wear stretchy pants or a long shirt so you can unbutton that top button without shame.
Drink: The Union Hotel
Whiskey cocktails in an old Western saloon.
Do I need to say anything else?
THE ALAMO MOTEL
Having had an *interesting* experience staying in a motel on Fresno’s motel row, I was less than eager to try another motel.
But the Alamo Motel is cool. In every sense of the word. It is effortlessly cool, and it knows so. And it integrates seamlessly into its retro Western context. The rooms are fitted out with cow hides and and cool art, and even things like leather bags that you can buy from the front desk if you like the look of it in between all your stuff. Also, we are told that the some of the rooms have bare claw tubs. Their whole look was supposedly inspired by Georgia O’ Keeffe’s New Mexico residence.
We woke up the next morning looking to see if we can book another night, but they were booked out for a wedding. (Which is when we turned our antennas toward the Madonna Inn.)
The Alamo Motel sort of epitomises the feel of Los Alamos – authenticity and creativity abounds. The town only stretches a couples of blocks, but it has become a hub for creatives trying new things with a sort of cowboy flair.
I know I’ve convinced you, so book a room here.
And then you can start your short journey home. This long-weekend-cum-road-trip is slow, and satisfying and if you’re traveling from down south, you’ll barely even leave your backyard. Just follow our guide and you’ll barely even have to lift a finger.
Find The Pub on Airbnb and Madonna Inn and the Alamo Motel on booking.com.
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