Hidden Gems Along California’s Central Coast

June 25, 2015 Updated: June 25, 2015
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Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in San Luis Obispo County lies an incomparable scenic beauty and sense of solace that some travel across continents to experience. 
Along 100 miles of the captivating California Coast are hidden gems to discover: hamlet-sized towns laden with local wineries, oceanfront hiking trails, artists’ enclaves, and restaurants with quality cuisine—and all far from the clamour of crowds. 

Ten-plus destinations comprise the California Highway 1 Discovery Route, bordered by San Simeon and Ragged Point to the north and Oceano and Nipomo to the south, each with its own diversity and personality. For an extended weekend getaway to clear the mind and calm the soul, I visited four small towns, all in close proximity: Avila Beach, Cayucos, Harmony, and Cambria.

Avila Beach 

Embraced by 125 acres of meadows, forests, and hills, Sycamore Springs Resort & Spa in the inviting town of Avila Beach was the perfect spot to start my three days of relaxation and rejuvenation. Many rooms have outdoor hot tubs and a full program of yoga and Pilates exercise classes taught in the Yoga Dome facing the hillside. At the Wellness Center just below, I soaked in mineral waters before being totally entranced by my mesmerizing massage. 

During lunch, I absorbed this non-assuming, homey town’s ambiance devoid of commercialism and even traffic lights.

Afterward, I took a scenic stroll along the nearby bridge and walkway in view of a small creek and forested area of private cottages apart from the main hotel. I continued onto the Bob Jones Trail in view of rolling hills, which eventually leads to a downtown beachfront peppered with gift and surf shops and casual eateries. 

A short drive away stands the historic 1878 Harford Pier at Port San Luis, which served as a gateway for shipping goods and passengers in the 1880s from the Pacific Rim to Europe. It was the largest crude oil shipping port in the world by World War II. Cars are still welcome to travel onto the pier. I was taken by the cluster of otters lounging on the adjacent fishing boats. 

I enjoyed my fresh seafood at the Gardens of Avila Restaurant located within the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. Chef Mike Avila has created several savoury seafood dishes such as Dungeness Crab Ravioli and Pan Seared Scallops with apple butter. All the vegetables and fruits come from the restaurant’s acre-plus organic garden. 

Speaking of fresh-picked produce, I couldn’t bypass the 140-acre Avila Valley Barn which is pesticide- and herbicide-free. The luscious olallieberries, peaches, and apples are also added to mouth-watering baked pies, which can be topped off with the homemade ice cream. Kids and local students enjoy visiting the petting zoo and pony rides. 

Cayucos

I continued my coastal cruise 45 minutes north to the neighbouring village of Cayucos for lunch at the venerable Schooner’s Wharf. I had their infamous and succulent calamari strips along with a flavourful ahi tuna salad in view of the foamy, picturesque ocean. During lunch, I absorbed this non-assuming, homey village’s ambiance devoid of commercialism and even traffic lights, a throwback of yesteryear. 

Since I needed to work off my lunch, I headed one mile north on Route 1 to Estero Bluffs State Park for a hike along the craggy cliffs, watching the sea otters cajole while surrounded by a fertile kelp forest and 355 acres of windswept grasslands. 

Harmony 

Further north, I could have easily missed the miniscule town of Harmony and its 18 residents. When I arrived, there was lots of renovation going on. The town had been neglected for some time until it got in the hands of the new owners—Alan Vander Horst, a third-generation dairy farmer, and his wife Rebecca along with their five children. 

“I’m working hard on transforming it into a thriving township,” Vander Horst told me. “I saw an opportunity to take a piece of history and have some fun with it.”

The original 1869 creamery is being restored along with the current artists’ studios. Harmony Glassworks continues in full operation with an exquisite array of vases, jewelry, and gift items. The creamery courtyard is expanding into a dairy shop offering cheeses by local artisan cheese makers, along with yogurts and ice cream. Also on the agenda are a dairy museum and a first-class restaurant to feature Central Coast cuisine. 

Getting married? The tiny chapel can host up to 60 guests—100 with the use of the adjoining garden. “You can even rent the entire town for an event that could accommodate around 200 people,” Vander Horst noted.

Cambria

My final stop was Cambria, an artists’ haven ripe with creative energy and endless eateries. My stay at the Cambria Pines Lodge—seated on 25 wooded acres of forests and gardens—and a stroll through the historic East Village and Old English-style West Village of Cambria was a weekend getaway in itself. Walking tours have recently been offered through the East Village with buildings dating back to early 1800s. 

I experienced a relaxing and rejuvenating facial and massage with an array of organic products at Sojourn Healing Arts Spa set in a separate house away from the centre of the resort. For dinner, I dined at the venerable Robin’s Restaurant known for its diverse ethnic menu, from Asian to Italian and Middle Eastern. The ice cream sundae is a real treat. 

Before leaving the area the following morning, I ventured out to the dramatic bluff of the 435-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve for a meditative hike among purple compact cobweb thistles, wildflowers, and the surrounding rare Monterey pine forest—one of only three in the world—serving as a habitat for wildlife. I encountered some blue herons and even saw a whale breaching from the aqua ocean. 

I was accompanied by Diane Strachan, the director of Stewardship Travel, who explained the Central Coast’s feel-good program, an inventory of 70 activities where visitors can have a closer connection to the area and nature—from weed removal and tree planting to maintaining the trails. For several hours of volunteerism, visitors get a bag, gloves, and kit to participate. 

“Stewardship Travel is a passport for visitors to connect to locals to make a difference,” Strachan explained. 

Perhaps on my return trip to this rich, fertile coastline, I will take a few hours to actually participate and delve my hands deeper into the earth, feeling even closer to this wondrous and treasured territory.

 

Beverly Mann has been a feature, arts, and travel writer in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 28 years. To read more of her articles, visit: www.beverlymann.com

MORE INFORMATION

California Highway 1 Discovery Route: www.Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com 

Relaxation, spas, and wellness: www.winecoastcountry.com/relaxation-spas-wellness/

Stewardship Travel activities: www.winecoastcountry.com/stewardship-travel-activities/