Santa Barbara to Monterey Travel Guide

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A drive down California’s famous, and famously scenic, Highway 1 deserves a spot on any guy’s bucket list. But while the wine country and laidback hills of NorCal and the beautiful beaches of SoCal get all the glory, the oft-forgotten Central Coast has tons of treasures to explore.

Stretching from Santa Barbara to Monterey, this area is jam-packed with epic views and things to do, including trails to hike, mountains to crest, and a surprising amount of barbecue to eat—plus vineyards that are just as impressive as those farther north. Read on for the best places to eat, stay, and play as you wind your way along California’s Highway 1.

Pool at Carmel Valley Ranch
Carmel Valley Ranch

Where to Stay

Sample the famed wineries around Paso Robles, a small city known for its wines and olives, then roll your way over to SummerWood Inn for a night. It has a contemporary farmhouse design with a big focus on organic textures and sustainability. It’s a perfectly cozy place to lay your head after a day spent sipping California’s big reds.

We also recommend unwinding at Ventana Big Sur. The airy, light-filled rooms at this 5-star resort are set on 160 pristine wooded acres, where rustic meets luxe. Cozy up by your own wood-burning fireplace; soak up views of the forest, canyon, or ocean; or take a dip in your soaking tub. If you’re not quite relaxed enough, step outside for a swing in a hammock fit for two.

Take a short, winding jaunt up the coast and over the iconic arch bridges of Big Sur. Hit Carmel and spend at least a night, and an activity-packed day, at the summer camp–inspired Carmel Valley Ranch. It’s located in an area where home prices average upwards of $2 million but manages to be playful, not pretentious. Take a dip in your suite’s outdoor soaking tub and try a new activity like hatchet throwing, falconry, or something from the ranch’s artisan series. Here, you can learn how to make cheese with the resident cheesemaker at the brand-new Market and Creamery, using milk from goats on the property.

Big Sur Smokehouse
Big Sur Smokehouse

Where to Eat

Before you leave San Luis Obispo, go for an epic omelet at Louisa’s Place downtown. (Don’t worry if you get a late start; they serve breakfast until 3 p.m.) You might not be in the Carolinas or Kansas City, but there are a couple barbecue hot spots well worth a visit. First on your way up the coast is the famous tri-tip sandwich at Firestone Grill, also in San Luis Obispo, featuring a triangular cut of sirloin that’s super-popular in the region. Then, venture a bit farther north to Big Sur Smokehouse. Order some traditional pulled pork, brisket, and burnt ends, complete with baked beans and farm-fresh veggies (that’s the California twist—how many BBQ joints do you know that offer a quinoa salad on the menu?). Make sure to sample all the sauces: Each one is a riff on a classic from Carolina or Texas. Their Coffee-Stout BBQ sauce is a Texas red sauce boasting a splash of beer and brew from local Verve Coffee Roasters.

Hit up the 70-year-old Nepenthe restaurant, perched high above the hills of Big Sur, for insane views of the surrounding Santa Lucia mountains. Feast on a burger or a fresh catch straight from the Pacific alongside the property’s outdoor fire pit.

Once you’re up in Carmel, have a leisurely, French country–inspired lunch downtown at La Bicyclette. Make sure to sip some local wines and soak them up with crusty artisan breads or pizza baked in the restaurant’s wood-fire oven.

Tennis at Carmel Valley Ranch
Courtesy of Carmel Valley Ranch

What to Do

If you can peel yourself away from playing tennis at Carmel Valley Ranch or relaxing in the spa at Ventana Big Sir, go for a flight of local suds at Telegraph Brewing Company. Beers are brewed in small batches in downtown Santa Barbara, and each is made to reflect on a varying aspect of the region. Hang out and play darts or old-school video games in the tasting room as you sip. If wine’s more your speed, sip regional chardonnays and pinots during a tour, tasting, or the Cellar Experience at Cambria Estate Winery outside Santa Barbara.

If you make it up to San Luis Obispo by Thursday night, wander downtown through SLO Farmers’ Market. It’s not like your typical farmers’ market that strictly has produce for sale (though they have that, too). They have live music every week and lots of food and drink options for dinner. While you’re in the area, hike Bishop Peak, a 1,546-foot volcanic plug known as the tallest of the Morros. (There are similar-size peaks stretching from here up to Morro Bay.) For a more impressive feat, take on the Tri-Tip Challenge: Aim to hike to the top of three SLO mountains (Bishop’s Peak, Cerro San Luis Obispo, and the Cal Poly P) in one day. Don’t forget, you can’t officially cross the challenge off your list until you finish it off with a tri-tip sandwich from Firestone.

For more outdoor action, walk the sand dunes at Pismo Beach (just 12 miles from SLO); drive 13 miles northwest to Morro Bay; or hike, kayak, camp, or fish in the surrounding state park. If you’d prefer a history lesson, spend a few hours of your afternoon at Hearst Castle, the late publisher’s estate and ranch land turned museum, outside San Simeon.

Take a short trek at Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Just a half-mile of hiking along the coastline on the Waterfall Overlook Trail comes with a huge payoff: an 80-foot waterfall dropping off a granite cliff.

To cap off your trip, make like a pro and go for a round of golf at one of the picturesque seaside courses of Pebble Beach (when in Rome). And it might be touristy, but go see the hammerhead sharks and sea otters at the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a must along California’s Highway 1.



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