Hands down the most fun we’ve had on a vacation at the least cost was when my husband and I drove up the California coast before we were married. We started in LA and drove north along the Pacific coast to Napa, backtracking a bit to fly home out of San Francisco. At the top of the list of the many reasons I appreciate and adore my husband are his incredible planning skills (which you are about to become the beneficiary of).
He spends weeks and months before our vacations comparing hotel reviews online, referencing books from the library and that we’ve purchased at Barnes and Noble, tracking down the cheapest flights and car rentals (apparently flights are cheaper on Tuesdays), and finding all of the coolest sights to see and activities to do at each of our planned locations while calculating distances and time for each. It’s a lot of work, but he truly enjoys it and I’ve chocked it up to a hobby of his, of sorts.
Here is the PDF of our itinerary: CA COASTAL VACATION(blog itinerary)
On the way out of LA, we made an ad hoc stop to see the ostriches or emus or whatever these unattractive creatures are called. It was actually pretty entertaining feeding them and witnessing how a small child’s hand could easily be torn off in the process. For an extra laugh, when your traveling partner is feeding the emus, be sure to sneak behind them and give their hair a tug.
We (my husband) selected all of the hotels based on the biggest bang for our buck (which was usually around $150-$200 per night). Our trip was about 9 days, but you can make it longer or shorter depending on how long you take at each stop. Wine Valley Inn is located in the picturesque Danish town of Solvang–all of the shops, restaurants, and buildings are Danish inspired. In Solvang, we meandered in and out of the town stores stopping for more extended lengths of time in the wine shops to sample the local varieties. Our favorite was Carivintas, which vineyard has a large philanthropic component focused on saving wild horses and other suffering animals. There were lots of dogs laying about the tasting room while we were there–so charming.
Of course, my husband is always scouting for deals wherever we go…I love this about him.
The drive up the coast is so beautiful, the scenery itself is a meditation, and I didn’t mind at all the many hours spent in the car because of the breathtaking scenery. For part of the trip, you literally drive along the ocean and the rest of the way (depending on which route you take) next to cows grazing plains that meet vast blue skies.
Climbing the dunes at Pismo State beach–incredible! I remember we took a lengthy work call right before stepping onto the sand. It feels as though you’ve been dropped into the Middle East straight from Central California.
Lunch sampling fried seafood and beer.
Do not miss Hearst Castle!! It is a bit out of the way and cumbersome to get to, but absolutely mind-boggling. The house was built by newspaper tycoon William Hearst in the EARLY 1920S!–there is no city nearby and you have to drive about 30 minutes up a mountain on a dirt road to get to it. The ranch has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, wine cellars, a movie theater, airfield, and the world’s largest private zoo. Hearst brought in highly-coveted art, ceilings, door, floors, and furniture from all over the world to make his home breathtaking. He would entertain there with the most influential people in the world by flying them into the property. My favorite fact was that Hearst would have See’s chocolates waiting out for his guests in the foyer as they arrived (yum). An invitation to his home was equivalent to the Sun Valley Conference invite of the present day.
There are many places along the way to stop and observe native wildlife. We went on our trip in March–so check the season you’re vacationing in and make sure what you’re trying to see will be out and about at that time. For example, the monarch butterflies we were supposed to find in Monterey decided to head south a week early to Mexico, so we missed them on our trip. We were not, however, short on elephant seals.
If you miss everything else on our list, make sure to check out Treebones in Big Sur. The property is overlooking the Pacific and completely off the grid. It is a resort composed of Yurts, with an infinity pool, a sushi lodge, live music in the evenings next to a fire, yoga at 6 am (we went!), and free waffles with maple syrup for breakfast. They also use steam from the kitchens to heat the pool and water systems and solar panels for energy. My husband and I chatted for quite a while with the married owners of the property, who came from corporate america and decided to bring their dream to fruition by building this Treebones.
This trip was before my husband and I started working together, and both owners individually cautioned against it, advising that unless we were committed to many future years of couples therapy, don’t do it.
We started working together when we got back from that trip and 3 years later…I understand where they were coming from.
I have always wanted to see Esalen, so we planned to visit the hot springs that night at 1 am (when the property is open to the public). This was one of the only activities on the itinerary that we missed–the pitch black night, windey, narrow roads of the Big Sur mountains that overlooked a 3 mile drop into the Pacific ocean were just not as tempting as our cozy, yurt bed. But Esalen is at the top of our list for our next CA roadtrip.
JuliaPfeiffer Burns State Park was a relaxing hike with spectacular views, again, it was mind-blowing to me that people lived up there and were somehow able to get supplies and food. We found that many of the wealthy individuals that had homes in these remote California locations were working executives that flew back and forth to California from their day jobs in New York.
After taking full advantage of our free waffle breakfast at Treebones (which, by the way, is partially known for their homemade waffle mix that did not disappoint), we woke up early the next morning to look for jade on a small beach nearby. This isn’t on our itinerary for some reason, so we may have gotten a tip from the hotel conceirge or a local that we chatted up the day before. Regardless where the idea sprouted from, all I remember is that it was very early–because to find the jade you have to get there at low tide before the sun comes up–and that my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) spent an inordinate amount of time searching while I strolled closer to the shore taking pictures of frogs and rocks.
Unfortunately, no jade. But he did find an off-color rock that may have been a distant cousin. Thus, it was all worth it.
There were so many beautiful areas for hiking that we stopped to explore. Here was one of them just outside Big Sur.
The itinerary doesn’t specify it, but the Beach Resort in Monterey is actually a Best Western. But my guess is it’s the most fabulous Best Western you’ll ever stay at. The property is right on the beach, literally, only about 200 feet from the shoreline so that at high-tide the waves are crashing against the outside wall of the building. If you are beach-deprived, like we are on the east coast, leaving the windows open at night and listening to the ocean just outside that close could not have been more perfect.
We splurged a little on the hotel in San Fran so that we could stay downtown and on the way there stopped at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Why would anyone learn to scuba dive when this place exists and you can eat ice cream and snap photos at the same time?
I spent a summer in San Francisco, so we visited a few of my favorite places (which all included food) on our stopover, including the dumplings in Chinatown, lunch at Cafe Gratitude, and afternoon tea at Samovar.
And last, but not least, Napa. We originally put together a list of the wineries to visit, but on the way in spotted the Visitor’s Center and my husband insisted on running in. Lucky he did, because it made all the difference. Not only did they give us some great recommendations, but also free coupons to all the vineyards we wanted to visit, so that the only thing we paid for that day was the bottle of wine we bought. The Darioush vineyard turned out to be our favorite: the building next to the vineyard itself is stunning and unique, you snack on pistachios while sipping the wines (Persian style), the store inside is beautiful and filled with high-end luxury finds, and wines themselves delicious, including the 2009 Signature Cabernet highlighting black licorice and blackberries. This was the only bottle of wine we bought that day, which we saved for a special occasion a few years later.
I hope this summary of our trip was useful and that you have an incredible adventure if you decide to go. Feel free to email me or post in the comments any questions or let me know if you have suggestions for improvements to our itinerary so that we can use them for our next trip!