This Long-overlooked California Region Has Offbeat Hotels, Stunning Beaches and Hiking Trails, and Some of the Best Wines in the West

The bountiful Central Coast is much more than just a scenic stretch of highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Pier at Pismo Beach, in California
The Pismo Beach Pier. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Pismo Beach

Editor's Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

The lunch menu at solar-powered Niner Estates in Paso Robles reads like a long list of nearby fields, purveyors, mills, and dairy farms: greens from Windrose Farm, lentils and grains from Kandarian Organic Farms, goat cheese from Central Coast Creamery. Not to mention the estate's own edible garden, chicken coop, and olive groves. At this winery, the crisp Bruts and fruit-forward Pinots are not to be missed — but the on-site restaurant is perhaps even more special.

Though it's one of the newer wineries in the region, Niner represents much of what the Central Coast has long stood for: family-owned enterprises, constantly pushing to do things differently while retaining a strong sense of community. This sentiment is echoed from hubs like Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo to the beach towns further north. Along with the excellent food and wine, stunning beaches, and plentiful hiking trails, it's this feeling that stays with visitors — and brings them back.

Vineyards at Kukkula Winery, in California
Vineyards at Kukkula winery. Courtesy of Kukkula Winery

The historic wine region around Paso Robles now has some 200 wineries, many cult favorites, with an experimental bent that sets them apart from those in Napa and Sonoma. At Kukkula, owner and winemaker Kevin Jussila dry-farms 50 acres of grape vines, 32 acres of walnuts, and eight acres of French varietals of olives. Jussila's progressive approach focuses on growing the best fruit and not meddling too much in the cellar. But the innovation goes beyond wine; up the road, at Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, owner Audrey Burnam tours visitors around their 2,700 olive trees, culminating with a tasting including olive oil-drizzled ice cream. Burnam and her husband were bicycling through Tuscany when they first encountered the grassy, intense flavors of the local olive oil — and decided to become producers themselves.

Find more off-the-wall bottles at Tin City, a repurposed industrial complex on the outskirts of Paso now home to a complex of tasting rooms and pop-ups. Same sample a Chenin Blanc at Desparada, sip cider aged in Bourbon casks at Tin City Cider, and grab a sheep-milk ice cream cone at Negranti Creamery. At the 12-seat Six Test Kitchen, chef Ricky Odbert serves a tasting menu with inventive dishes like spider crab with sorrel and pomelo.

Paso's hotel scene is also keeping up. The 24-room Piccolo, an urban offshoot of the winery resort Paso Robles Inn, debuted downtown in October with a much-anticipated rooftop bar. The beloved equestrian-themed Hotel Cheval recently added a 20-room across the street from the original inn, just off Paso's main square. And even if you don't stay at the Tuscan-style, art-filled Allegretto Vineyard Resort, you can still head to Cello, its on-site restaurant, for a brunch of huevos rancheros.

Nearby San Luis Obispo — affectionately known as SLO — has been ranked among the country's happiest in recent years, flanked by beaches and dramatic mountain peaks. It's also seen the arrival of two game-changing properties in recent months: Hotel San Luis Obispo, the newest project from the family behind Hotel Healdsburg, features white oak floors, handmade textiles, private terraces in each of its 78 rooms. And the 65-key Hotel Cerro, opened in January, was built to LEED Silver specifications and boasts a 4,000-square-foot hydrotherapy spa.

Balcony of a guest room at the Hotel San Luis Obispo
Rosé on a guest room balcony at Hotel San Luis Obispo. Tanveer Badal/Courtesy of Hotel San Luis Obispo

SLO is also a gateway to the emerging Edna Valley wine region, which has grown to encompass more than a dozen wineries since emerging in the 1980s. With some of the oldest vines in the area, Wolff Vineyards stands out for its exceptional Rieslings. Edna Valley Vineyard showcases Chardonnays and Pinots in a bright, recently renovated tasting room, and families spread out blankets and play lawn games at Malene Wines, which serves Provence-style rosés out of a roving Airstream trailer.

The Pacific Coast Highway is what road trip dreams are made of, and the hippie beach towns that dot California's craggy shoreline are also coming into their own. In Pismo Beach, the recently opened 124-room Vespera on Ocean is an ideal family getaway overlooking the Pacific — but still within a few minutes' drive of Pismo's famed butterfly groves. Further north in Cayucos, the Brown Butter Cookie Company, opened by two sisters, does brisk business in delicious shortbread-style cookies topped with sea salt. The aromas of brown butter, cocoa, and almond waft down the street from its two-story bakery on Cayucos' main drag.

Airstream at Malene Wines in California
Courtesy of Malene Wines

Once-sleepy Cambria is flush with galleries, boutiques, and California cuisine, with standouts like the gluten-free restaurant Hidden Kitchen and Robin's, a 35-year-old legend known for its vegetable-centric dishes prepared with local ingredients. Linn's is known for its famous Olallieberry pie, which chef Renee Linn began making more than 30 years ago — don't leave the Central Coast without tasting a slice!

The quintessential stop on the PCH is Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, which celebrates its centennial this year. William Randolph Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to build the 165-room manor and 123 acres of gardens, pavilions, and pools. The much-photographed Neptune Pool, with its statues and colonnades, was recently renovated and refilled, and is open for buyout on certain dates throughout the year. From there, drive past the estate's horses and zebras on your way to the Hearst Ranch Winery for aromatic Chardonnays in a new tasting room with sweeping ocean views.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Place in the Sun. Vespera on Ocean provided support for the reporting of this story.

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