California's top 5 secret weekend escapes

Advertisement

Most Californians moved here from someplace else, but that doesn't stop us from boasting about the Golden State's coastline like we put it here. Over a long weekend from San Francisco or Los Angeles, you too can earn bragging rights to the top five attractions of California's central coast: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Carmel-By-The-Sea, Big Sur's McWay Falls, Hearst Castle and Santa Barbara's wine country.

But when it comes to where we stay, eat and relax on the Central Coast, Californians clam up like Monterey mollusks. These local favorites are long overdue to emerge from the shadows of their famous neighbors - and, heaven help us, give Californians something else to brag about.

1. Near Monterey: Pacific Grove

Pink jellyfish draw crowds to Monterey Bay Aquarium, but the neighboring seaside village of Pacific Grove will give you butterflies. Monarchs flock from as far away as the Rockies to spend winters in Pacific Grove's Monarch Grove Sanctuary (Ridge Rd at Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove).

If the Aquarium leaves you with local seafood cravings, head two blocks inland for Pacific Grove's finest lunch special under $10: the pan-roasted Monterey sand dab sandwich at Vivolo's Chowder House. Blue Bottle Coffee awaits at Happy Girl Kitchen, where you can also take a pickling class or buy cardamom-infused pickled beets ready-made. At Tessuti Zoo boutique, no aquarium is necessary for octopus cocktail rings and African-print angelfish hand-sewn on the premises.

Related article: Ultimate road trip: California's Central Coast

Before hitting 17 Mile Drive for glimpses of sea lions and Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach Golf Course, spend a night at Asilomar in Pirate's Den or Stuck-Up Inn – Art Deco cabins built by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan in 1923-4 to house YWCA summer-camp counselors.

2. Near Carmel: Carmel Valley

Complaining about Carmel 'getting touristy' has been fashionable for more than a century, ever since rebel socialites and Bohemian dreamers converged on its sea bluffs. But Carmel's rugged attractions remain, from the wind-sculpted Lone Cypress to Tor House , the stone tower and cottage hand-built by California's original nature poet, Robinson Jeffers. Photographers have obsessively captured Carmel's silvery coastal light for a century, notably in stunning prints by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham shown at Carmel's Photography West. While photographers may pray at the Carmel Mission for blustery coastal days, shivering Californians now head inland to sunwashed Carmel Valley.

Carmel Valley Road lazily winds between golden foothills and silvery morning mists clinging to valley vineyards. Scenery like this demands photos, picnics, and toasts besides. Stop by Earthbound Farms Organic Kitchen for salads, soups, and picnic supplies, or head 10 miles down the road to Carmel Valley Village for brick-oven pizza at Café Rustica. Compare subtle coastal syrah blends at Chesebro, the centerpiece of a new row of Carmel Valley Village wine-tasting rooms that look like miniature Western saloons.

3. Near McWay Falls: South Big Sur

Hearts flutter as Pacific Highway 1 skitters across narrow Bixby Bridge and twists along Big Sur's sheer sea cliffs. Redwood forests shade miles of protected parkland past Big Sur Village, building scenic drama to a coastal crescendo 12 miles south at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Turning sharply into a cove, Highway 1 suddenly reveals McWay Falls dropping 80 feet onto a cliff-lined beach.

Pause here for end-of-the-world panoramas and whale-watching, but don't linger too long: just 18 miles south along Highway 1, Treebones offers romantic stays in canvas-sided yurts and daring maki (rolls) at the cliff's edge sushi bar (5:30-8pm Wed-Mon). Nearby Sand Dollar Beach is ideal for sunset strolls and two miles further south is Jade Cove, where California's surf-polished green gems are revealed at low tide.

4. Near Hearst Castle: Cambria

Blame it on Citizen Kane: Orson Welles' fictional lonesome tycoon was partly inspired by eccentric media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and the movie's legend still haunts Hearst Castle. Impetuous Hearst kept tearing down his Italian-marbled, Iranian-tiled, Spanish-baroque castle almost as quickly as architect Julia Morgan could build it, so it was never completely finished. The silent-film stars and exotic animals that once roamed Hearst's hilltop estate are long gone – though you may spot a few zebras grazing with the cattle herd downhill at Hearst Ranch. Elephant seals have officially taken over Piedras Blancas, mating, molting and bellyflopping on Hearst's beloved beaches.

But Hearst Castle is not the most eccentric architecture in California - or even the neighborhood. The castle's slag heap provided a steady supply of materials for local garbage collector Arthur Harold Beal, who scavenged tile, wood and the odd bathtub from 1928-79 to build the ramshackle, three-story folk-art shack his Cambria neighbors dubbed Nitt Witt Ridge (881 Hillcrest Dr; tours $10/person by phone reservation at 805-927-2690). Guided visits explain how this Gaudi of garbage created tire-rim archways lined with abalone shells, and made stairway handrails from working plumbing pipes. There must be something in the water in tiny, creative Cambria village, where you can browse locally hand-blown glass at Seekers Gallery, enjoy cross-cultural organic cooking in the garden at Robin's Restaurant, and hear acoustic soul fireside at Cambria Pines Lodge.

5. Near Santa Barbara Wine Country: Paso Robles Wine Country

Ever since their starring role in the Oscar-winning movie Sideways, Santa Barbara County's coastal vineyards have been doing a brisk business in pinot noir. But another wine country just 42 miles east of Hearst Castle is ready for its closeup, specializing in renegade reds. West of Paso Robles, Vineyard Drive winds into a hidden green dell lined with black, gnarled vines and red Rhone-varietal grapes. From earthy Syrahs to gravelly counoise blends, tastings at Rhone pioneer Tablas Creek get first-time tasters talking terroir like aficionados.

For maximum local flavor, hit 70 wineries in an afternoon at annual Paso Robles Wine Fest (May 18-20, 2012), held in Paso Robles' Downtown City Park, also the site of the Paso Robles farmers market (3-6pm Thursdays & 9am-1pm Saturdays) where you'll find picnic fixings (think local artisan cheese, tortilla chips and salsa) and local syrah-scented goat's milk soaps. Stay the night across the street at the historic Paso Robles Inn, where visitors have scrubbed up and wound down in sulfur hot springs ever since this town was a dusty stagecoach stop.