Santa Cruz has marched to its own beat since long before the Beat Generation. It’s counterculture central, a touchy-feely, new-agey city famous for its leftie-liberal politics and live-and-let-live ideology – except when it comes to dogs (rarely allowed off-leash), parking (meters run seven days a week) and Republicans (allegedly shot on sight).
San Luis Obispo
Almost midway between LA and San Francisco, at the junction of Hwys 101 and 1, San Luis Obispo is a popular overnight stop for road trippers. With no must-see attractions, SLO might not seem to warrant much of your time. Even so, this low-key town has an enviably high quality of life – in fact, it has been named America’s happiest city.
With borderline fanatical devotion to its canine citizens, quaint Carmel has the well-manicured feel of a country club. Watch the parade of behatted ladies toting fancy-label shopping bags to lunch and dapper gents driving top-down convertibles along Ocean Ave, the village’s slow-mo main drag.
In northern San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles is the heart of a historic agricultural region where grapes are now the biggest money-making crop. Scores of wineries along Hwy 46 produce a brave new world of more-than-respectable bottles. The Mediterranean climate is yielding another bounty too: olive oil.
Best known as the birthplace of John Steinbeck and nicknamed the ‘Salad Bowl of the World,’ Salinas is a working-class agricultural center with down-and-out streets. It makes a thought-provoking contrast with the affluence of the Monterey Peninsula, a fact of life that helped shape Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden.
Founded as a tranquil Methodist summer retreat in 1875, PG maintained its quaint, holier-than-thou attitude well into the 20th century. The selling of liquor was illegal up until 1969, making it California’s last ‘dry’ town. Today, leafy streets are lined by stately Victorian homes and a charming, compact downtown orbits Lighthouse Ave.
Backed by a wooden pier that stretches toward the setting sun, Pismo Beach is where James Dean once trysted with Pier Angeli. Fronted by an invitingly wide, sandy beach, this 1950s-retro town feels like somewhere straight out of Rebel Without a Cause or American Graffiti. If you’re looking for a sand-and-surf respite from coastal road tripping, break your journey here.
With a whopping dose of natural beauty, the coastal idyll of Cambria is a lone pearl cast along the coast. Built on lands that once belonged to Mission San Miguel, one of the village’s first nicknames was Slabtown, after the rough pieces of wood that pioneer buildings were constructed from.
Six miles east of Santa Cruz, the diminutive beach town of Capitola nestles quaintly between ocean bluffs. Show up for mid-September’s Capitola Art & Wine Festival, or the famous Begonia Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, with a flotilla of floral floats along Soquel Creek.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Winding between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley, Hwy 9 is a 40-mile backwoods byway through the Santa Cruz Mountains, passing tiny towns, towering redwood forests and fog-kissed vineyards (estate-bottled Pinot Noir is a specialty). Many wineries are only open for ‘Passport Days’ on the third Saturday of January, April, July and November.
Moss Landing & Elkhorn Slough
Hwy 1 swings back toward the coast at Moss Landing, just south of the Santa Cruz County line, almost 20 miles north of Monterey. From the working fishing harbor, Sanctuary Cruises operates whale-watching and dolphin-spotting cruises year-round aboard biodiesel-fueled boats (reservations essential).