Beach getaways
Central CA beach towns are worth the drive

If there’s one natural paradise that is easy to reach for nearly all Californians, it’s the Central California Coast. Whether you’re coming from the south, the north or the Central Valley, you won’t have to plan on overnight stop along the way.

The beach towns along this part of the California Coast are certainly worth a few hours on the road. The scenery along here is some of the most beautiful in the state, and the area is just far enough south that even the northern cities boast a temperate climate.

From south to north, here are three of our favorites:

Ventura

We were looking for a town with its own ambience or cultural flair and we found all we needed in Ventura, one of those places that we always wondered about as we drove through this area on our way up to other scenic destinations on the Central California Coast. For us, this was drive-by country - scenic, yes, but always someplace we just passed on the way to someplace else.

Ventura's location is really quite an advantage for travelers. For Southern California residents, it's an easy drive that takes you just beyond the megalopolis where back-to-back cities finally give way to a coastline that is less overwhelmed by development. If time's short, no need to drive the extra couple hours each way to enjoy the beaches of the Central Coast.

For Northern Californians, Ventura is a just close enough to the "Big City" to be a reasonable base of operations for visits to many L.A. tourist attractions, most within an hour's drive. Yet, you're staying in the quintessential California beach community that is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Don't want to go into the city for a day? Just chill out on some of the state's most scenic beaches.

Within minutes of arrival at our beachfront hotel, we were walking the promenade that stretches far in both directions along the shore. A more-than-adequate beach, complete with childrens' play equipment, is just footsteps from the hotel, as is the Ventura Pier with its seafood restaurants, strolling visitors and die-hard anglers just hoping to reel in some dinner. Bikes and other contraptions are available for rent and, on this Sunday, vendors offered a variety of wares in the plaza just between the beach and our hotel.

Just up California Street from our hotel was a colorful small-town shopping district with shops of all kinds, restaurants and a high concentration of antique stores that are fun to browse. Several surf shops are nearby and, like other California beach towns, the feel is more retro than trendy. The historic City Hall sits majestically on a slight hill at the edge of the downtown district, serving to remind us that Ventura really is a town and not just a stretch of uncoordinated beach development.

Intersecting with California Street is Main Street and, if you walk just a few blocks, you come upon the Mission San Buenaventura. This mission was established on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782 and became the ninth California mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. Fires and earthquakes have taken their toll on the mission but, over the years, local residents have restored the building to much of its former glory. In any event, the mission "feels" original and is worth a stop when you're downtown.

Just across the street from the mission is the Museum of History and Art, which offers a broad range of exhibits tucked into a relatively small space. Historical artifacts, farm implements, 18th Century figurines - the museum offers quite a variety.

There are about two miles of beach in the Ventura area that are considered to be part of the local State Park, and visitors are enthralled by the wide, relatively unpopulated beach where one can look out on the Channel Islands and also get a spectacular view of the coastline stretching west and north to Santa Barbara.

For more information, visit CaliforniaWeekend’s Ventura County lodging section.

Pismo Beach

Further up California's Central Coast is the area around Pismo Beach, a treasure trove for the traveler -- from wineries to historic sites to wide, expansive beaches, this part of California seems to have it all. And, if a beach vacation is in your plans, you could

The ocean, of course, is at the top of the list when you visit Pismo Beach. There are numerous lodgings on the beach and, during a recent visit, we rented a beachfront hotel unit and enjoyed some great family time exploring Pismo Beach, checking out the waterfront caves and walking the endless beaches. The funky pier area is loaded with kids' attractions which made our 5-year-old quite happy.

The sea was a little rough during the time we visited so we didn't get a chance to spot much of the sea life that is so abundant along this part of the California coastline. It turns out that Dolphin Bay, where we were staying, actually has that name for a reason — its waters are home to long-beaked and short-beaked common dolphins as well as several other variations of dolphins and porpoises. Seals, sea otters and gray whales also are often sighted in the area, especially in the winter months.

As you might expect, the area's golf courses take full advantage of the area's scenic beauty and the ocean breezes make even the warmest days ideal for getting a little exercise. Other significant attractions near Pismo Beach include: Beaches, beaches and more beaches -- The beaches, in fact, are often the main reason visitors come to this part of California and Pismo Beach is just the beginning. More than 80 miles of beaches are ready for exploration, each just a little different than the one preceding it. Driving Highway 1 along the coast is a kaleidoscope of colorful beach scenes that offer everything from wide, sandy beaches for sun worshippers to craggy shoreline perfect for finding tide pools and various forms of sea life.

Montana de Oro State Park — This 8,000-acre park includes some 50 miles of well-maintained trails. Visitors enjoy hiking, biking and horseback riding on these trails and there is shore-fishing and scuba diving from the park's beaches.

Paso Robles — Drive inland a ways and you'll see that the Paso Robles area presents another type of getaway experience altogether — a group of 80 tasting rooms just waiting for you to stop and enjoy the fruits of these up-and-coming wineries. Paso Robles hasn't been discovered to the degree that Napa has, so prices are lower and the locals say the quality is just as good. In this particular region, the volcanic soil has made the local grapes especially appropriate for red wines.

For more information, visit CaliforniaWeekend’s Pismo Beach lodging section.

Cambria

If long walks along a driftwood-strewn beach are your idea of a trip to the sea, then Moonstone Beach in Cambria is probably a good candidate for your next outing to the California Coast. Cambria is a place where you can spend hours each day walking - on the beach, on the boardwalk and through a quaint, historic artist's colony chock-full of art galleries as well as unique shops and good restaurants.

Cambria is in San Luis Obispo County and located in an area that gives visitors several options for short daytrips. The wineries are just a few miles east, Hearst Castle just a few miles north. Some of California's best beaches are a short drive to the south. And San Luis Obispo is just a few miles south and inland.

Along this special part of the California Coast, the walks are the thing. It's said you can walk entirely around the town of Cambria, including lengthy sections of a first-class boardwalk skirting the shoreline and complete this circumnavigation in about four hours. We settled for good long beach walks where we found plenty to explore including tidepools, small caves, interesting rock formations, abundant driftwood and, of course, the constant backdrop of the ocean waves crashing on shore with incredible fury.

We also walked the town itself, enjoying the many galleries and historic buildings such the Squibb House, originally built in 1877. Shops downtown are often located in historical buildings, or have motifs designed to highlight the historical nature of the village. Some shops are quite stylish and are located in relatively new shopping centers with historic designs.

We took a short drive and noticed the scenery in this part of San Luis Obispo County is what really makes it appealing -- the closer you are to the coast, the more Monterey pines appear. The combination of rolling hills, quiet winding roads and towering pines makes this getaway a feast for the senses.

Maybe the biggest attraction for Cambria visitors is the Hearst Castle, just a half-hour drive up the coastline. Film stars like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Charlie Chaplain once boarded the train in Los Angeles to travel through the night up the California coast to reach the palatial hilltop estate of William Randolf Hearst.

Today, tourists arrive at the Hearst Castle by bus - yes, even if you drive your car, you won't get to the castle unless you're riding in one of the Park Service's motor coaches that shuttle visitors up and down the winding, narrow five-mile road to the castle. With well over a million annual visitors, the castle now has a fleet of buses and a bus station to rival that of a good-size city.

Several tours are offered, so you'll need to visit more than once if you're intent on seeing the entire estate. But we found the two-hour introductory tour to be quite thorough, allowing access to many of the more spectacular parts of the castle. The tour guides here are obviously selected for their storytelling skills and ours, in particular, offered numerous anecdotes about Hearst and his many guests, and about the great time and expense that went into creating one of our country's grandest homes.

For more information, visit CaliforniaWeekend’s Cambria lodging section.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Ventura is your kind of California vacation, also check out our articles on a Central Coast romantic getaway, Dana Point and Napa Valley

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