SPY Travel Guide: Weekend Getaway Along California’s Central Coast

Central Coast California Guide
Image courtesy of the author/ David Donald Sutherland

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* We took a trip across the Central Coast of California
* Find out our favorite spots to stay, see, eat, and drink
* Plus a mini-review of our ride – the new 2018 Buick Encore

It’s no surprise that California is one of the most desirable and multifaceted travel destinations in the world. There are few other states where you can reasonably travel to the coast, the desert, the mountains, and a major metropolitan city all in one day.

While the outer regions of California are no stranger to praise thanks to their natural beauty and tourist-friendly destinations, the Central Coast is full of a slew of hidden gems not to be missed. The middle of California is a checkerboard of natural beauty, off-beat themed hotels, roadside attractions, historic monuments, plenty of good food, and of course, gorgeous beaches.

Nanci Sweeney
4 years
I have been on this exact route and I have to say....the writer did a wonderful job...

Nanci Sweeney
4 years
I have been on this exact route and I have to say….the writer did a wonderful job…

I took a mini-road trip from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo over a long weekend recently, and got to explore the neglected middle child of California, stopping at some of the coolest spots lesser known to non-locals and tourists. Along the way, I got to test out the new 2018 Buick Encore – a compact SUV that completely redefines what it means to be an SUV and shatters the age-old perception that Buicks are for dads and grandfathers.

Here are some of my suggestions on places to stop, shop, eat, and stay for those interested in visiting the highly underrated midsection of the Golden State.

central coast weekendAll images courtesy of the author



One of the most important considerations when planning a road trip is obviously your method of transportation. We decided to test drive a 2018 Buick Encore for our trip, because we needed something roomy enough for two people (and all our stuff), while also being gas efficient and easy to drive through the winding roads of the Central Coast.

2018 buick encore review

Our verdict: this compact SUV shatters all of your preconceived notions on SUVs and who should be driving them (for the record, I’m not a soccer mom, and I love this car).

First of all, the Encore is a dream for Angelenos who are constantly circling for parking and having to squeeze into tight spots without adequate parallel parking skills. It’s marketed as a SUV but its profile is more sleek than big and bulky. The ultra clear backup camera on the dash also helps with this too.

Even though I’m not a soccer mom or a grandfather, one of my favorite aspects of the Encore was its impressive safety features. I mean, who wouldn’t want to drive a car that warns you when you’re about to crash into the car in front of you or veer into another lane? Collisions and car crashes aren’t exactly cheap, and these features definitely saved the day a couple of times on the freeway.

If you’re like 50% of drivers today, you probably forget to look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before switching lanes from time to time. Thankfully, the Encore is equipped with a “Side Blind Zone Alert,” which alerts you when it senses a car in the blind spot.

Find Out More About The Buick Encore SUV

Of course, if you’re not looking for a built-in backseat driver, you can turn these life-saving features off, but I’m not sure why you’d want to. Aside from the safety features, this SUV was genuinely a dream to drive. It’s designed with a turbo engine which gives it some serious responsiveness without being overly touchy. It’s also got a stellar turning radius that beats my mid-size sedan by a long shot, and it comes with some awesome amenities like a built-in WiFi hot spot, Apple Car Play, and Android Auto (depending on what kind of phone you use).

buick encore 2018 lifestyle

Another key point of consideration when judging a car’s road trip eligibility level is obviously its gas mileage. In my mind, any SUV is automatically grouped into the gas guzzler category of vehicles. But the Encore shocked me with how incredible it was on gas. It gets up to 33 MPG on the highway, and 25 in the city. In other words, we only had to fill up once on the way up and once on the way back — which is pretty impressive for travelling over 400+ miles round-trip.

Overall, this Buick made the road trip car time actually fun. Even when we ran into grueling gridlock traffic in Santa Barbara on the way home, being able to listen to the New York Times podcast, The Daily and I Heart Radio (along with some snacks) saved my cranky boyfriend and I from a having a total meltdown in the middle of stopped traffic. I felt safe, secure, and 100% entertained the entire drive. Plus, the exterior of the Encore isn’t hard of the eyes either; its sleek design and decked out interior even made the cut for a snapshot on my Kodak Mini Short and old school disposable camera. Film isn’t exactly cheap these days, so you have to be selective, and the Encore definitely made the cut.




Ojai is small mountain town about an hour and half Northeast of Los Angeles county. Seated in a valley against the backdrop of the Topatopa mountains, it’s long been a go-to destination for outdoor weddings and weekend getaways for those who want to reset with the help of nature or even a day of wine tasting in the mountains. Over the years, Ojai’s been touted for its dedication to organic living and fostering a palpable (but not overly intrusive) “zen” culture, but even if you’re not into the New Age lifestyle or simply aren’t looking to test the waters of meditation and yoga, there’s plenty to see and do.

ojai photosImage courtesy of Shutterstock

And while it may feel quaint and cozy with overarching theme of spirituality in the air (hey, it’s better than smog), there’s certainly no shortage of both upscale and hipster-friendly things to see and do here. It’s well-endowed with several boutique hotels, plenty of hiking opportunities, fine dining, wine-tasting, and a budding craft beer scene.

Living in Los Angeles county leaves you with no shortage of good coffee options to choose from on a daily basis. But I was really pleasantly surprised when we went over to Beacon Coffee in the morning. Not only does their organic meets modern aesthetic strike the right balance between “hip” and cozy, but the quality of their coffee is rivaled by few coffee roasters as far as I’m concerned. Plus, unlike many coffee shops in LA, you don’t have to be subjected to pretentious baristas or the pain of having to find street parking for a ten-minute stop. Getting a delicious cup of coffee without a parking ticket or being judged for asking for milk was a zen enough experience for me.

For dinner, I suggest heading to one of Ojai’s culinary institutions, the Ojai Deer Lodge. It has a welcoming ambiance that makes you feel like you’re staying in a cabin with close friends on a skiing trip or something, except the cabin comes with a fully stocked bar and delicious food. You’ll find plenty of hearty meals on the menu, from their signature beer-spiked IPA Chili to the St. Louis style ribs plate.

If you’re looking for a more fine dining experience, check out Nocciola, an upscale restaurant specializing in traditional Italian food with a contemporary twist.

For lodging, Ojai has a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfast lodging options to accommodate any budget. I suggest checking out the Ojai Rancho Inn. It’s upscale, but not stuffy. It kind of feels like you’re staying at the one friend’s apartment who has enviable interior design skills and a well-curated selection of home decor pieces that they somehow managed to score a thrift store or flea market. If you’re looking for an Insta-worthy spot that feels comfortable, but still comes with all the amenities of a standard hotel, this is the place for you.

Ojai Rancho Inn Image courtesy of Trip Advisor



One of the most underrated and neglected wonders in California is the unassuming beach city, Pismo Beach. While you won’t find rows of  luxury boutiques or hipster-approved microbreweries lining the sand-dusted streets, Pismo Beach has a nostalgic aura to it that reminds of your childhood summer vacations — an effect amplified by balmy, saltwater-spiked air and rustic architecture.

As the name of this town indicates, bumming it on the beach is one of your best bets when looking for things to do here. If you’re looking for more of a water-less adventure, take a drive over to the Pismo Beach sand dunes. Whether you chose to walk, rent an ATV, or go horseback riding, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a different world as you watch the mountains of sand adapt to the wind’s metamorphosing effects.

Unsurprisingly, seafood is a culinary staple in Pismo Beach, and the best restaurants in this city are reflective of the city’s surf culture. Head to SeaVenture Restaurant for dinner, where you’ll find some of the best fish and oysters along the central coast, as well as plenty of options for vegetarian and gluten-free diners.

There are no shortage of oceanfront lodging options here, but our top pick is the Shore Cliff Hotel. This large hotel is perched right against the beach, so you can wake up and have your breakfast on the sand before taking an invigorating dip in the Pacific Ocean.

pizmo beach sand dunes

Book Your Stay at Shore Cliff Hotel




I’ll admit it: it’s been a life long dream of mine to stay the legendary Madonna Inn Hotel in San Luis Obispo. So, for this portion of the trip, the destination was the hotel – and frankly, I really didn’t want to leave its premise at any point during our stay, especially not when it was time to check out.

It would take you a full week to explore the Madonna Inn’s expansive property to the fullest. You can spend an entire day alone just lounging in their luxe outdoor pool, getting treatments at their in-house spa, or playing tennis or basketball on their hot pink courts.

If you’re not familiar with this magical themed hotel, each of the 110 guest rooms are designed with a unique theme, and decorated accordingly. The hotel’s western-meets-romantic aesthetic is punctuated with decorative elements borrowed from a number of unlikely decorative styles, from the opulent furnishings reminiscent of the Baroque era to western-inspired accents, to — presumably — Barbie’s dreamhouse. We stayed in the Marguerite room, accented with blue floral printed wallpaper and gilded Baroque mirrors throughout. If Marie Antoinette collaborated with a Disney Princess to execute the interior design for this whimsical room, I imagine the Marguerite would be the outcome.

madonna inn hotel Image courtesy of Trip Advisor

Hotel food often gets a bad rep, especially when the hotel has a borderline campy ambiance palpable in virtually every area you pass through. But your stay at the Madonna Inn is simply incomplete if you don’t have dinner at their in-house Gold Rush Steakhouse. Sure, you could probably find a better steak if you really wanted to critique the menu with a righteous foodie mentality, but you won’t find another steakhouse that evokes anywhere near the level of sensory overload as this one. Outfitted with hot pink vinyl booths, millennial pink table settings, opulent floral arrangements looming from the ceiling, and even rose-patterned carpeting, the Gold Rush Steakhouse offers visitors an unapologetically indulgent experience — not just a meal.

hearst castle review Image courtesy of Shutterstock

If you do choose to leave the hotel, I suggest making the trip to the The Hearst Castle. It’s about a 30 minute drive from the hotel, but this cultural epicenter is 100% worth the trip.

The historic landmark served as the estate of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (who also owns the Hearst family of magazines) and became a National Historic Landmark operating like an art museum after his death in the 1950s. Open to the public for tours on a daily basis, the Hearst Castle is an architectural wonder filled with Hearst’s sizable collection of fine art, antiques, classical sculptures, and home to the infamous Neptune and Roman pools. You could literally spend days getting lost on the massive, beautifully-landscaped property.

A last tidbit: I did this road trip as part of a long weekend, though it’s easy to do in a couple of nights too (I’d recommend visiting Pismo Beach but not staying there overnight). For those who have a few extra days, I would definitely spend more time at The Hearst Castle, and then explore some of the wine-making regions along the Central Coast too, where you can sip some great Pinots and Chardonnays, while taking in the scenery, relaxed vibe and fresh air. There is definitely a lot of California to discover.