California's central coast comprises some of the most spectacular shoreline including the Monterey Peninsula and the Big Sur coast, with gnarled trees, cliffs, rugged shores and bays.
The Pacific Coast Highway (also called Highway 1) stretches along most of California's coastline and from San Francisco it passes the small bayside city of Santa Cruz with its famous Beach Boardwalk to the Monterey Peninsula. Called the 'Jewel of the Central Coast', Monterey's beauty has been immortalised by artists, writers and photographers, appearing in books like John Steinbeck's and the black and white photographs of Ansel Adams. Its diverse cultural heritage is evident in its Spanish architecture and lively harbour and wharf district.
Monterey marks the northern edge of the wild and undeveloped Big Sur coast with Highway 1 crawling along the edge of the rocky cliffs that hang precipitously over the crashing surf below. Big Sur refers to the entire 90-mile (145km) stretch of wilderness between Monterey and San Simeon. The often nerve-racking drive, especially when blanketed in thick fog, takes visitors along one of the most dramatic and exhilarating coastlines on earth, hemmed between the mountains of the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific Ocean. The area provides a peaceful respite from the frantic energy of the cities, with little more to do than enjoy the mountains, cliff-top views and occasionally accessible beach coves.
The highway curves into the wealthy American Riviera town of Santa Barbara, an attractive coastal town with golden beaches, red-tile roofs and outdoor cafes.
One of the most beautiful cities on the central California coast, Monterey was originally the state capital of California and has a rich Hispanic heritage. Set on a stunning coastline of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs, Monterey is a relaxing place to enjoy outdoor activities like golf, bicycling, surfing, kayaking and hiking.
Monterey was the setting for some of John Steinbeck's most famous novels, and visitors can explore literary neighbourhoods like Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf, which have many good art galleries and excellent restaurants serving freshly caught local seafood. The Path of History winds around Old Monterey (known as Monterey State Historic Park), and guided tours are available. There are several interesting museums in the area, including the Maritime Museum of History, Presidio of Monterey Museum, Old Whaling Station and Pacific House Museum.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great place to see local wildlife, including the abundant sea otter population. Children will also love the playgrounds and paddle boats at Dennis the Menace Park, and the interactive exhibits at the Monterey County Youth Museum.
The surrounding region offers many additional attractions and excursions. The famous 17-Mile Drive has breathtaking coastal views through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach, while the wineries of Carmel Valley offer wine tastings and tours. Point Lobos State Reserve and the State Parks comprising Big Sur make for an amazing afternoon drive and hiking session, and the pretty village of Carmel-by-the-Sea has idyllic beaches.
Voted the world's best seaside amusement park, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is enjoyable for all ages with its collection of carnival rides, classic arcade games, and active pursuits like mini golf, bowling and laser tag. Founded in 1907, Beach Boardwalk is also one of California's oldest amusement parks. Having recently received an upgrade, with the addition of two new thrilling rides, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk provides just as much fun and excitement as ever.
Santa Barbara is known as the "American Riviera", thanks to its gorgeous weather, clean air, and beach-centred lifestyle. This attractive and historic coastal town is framed by the Pacific Ocean and San Ynez Mountains, and is located just off Highway 1, 80 miles (120km) north of Los Angeles. Santa Barbara has a character and laid-back energy all of its own, and attracts both wealthy weekenders and tourists seeking respite from the busyness of the larger urban centres to the north and south.
Apart from relaxing on the fabulous beaches, there is plenty else to see and do here. Surrounding the beachfront are several popular bike trails, including local favourite the Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Bike Trail. Santa Barbara Channel is rated one of the world's best land-based whale watching sites, with over 30 different species of whales and dolphin viewable at different times of the year. The scenic waterfront is another major draw card, including Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf on the west coast of America. And if all that sightseeing and sun-tanning works up an appetite, don't miss the area's highly regarded Mexican food, which may be complemented by a tasting or two at one of over 100 local wineries.
A tour of the town would ideally start at the beach front, from where State Street stretches into the historical and attractive downtown area. A stroll here will take visitors past charming boutiques, stores and eateries. The Spanish colonial-style buildings of the area reflect its history, although many are modern replicas built after the devastating 1925 earthquake. The surviving Santa Barbara Mission, built in 1786, is a landmark building, known for its twin bell towers and rolling green lawns (picnickers welcome); while the Santa Barbara Courthouse is renowned for its classical, stately proportions.
In many ways, that earthquake was a great boon for the city, which had grown into a dense and unattractive agglomeration of different building styles. Once the dust had settled, city planners were able to restore the red-roofed adobe structures that today grace so many tourist photographs.
Santa Barbara attracts the rich and famous for both vacations and as residents. Oprah Winfrey has a 42-acre estate here, and Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Lopez are in the vicinity. The town is also home to the highly regarded college, University of California at Santa Barbara, and four other colleges, providing a youthful counterpoint to the reclusive celebrities, retirees and yachting crowd that make up the area's tax base.
One of the most opulent mansions in the US, Hearst Castle was the residence of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919 and 1947, the residence was originally envisioned as a modest bungalow, but ballooned to a massive Spanish Revival castle.
Located near San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle is a popular tourist attraction along the Pacific Coast Highway in California. The magnificent residence has 165 rooms, including 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 19 sitting rooms, all richly decorated with ceilings Byzantine tapestries, Spanish and Italian art, fireplaces from Gothic castles and Egyptian statues.
Other amenities at Hearst Castle include indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theatre, airfield, and even a private zoo (zebras and a few other exotic animals still roam the grounds). The Neptune Pool especially is a highlight of the estate, offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and Pacific Ocean. The grounds, spreading across 250,000 acres (1,012 sq km), are bursting with colour as manicured gardens bloom with tulips, bougainvillea, lilies, gladiolus and agapanthus.
Tours of Hearst Castle include a film of the estate's construction, and visitors can choose between several tours, including the Grand Rooms Museum, Upstairs Suites Museum, Cottages and Kitchen and Evening Museum Tour. Advance bookings are recommended, and can be made up to eight weeks ahead of time.
The stunning landscape of Pinnacles National Monument offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities like camping, hiking, rock climbing and birdwatching. The park gets its name from the eroded leftovers of half of an extinct volcano, which form the distinctive spires and crags. Talus caves like the Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves are popular attractions, and can be explored with flashlights. The park's location just off the US 101 highway makes it a convenient stop on any California road trip, offering a few hours active entertainment for families on holiday.
A small city at the north end of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is a fun weekend getaway with a bohemian atmosphere. Popular tourist attractions like the picturesque Beach Amusement Park and Boardwalk are great for families, and the beaches are some of the best along the California coast. One of the most famous attractions in Santa Cruz is the Mystery Spot, a kind of tilt-induced visual illusion known as a gravity hill. The effect is that the laws of physics and gravity seem to be turned on their heads, causing misperceptions of height and orientation.
Big Sur, immortalised in song and literature, beckons travellers with art galleries, restaurants, redwood-filled state parks, steep canyons, dramatically beautiful coves and one breathtaking view after another. Highlights along this famous stretch include the much-photographed McWay Falls within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the Point Sur State Historic Park, Limekiln State Park, Salmon Creek Falls, and Ragged Point. Other big drawcards along the Pacific Coast Highway include Hearst Castle and Pinnacles National Monument, not to mention numerous incredible walking trails.
Popular travel hubs along this famous stretch include Monterey, one of the most picturesque cities in California, Santa Barbara, renowned as the glamorous 'American Riviera', and Santa Cruz, a small, laid-back city with a pleasantly bohemian atmosphere. The Central Coast of California is also home to many lifestyle retreats and luxury hotels in beautiful, sometimes secluded, natural surroundings, and it is easily possible to find accommodation outside of the big cities and towns.
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