Looking for a road trip off the beaten path in the USA? Visit California’s Central Coast.

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Central Coast is one of the most beautiful and underrated road trip destination in Claifornia
Central Coast is one of California’s most beautiful and underrated road trip destinations.

As someone who has road-tripped through many of California’s star attractions, I decided to go off the grid this time and explore some lesser-known places. I chose the Central Coast of California because it offers a great combination of epic and diverse beaches and coastal valleys, bountiful agriculture, wineries and cuisine, unique historical attractions, and the authentic rural California experience, making it the perfect destination for an epic 8-day road trip.

On the way from Monterey to Paso Robles, California
On the way from Monterey to Paso Robles, California

The region is blessed with mild, balmy weather with 284 days of sunshine, miles of scenic coastal drives, surf-friendly beaches, lush vineyards, and ocean adventures like no other. However, during my visit, a series of powerful winter storms hit the area and caused flooding and mudslides that the region hadn’t seen in over fifty years, so I had to activate Plan B. Despite the change in plans, I could still experience the beauty and diversity of the Central Coast in a different light, indulging in indoor activities such as wine tasting, museum visits, spa treatments, and even bowling.

Places I covered in the Central Coast of California

I visited four stunning destinations during my road trip – Santa Cruz, Monterey-Carmel Valley, Paso Robles, and Oxnard. Each place offered its own unique charm and attractions, making me realize why California is known as the Golden State. In this article, I’ll share my experiences, focusing on the highlights of each destination in Central Coast, California.

Is Santa Cruz, CA, worth visiting during a Central Coast trip to California?
Is Santa Cruz, CA, worth visiting during a Central Coast trip to California?

Santa Cruz: A Seaside Paradise (2 Days)

My first stop was Santa Cruz, a seaside paradise located only an hour’s drive from San Jose. Although the drive was a bit dreamy with partly rain-soaked and foggy weather, it was well worth the journey. Santa Cruz is known for its high-stoke surf culture and expansive beaches, but there is so much more to this laid-back strip of shoreline.

Santa Cruz Wharf, California
Santa Cruz Wharf, California

I stayed at Dream Inn, a 1960s-era hotel built on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first shop. The 165 rooms, all of which boast ocean views and private balconies or patios, were beachy-chic with colourful, surf-inspired décor in a turquoise blue and white colour theme. Despite the rainy weather, the view from my 10th-floor room was to die for.

Dream Inn, Santa Cruz, Central Coast, California
Dream Inn, Santa Cruz, Central Coast, California

My first stop in Santa Cruz was Jack O’Neill Restaurant in Dream Inn. This part lounge, part museum, had surfboards on the ceiling and surf-inspired accents and artwork throughout the restaurant. The menu featured an eclectic mix of dishes made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and innovative flavour combinations that even non-foodies will appreciate. The restaurant is also committed to sustainability, using eco-friendly practices in all of its operations.

Jack O'Neill Restaurant at Dream Inn, Santa Cruz, California
Jack O’Neill Restaurant at Dream Inn, Santa Cruz, California

Although the rainy weather hampered some of my planned activities, I still managed to explore some of Santa Cruz’s famous spots. I walked along the Santa Cruz Wharf, the oldest and longest wooden wharf in the United States, and visited Natural Bridges State Park & Beach, a part of the 3-mile drive.

Natural Bridges State Park & Beach, a part of the 3-mile drive of Santa Cruz, California.
Natural Bridges State Park & Beach, a part of the 3-mile drive of Santa Cruz, California.

I also had a fantastic wine-tasting experience at Birichino Tasting Room, where I tried five different wines made with minimal intervention to allow the grapes to express themselves fully. Penny Ice Creamery is a must-visit spot in downtown Santa Cruz, where the designer ice creams and sorbets are made in-house entirely from scratch.

After the flood warning was lifted on the second day, I visited the famous Capitola village. My first pitstop was Gayle’s Bakery + Rosticceria, a landmark for locals. They had the freshest and best pastries in town, along with a variety of salads, soups and in-house coffee. I roamed around the picturesque Capitola village before making my way to Shadowbrook Restaurant, where I had the most romantic dinner of my trip. Everything about this place was top-notch, whether it was to do with the interiors, location, service or food and wine quality.

The must-visit restaurants and food places in Santa Cruz are (LRTB) Shadowbrook Restaurant, Gayle's Bakery + Rosticceria, Birichino Tasting Room, Penny Ice Creamery & Picnic Basket
The must-visit restaurants and food places in Santa Cruz are (LRTB) Shadowbrook Restaurant, Gayle’s Bakery, Birichino Tasting Room, Penny Ice Creamery & Picnic Basket

Despite the weather constraints, I had a fantastic time exploring the charming town of Santa Cruz and trying out its unique experiences. If you have time, visit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and Lighthouse, all worth a visit. With so much to offer, Santa Cruz is a must.

Monterey Bay: A Gateway to the Scenic Beauty of California’s Central Coast (2 Days)

After spending two days in Santa Cruz, it was time to visit one of the most popular destinations on the Central Coast – Monterey Bay- a beautiful coastal destination I could not get enough of. My most recent trip was a delight, as I was able to indulge in several activities and experiences that were both exhilarating and soothing.

Monterey Bay, California
Monterey Bay, California

My stay at the luxurious Portola Hotel and Spa was an excellent choice. Its location near downtown Monterey and Fisherman’s Wharf provided easy access to many attractions. The atrium with trees in the central area gave the place a natural, peaceful vibe, while the airy rooms with bay views were spectacular. The sunrise view from my room was simply epic.

Portola Hotel and Spa is beautifully designed and provides easy access to many attractions in Monterey
Portola Hotel and Spa is beautifully designed and provides easy access to many attractions in Monterey

As a sustainability writer, my first stop was the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which aims to inspire ocean conservation. It boasts more than 35,000 creatures from over 550 species in nearly 200 exhibits filling 24 major galleries. The Aquarium’s collective efforts have contributed to making Monterey County the third certified “Green Destination” in the United States on the Global Destination Sustainability Index. The newly opened Deep exhibit was my favourite, displaying the mysterious creatures of the deep sea, and I was also smitten with the adorable penguins.

Schooners at the Monterey Plaza Hotel was perfect for a meal after the Aquarium. It has been voted “best drink with a view” in Monterey and serves contemporary American cuisine, with a focus on carefully sourced seafood. As a vegetarian, I was delighted to find a yummy selection of soups and salads. The unobstructed views from the heated waterfront terrace made the experience even more memorable.

Despite being a vegetarian, I loved my lunch at Schooners, Monterey, California
Despite being a vegetarian, I loved my lunch at Schooners

To relax and unwind, I headed to Vista Blue Spa on the top floor of the Monterey Plaza Hotel. The spa provides a sophisticated escape with panoramic views of Monterey Bay. The 50-minute CBD massage was the perfect indulgence for me.

In the evening, I strolled around the Pacific Grove area. It started pouring heavily, so I quickly made my way to Alejandro – a Mexican restaurant that transports its guests straight to the Yucatan Peninsula in an elegantly designed space. All the dishes were excellent, but I really loved their four salsas of different heats and flavours. The menu featured unique spins on classic Mexican dishes, handmade tortillas and inventive cocktails.

On my second day in Monterey Bay, I visited a classic all-American breakfast spot, First Awakenings. It quickly became my favourite breakfast place for the entire Central Coast road trip. The pancakes were top-notch, with a wide variety of toppings to choose from. I tried their walnut, choco chip, and a banana pancake, which was incredibly fluffy and big enough to share between two people. The omelettes, salads, and in-house coffee were also delicious. I was impressed with their use of fresh, organic, and high-quality ingredients, giving this restaurant a solid 10/10 rating. First Awakenings opens at 7 a.m., so it’s the perfect spot to start your day.

Unfortunately, the rain returned, but it gave me the opportunity to visit two unique and underrated museums in the area. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is one of the oldest natural history museums in the United States. This non-profit organization chronicles the natural history of Central Coast flora and fauna. The atmosphere was friendly, and I saw many small children playfully enjoying the exhibits. A short walk from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History was the Pacific Grove Art Center, which has become a go-to place for emerging artists, including photographers, musicians, and other creatives. The entrance was free, but visitors were encouraged to donate and help support the local art scene. The Art Center has hosted many renowned artists, making it a must-visit for art enthusiasts.

Checking out a photography exhibition at Pacific Grove Art Center, Monterey, California
Checking out a photography exhibition at Pacific Grove Art Center, Monterey, California

I headed to Stationaery in Carmel Sur for lunch, which looked simple from the outside but was extraordinary in food preparation and presentation. The restaurant celebrates comforting flavours with an elegant presentation, offering an intimate space for breakfast, lunch, speciality coffee, and natural wines. I ordered the shakshuka, bursting with flavours. After lunch, I decided to try wine-tasting at two prominent wine-tasting rooms of the Carmel valley – Albatross Ridge and Caraccioli Cellars. The family-owned and operated Albatross Ridge is the passion project of the father-son duo Brad and Garrett Bowlus. The Carmel Valley vineyard focuses exclusively on creating remarkable Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and small amounts of pétillant natural rosé. Caraccioli Cellars is a family-run winery founded in 2006 and is committed to producing wines that express true to vintage and vineyard wines. I particularly loved Caraccioli Cellars because of the server’s passion and knowledge while serving me.

Afterwards, I strolled around the Art District of Carmel-by-the-Sea, admiring the stunning artist-owned galleries. In the evening, I checked out a local Jazz bar called Pearl Hour, named after a line from Monterey County native John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. This place has become a local favourite, offering an ever-changing menu, creative cocktails, weekly live jazz shows, and dedicated LGBTQIA+ nights. I enjoyed a simple pizza for dinner at Jacks, Portola Hotel and Spa. Although there was not an extensive menu, the taste was good.

On my final day, I stopped by Alta Bakery & Cafe for a hearty breakfast before leaving Monterey. Established in 1869, this bakery and café focus on locally grown, seasonal ingredients and bright flavours, making it a great way to end my trip.

Some of the best resaturants and bars to visit in Monterey are First Awakenings, Alejandro, Stationary, Pearl Hour, Alta Bakery and Cafe
Some of the best resaturants and bars to visit in Monterey are First Awakenings, Alejandro, Stationary, Pearl Hour, Alta Bakery and Cafe

Overall, my experience in Monterey Bay was filled with natural beauty, art, and good food. If you have more time to explore the area, I highly recommend visiting 17-mile Drive, Moss Landing State Beach, San Carlos Beach, Pebble Beach Spanish Bay, Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. And, if it’s a clear day, hike Point Lobos State Natural Reserve or go on a whale-watching tour.

Paso Robles: A Wine Enthusiast’s Dream (1.5 Days)

Paso Robles Vineyards. Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash
Paso Robles Vineyards. Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash

Paso Robles, a charming town nestled on the Central Coast of California, is a wine lover’s paradise. It’s no wonder Travel + Leisure named it one of the 10 Best Small Towns to Retire in the U.S. As I explored the town for two days, I quickly discovered why it earned this accolade. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, Paso Robles boasts over 200 world-class wineries, a walkable town centre, and friendly locals.

My journey began at Robert Hall Winery, the beating heart of the Central Coast wine region. I was immediately struck by the breathtaking views of the coastal mountain range that enveloped the vineyards. The winery‘s Managing Director, Caine Thompson, generously shared the story behind Robert Hall and what sets them apart.

The winery’s philosophy is rooted in a deep commitment to sustainable practices, including reducing water usage and promoting biodiversity in the vineyards. They also use a “minimal intervention” approach to winemaking, allowing the grapes to express themselves as naturally as possible.

I was thrilled to experience the food and wine pairing at Robert Hall Winery. The five-course meal was not only a chance to indulge in delicious food and wine but also to learn about the regenerative organic practices that the winery is committed to. It was inspiring to see the positive impact these practices have on the land and the community.

After my wine tasting, I had the opportunity to sample the award-winning estate-grown olive oil at Pasolivo. Elenor guided me through a tasting session of various olive oils and seasonings. I was impressed by the quality and diversity of flavours, and I couldn’t resist purchasing a few bottles for myself and my friends.

Award-winning Olive estate of Pasolivo, Paso Robles, California
Award-winning Olive estate of Pasolivo, Paso Robles, California

I then checked into the Lofts at Paso Market Walk, an upscale designer accommodation for creative souls like myself. The two-room suite was the perfect place to unwind and recharge after a day of wine and olive oil tasting.

My culinary adventure continued at In Bloom, a Michelin-recommended restaurant celebrating Paso Robles’ food and wine culture in every dish. The menu frequently changes and features fresh ingredients sourced from local farms and purveyors. I savoured the Sunchoke, fresh sourdough bread with freshly made butter and honey, a new carrot dish, and their signature drink, “The Rover,” which came with a fragrant elderflower smoke bubble.

The next day, I indulged in artisanal coffee and pastries at the Paso Market Walk before heading to Finca for lunch. This casual Mexican restaurant highlights Baja and Sonora-style cuisine, emphasizing wood-grilled seafood and carne asada. Patrick, the owner, shared the restaurant’s history, which was a brainchild of his son and daughter-in-law.

Paso Market Wark is a great place to sample artisanal coffee and pastries, multi-cuisine restauarnts and an uber chic accomodation.
Paso Market Wark is a great place to sample artisanal coffee and pastries, multi-cuisine restauarnts and an uber chic accomodation.

Before departing for my final destination on my 8-day Central Coast road trip, I explored the walkable Paso Robles Downtown. It had everything a traveller could ask for, from upscale clothing boutiques to local artisan shops, gourmet food, and wine-tasting rooms. Although I’m not much of a shopper, I loved exploring Firefly Paso, Bijou, and the General Store. Firefly Paso specializes in women’s vintage-inspired clothing, handmade jewellery, cocktail books, home decor, and gifts for kids. Bijou combines a unique mix of whimsy, fashion, and function, and the General Store is well-known in Paso for being home to all things “tasty, lovely, and useful” with a focus on locally-sourced goods.

The Paso Robles walkable Downtown, California
The Paso Robles walkable Downtown

In my brief time in Paso Robles, I was really impressed by small town appeal but also amazed by the range of experiences it had to offer, from the world-class wineries and delicious local cuisine to the unique shops and boutiques in the downtown area, making it a perfect destination for a memorable road trip on California’s Central Coast.

Oxnard: A Coastal Town with a Rich Cultural Heritage (2.5 Days)

Golden hour at sand dunes of Oxnard, Ventura County, California
Golden hour at sand dunes of Oxnard, Ventura County, California

Nestled only sixty miles northwest of Los Angeles and close to Santa Barbara, Oxnard is a hidden gem waiting to be explored. With its Spanish colonial roots, scenic beaches, and bustling harbour, this coastal town offers a rich cultural heritage that will enchant any traveller.

My journey to Oxnard began with a three-hour scenic drive from Paso Robles, where I was treated to picturesque views of green hills, grazing cows, and vineyards before the landscape transformed into coastal strips along Highway 101. Upon arrival, I checked into Zachari Dunes, California’s only all-suite oceanfront resort on Mandalay Beach. The lobby was a sight to behold, with plush sofas, a giant chandelier, and carefully curated art pieces. My two-bedroom suite overlooked the dunes and the ocean, and the hotel amenities included a pool with cabanas, tennis courts, and on-site dining facilities.

Zachary Dunes, California's only all-suite oceanfront resort on Mandalay Beach in Oxnard, California
Zachari Dunes California’s only all-suite oceanfront resort on Mandalay Beach in Oxnard, California
Oxnard Harbour, Ventura County, Oxnard
Oxnard Harbour, Ventura County, Oxnard

For dinner, I headed to Haven at Whitesails, one of the best restaurants in Oxnard that serves authentic Caribbean and Vegan cuisine while overlooking Westport Marina.

The following day, I planned to go whale-watching at the Channel Islands at Oxnard Harbor, but the weather was too rough. Instead, I headed to Bowlero, a 32,000-square-foot bowling alley at The Collection at RiverPark, which offers bowling, fast eats, and entertainment.

I then visited Strey Cellars, a husband-wife-owned winery that prides itself on its unique varietals and sustainable and ethical winemaking practices. I sampled some of their modern flavours and admired the décor of their tasting room.

Strey Cellars in Ventura County, California, doubles up as an intimate wedding and small party venue.
Strey Cellars in Ventura County, California, doubles up as an intimate wedding and small party venue.

After a hearty lunch at Waterside restaurant, I explored Heritage Square, a historical and cultural center that preserves the turn-of-the-century architecture of Oxnard. The square houses over 25 businesses, including a restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a gift shop.

In the evening, I enjoyed dinner and cocktails at 1901 Speakeasy Jazz Bar, located in the Laurent-McGrath House, before returning to my hotel.

On the last day of my trip, I visited Kiddie Beach, where sea lion pups were lounging, and admired the local artists’ mural on a nearby wall. I then headed to the Oxnard Center to see the famous ‘Greetings from Oxnard’ mural before enjoying a Mariachi Brunch at Copper Blues Rock Pub & Kitchen.

Sea lions lounging on the Kiddie Beach, Oxnard, California
Sea lions lounging on Kiddie Beach, Oxnard, California.

Despite the bad weather, my trip to Oxnard was unforgettable. This charming coastal town offers an array of activities for any traveller, from whale watching to wine tasting to beach exploration. I hope to return soon to experience Oxnard’s beauty under clear blue skies.


In conclusion, this road trip through the offbeat destinations of the central coast of California was a unique and memorable experience. Despite the stormy weather, I was able to experience the beauty and diversity of the region in a different light. I got to taste the best of Californian cuisine, indulge in wine tasting, and explore the indoor offerings of these vibrant cities, collectively making it a unique yet successful trip. From the charming coastal town of Oxnard with its rich cultural heritage and scenic beaches to the laid-back charm of Paso Robles with its award-winning wineries and the quirky beach town of Santa Cruz with its iconic boardwalk, this trip had it all. It was a great opportunity to explore some lesser-known destinations in California and I can’t wait to return and experience the region’s beauty in clear blue skies and sunny weather.

For Further Reading:

5 Best Northern California Road Trips to bolster your soul

Why I left my heart in San Francisco, California

5 Cool Things to Do in Palm Springs, California, USA

7 Best short road trips from NYC(Opens in a new browser tab)

An Epic 10-day Iceland Roadtrip through spectacular landscapes(Opens in a new browser tab)


Visit California invited me to do this road trip on the Central Coast of California. But all the experiences mentioned above are my own, and I took all the pictures during my stay. Please do not copy anything without Travel See Write’s permission. 


  • Alita Pacio says:

    One of the bestthings about travelling is discovering the off beaten paths of a place and not the touristy ones. The central coast of California will give you the best travel memories.

  • Lisa says:

    Oh this looks like a great trip! I have saved it for my travel inspo list. I also like your pink jumper with the flowers 🙂

  • Nyxie says:

    How gorgeous! We have some lovely sights here in Ireland, but they are completely different to that of California! Both are beautiful in their own right but in a different ways. The photo during golden hour on the dunes is wallpaper worthy!

  • Stephanie says:

    What a fun trip! I like finding the places that aren’t as touristy. I’ve only been to California twice so to the big cities (for conferences) and would love to go back to just explore.

  • Rose Ann Sales says:

    Wow! Sounds like a really wonderful and amazing place to visit with the whole family!

  • Maureen says:

    Yessss! Central Coast is not only stunning, but there’s so much to do and there’s definitely something for everyone. I need to revisit Oxnard in Ventura County, as it’s been years since I’ve been, and considering summer break to do just that!

  • Amber says:

    Yes! I have travelled to this area on my own in the past. Very relaxing and great for reconnecting with self and grounding.

  • Gervin Khan says:

    Wow! These are amazing places to visit.
    The kind of places that you will be relax and enjoy at the same time.

  • Monidipa says:

    Been there in 2015 with my husband who was my boyfriend then; beautiful place, a good ride, and this post gave me happy happy feelings.
    Lots of Love from me.

  • Angie Rose says:

    This looks like an absolutely wonderful trip. The photos are absolutely spectacular. I’ve always wanted to visit Monterey Bay. Hopefully I will someday!

  • MELANIE E says:

    It sounds like you had a really lovely trip. California is on my bucket list, it sounds liek such a lovely place to visit. I will need to look into going to Oxnard. I’ve notheard of that place before but it sounds lovely.

  • Ntensibe Edgar says:

    Wwwwoooowwwwww….this is a side of California I rarely see. I should visit the beaches and waters soon, once I am here! Thanks for sharing.

  • Rose Ann Sales says:

    I always wanted to go and visit central coast! Such a really wonderful place.

  • Julie says:

    It looks like your trip to the central coast of California was amazing! I’ve been to the Santa Cruz area as I have relatives that live there, but I haven’t been to the other places that you mention. I’m bookmarking this article for when I go to visit them again. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • knycx journeying says:

    Wow, there are so many places and I would love to visit them one by one some day when I am in Cali! Love the list and I am saving it for my future trips – Knycx Journeying

  • Lasonia says:

    What a beautiful place! California is on my list of places to visit. We are hoping to get there next year.

  • Fransic verso says:

    Wow, it look so pretty and these awesome things to do there. I will keep these in mind to try them when going there!

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