The “Other” California: Road Tripping the Central Coast

Feature Photo Credit: Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau


Most leisure travel to California would likely include San Francisco or Los Angeles, but there are special secrets waiting to be discovered along the gorgeous central coast. Although cable cars may climb halfway to the stars in the City by the Bay and celebrity stars may walk the streets of Hollywood, the coastal city of Monterey plays host to intrepid visitors with exploration of Central California. With cool bay breezes fanning the city, an engaging four day itinerary provides for a perfect year round getaway. 

Monterery's Fisherman’s Wharf | Photo: Steve Leland

Day 1. Meet in Monterey County

The slow pace and casual vibe of Monterey is tweaked to perfection with its small town main street spilling out onto the colorful Fisherman’s Wharf where feasting on seafood direct from the ocean is a considered a must. Accompanied by the soundtrack cry of seagulls and barking sea lions, the visual buffet continues along the promenade of the picturesque marina filled with sailing vessels.

A multi-mile coastal pedestrian pathway provides an opportunity to witness seals and otters frolicking in the crystal clear waters of the bay with a backdrop of colorful flowers, endemic succulents and shrubs lining the walkway.  Less than a mile along you’ll comes across Cannery Row made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name. Lined with shops hawking souvenirs, clothing and delectable sweets, it is also home to upscale hotels and small inns. Bicycles and family pedaled surreys are available for rent and are very popular with specific lanes for safe and comfortable navigation.  

At the far end of the street, visitors can experience the underwater marvels of ocean life at the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium. Several buildings and floors feature fascinating displays of jellyfish, fish of all shapes and sizes, octopus and squid as well as an entertaining penguin exhibit. Allow a minimum of a half day to cover the facility properly.

Whether walking or biking, continue along to the rock outcrop of Lover’s Point, flanked by the endearing Lighthouse Ave of Pacific Grove. There are numerous B & B accommodations, inns as well as small hotels along this coastal paradise that satisfy dreams of indelible seascape vistas.  

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium | Photo: Steve Leland

Day 2. Experience Mother Nature

Monterey is well known for it’s off shore whale feeding grounds and opportunities abound to witness these gentle giants by participating in a whale watching excursion. Sightseeing boats depart from inside Fisherman’s Wharf with several departures each day.

For more active pursuits rent a kayak and paddle your way through the bay, gliding alongside sea lions or view hundred’s of nesting cormorants on the rocks of the Coast Guard jetty or hang ten with a gentle surf lesson alongside the old pier where fishing vessels unload their day’s catch. The historic Customs House, the oldest government building in the state is open to visitors as well as several adobe homes from California’s early days.

An afternoon drive to Santa Cruz provides ample locations that challenge more advanced surf dudes and dudettes. Nearby Capitola is a quaint little coastal village that evokes  characteristic color synonymous with the California beach scene.  A late afternoon drive to Salinas passes through massive fields of agricultural produce. Known for artichokes, you’ll also witness strawberries, romaine lettuce, avocado orchards and every imaginable vegetable in varying stages of growth.

Eating It Up

Downtown Salinas is lined with historic buildings and period architecture occupied by diverse shops and restaurants with eyes drawn to its hallmark theater with exquisite exterior design. Due to the Hispanic demographic of the city there is no better place to sample authentic Mexican food and delving into the fascinating menu at the popular Villa Azteca is an experience not to be missed. Blending generational family recipes and utilizing natural ingredients with trendy plating styles, it’s not your typical Mexican fare.  Imagine prickly pear crispy shrimp as a starter followed by a chile relleno in mole sauce with pumpkin seeds. 

Monterey, California
Villa Azteca Prickly Pear Shrimp | Photo: Steve Leland

Day 3. Wine Me Up

Napa might be your first thought when it comes to California wines but oenophiles will find even more to brag about by traveling southward on a wonderful outing to the wine country of Paso Robles.  While Napa might feature the Mondavi’s, Sterlings and other prominent shelf brands, the wines of the specialized vineyards of Paso Robles expand taste sensations. 

Paso Robles is a delightful town centered around a park square and provides gastronomic rewards for those making the trip, but the reason for this journey of discovery is to sample exclusive fruits of the vine. Considered as one of the top wineries in the region, Jada Vineyard has proven to experts year after year that it’s vintages are the result of perfected winemaking techniques curated by famed regional wine masters under the watchful eye of the Messina family. Grandfather Carl Messina brought his proprietary Italian winemaking heritage to the U.S. in the early 1900’s, eventually passing it down to his son Jack who founded this exclusive boutique winery celebrating its first vintage in 2008.

The tasting room is surrounded by the diverse varietals that line the west facing hills of the preferred Willow Creek District. Flights consist of six premium 2018 reds, that could be considered on the level of French Grand Cru designation are sampled along with expertly paired cheeses. With names like Hell’s Kitchen, Jackjohn, Jersey Girl and Passing By reflecting family connections and the nurturing and harvesting of the grapes adhere to 100% organic principles.

Jada estate wines will not be found on shelves for retail sale and can only be purchased direct from the vineyard or through their exclusive wine club. Reservations for tastings are highly suggested.

Napa Valley
Jada Winery | Photo: Steve Leland

Day 4. On The Road Again

Working your way back to the coast, a stop at Morro Bay provides a glimpse into geological history with a walk around the massive rock formation that is a 25 million year old volcano plug. Further along is the charming little town of Cambria and beyond that is the sprawling estate of William Hearst and the Hearst Castle. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is nothing short of inspiring cinema. A stop at Piedras Blancas is a must to view the hundreds of Elephant Seals that come here to breed and give birth to new generations.

As the journey’s grand finale, continuing along the coast and through Big Sur provides a stunning spectacle of oceanside cliffs, crashing waves pounding rock formations, awesome seascapes and the opportunity to cross the iconic Bixby Bridge.

For golfing aficionados, there are numerous world class golf courses with the well known Pebble Beach course in neighboring Carmel playing host to professional tournaments. For jazz music lovers, Monterey is home to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival with world famous performers.

Within a short drive visitors can hike scenic trails in an assortment of state parks in the mountains, alongside creeks or the coastal cliffs. Venture through the rock formations of nearby Pinnacles National Park or if time allows a day’s drive will take you to the majestic sights of Yosemite  Park.

Cruise ships make limited port calls to Monterey and flights into Monterey Regional Airport are available from major gateways. As an alternative fly into San Francisco and rent a car. However you plan to visit, the call to head west is well heeded with a multi-day itinerary to Monterey, the “other” California.


Photo: Steve Leland

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.