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Central California, skirting around the crowds

Central California has many delightful features, but on summer weekends stuck on Highway 1 in Big Sur you can feel like you're in a Walmart parking lot. My family is planning to do this trip over the Father's Day weekend, with the express goal of enjoying the good things about the central part of the state without making our lives a living hell.

Channel Islands

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We will be starting in Los Angeles and ending up in the Bay Area. My first leg is to do the reverse trip, which I have lately been enjoying on super-cheap motorcoaches with wifi (Bolt Bus or Megabus). It's a 6+ hour trip, but you get to throw any type of luggage in the cargo hold and enjoy an uninterrupted block of time to work or nap, instead of being nibbled to death by the twin ducks of airline rules (can I take this camping stove on the plane?) and the useless slivers of airport time.

My family will pick me up in Hollywood and we'll go on a quick hike in Griffith Park, then enjoy dinner in Koreatown before an early bedtime.

Up early on Friday morning to drive to Oxnard in time for our 10AM ferry to Channel Islands National Park. We'll be visiting the closest island, Anacapa, which is a nursery for seabirds. Hope for smooth seas!

Anacapa Island | Island Packers Cruises

After that we'll be ready for a dinner of famous Santa Maria BBQ! My friend Kevin, a native of San Luis Obispo, suggests AJ Spurs in Templeton where you can get a good steak in at atmosphere he calls "pure central coast cowboy". Remember that in this area they prefer sirloin to the tri-tip that is synonymous with Santa Maria BBQ elsewhere.

Update: the 3-hour boat tour around Anacapa turned out to be far more entertaining than I'd imagined. The first hour is slow, I'm not gonna lie, and my brother got very seasick... but the crew were more than helpful and kind, and the unafflicted can happily bask in the sun while munching on a hamper of snacks brought from home. We saw endless seabirds including sooty shearwaters, pigeon guillemots, and I think even a stray red-footed booby... and on the trip back we saw dolphins, a mola-mola, and TWO blue whales!

When we hit the dock after 1PM, we were more than ready for a gigantic lunch of fried cod and chips at a Ventura Harbor restaurant called Andria's. Unless you have a superhuman appetite, I recommend two people split one order of fish and chips which is 6 pieces of fish -- or order a la carte, which is 3 pieces. Do NOT overeat! It is critical to save room for dinner tonight! A quick visit to the Channel Islands National Park visitors center further down the harbor will yield souvenirs, information on marine life, and a replica of the famous pygmy mammoths.

A walk on the beach at Morro Bay will help you recruit your appetite for dinner. Templeton turns out to be a moneyed replica of a cowboy town, complete with false-fronted "stores" which mostly are occupied by financial advisors or wine bars. AJ Spurs is the only destination restaurant in town, although a couple of others are soon to open, and it boasts endless cattle-country charm. You basically just pick a meat -- I strongly urge the oak-grilled sirloin, although my dining companions enjoyed the unusual beef ribs -- which will be served with vegetable-beef soup, pinquinto beans, salsa, garlic bread, rice pilaf, fried potatoes and onions, and root beer floats for dessert. There is plentiful booze and live music every night in the saloon, and on Saturday mornings a truly wonderful farmers market in the town park. Take a minute to walk to the back of the park and admire the municipal Santa Maria style BBQ setups, with plenty of room for a fire of oak logs and a grill that adjusts up or down over the flames on metal chains.

Saturday we will awake in a motel in Atascadero, and sleep at Pinnacles National Park. In between we will be meandering around Paso Robles, I hope to visit this olive ranch:

and perhaps this distillery that makes vodka and gin out of grape skins:

There are any number of fancy wineries and restaurants in the "new Napa", but that's not really my thing.

Update: after a quick breakfast at McDonald's -- the upscale alternative is Joe's in Templeton, since the cattle auction barn cafe closed -- we shopped for dinner supplies at the Templeton farmer's market (summer squash and asparagus for grilling, guacamole supplies, fruit), and the Albertson's in Paso Robles (steak, beer), which carries the full line of Re:find Distillery vodkas and gins although they were a little too spendy for my taste. Then we were off to Pasolivo for the 11AM opening of the tasting room.

Pasolivo is amazingly beautiful, educational, and delicious -- try to bring some bread and cheese (no wine please, the roads are narrow and twisty!) so you can picnic among the oaks with the acorn woodpeckers. The tasting is generous and free of charge, but you will find it basically impossible to avoid whipping out the credit cards to buy their amazing products. If you evince interest in the process, one of the showroom ladies will give you a tour of the pressing room which to my mind was the best part of the visit. If you have the funds you can do all your holiday shopping in the showroom, they have enticing spice blends and soaps and unguents and olive-wood salt cellars in addition to the oils themselves.

There is nowhere to eat or rest between Paso and Pinnacles National Park other than King City, which turns out to be a hotbed of delicious Mexican foods. We chose El Lugarcito for some slightly unusual seafood dishes -- I got the octopus tostada, while my brother loved the shrimp ranchero -- in the Michoacan style, served with deserved pride and hospitality.

If you visit Pinnacles during the summer, you need to be prepared for the brutal oven-like heat. There is a swimming pool, bring a swimsuit if you don't mind children; a store that sells ice and popsicles; and if you own one of those sunshade tent thingies, this would be a great time to break it out. We hiked a short but steep and shady trail, the reservoir loop, and visited the air-conditioned nature center.

Sunday is another early morning, this time to hike around Pinnacles. If you are going to the Balconies cave, remember to pack a headlamp or flashlight cause it's dark in there! Then we will end up back at my house in the Bay Area, ready for a shower and some yummy food to celebrate Fathers Day and a relaxing, surprisingly inexpensive trip around Central California.

Pinnacles National Park

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