Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the four hundred or so miles of the Central Coast are home to a few modestly sized cities and lined by clean, sandy beaches and dramatic stretches of cliffs and capes. Of the various highlights, Big Sur is one of the most rugged and beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, Santa Barbara is a wealthy resort full of old and new money, and Santa Cruz is a coastal town with multiple identities. In between, languorous San Luis Obispo makes a good base for visiting Hearst Castle, the hilltop palace of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Almost all of the towns grew up around the original Spanish Catholic missions, many of which feature their original architecture – Monterey, 120 miles south of San Francisco, was California’s capital under Spain and Mexico, and briefly the state capital in 1850.
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Beautifully sited on gently sloping hills above the Pacific Ocean, SANTA BARBARA’s low-slung Spanish Revival buildings feature red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls, while its wide, golden beaches are lined by palm trees along a curving bay. State Street, the main drag, is home to an appealing assortment of diners, bookshops, coffeehouses and nightclubs.
While not an official geographical designation, wild and craggy BIG SUR is the de facto regional name for the ninety miles of rocky cliffs and crashing seas along the California coast between Hearst Castle and the Monterey Peninsula; the breathtakingly unspoilt area extends inland for about twenty miles, well into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Running through this striking terrain is exhilarating Hwy-1, carved out of bedrock cliffs hundreds of feet above the frothing ocean and opened in 1937. Resist the temptation to bust through Big Sur in a single day, though; the best way to enjoy its perfect isolation and beauty is slowly. Leave the car behind as often as you can and wander through its numerous parks, where a mere ten-minute walk can completely remove you from any hint of the built environment.
The quintessential California beach town, SANTA CRUZ, 75 miles south of San Francisco, is sited at the foot of thickly wooded mountains beside clean, sandy beaches. Its strong hippie vibe and university-town status provides a sharp contrast to the upscale resort sophistication of Monterey Peninsula across the bay.