Our California Central Coast Bonanza journal
We’ve gotten to take several trips to California this year and we’re back again! We’ve partnered up with Santa Maria Valley, San Luis Obispo and Cambria to explore the coast, its farm country, and its unique experiences. As we go, we’ll keep updating our journal so you can see a snapshot of the cool things we’re doing!
What you'll find...
- Flying to/from California
- Disneyland with the kids
- Visiting Mission Santa Barbara for the first time
- Santa Maria Valley
- Tacos 805
- Santa Maria Discovery Museum
- Vintage California dining at Shaw’s Steakhouse
- Four different ecosystems at Oso Flaco State Park
- Localest of local food from Willow in Nipomo
- Cooling off with delicious ice cream
- Family friendly wine tasting at Ca’ del Grevino
- Even more California cuisine at the Farwestern Tavern
- Relaxing and enjoying SLO CAL – San Luis Obispo area
- Falling in love with Cambria, California
Flying to/from California
We flew to LAX from SEA on a Saturday morning instead of either Friday night or on a Sunday, as both are very busy travel days. We saved more than $500 for four round trip tickets by choosing this off-peak travel time. We used miles to book a hotel room since we arrived a day earlier than planned and were able to score a visit with friends too! Bonuses all around!
Tip: some airline mileage programs are really difficult to use for actual plane tickets, such as United MileagePlus. We have used our United mileage for a DSLR camera, hotel rooms, gift cards and more.
Disneyland with the kids
Yes, we were just in Disneyland with the kids back in June for the Cars 3 Premiere, but if you have the chance to go for a day and SURPRISE them, why wouldn’t you? Well, we did just that… and it didn’t go well. Yes, Elliott (our youngest) was to the moon and had a blast, but this surprise turned out to be too much for Oliver (the oldest) to handle. He maybe did two rides… but he had multiple epic break downs due to not handling surprises well and already being tired. Oh well, lesson learned.
We still had fun though (even Oliver).
Visiting Mission Santa Barbara for the first time
Mission Santa Barbara has long been on our list of historic California sights to see. Since we were driving from Los Angeles to Santa Maria today, we added this simple stop to our itinerary. Only a mile or so off Highway 101, Mission Santa Barbara is easily accessible and worth at least an hour of your time. If you’re pressed, you can visit in less than an hour, but why? The gardens both within and across from the Mission are beautiful. The cemetery and museum within the Mission are fascinating. The chapel is amazing.
What we loved about Mission Santa Barbara: not raising kids in the church, an active historic mission like this offers the opportunity to explain different aspects of history and religion that we might not normally integrate into our daily conversations. Also, the Mission is extremely photogenic.
Note: another Southern California mission we really enjoyed was Mission San Juan Capistrano. Check it out too!
Santa Maria Valley
We have a few days in the Santa Maria Valley. This area includes the towns of Santa Maria, Nipomo, Orcutt, and a few other small communities. It’s totally different from any other part of Southern California we’ve visited. With a strong Mexican/Mexican-American population, this slice of California feels like another world in comparison to the Los Angeles area we just came from. It’s awesome! There’s more to it though, with wineries, farms, mountains and even dunes. Loving it already!
You know when you’re traveling with kids and you know there’s one thing that will ALWAYS work to keep them happy? For us that’s Mexican food. We found Tacos 805 on Yelp! and gave it a whirl. It was perfect with authentic Mexican food, speedy service and no frills. Oh, and the best salsa ever that we couldn’t stop eating even though it was ten levels spicier than what we’re used to.
Recommendation: get the Torta. Tortas are one of our favorite Mexican foods and this incredible sandwich didn’t disappoint.
Santa Maria Discovery Museum
We visit a lot of children’s museums and each has similarities and differences. Enter Santa Maria Discovery Museum: the kids hadn’t seen ANY of the exhibits and activities before. It was totally awesome for them and we were there until they locked us out. We left peacefully, but we did really watch them lock the gate. The Santa Maria Discovery Museum kept learning local with exhibits directly relating to the nearby ocean, farming, family nutrition and simple machines. There was more, but we should leave some things for others to discover.
Vintage California dining at Shaw’s Steakhouse
Before we got to Santa Maria, we’d seen “Santa Maria style BBQ” show up randomly in reviews and articles online. I get it. This is what it means: it’s farm-fresh produce and local meat straight from the woodfire grill. And it’s all about bounty and being sure you’ve got everything you could possibly need.
Shaw’s Steakhouse was totally out-of-character for us since we rarely eat beef (rarely… rare… get it?). It’s in downtown Santa Maria and has been around for a long time. When we were in Wisconsin this summer we kept hearing about “supper clubs” as they’re a big thing in the Midwest, and Shaw’s is definitely the California version. Steaks cooked to order on an open grill, the never-ending relish tray (veggie snacks), tasty craft-cocktails and… bread pudding. OMG. And the kid-plates were ridiculous portions, which meant that we got to enjoy shrimp with our steaks too. So good. So California.
Four different ecosystems at Oso Flaco State Park
If you didn’t know, we’ve started homeschooling our oldest, Oliver, which means that we’re always finding new ways to teach him (and Elliott) about the world. Today we visited Oso Flaco State Park in Nipomo, California. Today’s lesson plan was provided by nature. After driving through endless fields of vegetable farms we made it to the trail head. The 1.5 mile trail started in a coastal willow forest before moving across Oso Flaco Lake where we saw hundreds of LARGE fish freaking out and splashing and swirling all around.
From the boardwalk we moved onto the dunes, formed over hundreds of years or sand being transported by the wind and ocean. And then down the dunes we made it to the beach! Since the area all around the Oso Flaco trail is protected, it’s pristine with lizards, birds, rodents and beautiful, vibrant plants and flowers. Today’s hike was just what the travel doctor ordered!
Localest of local food from Willow in Nipomo
Localest? Maybe it’s “most local” but whatevs. Lunch at Willow was delicious, as to be expected when you’re smack between wine country and farm land, but with house cured meats and Chris’s favorite ever, prime rib french dip, it was perfectly local. The kitchen was flexible in accommodating Elliott’s food allergies (thank you!) and the mac ‘n cheese was crazy cheesy (local cheese, of course).
After lunch we browsed the wine selection in the market area of Willow and found a great local bottle of Syrah. Our server saw what we picked, told us a bit about it and then even shared where else we could get it locally. Really, an all around wonderful dining experience.
Cooling off with delicious ice cream
If you ever travel with kids you know that you need to keep a few aces up your sleeve, like things to use as rewards or to, dare I say it, tempt kids into cooperating. For us that was ice cream from Doc Burnstein’s in Orcutt. One of the towns we’re exploring in the Santa Maria Valley, Orcutt’s downtown is like a revamped old west town. Pretty cool. And Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab matches it. Vintage but modern with on-trend flavors.
Note: we love when we actually get to take the kids to ice cream because it’s rare. While talking with the owner of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab he shared that after seeing how many kids would come in and be restricted in their ice cream selection due to allergies, he changed things up to offer more allergen-free options. And he took it a step further with clearly listing allergens in the open. This man get’s it.
Family friendly wine tasting at Ca’ del Grevino
Love finding family friendly wine tasting! Ca’ del Grevino in downtown Orcutt, California is just that. We had a tasting appointment but were late, as many traveling families are, but they let us come in and try everything we could. With lots of comfy chairs and table space, there was plenty of room to enjoy wine tasting with the kids nearby. They brought us out an antipasti tray too, keeping the kids even more occupied while the dads tasted.
The wine winners of the night:
Chris preferred the Ca’ del Grevino Pinot Noir – very fruity but also subtle and not overtly sweet. I (Rob) fell for the Grenache. I love any wine that smells like cherries, and when the body, the flavors AND the aroma are all just right, it’s a winner.
Tip: if you’re up in Washington’s Columbia River Gorge, be sure to check out AniChe Cellars in Underwood. It’s also a very family friendly winery set in a beautiful spot.
Even more California cuisine at the Farwestern Tavern
I never like the word “tavern” because it makes me think of salty, swarthy, rather unsavory characters in book. Hands down: nicest tavern I’ve ever seen or been to was the Farwestern Tavern in Orcutt, California. Like with Shaw’s Steakhouse in Santa Maria, Farwestern Tavern focuses on a meat-centric but diverse menu. On the recommendation of the tasting room lady, April, at Ca’ del Grevino I ordered the filet mignon with a pinot sauce. It was like butter. And pinot.
Favorite aspect: we see a lot of children’s menus and they’re usually ridiculous with few to no options for kids beyond grilled cheese. We were able to get the kids an angus slider and sirloin skewer. It was just what they needed. And their kids menu prices were jaw-droppingly low.
We can honestly say that the Santa Maria Valley, its towns and its coast are a great, rather unknown side of California. We would happily return, particularly beause there’s still more for us to do and see here. Next time…
Relaxing and enjoying SLO CAL – San Luis Obispo area
We moved on from the Santa Maria Valley to the San Luis Obispo area. We’re pretty excited to share this awesome place, as it’s home to some great culture, nature and fun!
Kayaking Morro Bay
You know how much we love to get out on the water, right? Well, Morro Bay was the perfect spot for it. We worked with the Kayak Shack within Morro Bay State Park to head out into the bay in search of sea otters. We didn’t get to spot any of them (bummer, total fav) but we did see a sea lion, osprey and a whole pelican nesting ground. The kids love the crazy pelican activity to start the day.
We moved from the center of Morro Bay onto the dunes area. Sand dunes are so cool and so much fun! We ran our kayaks ashore and headed for the hills! After crossing the sand flat (totally felt like walking on marshmallows) we started scaling the sand dunes. The kids had so much fun running up and down the dunes and crashing into the soft, hot sand. A perfect morning activity. We love kayaking adventures!
Staying at the Apple Farm Inn in San Luis Obispo
We arrived at our hotel, the Apple Farm Inn, a bit early, but that just meant that we got to relax, have lunch and then spend time in the pool. Down-time is so important when you’re traveling with kids, so we were glad to enjoy the grounds and the pool area at the Apple Farm. We made it to our room to get ready for dinner and then got to relax a bit more.
Note: San Luis Obispo and the whole Central Coast is a great place to enjoy wine during your down-time.
Dining at Flour House SLO
What a cool restaurant! We love Neapolitan style pizza… and Italian apps. Flour House used some very delicious combinations of traditional Italian ingredients paired with California flare. Fennel sausage and broccoli or bacon and mushrooms, the pizzas were perfect. And there were scallops and carpaccio too…
Also, the beverages were delicious. Using interesting liqueurs like nocino and orgeat the concoctions were a nice change from wine. Don’t get me wrong, we’re totally excited to try more of the Central Coast’s wines, but a craft cocktail is always appreciated.
Visiting Mission San Luis Obispo
Just like with Mission Santa Barbara the kids were both interested and not. As adults we really enjoyed the sight of it all. It is a very well maintained, active mission and it offered both educational opportunities as well as just a nice, quite place to enjoy. What we enjoyed about Mission San Luis Obispo was the grapes in the courtyard and the beautiful paints on the walls inside the chapel. The flowers lining the nave were really pretty and very unusual.
Tip: if you can arrive at the right time, there are docent tours of Mission San Luis Obispo. We were about to join the end of one and it was fascinating.
San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
We really needed this stop. There were some really cool exhibits that kept the kids occupied for a really long time. I had to break them away so we could grab lunch… and then we had to return directly following lunch. The coolest thing though was the topographic map sand: pliable sand that you would build with that had a sensor and lighting above it, responding to the shapes of the sand to make topographic maps. The staff was also so nice and we felt so welcome.
Fun dining around San Luis Obispo
Something we noticed about San Luis Obispo almost immediately was the amount of outdoor and open air seating. We were fortunate enough to get to try several spots that let us enjoy the sunshine and coll breezes of SLO. Starting with Flour House (see above) and enjoying pizzas and fresh greens and ending with Mint + Craft and Big Sky for tasty California fusion food, we had so much good stuff. Also, SLO Provisions was awesome with kids for deli-counter style lunch re-imagined to be something more (and with delicious salads).
And can you visit or drive through San Luis Obispo without visiting the Madonna Inn? We had breakfast at the Copper Cafe at the Madonna Inn and loved the kitchy craziness of the property. The kids’ favorite feature was, of course, was the waterfall bathroom downstairs from the steakhouse. Who doesn’t want to pee into a waterfall?
Random hiking in San Luis Obispo
When we were looking at our itinerary for San Luis Obispo we were glad to see that we had a chance for some hiking. Driving over to Cerro San Luis we were directed by somebody in the neighborhood for where to park and how to get to the sights along the trail. We were hiking to the lemon grove, which was pretty cool. We got some beautiful views of SLO and the kids were totally into checking out the modest but interesting municipal lemon grove. A great surprise for our day.
Falling in love with Cambria, California
This was our first time doing any more than driving through Cambria, California. We only had three days here and would’ve loved two more at least.
Staying at the Cambria Pines Lodge
This place was really cute and totally not what we pictured on the Central Coast of California; maybe we’d see it at Yosemite, kinda like the Evergreen Lodge. The Cambria Pines Lodge is an idyllic collection of lodge houses, bungalows and a main building. It has gardens woven throughout and lots of quiet spots to relax on property. The pool and hot tub are nice and private. We got to stay in our own bungalow and the kids thought it was just the coolest… because it had a Murphy bed for them. It’s a pretty cool place and I wish that we could’ve stayed longer.
Coastal nature at Moonstone Beach and Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
You can’t go wrong when you’ve got a beautiful beach, really unique rocks, tide pools and more. We rolled down to the bluff in Cambria to spend some time at Moonstone Beach and found more than we bargained for. While we were getting the kids ready to head down the stairs to the beach we saw a family of blue whales going by off shore and then while watching them a humpback whale breached! And then we walked on the beach and dug in the sand and stuff and that was fun too. But blue whales!!!
We also explored the Fiscalini Ranch Preseve in Cambria. What a cool piece of land set aside for the people and the preservation of the fascinating coastal ecosystem. We hiked only a fraction of the boardwalks of Fiscalini Ranch and really enjoyed it. We even had enough space on the trails to let the kids run and we could relax and still keep an eye on them.
We saw lizards, ground squirrels, bunnies, and countless shorebirds. While most of the bluffs are protected with clear restoration signage, we came across an access point that led us down a trail to the tide pools. The rock formations in Cambria are one of a kind an the tide pools were teeming with sea life. Perfect afternoon activity with the kids.
The East Village and dining at Robins
The town of Cambria is pretty darn cute. Like, it’s cuter than most coastal towns we happen across. It’s split into the East and West Village, and then there is Nit Witt Ridge and then also the beach area. We enjoyed the villages the most. We strolled the east village with the boys and had a really great dinner at Robins. While everything was truly top-notch, the best thing was the roasted Brussels sprouts with blue cheese and radishes. A really interesting and delicious take on a dish that we make a few times a month at home. This is the type of cooking that keeps wowing us.
Also in the East Village was Linn’s Fruit Bin. For us this stop was all about dessert. The kids love dessert (and the dads do too) so getting to try a variety of the olallieberry dishes was a treat. The olallieberry is a cross between a blackberry and marionberry (or loganberry depending on who you ask). Whatever way you slice it it’s delicious.
Visiting Hearst San Simeon Stat Park
You know how we love to take the kids to marine science centers and National Parks and stuff? Well,just north of Cambria in the town of San Simeon is a year round elephant seal rookery. It’s a part of Hearst San Simeon State Park and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Hundreds of elephant seals, depending on the time of year, haul out to molt, mate, and birth, so there’s always something loud happening here on the beach.
Tip: bring binoculars for best viewing. We saw eight sea otters in the cove at the same time as our elephant seal viewing but couldn’t watch them closely because we forgot our binocs.
Also a part of the state park is the pier in San Simeon. It’s just a beautiful spot to visit and watch the waves, or if you’re in the mood, there are kayak rentals also for exploring the cove and Santa Rosa Creek. The kids also loved getting to talk to local fishermen who were squidding and fishing from the pier. This was almost more exciting for them than the crazy elephant seals.
Hearst Castle with the Kids
We were iffy about taking a two year old and five year old to Hearst Castle. Success! They did awesome and even enjoyed it. We built it up as a castle like they’ve seen in movies and it worked. They listened intently, they paid attention to the details and stories. We dads enjoyed getting to do an adult activity that was truly fascinating. A win all around.
Tip: we did the Grand Rooms Tour. It was stated to be an hour, but between the bus ride up, the tour, and the bus ride down it was two solid hours. We’ve done other tours without the kids in the past, but this tour is great for anybody visiting with little people.
Wine and Views in Cambria
We also really enjoyed the wineries in Cambria. And the views from the awesome restaurants we popped into. Our first winery was Cutruzzola Vineyards just off the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). Not only was our hostess amazing with her knowledge and descriptions of the wines, but each bottle we tried was well defined in comparison with the last. So often we go wine tasting and don’t know Peter from Carl, but Cutruzzola had such distinct wines that we felt like empowered connoisseurs.
Tip: if you’ve got kids with you and you want to go wine tasting, be sure to have art supplies in your car. Crayons, modeling clay paper… It’ll keep them occupied and give you a little break.
Moostone Cellars was our other winery stop in Cambria. We enjoyed their selection so much, particularly their gewurztraminer, that we joined their wine club. The mood of the tasting room was incredible, as we were there on a Friday afternoon and people from the farmers market were rolling in bringing snacks to share with everybody. Such a great community feel everywhere in the Cambria area!
Finally we rounded out our time in Cambria with a few great meals. Centrally Grown, just north of the town, has sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean up to San Simeon. They make a mean cocktail and their salmon chowder was to die for. For dinner, we enjoyed al fresco sunset dining at the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill. Anytime you can sport a crab bib and get a two year old to put away the squid you know you’ve struck dining gold. Wonderful food with a family friendly environment.