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On the Road with Nancy Brown: Central Coast Secrets

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown discovers old-fashion fun in Cambria, Morro Bay, and San Luis Obispo.

Harmony Cellars. Photo by Nancy D. BrownRemember the old days wine tasting in Napa Valley when the winemaker wasn’t a celebrity and the line to the tasting room didn’t back up traffic? Days like this still exist in places like Harmony, a town with a population that hovers under 20 residents. Similar down-to-earth experiences can be found down the California coast, from beach horseback riding in Morro Bay to eating renowned tri tip sandwiches in San Luis Obispo. All you need is a long weekend and a dose of adventure to discover this often-overlooked stretch of coast.

Moonstones and Castles near Cambria

While moonbeams light up the night sky, it’s moonstones that you’ll find on the beach in Cambria. Children and adults alike will delight in collecting the shimmery, translucent gemstones as well as colored sea glass on Moonstone Beach in the charming town of Cambria. Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Cambria is best left to lovers and parents traveling with small children; this is not the town for late night dining or clubbing. It’s a place to kick back and enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like a leisurely stroll on the beach or a nice bottle of wine from nearby Paso Robles.

Kayaks near Morro Rock. Photo by Nancy D. BrownWe reserved a deluxe double queen suite at the 34-room El Colibri Hotel & Spa for two nights, using Cambria as our launching point for day trips. The L-shaped layout of our room worked well for our teenager, offering him privacy and access to the flat screen television, while we snuck upstairs to soak in the public outdoor hot tub located on the second floor.

Our son vetoed a visit to the historic Hearst Castle just four miles north, opting for a round of golf instead. Since my husband and I had visited the estate’s Casa Del Sol, Neptune’s Pool, and Casa Grande on a prior romantic getaway, we decided not to force a one-hour-and-45-minute guided tour, not to mention the bus ride to and from the mansion, on our jaded teenager. I can’t say that I didn’t miss seeing the zebras that graze along the hillside en route to the castle, though!

Insider Tip: If you do decide to visit Hearst Castle, Tour One is the least strenuous of the tours and perhaps the best for young children. There is also an Accessible Experience Tour offered to those with mobility restrictions. Tour reservations are highly recommended with advance ticket purchases online.

Beach Horseback Riding in Morro Bay

Tired of nose-to-tail horseback riding where the horses trudge along at a jail-house walk only to perk up on their way back to the barn? Then it’s time to call Jean Wyly at J & J Riding, a mobile horse operation that’ll get you galloping down a white sand beach.

Open ride down Morro Beach. Photo courtesy of J & J Riding.A former Fairbanks, Alaska resident who has competed in several Iditarod dog sled races, Wyly is a conscientious equestrian who takes riders throughout Los Osos and Morro Bay. Wyly owns 25 horses, all hand-raised and trained by her, so she knows how to match a horse to its rider. In fact, we had a beginner on our one-hour ride and her horse was happy to stay with Wyly at a leisurely pace, while the rest of us trotted and loped on the beach, waves rolling beside us.

At first, I was slightly nervous that we didn’t have a guide up front to let us know how far to ride ahead. But that momentary concern vanished when I watched my horse turn around automatically at the halfway point.

Insider Tip: You won’t find a public stable or ranch for horseback riding on Morro Beach, but J & J Riding will meet you there, and let you separate from the pack and lope at your leisure. Wyly knows Central Coast trails well; ask her about other nice rides in Los Osos.

Nine Holes or an Ocean Dip in Los Osos

Looking for a quick golf excursion that won’t drain your bank account or leave the non-golfer widowed for a chunk of the day? Bordered by sand dunes, the bay, and Montana de Oro State Park, Sea Pines Golf Resort is a nine hole, par 31, golf course situated on the southern tip of Morro Bay in the seaside town of Los Osos, California.

If you prefer ocean waves over golf greens, head into Morro Bay and rent a kayak for the morning. You might find yourself sharing the water with some friendly harbor seals.

Insider Tip: A family-friendly hotel sits on the golf course and offers value package deals, like the Weekday Unlimited, that are great for perfecting your swing.

Bubble Gum Art and Killer Tri Tips in San Luis Obispo

Firestone's famous tri-tip sandwich. Photo by Nancy D. Brown.Don’t leave your gum under the restaurant table, take that wad of pink Bubblicious and create a flower out of it in Higuera Street’s Bubble Gum Alley in San Luis Obispo.

Once you've had enough gum chewing, it’s time to sink your teeth into the Central Coast’s best tri-tip sandwich at Firestone Grill. With layer upon layer of juicy, flavorful beef, topped with the eatery's signature barbeque sauce, this is the top-selling sandwich on the menu. Vegetarians be warned: You may enjoy the never-ending basket of French fries, but you’ll be surrounded by carnivores, devouring burgers, tri tips, and pulled pork sandwiches that would make an entire high school football team sing.

Insider Tip: Open seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. (11 p.m. Thursday – Saturday) Firestone Grill always has a line, but stopping in before noon or after the lunch rush is your best bet to beat the crowds.


What are your favorite secrets along California’s Central Coast?



If You Go:

  • El Colibri Boutique Hotel & Spa, 5620 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria, (805) 924-3003, elcolibrihotel.com.
  • Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, (800) 444-4445, hearstcastle.org.
  • Bubblegum Alley, between 733 and 734 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo.
  • Firestone Grill, 1001 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, (805) 784-0474.


A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/Nancydbrown.

Check out Nancy's recent article on two big wine festivals coming to Napa and Sonoma at the end of the month.