Part Two: Sand dunes, seals and surf in Pismo Beach
Some three hours north of L.A., along the beautiful coastal drive up the Pacific Highway, past the alien landing crafts stowed at Vandenburg Air Force Base, is the sleepy surf town of Pismo Beach, in what is known as the Five Cities area of the Central California Coast—or rather, Wine Country, and its hamlets and towns of Arroya Grande, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Santa Maria, and Morro Bay.
On the way out of L.A., stick to Highway 1 to get the full taste of seaside surf, and keep speeds low to drop off the side and clamber over train tracks to hidden beaches. North of Ventura you will have to get back on the 101, but you can exit it once again close to Vandenburg. While on the 101 as it winds its way north of Santa Barbara, throw down the $10 to check out Refugio Beach for a picnic—and possibly one of the best spots on the coast for seaside camping. Once back on the Pacific Highway, you will find yourself skimming through green fields and dusty farms. Stop in Guadalupe for seriously authentic, working-class Mexican, the little town that I hope Immigration and Customs Enforcement forgot, and the evident backbone of the local farming industry.
Pismo itself features the usual hotels fronting wide, sandy beaches, but without the over-commercialized and crass consumerism that has come to dominate (nearly) everything from Anaheim to San Diego. What makes it unique is the relatively smaller scale of its human development, which allows nature herself to still reign vast. The long arc of seafront features plenty to explore, with dunes at Oceana in the south end (yes, you can charge around in dune buggies) and pirate caves at Shell Beach in the north (rent kayaks to explore their archways and blowholes). Keeping south, you can drive right onto the designated sands at Grover Beach and camp overnight (in peak season, reservations recommended). The north side of Grover Beach itself, which is vehicle-free, features some of the best boogie board break in the area and plenty of secluded mini-dune spots away from crowds, while kiddie-friendly (and mostly warmer) surf can be had a bit north at family-zoned Avila. When in season, crazy times with delicate winged creatures can be found at The Monarch Butterfly Grove, which is also an olfactory delight of shady eucalpytus groves.
Pismo's quaint seaside town is fun for eats and entertaining strolls, and standing in line for award-winning clam chowder at Splash Cafe (197 Pomeroy Ave.) is well worth the tourist time and a must-do. Head farther north on the 101, and there is a massive volcanic outcropping chocked with nesting peregrine falcons at Morro Bay. On the return, explore winding roads over the green Irish Hills. The adventurous local roads in general and slightly cooler temperatures (often there is morning fog) make for excellent road cycling, and Fondos abound for the spandex crowd. Head even farther north and there are hordes of barking sea lions on a seasonal basis at Cayucos.
Once inland, from San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria, wineries dot the rolling hills with their orderly rows, and wine tours are the ripe thing to do. I would hand my keys (and tastebuds) over to 101WineTours.com, run by sommelier Laura Jeffrey, who also casks her own quite delightful Chardonnay (with a hint of lemon). Wine isn't just wine anymore, of course, so you can also hook up local craft brews and olive oil tasting as part of the gastronomy (real olive oil; I'm telling you, don't knock it until you try it). For local eats, The Spoon Trade in Grover Beach (295 West Grand Ave.) features locally sourced, thoughtfully prepared and scratch-made seasonal dishes; don't let the casual urban environment fool you, as the Sunday brunch is one of the best in the business. For a night of excellence in wine pairings and delicious, wood-fired local cuisine (including next-level pizzas), check out Ember in the little village of Arroya Grande (1200 East Grand Ave.), which also features a delightfully dark and hip brewpub that is a notch above the usual fare, the Rooster Creek Tavern (200 East Branch St.). For places to stay, if hotels aren't your thing, hit up Airbnb, and keep an eye out for the detached abodes hidden in the hills that make for great romantic getaways from the chaos of L.A.