California Dreaming: Paso Robles

From Morro Bay, we headed inland to Paso Robles for a couple of nights.  The area is known for its large number of wineries, olive oil and walnut production and Paso Robles is it's center.  There are lots of great shops and restaurants here, many of which are centered around the charming City Park.  We stayed right across the street from the park at the Paso Robles Inn.  We had a large suite with a sitting area, small kitchen, and best of all, a hot tub on the back porch.   The town is also known for its hot springs and it was pure luxury to put the kids to bed and soak in the hot tub with a glass of the local wine.  There is also a heated pool that the kids took advantage of on more than one occasion and which served as a nice way to wind down after a long day of being in the car.  

There is plenty to see in the area and we got an early start the next day and stopped in at a winery that came highly recommended, Ventaux Vineyards, in nearby Templeton.  We arrived just as they were opening and were able to sample a few of their fantastic wines while the kids ran around outside and played with the resident dog.  The woman who assisted us gave us lots of great tips, including recommending a local place where we ate dinner that night.  

Photo courtesy of Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of  Ventaux Vineyards

Photo courtesy of  Ventaux Vineyards

She also tipped us off on a beautiful drive back into Paso Robles and we found some great places to stop along the way.  The first place was Limerock Orchards, a walnut orchard with a beautiful shop and tasting room that sells all things walnut-related:  oils, brittle, butters, and more.  We picked up some wonderful walnut oil and brittle (which did not last long).  This is also a nice spot to stop and enjoy a picnic.

A little further down the road Pasolivo is pressing their olives into the most delicious blends.  We particularly loved the basil (great on pizza) and lemon.  They also have really nice vinegars and spice blends.  You can sample everything and the kids really got into tasting all the different oils and trying to guess what the additional flavorings were.  

We found ourselves back in Paso Robles at lunchtime and went to Artisan, right across the street from our hotel.  Everything was fantastic but I had one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten!  All of the ingredients on the menu are sourced locally and lunch is a casual affair with sandwiches, salads, and pizzas on offer.  A number of wines (and beers) are served "on tap."

We peeked in at General Store next door, which has a little bit of everything (hence the name) but it is all something you would want to have in your house.  

Across the park from General Store was the kids favorite find, Powell's Sweet Shoppe.  Although it feels like a mom-and-pop kind of place, it is actually a chain.  With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original one) playing on a loop, you can find every kind of candy there is.  I saw many things that brought me back to my own candy-buying days and that I hadn't seen since.  

Based on a tip from a local, we toured the San Miguel Mission in San Miguel, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Paso Robles.  Spanish missions can be found all over California in varying states of preservation.  This one was on the small side but we had the place almost to ourselves and I loved all of the original artwork in the church, which is still in use most days.

For dinner, we tried out Pier 46 Seafood Company.  Both a fish market and a sit-down restaurant, it seemed to be popular with the locals and had very good fish tacos, fish and chips, and a fantastic crab cake salad.  There is also a Trader Joe's right next door, so you can stock up (as we did) on snacks for the road or grab an after dinner treat.  

California Dreaming: Big Sur to Paso Robles

When you google "Big Sur Lodging" there are plenty of options but when you look closer they are usually a.) very romantic and, b.) very expensive.  This would be fine if Alan and I were traveling alone but since that was not the case, it took a little more digging.  Luckily, I stumbled upon the Big Sur Lodge and it was perfect.  Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the lodge is a great base for exploring the area.  Accommodations are a series of cabins nestled among the trees and several options are available:  rooms with fireplaces, kitchenettes or both, as well as family rooms (which we had) that sleep 4-6 people.  Our room had a separate bedroom for added privacy and all rooms are without telephones, televisions and alarm clocks!  We dropped our bags and took two hikes that are located right on the lodge's property, one to a waterfall and the other to a lookout over the surrounding hills.  

If you plan on being in Big Sur overnight, make a dinner reservation.  We did not and we were scrambling to find a place to eat.  We decided to just try the restaurant at the lodge and it was (unexpectedly) very good.  The menu emphasizes organic ingredients and sustainable agriculture and has a wide variety of offerings.  There is a kids menu and a really nice beer and wine list, with many of the wines from nearby Carmel and Paso Robles.  They also serve breakfast and lunch as well as having an espresso bar.

The next morning we stopped for breakfast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant (where I had really wanted to have dinner the night before).  Don't be fooled when you see the gas pumps.  Look up the hill and you will see what all the parked care are really there for.  Delicious pastries and breads, freshly made lattes, and a fabulous view are more than enough reason to sit and savor your morning meal here.  And yes, she did eat that whole cinnamon roll!  

Right next to the restaurant is the Big Sur Charter School, which we all found incredibly charming...

When we planned the trip we didn't want to be in the car for hours on end, and lucky for us, there is plenty to see and do as you make your way down the coast.  Just a few minutes down the road from the Big Sur Bakery is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  An easy 15-minute walk on the aptly named Overlook Trail brings you to the site of the McWay Waterfall House, of which now only a terrace remains, but the view is what is really captivating.  To your left is the waterfall for which the house is named, which drops 80-feet down directly into the Pacific.  

We needed to get to San Simeon for a 1:00 tour but about 7 miles north of there, we had to stop at Piedras Blancas, a rookery, or breeding ground, for the Northern Elephant Seal.  The animals are here throughout the year and the website claims that it is home to about 17,000 sea lions.  There is a boardwalk along the beach that provides a great view of all the activity, from mothers nursing their pups to adult males fighting for prime space on the sand.  

San Simeon is William Randolph Hearst's home, designed by Julia Morgan, coincidentally the same architect who designed Asilomar, the lodge we stayed at near Monterey.  The only way to tour the house is by timed guided tour and there are many different tours on offer.  Based on some online research, we decided the best one for the kids was the Grand Rooms Tour, which is recommended for first time visitors and covers most of the common rooms in the main house, Casa Grande.  Our tour guide was wonderful with the kids and they were in awe that someone actually lived in a place like this.  Among the highlights of our tour was the movie theater, where we enjoyed a short silent film just like the guests of Hearst would have.  Once the tour is over, you are free to roam the grounds and explore.  The setting is as beautiful as the house and it would almost be worth it to just wander around outside and skip the tour.

On the way out, we were lucky to catch a glimpse of a herd of zebras that are descendants of ones that used to part of a zoo Hearst kept at San Simeon.  

Hungry for lunch, we continued on Hwy. 1 to Morro Bay and Taco Temple.  Home to an all-you-can-eat chip station with the most delicious tortilla chips and salsas and specializing in seafood tacos, this was just what we needed after a long day on the road.  A few things to keep in mind:  they only accept cash or local checks and they are closed on Tuesdays.  But if at all possible, stop at an ATM and pass though here on the other six days of the week as you will be missing out if you don't.  


California Dreaming: Monterey to Big Sur

Alan and I started talking last weekend about our plans for spring break and it brought to mind the trip we took last year to California.  We had been to San Francisco and places north a few times and this time we wanted to head south.  Our itinerary was to explore the coast from Monterey down to Los Angeles so when we landed in San Fran we headed south straightaway.  We had planed to go to the Monterey Aquarium our first afternoon but after being delayed here in NJ and driving down to Monterey, we modified our plan and stayed close to our hotel, Asilomar.  This was only the first of many times on this trip where we looked at each other and wished we could spend a week right where we were.  Located not in Monterey, but in nearby Pacific Grove, this is a wonderful, quiet place to recover from jet lag and explore the outdoors.  The lodge, built in 1913, is rustic but has been updated with all modern conveniences and there is a great Social Hall with pool tables, a fireplace, gift shop and a small cafe open for breakfast, lunch or a quick late-afternoon snack or coffee.  After grabbing a bite, we headed across the street to check out the tidal pools and look out for seals and otters (we saw both).

This was the building we stayed in.  There are two types of rooms available here:  historic, which are part of the original buildings from 1913 and the Asilomar rooms, which are more modern but in the same style of the historic rooms.  We were in the latter and found them very comfortable.  Our room had 4 beds which was great as everybody could be comfortable and there was no fighting over who had to sleep on the pull-out.  

For dinner, there was a multitude of options.  We chose the Fishwifewhich we could walk to from Asilomar and were so happy we did.  The menu is predominately seafood with a Caribbean accent and everything we had was very good.  They have a great kids' menu with a choice of grilled or fried sole, tilapia and shrimp (there are chicken tenders too).  The staff was super nice and great with the kids.  It was the perfect meal to end a long day of traveling made even better by the quick 5-minute walk home to our waiting beds.  

The next morning we were up early and had time to kill before the aquarium opened.  We did a quick drive-by of the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuing-operating lighthouse on the west coast. Unfortunately it was closed so we had to settle for a glimpse from the road.

February is one of the months that Monarch butterflies overwinter in the area and there is a special park in Pacific Grove to spot these beauties, the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.  We spied a few here and there, enough to enchant Ava as we walked though the early morning fog.  Many of them were high in the trees trying to warm up in the sunshine, so if you go, bring binoculars.  


The Monterey Aquarium is consistently on the list of best aquariums in the country so we knew we couldn't miss it.  Located in a former canning factory on the edge of Monterey Bay,  it is a great place to visit.  Plan to spend much of the day here and there are many nice options for lunch: a sit-down restaurant overlooking the bay (be sure to make reservations beforehand), a more casual cafe offering burgers and brick-oven pizzas and a coffee bar if you just want a quick snack.  We spent our time watching otters and penguins frolic and play, touching starfish and horseshoe crabs, and watching green sea turtles and hammerhead sharks swim by in the Open Sea exhibit.  Our favorite thing was "The Jellies Experience," populated with the most amazing and fantastic jellyfish imaginable.  

After we finished up at the aquarium, we drove down to Carmel for lunch.  Unfortunately, everybody else seemed to have the same idea so we had to settle for a forgettable lunch and just a quick look around before heading to our next stop for the night, Big Sur.