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On California’s Central Coast, a low-key exploration of wineries, restaurants and nature

Spencer Marley of Marley Family Seaweeds explains how to gather edible seaweed on a remote beach near Cayucos, Calif. He later cooked ramen mixed with freshly plucked seaweed for the tour group. (Tracey Ceurvels for The Washington Post)

We were instructed to meet at the San Geronimo Pullout at Estero Bluffs State Park near Cayucos, Calif., and to wear water shoes. I was apprehensive about the morning’s activity: foraging for seaweed. Would this involve snorkeling, diving or scaling underwater rocks?

But, having enjoyed eating seaweed in various cuisines, I was intrigued. A small group of us followed erudite and friendly seaweed expert Spencer Marley of Marley Family Seaweeds as he walked down a path and climbed over rocks, leading us to a remote beach where different types of seaweed can be found. What ensued was a crash course on phycology — marine algae science — and on searching for and gathering edible seaweed, including kelp, wakame and kombu.

The tour culminated with Marley bringing out a portable stovetop and cooking us ramen for lunch. Standing on an empty beach slurping noodles mixed with seaweed freshly plucked from the ocean and laughing with new friends, I realized that California’s Central Coast, with its low-key vibe, was exactly what I needed for my first post-pandemic trip from my home in New York City.

“The Central Coast is still a bit off the radar,” said Jennifer Medina, estate director of Tolosa Winery in the Edna Valley, where I stopped in for the “1772” wine flight, named for the year the nearby Spanish mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, was founded. “But there’s so much to do here,” she added as she poured me a glass of Pacific Wind Pinot Noir.

She was right. The Central Coast, a vast region that spans from north of Los Angeles to just south of San Francisco, is known for its breathtaking ocean views, quiet beach towns, wineries, farms and wildlife. My boyfriend and I spent five days focusing on things we enjoy — food, wine and nature — and, best of all, we got to do it away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.


I was struck by the many pioneering people in the food industry I met; their creativity, in concert with the rich farmland and the Mediterranean-like climate, is what lures food lovers here.

After the seaweed excursion, we sampled olive oil at Tiber Canyon Ranch in San Luis Obispo. Years ago, Will Carlton, an artist, and his wife, Chris Anderson, met a woman who offered them Italian olive cultivars that were bred for desired traits. On a whim, they planted them. “Unlike wine grapes, olive cultivars remain true to their flavor characteristics, no matter where in the world they’re planted,” Carlton said. “Our Tuscan varietals produce a Tuscan-style oil here in California.” At their 50-acre grove, they offer tastings, sell olive oil and host intimate weddings amid the olive trees.

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In Cambria, I picked up a delicious latte at Cambria Coffee Roasting Company, which I sipped at the farmers market, mingling with locals and admiring the large onions and colorful squash. For lunch that day, we visited Linn’s, a family-owned restaurant known for its olallieberry pie. Sweet and tart olallieberries, a hybrid of blackberries and raspberries, are found throughout the menu: as preserves on French toast, as syrup on pancakes, as the star ingredient in a milkshake. The pie didn’t disappoint. Another find in Cambria: The lush garden at Robin’s, a favorite among locals, is a special place to unwind with beer and food.

Cioppino is a fish stew that originated in San Francisco; one of the best versions I’ve had was at Schooners, in Cayucos, where we sat in the old-world bar. And I’m still craving the namesake cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company located there, too.

Perhaps the highlight was eating at Mersea’s in Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, with its dreamy setting. Situated on a working pier on San Luis Obispo Bay, Mersea’s offers a quintessential California experience: eating fresh seafood amid mountains, ocean and fog, along with the sounds of otters and seals.


The Central Coast’s optimal climate and varied terrain are ideal for viniculture. As an oenophile, I was in heaven. With a choice of more than 200 wineries to visit, we narrowed it down to three recommended by a friend who’s a sommelier.

At chic, modern Tolosa Winery, we sat outside, adjacent to the vineyard. Thanks to its winemaker Frederic Delivert, who’s from Toulouse, Tolosa’s wines are made with a nod to the French style of winemaking, which focuses on the terroir — the character of the wine imported by the environment where the grapes are grown. Nearby Saucelito Canyon, which dates to the 1880s, is famous for its zinfandels. During our tasting, a band played and a busload of women celebrating a bridal shower arrived, adding to the lively atmosphere.

Hearst, the renowned publishing family, maintains a presence in the area, mainly for the famed Hearst Castle, which was closed because of the pandemic. Fortunately, the tasting room of the Hearst Ranch Winery in San Simeon was open. We were led to seats out back overlooking San Simeon Bay, where the scenery and ocean soundtrack were sublime. Damon Miele, the manager, approached us with a unique arched-iron carrier holding glasses of wine from the Proprietor’s Reserve tasting. Miele’s wine descriptions were lively; his enthusiasm for wine was so contagious (and the wines were so good) that I ordered several bottles to be shipped home.


The relatively unspoiled Central California Coast offers many places to get close to nature, and in a variety of ways. Cayucos may have a colorful history of bank robberies and rum running, but today, it’s a quiet beach town famous for its 950-foot fishing pier, built in 1872. Not interested in fishing? Watch the surfers take on some stellar waves.

I almost skipped visiting Montaña de Oro State Park, but I’m so glad I didn’t. People come here to hike, bike, camp, dive or, as we did, admire the stunning scenery. Don’t miss Spooner’s Cove, a horseshoe-shaped beach tucked between ragged cliffs.

We walked the mile-long boardwalk at Moonstone Beach, yet another gorgeous expanse of sand. Then we searched for its namesake moonstones, which aren’t true moonstone gems, but a variety of quartz. The translucent stones, tumbled smooth by the waves, are beautiful in their own way.

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You can’t visit the Central Coast without stopping by the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. To see hundreds of elephant seals snuggled up to each other — the males bellowing as they battle to mate — is an unforgettable experience. Scientists have been trying to determine why these seals, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, convene at this spot, yet the reason remains an enigma.

It was a giant horse, however, that reinforced what made this trip special. At Covell Ranch in Cambria, I was happy to be assigned reportedly “mellow” Eileen. “Mellow” turned out to be an understatement, however; Eileen would come to a complete stop, unconcerned about the other horses trotting ahead. Once I was comfortable, I grew slightly annoyed at her lethargy.

But when we reached the view, I suddenly appreciated that Eileen moved — or didn’t — at her own pace. While she stood still, I looked out at the vast sky and ocean and was reminded of the importance of slowing down. The Central Coast is the perfect place for doing so.

Ceurvels is a writer based in New York. Find her on Instagram: @traceyceurvels.

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Where to stay

Ragged Point Inn and Resort

19019 Highway 1, Ragged Point


Comfortable rooms, many with views of the ocean or mountains. Some rooms feature fireplaces, personal decks or balconies. Rooms from $169 per night.

Blue Dolphin Inn

6470 Moonstone Beach Dr., Cambria


Across the street from Moonstone Beach with crisp, clean rooms, many of which have views of the ocean. Rooms from $154 per night.

Shoreline Inn

1 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos


Watch the sunset and listen to the ocean from your room at this pet-friendly hotel that’s right on the beach. Rooms from $200 per night.

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa

1215 Avila Beach Dr., San Luis Obispo


All rooms at this wellness resort come with mineral spring hot tubs. A spa is on-site. Rooms from $249 per night.

Where to eat

Linn’s Restaurant

2277 Main St., Cambria


Visit for local American breakfast, lunch, dinner or just dessert. This family-owned restaurant is famous for its produce and olallieberry pie. There is also a store within the restaurant that sells jams, baked goods and more. Entree salads from $15 and mains from $20; slice of pie $7.


4095 Burton Drive, Cambria


What started as a takeout spot in the back of a health-food store is now a bustling restaurant known for its inventive vegetarian dishes and international food made with ingredients from local farms. Entrees from $24.


3985 Avila Beach Dr., Avila Beach


This fun and laid-back spot in an incredible setting with mountains, the ocean and views of sea animals serves a casual menu of salads, seafood and sandwiches. Seafood from $11, sandwiches from $8.

Woodstone Marketplace at Avila Village

6675 Bay Laurel Pl., Avila Beach


Take a break while biking on the Bob Jones bike trail and grab breakfast or lunch at this market that’s part deli, part coffee shop, part store. Sit inside or on the patio next to the trail. Prices start at $5.


171 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos


Watch the sunset or the dolphins while you dine outdoors or in the bar area that has views of the beach. Live music on Sundays. Dinner entrees from $13.

Brown Butter Cookie Company

98 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos


Started by sisters Traci and Christa Hozie, Brown Butter Cookie Company usually attracts a line. But it’s worth the wait, especially for the signature brown butter sea salt cookies. Cookies from $3, dozen bags from $15.

Cambria Coffee Roasting Company

761 Main St., Cambria


Line up with locals for a croissant or other pastry and coffee made from beans roasted on-site.

What to do

Marley Family Seaweeds foraging tour

Forage for seaweed with local seaweed expert Spencer Marley at a location that will be disclosed after booking. Tours $125 per person.

Covell Ranch

5694 Bridge St., Cambria


Ride a Clydesdale in the mountains in Cambria. Closed on Sundays. Call or text to book; by appointment only. Horse rides $120 per person. Ages 7 and up. 

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Elephant Seal Vista Point off Highway 1, San Simeon


No matter when you visit, you’ll see numerous seals on the beach, but peak times are January, May and October. A gift shop and visitor area are about eight miles south of the viewing area. Reservations aren’t required. Open year-round. Free.

Hearst Ranch Winery San Simeon tasting room

442 Slo San Simeon Dr., San Simeon


Sip local wines outside and overlook San Simeon Bay. Food truck on-site for lunch. Open daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tastings from $25 per person.

Saucelito Canyon tasting room

3080 Biddle Ranch Rd., San Luis Obispo


Situated in the Edna Valley, Saucelito Canyon has a festive outdoor wine-tasting area. Open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., last seating 4 p.m. Tapas boxes $18; tastings from $20. 

Tolosa Winery tasting room

4910 Edna Rd., San Luis Obispo


Savor wines from a master French winemaker at this elegant and welcoming tasting room. Tastings start at $25 per person. Open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; seatings 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Signature flight $35, tastings from $45.

Tiber Canyon Ranch

280 W. Ormonde Rd., San Luis Obispo


Taste Tuscan-style olive oil — from olives grown in California — at this family-owned 50-acre ranch. Call or email to book; free tasting.

Bob Jones City to the Sea Bike Trail 

250 Avila Beach Dr., San Luis Obispo


This nearly three-mile-long trail, named after an environmental activist, starts at the parking lot off Highway 101 (near Avila Hot Springs Resort) and follows the San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach. From $12 for one hour on a standard bike to $95 for a whole day on an electric bike. Trail access free.


— T.C.