A California Central Coast Family Vacation

By Lisa McElroy

We're cruising the cove in a Zodiac, a motorized raft that's the perfect size for our family of four.  The daredevil guide zips us across the waves, making my two daughters scream (with laughter, that is), then makes his way into caves in the cliffs so that the girls can see starfish and look for bats.  We're on a family vacation on California's Central Coast, and we can't wait to see what's next on our itinerary.

Our trip starts off in gorgeous, California-village-y San Luis Obispo.  It's hard to describe just how charming this homey town really is – let's just say that we spend an entire afternoon walking, browsing the cute shops, checking out the Children's Museum and the hands-on kids' pottery classes, stopping for a gelato to fuel us on – and my sometimes whiny kids are game for more.  The kids run around the patio out in front of the San Luis Obispo Mission, while my husband and I take in the history lesson inside.  

But the real treat comes with the evening Farmer's Market. Held every Thursday night, it's a street fair and produce market all wrapped into one.  We stroll the streets, sampling barbecued ribs and freshly picked produce, poking into specialty booths, and grooving to the live entertainment.  

When the kids just can't take any more, we head back to crash in our kitschy but fun room at the Madonna Inn, a San Luis Obispo institution with glittered walls in the rooms (yes, it's like wallpaper) and giant cakes and pies in the restaurant. Cake for breakfast?  Why not?

On Day Two, we head to the coast and Avila Beach, a town once decimated by an oil spill but rebuilt over the last ten years.  It's here that we take our Zodiac tour with Seaweed Express, then grab coffee and pastries at Joe Mamma's, just one of the cute coffee shops lining the pier area.  The kids want to swing on the beach playground, so my husband pushes them while I wander out to drink my coffee in peace, look at the sea lions and watch the jet skiers.

Everyone around town recommends Pete's Pierside Cafe for lunch, and even though my older daughter isn't too sure about anyplace that serves seafood, we convince her that she can try some of the varied tacos on the menu, too.  The rest of us join Pete around the back of the outdoor café to see the freshly-caught shrimp he's got on hand; he lets my little one choose a couple of handfuls, then steams them up for us on the spot.  OK, says my older daughter, seafood ain't bad!   The rest of us eat tacos while she scarfs down the shrimp.

In the afternoon, we check out the Avila Beach Sea Life Center, a unique marine science education organization providing hands-on learning opportunities in the fields of Marine Biology and Oceanography. According to the kids, it's "sweet."  Even sweeter is Avila Valley Barn, where we get ice cream, visit the farm pets, and go for a hay ride.  

When evening arrives, we're ready to spread out a bit, so we check in to the Avila Lighthouse Suites, where we have a condo-like room with two huge bedrooms, a large living area, and two baths, all decorated in fresh, seaside décor.  Because the hotel's right on the boardwalk, we can see the beach from our room, as well as the hotel's mini golf course, pool, and putting green.  

We wake up to another beautiful Central Coast day and continue up the coast.  Today's the day for Cambria and San Simeon, an area famous for its elephant seals and the historic Hearst Castle.  We start the morning by heading to the Piedras Blancas rookery, home to about 15,000 elephant seals   The land-based rookery is home for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.   While the giant, elephant-sized males are out at sea at this time of year, the babies are frolicking on the beach, eliciting lots of giggles from my babies.  Then it's on to Hearst Castle, the legendary and historic hilltop estate of William Randolph Hearst.   We experience the estate as the guests of Mr. Hearst did years ago during a magnificent tour of the home and its grounds including a bus ride through the hills and a walk through the castle itself.  The kids are left wondering why we don't live in a house this size; we parents are just in awe.

After a sandwich lunch at Sebastian's General Store and Café - an authentic general store, with a great cafe, old post office, and wine tasting bar -  we walk through the charming village of Cambria.  Cambria's an older town with a history of dairy farming; nowadays, it is regarded as an artist's colony, and it supports an impressive selection of gourmet restaurants, art galleries, ocean view inns, and one-of-a-kind shops. At the west end of town is Moonstone Beach, named for the shiny moonstones that were once found on the shore. A row of small hotels and bed-and breakfast inns overlook the beach. 

We choose the Sand Pebbles Inn for the last, lazy night of our family vacation, and it's a great spot  – a newly-renovated, homey building with spacious rooms overlooking the water.  We nap before dinner at Linn's Fruit Bin, a general store-styled restaurant with great desserts, then rest up for the long trip home.

Back in Philadelphia, my daughters wonder, "Why doesn't our town have a Thursday night Farmer's Market?  And why can't elephant seals live here?"  And, of course, "So when are you getting us a castle?"  No question – it's been a family vacation to remember.

If You Go:

  • If you're not the wandering-around-on-your-own type, check out San Luis Obispo Walking Tours, the best way to get to know San Luis Obispo.  

  • If your group is all of age, head from San Luis Obispo to the vineyards just outside of town. Wine grapes in San Luis Obispo were first planted over 200 years ago by Catholic Padres for sacramental wine. The county now boasts over 250 premium wineries, most of which feature welcoming tasting rooms.  

  • Rent a car to explore the coast at your own pace. While we spent three days in three charming towns, you might extend your trip further north to include Monterey and Carmel.

  • Considering traveling in the fall or spring. While the weather is moderate year-round, our October trip was blessed with sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s.

  • Invest in some art. This part of California is home to many creative artisans – you'll want to bring home souvenirs from your trip.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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