California's Central Coast
The Central Coast of California is a very different place than the rest of the state. Spanning the area from Santa Maria to Atascadaro, the central coast is about equidistant from San Jose and Los Angeles. I grew up just north of Los Angeles and as a kid we often visted Pismo Beach to go to the Sand Dunes. Going back as an adult, there are plenty of other activities that make this region appealing.
The 101 is the primary point of access, and runs through all the major towns in the Central Coast. You can fly in to one of the regional airports such as Santa Maria or San Luis Obispo, but its usually much cheaper to drive in from a major city. San Luis Obispo (if you want to fit in with the locals, you can call it SLO[w]) is in the middle of the region. About a 15 minute drive in from the coastal cities, San Luis Obispo is home to one of the California State University - Polytechnical Schools (Cal Poly - San Luis Obispo). The college students can make up a large portion of the population, so the town does have a number of bars and restaruants to cater to them. Downtown SLO is defined by Marsh and Higuera Streets. It's a very nice walkable stretch with stores, restaurants and bars.
Our trip to the area started in LA. It takes about 3 hours to drive up, but the drive from Ventura north is beautiful. Highway 101 follows the coast for a while, before heading inland. We opted to stay at the Oxford Suites in Pismo Beach. There are surprisingly few hotels in the area, and the Oxford Suites generally has a good rate. Many of the hotels on the beach are double or triple the nightly rate. The hotel is fairly large, and the rooms do have living space and a separate bedroom. The couches have pull out sofa's so you can easily double up if needed. The hotel has been somewhat updated, with new finishes and hardwood floors. There is ample free parking, Wi-fi and breakfast included in their rate which makes for a good deal overall. They also do a happy hour/reception in the Cantina most nights, and you get two drink coupons per person each night. Overall the hotel is what you would expect. Clean, reasonable rate and resonable accomodations. Their online booking is a little complicated, but since it is a smaller hotel chain that's to be expected. The hotel is easily accessed from the 101, which makes it a great location for heading north or south to the other cities in the area.
A short drive north on five cities drive is the Pismo Beach outlet mall, which has a number of shopping options, a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean & Tea leaf so you can grab a cup of coffee in the morning.
The weather in the central coast can be tricky to predict. It's generally mild, but you'll often find the best weather in spring or fall. Summer can get foggy at the beach, and out on the dunes the wind can really pick up. Another point worth mentioning, summer time the whole place is swammped with people seeking refuge from the inland cities oppresive summer heat. Hotels are hard to find, and you will pay a premium. Coming in the non-summer months would be highly recommended.
If you are into wine the central coast region has a wide selection of wineries. We stopped by three on our stay, Tangent/Baileyana, Edna Valley and Laetitia. Edna Valley is one of my favorites, and we currently have a wine club membership with them (as a result of this trip). Their tasting room has fantastic views, and wine has always been enjoyable. You can actually find some of their wine in Costco and liquor stores around the country, although the more interesting blends are not mass produced. Edna Valley and Tangent/Baileyana are only about a half mile apart, where as Laeititia is south near Nipomo.
Nipomo is a quirky stretch along the 101, between the Five Cities and Santa Maria, Nipomo for years was a two stop light town with a Carls Jr and a gas station. Oh, and Jocko's. Jocko's is kind of Nipomo's claim to fame. Located at the corner of Thompson and Teft, Jocko's has been in business for decades. The building and food haven't changed much in that time, but you'll still find a line of eager diners out front at 4:30 waiting to get in. Jocko's is a steak house, that doesn't aim to do anything but serve you a chargrilled mountain of meat. The seasoning and the preparation make the place. Jocko's is worth stopping in, but come hungry. I sadly left my leftover steak in the mini-fridge at the hotel the morning of checkout.