Dana’s trip to California’s Central Coast was hosted by Wine Coast Country, but as always Dana’s thoughts and opinions are her own.
When planning a family beach vacation in California, large, well know Southern California destinations like Los Angeles and San Diego might immediately jump to mind. Sunny and warm for most of the year, they’re popular places to take the kids. But many don’t realize Northern California and the Central Coast have plenty of beach side towns worth bragging about. Some are big, some are small and others hard to say, but they’re all worth a family trip.
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is probably the best known destination on the Central Coast. With a relaxed vibe, moderate weather year round and a long stretch of beautiful beach, the area is a perfect fit for traveling families. But Pismo isn’t the only family-friendly Central Coast destination. There are many small coastal towns worth exploring, you just need to know where to go.
That’s where Wine Coast Country comes in. Ten smaller, coastal destinations have joined forces to get visitors attention, creating a Discovery Route. And just as the Wine Coast Country name implies, there’s plenty of wine, but there’s also plenty of coast for families to fall in love with – starting in Cayucos.
Pronounced Ki-YOO-kus, this is the California beach town you didn’t think existed anymore. A long stretch of soft sand, six miles to be exact, with a fishing pier and beach playground for kids and kids at heart. Visitors can pull up and park right at the beach. No parking meters or time limits. When you hit the beach, you’ll notice a common theme; families and dogs. Head under the pier and toward the rocks at the end of the beach. The tide pools have sea stars of every color and can entertain kids for hours.
If you can convince the kids to leave the beach, the main street, Ocean Avenue, is just a block off the sand. There’s no stop lights or fast-food chains. Fresh seafood is a given on menus here, from chowder at Duckies Chowder House to ahi & fresh veggie egg rolls at Schooners Wharf. Save room for dessert. A bright red building you can’t miss, is home to the Brown Butter Cookie Company. This small cookie factory is owned and operated by two sisters. They make about five thousand brown butter cookies by hand a day, six days a week so there’s a good chance you’ll see cookie makers in action.
Head further south toward Pismo Beach and you’ll discover the colorful, almost perfect looking Avila Beach. This south facing beach is known as the warmest beach around. Play in the sand, fish from the pier or walk along the promenade. Meet the animals who live beneath the waves at the Central Coast Aquarium. Give yourself some extra time, there’s a great playground near the Aquarium entrance.
Don’t leave Avila Beach without a visit to Harford Pier. Don’t drive down the pier. Park your car and walk. Keep your eyes and ears open. While my kids and I were there, we spotted a pair of otters, lost count on the sea lions but were charmed by a sea lion pup who seemed to be showing off his ability to climb into boats.
I’m willing to bet you can’t drive by Avila Valley Barn and not want to stop. It’s one of those places that just looks like fun. Chances are when you park the car, you’ll be able to see a growing field or two of this working farm. A chicken might even greet you. There’s a barn loaded with fragrant, fresh picked produce, pies, and fresh cut flowers. Behind the barn, there’s a petting zoo of sorts with cows, goats, sheep and an assortment of other animals. Visit when fruit is ripe for the picking, and you can take a tractor ride to the orchards to pick your own peaches. Along with the obvious sweets, the Avila Valley Barn Ice Cream and Sweet Shoppe has a nice menu with paninis, salads and sandwiches.
This is the only place in California where you can drive right onto the beach. But unless you’ve done some beach cruising before, I don’t recommend hitting the sand in the family car. Leave that to the professionals at Pacific Adventure Tours. Owned and operated by a father and son team, they have two hummers that cruise and climb the dunes on a daily basis. If you the faint of heart type, this kind of adventure may not be for you, but if an off-road style adventure sounds like fun, you can’t go wrong.
“It’s like a roller coaster ride that keeps getting better,” said owner Lutzi Haas.
My teens were in the rear seats, securely harnessed in for our hour or so of up, down and spinning around on the dunes, and they were smiling from ear to ear the entire time. Haas kept a close eye on their reactions, using them as a gauge on how to proceed. He says every kid is different, and has had happy riders as young as two. There are goggles in the Hummer – they may not look fashionable, but they do a great job of keeping flying sand out of your eyes.
If you’re looking for a slower, more low key way to get sandy, think about exploring the beach by horseback. Riders ages 7 and up are welcome at Pacific Dunes Ranch & RV Resort. The Regular Trail Ride is a one hour ride that takes you across a small creek, onto the beach and along a wooded trail before returning to the Ranch. Pirates of the Caribbean movie fans might recognize a stretch of the dunes on the ride from At World’s End. Remember to come dressed to ride – closed toe shoes and pants are best. Helmets are available, but not required.
Photos by Dana Rebmann
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