Tuesday, March 6, 2012

California Dreaming- Pismo, Avila, and California Missions!

My Jackson doing swing kung-fu on Pismo Beach.

Last week was break for our boys from school- or as many people call it here, ski week. That is because most families take off to hit the slopes. We have had an unusually mild winter here in Northern Cal and the snow hasn't been too good up in the mountains, so we decided to road trip down South.

We had not been to California's central coast in some time. We thought it would be fun to see Pismo and Avila Beaches and check out San Louis Obispo, and the college for my engineer wannna be, Jackson. He is 13, but starting high school next year wanted to check out California Polytechnical at San Louis Obispo's famous engineering school.

Mission San Miguel.

My youngest, Griffin, is in 4th grade this year, and in California that means studying the California history and missions. Usually, you study California history all year and are assigned a mission to make a model of near the end. It's always fun to visit your mission if you can.

One of the murals inside.

Griffin chose San Miguel. San Miguel is pretty close, just a few hours south near Paso Robles, and a little gem in the chain of 21 missions. It was on our way down, so it was a perfect stop for us.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel, built in 1816, has the best preserved interior of all the missions. Most of the California missions have been rebuilt at some time, but this one has not, only repaired. The church's highlights are its colorful murals and old paintings. Masses are still held here and you can light a candle outside in a special devotional area. Of the missions I have seen, this one is the most charming and authentic.

It was about an hour and half drive to San Miguel from the South Bay. The small town and mission are literally just off highway 101. The town in quite cute and has it's original storefronts still up from long ago. There is even an espresso stop/bakery that was converted from an old filling station and also a little pizza place we stopped for lunch.

After our stop, we headed down to Pismo Beach. Pismo, for those who aren't familiar, is one of the few beaches left in United States, and the only one in California, that you can drive onto. It's got lots of dunes and goes for miles.

Pismo Beach

It's pretty uncrowded and the beaches are wide open. We stayed at a place called Sandcastle Inn, right on the beach. It's small, but wonderful hotel with a cozy fireplace lobby. The staff there was nicer than The Four Seasons and that is not an exaggeration. We paid a great price for a roomy suite with a sitting area and dining room and a huge patio right over the beach.

View from our suite.

The make your own (disaster) waffles in the breakfast room was quite popular with the men, all three of mine. The boys also appreciated the swings right on the sand. The contest was to see who can lunge the farthest and embed glass in your foot at the same time! ( Right?) The beach was very nice and we found tons of sand-dollars. We liked the home-made cookies in the afternoon too. The tea and coffee all day in the sunny breakfast room with fireplace was a homey touch.

We also drove to Avila Beach, right up the road about 5 minutes. Avila is newly redone and has a darling little beachfront with lots of new shops and restaurants. They have a charming small waterfront.

 It also has a pier with a cute restaurant, The Olde Port Inn, at the end where you can see the fish swim under you as you eat. We never did get to eat there, they were closed. Hopefully next time!
Doesn't this place look cute? At the end of the pier in Avila Beach.

 Avila and Pismo are both great beaches to learn to boogie board or surf on because of their shallow break. They are many hotels right on the Avila waterfront that provide boogie boards. They are also adjacent to ocean front restaurants and it makes for an easy getaway weekend with a family.


I don't know about you, but I am never a huge fan of beach restaurants. They are always over-priced and not the best and even sometimes grubby. However, on this trip we ran across a real find, Ventana Grill, in Pismo. It's gorgeous, glass-walled and modern and situated over the sea. It looks pricey, but it so reasonable, food so fresh and service so good, we went two nights. One thing they serve everyone is their homemade tortillas with cinnamon butter. How good does that sound? Ventana Grill calls its food coastal fusion. Whatever it is it's delicious. Lovely and wish we had one here. Don't miss this if you are down that way! They have a kids' menu too.

Ventana Grill and their great view of the Pacific.

 Pismo is an older town, but it still has a charm seen especially in remnants of it's heyday as a vacation destination. There are so many adorable streets leading down to the many beaches. I kept thinking how cool it would be to buy one of those original beach shacks as a getaway.

A cute beach shack.
Clearly, a lot of people already had. I'm a sucker for the shingled ones and copious French doors. Pismo Beach is easy to get to and is a ten minute drive or so to San Louis Obispo.

On a hike in Pismo.

 San Louis Obispo, is a small college town about 10 minutes inland. I didn't know much about SLO, as people call it, except that it has been voted, the happiest place in America to live. After visiting, I can clearly see why.

The town of San Louis Obispo. via google images.

 This town is so pretty, nestled between the sea and the hills. My favorite part of the charming downtown is all the outdoor restaurants, which abound here. A river runs through it and many restaurants line the river. This is a large downtown, but it feels small. There are so many unique shops besides Pottery Barn and some large chains. I especially like the area near the San Louis Obispo Mission, which we also visited.

Grif in front of San Louis Obispo Mission.

There is a very cool outdoor Mexican cantina across from the mission. They also have a Cornish pasties shop, a fantastic coffee roasting spot, and some one-of-a-kind shops right in this vicinity. At one of these Griffin, my shopper son, bought this cute sign for his room.

Love this.

On the way home, we took the famous Highway 1 home. We came down on 101, a quick 3 hours drive to Pismo area from the Bay Area.  For a change we drove Highway 1 along the Pacific the whole way and it was long. A LOT longer. I had forgotten. For a break, we took a quick stop in another charming spot, Cambria. Cambria is a darling spot with a lovely ocean path among cypress trees. There are many cute accommodations here! It's the perfect spot to stay if you are visiting Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle, former home to William Randolph Hearst, is a landmark worth visiting and deserves a full day for sure. In San Simeon there is also an elephant seals nesting area right off the highway.  It's been improved lately and there is now a terrific viewing spot. Don't miss it. There are very few spot in the world to see these amazing creatures!

Elephant seals. The best viewing time in Jan-March.

Some views of Ragged Point.

 Not far past Hearst Castle we stumbled upon my favorite find of the trip, Ragged Point Inn and Restaurant. This piece of heaven on earth, came just about lunch time and so we sat outdoors and had lunch among hummingbirds and butterflies. Honestly, it was the prettiest patch of land above the ocean I have ever seen. You can also stay at this nirvana too.

Lunch among the butterflies.

After the kids explored the resort and gift shop, we hit their cappuccino bar (they also have a take-out lunch place), and continued on our way North. Here, you are at the beginning of Big Sur, which stretches a very long way, almost 90 miles from San Simeon to Carmel. The trip is scenic, but I don't think it gets really beautiful until you hit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a waterfall hits the ocean, about an hour South of Carmel.

View from Highway 1.

Almost there.. 

Big Sur is probably one of my most favorite spots on this earth and if you haven't seen it, you need to add it to the bucket list! There are lodges, retreats, restaurants, and art galleries that are amazing. The camping and state parks are probably the best in California. You get the mix of redwood forest, ocean and rolling oak covered hills. There is something so romantic about this empty wind-swept landscape that makes me feel like I'm worlds away from everything.

Bixby Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur.


Photos Northern California Style, unless noted.


  1. Fantastic post Kim (especially since I'm in California planning mode right now!) I would love to see all your fav spots one day, esp. Big Sur. Great pics!

    1. LR,
      You inspired me with your, "California Dreaming," link with the Mamas and Papas. You are going to have such a fun trip. The only problem is California is so big. It's like another country and you need many trips or tons of time to see it all!

  2. Kim,

    I loved the photos of your trip. Now I want to go to the beach. I loved the sign your son picked out for his room. Those views are amazing. Great post.


  3. Fantastic timing! I am going on a girls weekend to Pismo!!! Thanks for the tips! I love the way you describe things in your blog! You paint beautiful pictures with your words!

    1. Have fun on your weekend Meieli! It sounds like even more fun with all girls. Lot's of good winery stops out there!


  4. What a delightful trip! You have such a beautiful family - everyone is so attractive!

    I will have to save this post as reference for the next time my husband and I head down to the central coast. I have always said that if I didn't live in Sonoma Valley, I would choose that area - okay, maybe I would choose Paris first, then the central coast :)


    1. Thanks for your note! Adrienne, you live in the other most beautiful part of California. I'd be happy in Big Sur or Sonoma! Are you going to Paris on your trip? My favorite place on earth!!

  5. Kim,
    This looks like an amazing trip. Beautiful photos. You have me thinking that maybe we should do this same trip over spring break...our last break before moving east.
    You have a beautiful family!

    1. Annie, Thanks for your note. :)

      You should try to get to Big Sur and the area before you move! It's worth going!


  6. Fabulous post - the missions are always fun to hunt down and explore - San Juan Bautista remains my sentimental favorite - your recap and photos remind me why I love the Central Coast and Bay Area so much! Looking forward to your next adventure!

    1. Thanks Jen! We just did San Juan Bautista on a school field trip and loved it! Thanks for stopping by. Been enjoying your blog!