19 Awesome Secrets & Spots: LA to Monterey

The central coast is known for miles of ocean views, fruit festivals, wine tasting hotspots—but if that's all you're going for, you're missing out.

The following list will forever have my heart as some of my favorite places to eat, play and stay from Los Angeles to Monterey. They're accessible, affordable and run the range from infamous to unexpected, breathtaking to delicious. And...you've probably never heard of them before.

Santa Barbara

Tacos// Mony's. Photo credit: Henry J.
1. Mony's (eat)
You'll want to get the tacos so you can try all 14 of the different fillings, but you really shouldn't say no to the nachos or burritos so go with a crowd (or just over order for yourself). This tiny Mexican eatery often has a line out the door, boasts sauces like peanut, pistachio and sweet mango, and with prices designed for hungry college kids, it's a true gem. Note: closed on Sundays. Under $10/pp (unless you get everything, in which case every dollar over is the best you'll ever spend.)

2. Carpinteria Campground (lodging)
Pitch a tent or park your RV, when you stay at any of the campgrounds in Carpinteria you're going to go to sleep and wake up to the rhythmic harmony of crashing waves. With walkable access to town you're never far away from a quick snack, meal or booze run and always just a few steps away from watching the sun rise and set over the ocean. Reserve online OR hedge your bets and arrive in the early afternoon to nab one of the spots set aside for drop-ins. Per night: $35-$60

This is glamping// El Capitan

3. El Capitan Canyon (lodging)
A short walk under the rail road tracks to the beach, El Capitan Canyon is 100% glamping. And it's wonderful; this, coming from a love-to-backpack-and-camp gal, means it's worth every penny. Whether you pick a safari tent decked out with a real bed, electrical outlets and private fire pit or a petite cabin, El Capitan is a must any time of year (even new year's eve, making it a unique and rustic option to traditional festivities). Rate: $145+/night

Wind Caves// Gaviota
4. Wind Caves (hike)
Starting from Gaviota campground, this hike is short (2.5 miles round-trip) and in certain spots a bit steep, but when the summit is a series of wind caves (caves carved into rock by strong winds) it's the ideal quickie en route to pick blueberries or eat a pork sandwich (see below). The view is spectacular.

Blueberries galore// Santa Barbara Blueberries
5. Santa Barbara Blueberries (activity)
Driving north, this blueberry and raspberry farm is seasonal (June-July, sometimes starting in April or extending through August) so make sure to stop and take advantage of U-Pick, a.k.a. gorge yourself on fresh fruit as you pick some to take home. The fields are uncovered so bring a hat/sunglasses, and if the bushes are looking lean crouch down; the berries underneath the bushes are always the last to be discovered. $18/bucket

Los Alamos

Lunch// Photo Credit: Bell Street Farm
6. Bell Street Farm (eat)
Rotisserie Pork Salad. Rotisserie Pork Sandwich. Those were the two reasons I tried Bell Street Farm, and they're the two (main) reasons I'll go back. If you check out yelp, there are a handful of delicious cafes and restaurants in cozy Los Alamos (population: under 19,000 in 2010) primarily doing the whole "seasonal menu" thing with a farmhouse-chic motif. But Bell Street Farm is special, because there's a patio out back where you can enjoy a local wine or beer with delicious shareable or individual plates (or, take the whole lot to go and picnic where you please). Get the soup (any time of year), the market salads and of course...the Rotisserie Pork (ok, or chicken. That looked good too). Sandwiches: $15.75 and under
Pecan roll, dollop of cream cheese frosting

7. Old West Cinnamon Roll (indulgence)
Swathed in cinnamon and sugar with the option of pecans, walnuts, almond, crumb or plain plus a great dollop of cream cheese frosting, these cinnamon rolls are the size of your hand and hail from heaven. Doors open at 6:30 a.m. with rolls starting at $2.75, the only limit is how much sugar you can handle at once. Extra frosting: $.75

8. Monarch Butterflies (activity)
Nicknamed "the butterfly trees," this tiny majestic grove of Eucalyptus and Monterey Pines is known to harbor upwards of 25,000 butterflies during peak season (Nov-Feb). For a tour go from 10am to 4pm, otherwise guide yourself around the trees. Free!


The market at the Barn//Photo Credit: Avila Valley Barn
9. Avila Valley Barn (activity)
Think fresh pies, hayrides, pumpkin patches, apple picking and petting zoo all-in-one. When there's roasted corn grab a cob and douse it in butter, if apples are in season take a bucket and go pick a pound or two and if you prefer your fruit in pie form they've got 'em all: apple, pumpkin, berry, etc. Whole pie: under $25

Private hot springs//Photo credit: Asami L.
10. Sycamore Mineral Springs (indulgence)
One of my favorite places on earth, Sycamore Mineral Springs is where you go to melt in a private mineral hot springs for two (or a group). Upon arrival you get to choose your tub, which will be one of ten or so scattered across the hillside, shrouded by trees. There's a rickety wood staircase that hikes you up to your tub and a wood fence/partition that provides just enough privacy. Oh, and wine/beer is available for purchase at check-in. Sadly, you can't BYO. Weekdays: $14.50pp/hour, weekend: $18.50pp/hour

Serenity swing
11. Serenity Swing (hike)
A swing in a tree on top of a hill with a view of the ocean? Delightful! A somewhat kept secret of the Cal Poly students, the Serenity Swing is infamous throughout local college kids' Instas yet is still absolutely perfect for all ages that like a little treat at the end of a hike. Round-trip is 3.8 miles with a hands-and-knees scramble up to the summit. Don't forget your camera! Only cost is parking at one of the Cal Poly lots.

Tri-tip// Photo credit: Firestone Grill
Firestone is where you go in SLO for tri-tip. Juicy, succulent, barked tri-tip; and it's available in many forms, like stacked between garlic-buttered french bread, melted in a quesadilla, piled on a cobb salad or tucked in a taco. BBQ chicken, ribs, burgers, hot dogs and veg-options are also present, and likely delicious—but really, you go here for the tri-tip. Period. Tri-tip sandwich: $9.25

13. Bishop Peak (hike)
Yet another trek with a stunning reward, Bishop Peak is a volcanic plug and the tallest of the "Nine Sisters," a family  of peaks stretching across San Louis Obispo. More a climb than a hike, this 3.5 mile round-trip will take you to the top of the peak and, if you so please, up, between, behind and around  bunch of boulders and caves. The views are unforgettable. Free!

Drive-in, kick back// Photo credit: Pat S.
14. Sunset Drive-In Theater (activity)
OMG when's the last time you went to a drive-in theatre? Like me, it's quite possible you've never been, so here's your chance. Boasting a newly released double-feature every night means you get TWO movies for the price of one, and that ONE is just $8/person. Oh, and nobody will know whether your drink is 21+. Tickets: $8/person

Carnitas plate (+ olives)// Taco Temple
15. Taco Temple (indulgence)
Fresh chips, salsa (and a drink if you so desire) while you wait make the 20-45 minutes fly. Then, get the carnitas platter, extra Temple dressing, a fried fish taco and a to-go container. With a close proximity to the ocean, there's always a full blackboard list of just-plucked-from-the-sea fish and shellfish available in a variety of preparations. But get the taco. Oh, and a carnitas burrito. With extra Temple dressing. Carnitas platter: $15

Half way up// Cerro Alto
16. Cerro Alto (hike)
For another view that will help you earn your tacos, when you summit Cerro Alto you're actually at `one of the highest points in SLO. This hike starts at Cerro Alto campground where you need to pay a few bucks to park, but let your wallet rest assured this it's totally worth it. With a gradual to relatively steep incline, Cerro Alto clocks in at around 5.5 miles round-trip and includes shady spots, a few benches, hikers with dogs and a 365 degree view up top. Parking: $8/day

Quite majestic// Montana de Oro
17. Bluffs Trail, Montana de Oro (hike)
For a hike that's more a stroll with a picturesque view of the ocean, this is it. I love this trail; it's one of those that gives you a cliff-side opportunity to walk along the shore without being in the sand. Plus, there's something monumental about being able to see miles upon miles of waves breaking all at once. Depending on how far you go, you can get in roughly a handful of blissful miles round-trip. Bring water, snacks and a jacket because it can get windy.


For cookies// Photo credit: Brown Butter Cookie Company

18. Brown Butter Cookie Company (indulgence)
Ever heard of a little cookie so good that it made a beachside town famous? Now you have. Known for a variety of cookies the size and shape of half a golf ball, Brown Butter Cookie Company's signature brown-butter/salt-sprinkled cookie (aka the Original) is the stuff people make pilgrimages for (and billboards about). You can taste each favor in-store which is a wonderful foray into this new salty-sweet world of desserts. $12/dozen

Sunset// Moonstone Beach
19. Moonstone Beach (lodging)
Spectacular, really. This stretch of coastline includes cliffside benches, regal Monterey pines and sweeping takes of the Pacific. Moonstone is where you go to enjoy a glass of wine as the sun sets, stroll (or jog) the wooden walking path and lavish in your hotel/cottage/inn/motel/b&b's ocean-facing hot tub. There's one good breakfast spot on the strip, but really, a brown butter cookie plus coffee is great in the early morning air. Castle Inn: $130+/night

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