Cruising The Central Coast: Avila Beach and Cayucos


January 23, 2020

By Mona Day

Travel Writer

The Central Coast is one of my favorite places to get away from LA: with its scenic beauty and nature activities, it is the perfect antidote to the big city. The unspoiled beaches with their sand dunes, rock formations and tidepools offer the full range of water activities, or just hang out for a slow exhale. Protected parklands offer extensive trails for biking, hiking and scenic walks. Off season, you have them practically to yourself. The food and wine, farm to table culture of the greater San Luis Obispo area adds to the draw, and the area's many laid back little towns provide plenty of fresh new perspectives from which to explore, each time you visit. The area is an easy four hour drive, and your getaway begins with the drive itself - along the PCH and bucolic farmland. This time I headed out to two central coast gems, Avila Beach and Cayucos.

Avila Beach offers plenty to do. For history, there's the Point San Luis Lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Register. The Central Coast Aquarium is home to dozens of species. For down-home family fun, there's the Avila Valley Barn with seasonal local produce, preserves, other sundry goods, a petting zoo for kids, and a deli for a quick bite. Nestled in the surrounding hills and the bay is the Avila Beach Golf Resort.

What drew me to the little town, though, was its destination resort of Sycamore Mineral Springs, whose history goes back to 1886 when two weathered prospectors drilling for liquid gold found instead hot sulphur mineral water. That prompted the proprietors to build a resort which became popular during the early 20th century as the Pacific Coast Railway brought travelers from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in the 1930s with Hollywood celebrities stopping by on their way to Hearst Castle.

Located in an idyllic woodsy area, with serene lawns and gardens, some quaint and whimsical, the grounds include a pool with cabanas, as well as a one-acre chef's garden that provides a cornucopia of fresh produce, herbs and edible flowers for the resort's restaurant. The naturally heated mineral water comes from over 100 acres of natural, underground springs. Each guest room includes a private balcony or patio with its own hot tub with mineral water. In addition, 23 open-air hot tubs line the wooded hillside which are open to the public for day use. Each tub is enclosed by a lattice wood fence for privacy while still allowing views of their peaceful woodsy setting. The hillside hot tubs accommodate two to eight people; larger groups can book the Oasis Waterfall Lagoon that accommodates up to 20.

The resort's spa offers a full range of facials and body treatments - swedish, deep tissue, and hot springs stone. It also offers wellness classes that include specialized yoga - gentle, hatha, restorative, and centering, as well as pilates, t'ai chi and meditation. The spacious grounds and hillside provide ample opportunity for walking and hiking, and connect to the Bob Jones Bike Trail for even more.

The resort is also a convenient two miles from the beach and the Avila Pier, so an easy stroll on the pier is a must. At its end you will find several historic buildings, a seafood market, and a casual seafood restaurant Mersea's, where you can have lunch al fresco and commune with the pelicans and seagulls that fly over to join you at your table. The menu includes chowder, salads, sandwiches, and fried fish, shrimp or clams with chips.

Along the waterfront by the pier are more formal restaurants where you can enjoy dinner with magnificent views of a sky on fire as the sun drops into the ocean behind the pier. I selected Ocean Grill for just such a view as well as for its seafood centric menu, picking an appetizer of mussels, and an entree of seared diver scallops and pork belly served with miso quinoa, shaved apple, fennel, embellished with an apple ginger vinaigrette and apple balsamic reduction.

About 30 miles - half an hour up the coast from Avila Beach is the charming little seaside town of Cayucos by the six miles of sand that is Cayucos State Beach. The town's main street Ocean Avenue is lined with quaint and historic buildings dominated by the Old Cayucos Tavern, a historic cowboy bar with rooms for playing cards, pool tables, dancing, and live music. Others include a surf shop with handcrafted boards, public art, antique stores, locally owned gift stores and cafes.

There could hardly be a better base for exploring the town than the charming, family owned, pet friendly Cayucos Shoreline Inn which boasts being the only overnight accommodation directly on the beach between Monterey and Pismo Beach.

In December the Inn was even more charming decked over the top in its seasonal finery of holiday lights. The complimentary breakfast is filling - with fruit, pastries, yogurt, and boiled eggs, and the breakfast room with its wall of glass also comes with views. In good weather you can take your breakfast out to the lawn and have it on the reclining lawn chairs, or stay in and settle into the comfortable sofa with a cup of coffee. All of the rooms have balconies with views of the sand, surf, and the town's iconic pier. The Inn also opens out to the main street Ocean Ave, and conveniently close to its shops. You can walk to its several restaurants for dinner, with no need to drive.

Notable ones include Lunada Garden Bistro located in the historic Way Station property whose famous visitors included WR Hearst who often dined there on his way to San Simeon before his castle completed. Today, the property features gardens and luxury vacation rentals. Lunada offers an extensive menu of steaks, chicken, lamb, quail, and seafood. I chatted with a couple from Fresno at the adjacent table, who, heeding the call of the sea had been making weekend trips to Cayucos for decades. They recommended the seafood medley that they themselves had ordered, and I took note. It was a satisfying dish of sauteed calamari, scallops and shrimp, artichoke hearts, capers and tomato in a creamy lemon sauce served with rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables.

Another good option for dinner is Schooner's with its fanciful old world frontage and nautical theme - a reminder of the town's early history of sailing and fishing.

The upstairs open air patio lets you dine to coastal sunset views, with plenty of heaters keeping you warm in the winter. The menu features steaks, burgers and plenty of seafood - cod, halibut and calamari with chips, as well as house specialties of cioppino, teriyaki glazed halibut, salmon risotto, a seafood tower, seafood pasta and a lobster mac and cheese. That week, the restaurant had had its semi-annual cleaning event in which the entire staff pitches in to give it a good scrub down.

Points of interest near Cayucos include The Abalone Farm developed for the California Red Abalone, and many trails including the Whale Rock Reservoir Trail less than four miles away and Harmony Headlands Trail, about six and a half miles away. Just a bit further away are the Montaña de Oro State Park to the south, and Estero Bluffs State Park to the north. The latter is approximately 355 acres of coastal terrace with a rich diversity of habitats including marine, inter-tidal, estuarine, riverine, coastal salt and freshwater marsh, scrub and grassland that provide a natural habitat for a number of species, many endangered.

Visiting Estero Bluffs State Park was part of my plan - except that the morning brought rain. That is when the ocean views from the Inn's rooms came in for full appreciation. Staying cozy in the warm room with a full view of the beach and pier - the change of plan worked perfectly as part of a well-planned vacation to just chill out. As the rain slowed down, it was time to explore Ocean Ave and then on to a leisurely walk on the pier. There you can browse the mini-stories told by the plaques lining the pier commemorating its many donors, chat with fellow walkers, and cheer on the surfers. I gasped as they jumped off the pier, and waved out to them in relief as they safely bobbed back up on the water.

Estero Bluffs State Park for now remains a great excuse to head back up north to once again cruise the Central Coast.

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