A Local Shares 7 Essential Santa Cruz Experiences
Get insights from a local on what to do in Santa Cruz and where to have the best time.
Head to these magical Central Coast beach towns for unforgettable activities and relaxing overnight stays in stunning environs.
8 min read
November 11, 2020
The Central Coast may not have big cities like Los Angeles or San Diego, but it’s abundant with quintessential beach towns that are anything but mundane. Offering charming spots for morning dates and plenty of unforgettable activities for locals and tourists, the region has some of the best getaway destinations in all of the Golden State. Plus, with 200 miles of coastline, the Central Coast is a surfer’s paradise.
Here, you’ll find the most beautiful cities and oceanfront hotels on the Central Coast of California—the accompanying gorgeous views of the Pacific are bound to blow your mind. Though you won’t want to leave, the magic of the beach towns stays with you long after you’re gone.
Recognized for its stunning natural environs and rich artistic history, Carmel-by-the-Sea (or simply, Carmel) is a charming beach town that rewards visitors with the finest scenery. Victorian buildings, fairytale cottages, and hidden passageways make the European-inspired village a delightful destination, so don’t hesitate to spend a day (or three) in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
If you’re looking for whale-watching spots in Carmel, Sea Lion Cove at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is the ideal spot. The gorgeous cove has multiple hiking trails and vantage points for viewing migrating whales. China Cove is another breathtaking locale—the emerald green cove has a tiny pocket beach surrounded by rock walls and a small cave with a rock arch.
The perfect Carmel-by-the-Sea hotel to unwind and take in the beautiful natural surroundings in peace is Tradewinds Carmel. Featuring enviable amenities and incorporating Japanese, Balinese, and Chinese elements, it’s the ideal oceanfront hotel in this Central Coast town.
Famed for its towering sand dunes, Marina is a great place to simply relax by the beach and soak in the sunshine. The dynamic city is also known for its extreme sports, making it the ultimate beach town for those seeking thrilling adventures; just go to Marina State Beach for the ultimate adrenaline rush. Fly on a hang-glider and watch surfers ride the waves while soaring in the sky. If that’s not enough to satisfy your adventurous soul, head over to Skydive Monterey Bay for a life-changing experience.
Later, pay a visit to Fort Ord National Monument, where 44 species of rare plants and animals inhabit the 14,000-acre plot. With over 86 miles of trails waiting to be explored, it’s a wonderful destination for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and watching wildlife in Marina, California.
Upgrade your stay in this beach town by booking a private waterfront cottage at the Sanctuary Beach Resort Hotel to fall asleep to the soothing surf.
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Also known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Bay is a charming beach town with striking features and exciting wildlife. Serving as a natural refuge for various animals—including harbor seals, sea lions, and sea otters—Morro Bay is home to the impressive Morro Bay State Park, which is a must-visit when you’re exploring San Luis Obispo County. Aside from offering many opportunities for sailing, fishing, hiking, and bird watching, the state park also houses the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History—the only natural history museum in the California State Park system.
Bayfront Inn is your go-to oceanfront hotel in this beach town; it’s within close walking distance to Morro Rock, a stunning volcanic plug formed about 23 million years ago. The numerous pristine beaches—such as Toro Creek Beach, North Point Beach, and the iconic Morro Rock City Beach—will make you never want to leave this paradise.
With sweeping views of palm trees and calm ocean waters, this San Luis Obispo County town is a haven for people seeking out life in the slow lane. Relax and unwind at Avila Hot Springs—the go-to place if you’re on the hunt for a healing and rejuvenating experience—as you soak in the mineral-rich waters. Then, make use of your revitalized energy and stroll down the Bob Jones Trail to take in views of the San Luis Obispo Creek.
You can also treat yourself to a unique golfing adventure at Avila Beach Golf Resort with the Pacific Ocean as your backdrop. Of course, you can’t leave this town without hitting the beach—watch the sun disappear beneath the horizon at Cave Landing Beach or Pirate’s Cove Beach to wrap up your Avila Beach adventure with a bang.
The Inn at Avila Beach, overlooking the spectacular coastline, is where you experience the coastal lifestyle at its best; the all-inclusive inn disconnects you from everyday life so you’re fully immersed in the moment.
A quintessential Central Coast beach town that you can’t miss is Pismo Beach. This coastal city is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been—the scenic landscape consists of miles of well-maintained beach along with high-action sports to keep you entertained. The symbol of the town is the wooden Pismo Beach Pier, where people enjoy pier fishing, flying kites, and countless special events. Since the pier is lit after the sun goes down, it provides the perfect setting for a nighttime surf sesh or a romantic evening stroll.
When visiting between late October and February, make sure to stop by the Monarch Butterfly Grove, a eucalyptus tree–filled grove with thousands of fluttering Monarchs. For a family-friendly afternoon, pay a visit to Dinosaur Caves Park, which is located in the Shell Beach area of Pismo Beach. The park offers large grassy areas, picnic tables, walking paths, and kayaking opportunities to explore the many rock arches and caves.
Enjoy your evenings at Pismo Lighthouse Suites, one of the most vibrant oceanfront hotels on the Central Coast of California.
Montecito consists of Mediterranean-style structures and year-round sunshine that make your coastal dreams come true. But it is surprisingly under the radar, considering the fact that it’s a celebrity paradise—Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are just a few of the celebrities who call this place home. Not only is Montecito an exclusive community lined with luxurious houses, but also a charming beach town with some of the most desirable beaches on the Central Coast.
Butterfly Beach is a local favorite that has perfect waters for swimming, surfing, kayaking, and sunbathing. You’ll see many people walking their dogs here at the water’s edge. Many visitors also don’t know about Miramar Beach, a gorgeous south-facing cove with a narrow sandy beach ideal for surfing. When in Montecito, you should also feast your eyes on the beauty of the 37-acre Ganna Walska Lotusland botanical garden, which is home to over 3,000 different plants from around the world.
Once the sun starts setting, feel like a million bucks and pamper yourself to the max at Rosewood Miramar Beach, a luxury oceanfront hotel with a captivating, estate-style atmosphere.
Santa Barbara is the ultimate resort destination and one of the most glamorous beach towns on the Central Coast. Abundant in Spanish-style buildings and pristine beaches lined with palm trees, the coastal city bewitches visitors with its captivating attractions. Between Leadbetter Beach, Mesa Lane Beach, and Thousand Steps Beach, it’s hard to decide on which one to visit, so you may as well stop by all of them when spending a weekend in Santa Barbara.
Old Mission Santa Barbara, one of the 21 Franciscan missions built in California, is a can’t-miss attraction here. When you’re done admiring the beauty and grandeur of the “Queen of the Missions,” embark on an adventure at Lizard’s Mouth Trail, which leads to a mountaintop rock formation that resembles a lizard’s mouth; the popular bouldering location is a wonderland of massive sandstone outcroppings overlooking the oceanfront city. You should also explore the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which has an impressive collection of art consisting of more than 27,000 works spanning 5,000 years.
Later, enjoy dinner in downtown Santa Barbara before checking in to the resort-style Harbor View Inn, where you can admire the Pacific from your ocean-view room or suite.
Some people believe beach towns are sleepy places, but Oxnard puts all of these assumptions to shame. The lively coastal city offers exciting adventures and fun experiences for anyone seeking to break out of their comfort zone. When it’s time to hit the beach, Channel View Park Beach is the place to go. Swimming, sunbathing, birdwatching, playing volleyball—is there a better way to enjoy the afternoon? Get a little taste of history at Heritage Square, a cluster of restored historic buildings preserving the architectural uniqueness of Oxnard.
As the day comes to its end, head over to the oceanfront Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort, where exotic gardens and a sparkling pool with cascading waterfalls provide the ideal setting to unwind.
Located next to the Channel Islands, Ventura is a laid-back beach town rich in history and tradition. Ventura is a great place to take in the sun, sea, and sand, making it the perfect destination for a coastal getaway. The main attraction in town is Ventura Pier, which spans 1,700 feet. The sandy beach by the pier attracts many people visiting the old structure; boasting views of Pierpont Bay and the Channel Islands, it's quite the glorious sight.
Another must-visit beach is Emma Woods State Beach featuring crumbling ruins of a World War II coastal artillery site—there are two circular concrete structures that are gun mounts left from that era. You can also get in touch with nature by heading to Ventura Botanical Gardens, where 107 acres of greenery house 160 species of plants.
At nightfall, check in to the Cliff House Inn On the Ocean and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of gently crashing waves.
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