California coast escape

Road trip getaway to Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, Monterey, and Big Sur
Matthew Jaffe

By Matt Jaffe

Sunset at the beach: the staple of personal ads and romance novels. But trust me ― as sunsets go, this is an epic, a masterpiece.

We're at Oso Flaco Lake, on California's Central Coast. My wife, Becky, has never been to this spot, so I wanted to show her the lake and, beyond it, a beach with churning, restless surf.

Great stops: Dining, lodging, and things to do along California's Central Coast

We follow the boardwalk along the lake and then through the shifting dunes. The fall day has been overcast, but the sands begin to brighten to gold. By the time we reach the ocean, the setting sun has emerged beneath the layer of clouds along the horizon. Everything―ocean, dunes, underside of clouds―is suddenly on fire with spinning oranges and reds and purples.

Neither of us has ever seen a sunset quite like this. But while we're astounded, we're not entirely surprised. Because when we began our 670-mile round-trip drive through the Central Coast's wine regions and along its incomparable coastline, we were venturing into the California of our dreams.

Santa Barbara to Santa Ynez Valley (30 miles)

In my mind, Santa Barbara is California: Mediterranean architecture, palm trees, the beach, and islands veiled in mist. But it's a city that has always remained just out of reach. I've lived an hour to the northwest and now live an hour to the east, but never in Santa Barbara itself.

We splurge with a night at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort. It's Santa Barbara condensed, all ocean and gardens, archways and decorative tile, trailing bougainvillea and a rambling Moreton Bay fig. The mood here is decidedly relaxed, especially compared to posh oceanfront spots in other beach cities that have an almost white-gloved fussiness about them. This too seems to be a reflection of Santa Barbara, where the surf vibe and sea breeze seem to chill out loftier pretensions. Santa Barbara is a city that reveres not just its Dons but its dudes too. Next: Dinner

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