Our digital editor road trips with her toddler along the Central Coast
Maybe it’s the L.A. in me, but I’ve always had an affinity for highways. They’re like little memory portals — going west on the 10 freeway recalls my early twenties, juggling work and classes and frequent weekends soaking up the sun on Santa Monica Beach. Heading north on the 101 freeway brings back my childhood, musical dinners at Miceli’s and back-to-school shopping at the Topanga mall.
When my almost 4-year-old daughter Naomi and I got to travel up California Highway 1 on a weekend getaway, it felt like we were opening a new portal, not just to the ridiculously cute towns dotted along California’s Central Coast, but also to core memories that, perhaps, my daughter will recall when she’s older and driving these California freeways herself.
Highway 1’s picture-perfect coastal towns are not just new to us. “Each little town is still very untapped,” Katie Sturtevant, a Central Coast native and stewardship travel program director with Highway 1 Road Trip, told me over lunch. “A lot of people don’t realize you can do all the trips in one day.” It’s true: Avila Beach, Cayucos and San Simeon, are not that far from L.A., but each of these gems deserves exploration.
We arrived in Avila Beach a little early for our lunch with Katie at Mersea’s on the Harford Pier, a casual seafood restaurant, just in time for Naomi and I to marvel at the loud pile of sea lions sunbathing on a small barge below. “Mama, what are they saying?” Naomi asked, giggling. I know nothing about sea mammals, but I said, “I think they’re hungry. Just like us. Let’s go!” Just a few yards away, we enjoyed our fish and chips and lemonade overlooking the water. Though Naomi could’ve been entertained by the seagulls for the rest of the afternoon, there were more animals to see.
A short drive up Avila Beach Drive leads to the picturesque Avila Valley Barn. Kids roam free among the sunflower fields while parents order food from Chicken Shack & Smoke House or browse fresh fruits and vegetables and handmade pies at the farmstand. Naomi made a beeline for the goats, who were eager to snag the fresh lettuce from her little hand. After visiting the other animals — ponies, sheep, cows and llamas— it was time for an ice cream break at the Sweet Shoppe.
Back in the center of town, we checked into Avila Lighthouse Suites, an all-suite luxury hotel with ocean views, a heated pool and lawn games, to freshen up before dinner. Not even a day into our trip and it was already so special. We’d never traveled just the two of us before, but I was tired — and pregnant. The plush bed and ocean breeze were just what I needed to muster the energy for dinner at Mulligan’s Bar & Grill at the Avila Beach Golf Resort.
As the sun set, Naomi and I huddled around a firepit, listening to live music and savoring our grilled cheese, burger and hot chocolate from the bar. Sandy and George, a sweet couple in their 80s, and their daughter, who was visiting from San Pedro, asked if they could join us since their fire pit wasn’t working. Once again, I couldn’t help but see into the future. While Sandy and George danced into the night and I chatted with their daughter, Arolyn, I thought about my husband and me — grayed and wrinkled, sharing hot toddys and lots of laughs with our adult daughter. “Your parents are the cutest,” I told her.
“Actually, they separated when I was 3, divorced when I was 5 and remarried when I was 10,” Arolyn confided. “They realized the yachts and the cars and all that stuff didn’t matter. It’s all about family in the end.”
Day two of our mother-daughter road trip started with our bike ride along the Bob Jones Trail, a paved path that winds through the golf course, forested valley and San Luis Obispo Creek. We picked up our e-bike and child’s trailer from Bolt About in town, which I was nervous to use, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. Naomi got to enjoy the views from her little trailer while I got a good work out pulling her. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fresh air in a single weekend.
It was time to make our way to our next stop, Cayucos, an enchanting seaside town with beautiful beaches, surfing, swimming and a sweet little Main Street dotted with antique shops and cafés. Known for its blue corn waffles and tacos, The Hidden Kitchen filled us up for lunch. Naomi and I shared tacos and smoothies at the organic, locally sourced beachfront restaurant. Next, we stopped by Brown Butter Cookie Company for the most delicious sweet-and-salty shortbread before heading to the beach playground.
By the time we checked into the Shoreline Inn on the Beach, a family-owned-and-operated motel with ocean views, the solo parenting plus pregnancy was getting to me. As we sprawled out on the hotel bed watching the only cartoon I could find, “Spongebob Squarepants,” while the sun was making its early descent over the horizon, a view I didn’t have to miss thanks to the oceanfront room, I tried to let go of the guilt that we were watching TV instead of playing on the beach. We woke up about an hour later in time to stroll over to Schooners, an iconic American seafood restaurant and bar overlooking Cayucos State Beach, for dinner. We enjoyed Alaskan halibut and chicken strips while looking out at the playground we were playing at just a few hours earlier. Nearby, a large family navigated the beautiful chaos of dining with small children.
We kicked off our third and final day with breakfast burritos and pastries at Luna Coffee Bar, a family-owned café set in a lovely garden patio. There’s plenty of seating, but a fellow mom sipped her coffee standing, rocking her newborn strapped to her chest, her husband handing her bites of toast. I remember those early days and am in awe of the young girl now sitting across from me, my little road-trip buddy.
For our last leg of the trip, we hopped in the car and drove to see the elephant seals of San Simeon. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery off Highway 1, just past Hearst Castle, is a free, public viewing area open year-round. The largest seal in the Northern Hemisphere, the northern elephant seal, can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Braving the strong coastal winds, we made the short walk to the overlook. “Look mama!” Naomi pointed to a lone elephant seal making its slow slide across the sand. We were excited to spot one. And then, we realized it was making its way over to its 50 or so friends. The rookery hosts up to 24,000 elephant seals each year.
On our drive home, I asked Naomi, as part of our new daily gratitude ritual, “What’s something you’re grateful for?” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Hanging out with mama.”
My eyes may have teared up just a little. If my daughter doesn’t remember this trip, I know I will.
A native Angeleno, Nina Harada is an artist and Digital Editor of L.A. Parent.