About The Northern Central Coast
The Northern Central Coast is natural California at its most inspiring. Big cities, smog, and even theme parks, suddenly become a distant memory as the landscape becomes one of scrub-covered mountains and rugged cliffs pounded by crashing ocean surf. Barely changed for millennia, this is California as it was when the Spanish arrived and several of the missions they erected remain here, some completely renovated, others reduced to ruins.
Visit this part of the coast between May and September: the weather is liable to be inclement even then; winter is sure to bring rain and vicious gales. The two major highways here are separate and have no links between them other than at their start and end points. Therefore you will need to decide in advance which course has most appeal.
The faster way, Hwy-101, is generally the least interesting, travelling inland to link dull farming towns and separated from the majestic coastline by a mountain range. In its favour, however, is the fact that Hwy-101 follows a section of EI Camino Real, the old route linking the 21 California missions, and Mission San Antonio de Padua (a well recommended detours), it’s long considered the most evocative of the lot. You’ll also find the pick of the state’s smaller wineries in the southerly portion of this route. Together, these are the region’s best places to visit.
Hwy-1 is slower but overall far more impressive, hugging the magnificent coastline and providing plenty of scope for dining in hillside restaurants above the ocean and spending nights in rustic lodges or small-town inns. With Monterey, a one-time California capital, and the beautifully restored mission at Carmel, this route earns high marks for its historical interest, too. Hwy-1 also passes Hearst Castle, a testament to human indulgence on the scale of the infinite and second only to Disneyland in popularity among visitors to California.
Unfortunately, Hwy-1 is no secret. A twisting, two-lane road, it’s bumper-to-bumper with tourists throughout the summer (weekends in particular should be avoided), when we’ve often spent more time anxiously watching the over-sized motor home in front rather than enjoying the view all around.
The quickest and easiest way to get around is the AMTRAK Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains (https://www.amtrak.com/) that travel the Californian coastline. Two/three daily Greyhound buses connect the towns on Hwy-101 between Salinas and San Luis Obispo onwards to Monterey can only be done by AMTRAK Intercity Rail Passenger Services from Salinas. There are no Greyhound services south of Monterey along Hwy-1, although Monterey, Carmel, Salinas and (summer only) Big Sur Village are linked by local buses run by MST (tel. +1 888 678 2871; www.mst.org).