California Road Trip Itinerary: 10 Days of Food, Fairs, & Fun From the Bay to the Beach
Tri-Valley, Tri Tip, veraison, grommies, rad barrels, the OC or just OC…these are just some of the things we discovered on our California road trip from the Bay to the Beach. And if you think that’s a mouthful, wait’ll you get a load of how much fun we had in 10 days!
We absolutely love a good road trip. They’re just made for slow travel, and you know how much we love that. Road trips are the perfect way to explore at your own leisurely pace. You can go when you want, do or not do — take whatever time you have and adjust as you go along, whether you’re on two wheels or four. A good road trip can be had over a weekend or longer, but our California road trip itinerary took 10 days.
From the beautiful Tri-Valley just 20 miles from San Francisco Bay to the Orange County beaches (it’s just OC, not The OC) in southern California, we gazed at the rolling golden hills and sapphire blue ocean vistas, explored the summer vineyards on e-bikes, visited some incredible wineries, breweries, distilleries, and local farms, and shopped in sustainable markets. We strolled the streets of small towns and urban green spaces and malls. Our journey took us on back roads and highways through mountains and by the ocean, and along the way we shared great wine, craft beer, spirits, and laughs with some pretty awesome people. I’m not kidding when I say the free hug I got from Al at the Ojai Farmer’s Market made me want to set up my own stool! It felt good to connect with strangers and fellow Americans on the far side of the country over good food, incredible wine, common goals and dreams, and yes, even free hugs.
I had forgotten how I fell in love with California after college and wanted to move here, but never did. How I couldn’t decide which I loved more: the rolling hills of gold, the blue of the ocean, or the laid-back vibe. California is a special place. Certainly one of the world’s top destinations for food and wine. But that’s just the beginning. You should go. And when you do, take a road trip through some of these places, and say Hi to Al for me.
OUR California ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: 10 Days and 1,023 Miles from the Bay to the Beach
If a West Coast USA road trip is tempting you, this 10-day road trip itinerary might do the trick. It’s detailed here from north to south — roughly a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip itinerary — so you can see the possibilities of what’s along each stretch of the way and customize the kind of trip that’s good for you, whether it’s just the two of you or a fun family vacay. We also list some fun stops along the way in case you’re interested in things like quirky food, killer scenic views, worthwhile small town stopovers, or a great place to pick your own strawberries (great road snacks). Here was our basic itinerary, but customize your own!
Miles Covered: 1,023
Day 1: Travel day to California — Fly into San Francisco, pick up rental car. Drive 28 miles to Livermore Valley. California is a BIG state! Unless you live along the California Central Coast, we’re allowing the first day just for travel, picking up your rental car, and getting settled in.
Days 2 - 3 — Explore the Tri-Valley (2 days)
Days 4 - 5 — Drive 4 hours to the Santa Maria Valley (2 days)
Days 6 - 7 — Drive 2 hours to the Ventura County Coast (2 days)
Days 8 - 9 — Drive 2 hours to Costa Mesa (2 days)
Day 10 — Drive 20 minutes and kick back at Huntington Beach (1 day)
If We Had More/Less Time
More Time — We’d do a slow travel road trip, spending more time in each destination. Ideally, we’d keep the itinerary the same or add 1 or 2 additional destinations like driving the Pacific Coast highway through Monterey and Big Sur in between the Tri-Valley and Santa Maria Valley.
Less Time — We’d create a more regional road trip and group destinations closer together. For instance, the Tri-Valley and Livermore wine region could be the perfect starting point for a San Francisco road trip or even a northern California road trip. Or you could add San Luis Obispo to the Santa Maria Valley for the perfect California Central Coast road trip.
Fly and Drive
If you plan on flying into a city along the California Coast and picking up a rental car, here are the most convenient airports to get in and out of quickly:
San Francisco (SFO) - major hub
San Jose (SJC)
Santa Barbara (SBA)
Los Angeles (LAX) - major hub
DAY 1 — Travel, Pick up rental car
Where to Stay in the Tri-Valley
Purple Orchid Resort & Spa
For our overnight we loved our stay at the Purple Orchid Resort & Spa in the heart of the Livermore Valley wine country. There are so many good wineries in the Livermore Valley and narrowing things down for just a two day visit can be daunting. Fortunately, the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association and the owners of the Purple Orchid were great resources. The Purple Orchid is in such a beautiful setting — rooms are modern and comfortable with a rustic, winery feel. The made-to-order breakfasts were yummy and generous. But it’s the relaxing outside pool area with it waterfall and built in jacuzzis that will be the perfect end to your day.
East of the San Francisco Bay area and 35 miles from San Francisco, the Tri-Valley Area, as the name implies, is made up of three valleys — Livermore Valley, San Ramon Valley, and Amador Valley. Of the three, the Livermore Valley in the south is the main valley with the city of Livermore and no doubt the most visited. The Amador Valley is part of the Livermore Valley which includes the cities of Pleasanton and Dublin, and the San Ramon Valley in the north features San Ramon and the very charming town of Danville. The Tri-Valley boasts 60 wineries, 23 craft breweries, shopping galore if you’re of such a mind, and excellent restaurants for every taste and budget with many featuring locally-sourced items and specialties. What we found really fun were the ‘trails’: wine trails, a beer trail, a shopping trail, an ice cream trail, and now even a caffeine trail — how cool, and original, is that? Pick-up a passport with all the stops along a particular trail and have each stop along the trail stamp it for a prize depending on the number of stops required on each trail. Ya gotta love it.
Wine tastings at the various wineries are inexpensive when compared to Napa and Sonoma (starting at around $10) but that’s no indication of the wines’ quality and complexity. In fact we found quite a few wines with a terroir that would rival some we’ve had around the world. You might love them as much as we did! There’s not a weekend without an event of some kind in the Tri-Valley like the Hot Summer Days Car Show, Wines and Steins, the Alameda County Fair, Othello at Livermore Shakespeare, and the Livermore Valley Harvest Celebration in the Fall to name just a few. Be sure to check with your hotel or online before you visit to see what’s happening to really enjoy the local vibe and make the most of your stay.
DAY 2 — E-Bikes, Wine, & Spirits Tasting (maybe Just not all at the same time!)
There’s a lot of great scenery in the Livermore Valley and plenty of good photo ops, but what they’re really known for is their wine. Livermore Valley wines are born from the ideal climate and exposure on the surrounding rolling hills. The Livermore wineries here are so close to each other, you could easily drive from one to the next, or even walk — how unique is that! But the easiest way to explore them — and certainly the most fun — is to rent a bike. And not just any bike. We’re talking an electric motor-assisted bicycle from Pedego in Livermore. The owners Jim and Loretta will outfit you with a bike sized right for you along with a helmet, lock, instructions and a map of the bike trails. You can explore on your own or reserve a bike and a spot at a winery or brewery tour with a break for lunch. We had a blast pedaling (mostly cruising) on a wine tour and those pesky hills were no sweat with the power assist. It’s like your childhood dream to add superpower to your bike — come true!
And off we went! We toured Murrieta’s Well, one of the oldest wine estates in California dating back to 1884 that specializes in excellent small batch wine production. We love when a place has an interesting story to tell and this property has a rich history on how it got its name. Folklore has it that during the California Gold Rush a notorious bandit named Joaquin Murrieta often stopped to water his horses at the artesian well here. That well still flows as a rock-walled fountain in the front courtyard of the winery. They hold year round events and as a bonus have an in-house chef producing creative food items for pairings that showcase their wines. We could have spent the afternoon here enjoying the California sun, the peaceful setting, and of course the wines.
Our second stop was Retzlaff Vineyards, a historic Victorian estate with a casual vibe producing exceptional wines from their organically certified vineyards. And they truly are exceptional. We’ve had many good wines over the years in Oregon, Italy, and Chile, and last year in Austria, but the Merlot and Cab Sav at Retzlaff made a lasting impression. We walked the property checking the grapes (some were veraison and just starting to color). What’s great about their property is how laid back it is. You can spread a blanket on the lawn shaded by 100-year old California pepper trees and picnic with a bottle of your favorite. Plus, there’s live music on Sundays.
For our final tasting of the day we visited Darcie Kent Vineyards. This unique winery with a long and interesting history is today run by vintner and artist Darcie Kent. Sourcing grapes from some of the best vineyards in the Central Coast wine region including the Livermore Valley, this winery continues to produce excellent wines. Stop by for a tasting in the artist’s gallery or reserve a table on the sun deck for a guided tasting. Not only is Darcie an accomplished vintner, she also designs the labels for each of her wines.
The Livermore Valley wineries are mellow and locally-owned, and still inexpensive to taste (most are around $10) — and made for a perfect day. For a really unique tasting, check out Sidewinder Spirits Company on Research Drive in Livermore. It’s nestled in a light industrial warehouse area known as Block 37 that’s been repurposed to also house six wine tasting rooms and a brewery all within a two block radius. The spirits are the creations of accomplished vintner John Kinney, who now distills a brandy, dry and sweet vermouths, grappa, gin, and a whiskey. The speakeasy atmosphere in the bar is comfortable and fun, and the house Old Fashioned will knock your socks off — in the best way. Across the street, stop in and check out the craft brews with some crazy names at Altamont Beer Works. The taproom space at Altamont is industrial cool, and it’s the first brewery established in the Tri-Valley since Prohibition. And yup, its on the Beer Trail!
Have dinner tonight at Campo di Bocce of Livermore for a unique experience. There is casual dining of course with house made pizza, calzones, and sandwiches along with a full service bar and very nice wine list. What we didn’t expect were the actual bocce ball courts inside next to the dining areas where you can watch some pretty serious competitors. These folks are in a bocce league and a league match was underway when we arrived. It was fun to watch while we ate and after the league play was finished we got to try our hand at rolling a few large balls at the small target ball, the pallina. Suffice it to say that we are no threat to the league players, but it sure was fun just the same.
DAY 3 — Tao House and Charming Danville and Pleasanton
You may not be familiar with Eugene O’Neill, the famous American playwright, but may be familiar with his work, such as the famous plays Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We fell into the latter and knew little about him or his somewhat troubled life. A visit to Tao House in Danville certainly enlightened us. It’s where he chose to make his home and today is a National Historic Site. O’Neill became America’s only Nobel Prize winning playwright having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. A year later he and his wife, Carlotta, established Tao House which featured their love for Asian art, decor, and style. The house and surrounding property became a part of the National Park Service in 1980, thought you can’t visit the gated site on your own. Take the shuttle from in front of The Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville to Tao House. You’ll be treated to an in-depth guided tour through the house which contains many of the original furnishings and works or art from the time that he and his wife lived here. It was fascinating to peek into the O’Neill’s life for a moment and definitely worth the 1.5 hour tour.
Danville is a laid back town with a very cool brewery, the Danville Brewing Company. Their food menu looked tempting but we’d already had lunch — rats! But that didn’t stop us from trying their award winning 925 Blonde and checking off another brewery in our Beer Trail passport. For lunch, Danville Harvest is a great place for brunch, lunch or dinner. We ate here after touring Tao House and it was a good choice — a true farm-to-fork restaurant featuring organic locally sourced seasonal food items. Dine either inside or outside on the patio, but whatever you choose, you must order the scallion hushpuppies. The location makes for a relaxing after meal stroll along Hartz and Railroad Avenues with their many boutique shops.
If your sweet tooth is acting up, pop into Danville Chocolates with enough confections to make you swoon. As tempting as all that chocolate was, we couldn’t pass up a good ice cream parlor, and Danville has an excellent one — Lottie’s Creamery. This is the stuff that ice cream dreams are made of. Bonus — we learned about the Tri-Valley Ice Cream Trail and got our start at Lottie’s.
There’s another fun surprise in Danville for comedy movie fans. Bridges Restaurant & Bar is just down the street from Lottie’s. This elegant restaurant was the site for the famous scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where ‘her’ face falls off revealing her true identity. Remember? It was Sally Fields’ favorite restaurant!
For dinner, Sabio on Main is the perfect choice. Downtown Pleasanton is very nice and we wandered around a bit before making our reservation time at ‘Eat Real’ certified Sabio on Main. Chef Francis Hogan specializes in creating gourmet small plate items (think tapas) from sustainable locally sourced ingredients that can be shared by two. We indulged ourselves with the Chef’s 10 course tasting menu with his selected wine pairings. It was amazing from start to finish. Great atmosphere — check. Great service — check. Great food — double check!
Livermore Valley Wine Least Likely to Remind Us of the movie Sideways!
The f*****g Merlot at Retzlaff (still dreaming about it!)
Santa Maria Valley
We headed south on our road trip to our next stop, the small city of Santa Maria in the Santa Maria Valley. This area is not without its own long history. Most interesting to us was that the Native American Chumash people called this area home for several thousand years. The valley has a long agricultural tradition and an amazing 6 distinct AVAs, American Viticultural Areas, with a cool Mediterranean climate due to the geography of the valley which creates an opening to the cool air and moisture from the Pacific Ocean. There’s a lot going on in Santa Marie Valley from the beaches and dunes to hiking and cycling the hills and all within a 30 minute drive of the city. There are over 50 restaurants, 34 tasting rooms, and a great selection of craft breweries that will please even the fussiest of beer connoisseurs.
But the main thing — perhaps the biggest thing that sets Santa Maria apart — is barbecue, and not just any ol’ barbecue. We’re talking Santa Maria-style barbecue, a 150 year old tradition of cooking cuts of lightly seasoned beef over a red oak fire. We have two words for you — Tri Tip! This method of smoking gives the meat a gentle smokiness that lets the flavor of the meat come through. We’ve never had anything like it, and it is crazy delicious. Santa Maria has been named “The West’s Best BBQ Town” which sounds about right to us!
Where to Stay in the Santa Maria Valley
Radisson Santa Maria
The Radisson Santa Maria is a spacious atrium-style hotel located right on the tarmack at the Santa Maria Airport…literally! It’s quite a sight to see small planes parked outside your hotel window. The hotel has a very nice buffet breakfast and the restaurant was lively in the evening. We didn’t have time to enjoy all of the facilities offered like the pool and gym but found it a great place to relax after a long day. And best of all our bed was really comfortable.
DAY 4 — Breakfast in Livermore, Drive to the Santa Maria Valley
FUN STOPS Along the Way:
Rte. 5 Food Mart, Coalinga — Fans of jerky and strange quirky foods, Rejoice! This food mart has more flavors (35 exotic flavors to be exact) of jerky than you can shake a jerky stick at! And strange foods — hello, can you say Larvettes and Salt & Vinegar Crickettes!
Mission at San Luis Obispo de Tolosa — Another historic mission founded by Franciscan Junipero Serra in 1772, this famous church is architecturally unique among California missions with the vestibule and belfry combined and the church laid out in the shape of an ‘L’. There’s a small museum and the grounds are really lovely. Take a little time to stop here. It’s open daily to the public all year round.
We arrived in the Santa Maria Valley in the afternoon. After checking-in at our hotel in the late afternoon we needed a little refreshment. So we made the short drive over to nearby Orcutt where we found the Naughty Oak Brewing Company, a casual craft brewery on the edge of town. Wish we would have had time to stay a bit longer. It was poker night! Our dinner reservation was a few blocks back to the center of Old Town Orcutt at the famous Far Western Tavern. It has a very cool western theme with a lot of period photos adorning the walls, and the menu is billed as ‘California ranch cuisine’. Okay by us. This was our first taste of Santa Maria-style barbecue, and we can only say that we’d eat here again in a heartbeat.
DAY 5 — A Little Wine, a Little Hike, and a Whole Lotta BBQ
Breakfast this morning is at the yummy Moxie Cafe, with its excellent and generously portioned breakfast. The interesting aviation theme is a tribute to the training of P-38 Lightning pilots at the nearby Santa Maria Army Airfield during WWII.
We love to hike new unique places and just north of Guadalupe is the California State Park, Oso Flaco Lake — a scenic natural environment. There are sand dunes as far as you can see along with trees draped with Spanish Moss. And there are birds, lots and lots of birds. We missed the foot bridge that takes you to the boardwalk and instead followed the sand and gravel road as it wound through the brush. Coming back, we stayed on the boardwalk which was nearly level and a much easier hike. The lake itself seemed low due to the lack of rain in the area but there were still a lot of birds including Great Blue Herons and Egrets. This is an easy and peaceful hike to the ocean, but it can be windy and chilly. Best to throw a sweater in your daypack.
Another super fun place to visit in Nipomo is The Luffa Farm. You have to go! Have you ever used a luffa sponge and wondered what the heck it is or where it comes from? We have the answer and now know more about luffa than we could have imagined. Head to the farm for a free tour that’s interesting and fun. Luffa comes from a vine grown gourd and these folks grow the softest luffas around. The tour doesn’t take long and it’s just as much fun to walk around the quirky funky gardens. There’s a nice small gift shop here where you can stock up on all your luffa needs.
There are many excellent wineries in the Santa Maria Valley to check out but with our limited time we chose the Presqu’ile Winery and were glad we did. The architecturally stunning building and tasting room is beautifully designed in glass with natural wood and stone. The tasting room and patio overlook the valley and the surrounding hills and gives you an idea of how the geography of the Santa Maria Valley influences the vineyards. Either make a reservation for a tour of the winery or enjoy a glass of wine while waiting for the next one to begin. When we visited, a stage was set up for one of the events that are held regularly throughout the year. You can enjoy a tasting indoors or pick your favorite and enjoy it on the outside patio with a view all the way to the ocean on a clear day.
As we were about to leave the winery, we asked for a recommendation on where to have the best barbecue and a cold beer. They didn’t hesitate to suggest Jocko’s in Nipomo. We asked again at the hotel — Jocko’s. We asked at the gas station — gotta go to Jocko’s. You guessed it. We went to Jocko’s. Fortunately we got there just as folks were arriving for dinner. Have you ever had ribeye slow roasted over red oak coals? We hadn’t either but now that we have we’re not sure that anything else will ever match up. It was amazing! Good BBQ and cold beer — you gotta go to Jocko’s.
Sometimes we just need something simple for dinner that appeals to our Italian roots. Sometimes it’s pasta, sometimes it’s pizza. We found both at our dinner at Pizzeria Bello Forno in Orcutt — fresh pasta along with wood-fired artisan pizza and a nice bottle of locally produced wine. Lucky us! It’s a good thing we arrived when we did. The food here is so good, people were waiting around outside for a seat. And we can’t blame them.
DAY 6 — Drive the Beautiful Santa Ynez Valley and into Ventura
Grab a quick breakfast and hit the road — today is gonna be fun! The drive south from the Santa Maria Valley grows slightly more verdant as you skirt the coast, then turn inland onto Route 154 and head through the Santa Ynez Valley toward the Chumash Reservation and Cachuma Lake. Our two hour drive further south brought us to Ventura. What a difference from the agricultural areas we had been visiting. It certainly was busier and seemed more touristy with lots of pedestrian traffic especially as we reached our hotel in Ventura Harbor. Understandable, as it was the weekend and Ventura is just an hour north of Los Angeles. We can see the attraction and the vibe was very laid back. There’s so much to do here — beaches, boating, museums, shopping, golfing, and so many good dining choices.
FUN STOPS Along the Way:
Pick-Ur-Own Produce and Flowers — The Santa Maria Valley is agriculturally rich, and that includes beautiful cut flowers too. Stop in a Pick-Ur-Own for produce and cut flowers fresh off the vine
Hike Cachuma Lake — You’ll pass stunning landscapes as you drive along Rte. 154, including the scenic Cachuma Lake, which you’ll drive right by! Stop for a photo op, or pull into the main parking area for a short hike. Whether traveling either north or south, there are signs indicating where to park.
Los Olivos — A cute little town just off Route 154 with a lot of tasting rooms, fun places to eat and a funky general store. But we have to say it — there are no public restrooms in stores and you’ll be directed to the church in town. With so much wine being poured, make sure you know the way to church!
The Santa Maria Valley Food That Made Us Want to Be a Cowboy?
The Grilled Ribeye Sampler at Jocko’s Steakhouse
Ventura County Coast
The Ventura County Coast includes not only Ventura County but also the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, and Port Hueneme, with the coastal city of Ventura being the largest. Situated between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, the region has a rich history dating back to 1782 when the Mission San Buenaventura was established, hence the shortened name of Ventura. This coast offers a lot to visitors and those who live here year round with sunny skies and seaside charm. Name a water sport and it can no doubt be enjoyed here. Other outdoor activities like hiking and camping are within an easy drive. With the extent of outdoor activities this area thrives on, it’s no wonder that the outdoor brand Patagonia is headquartered here. Ventura has excellent restaurants, museums, a walkable downtown, and a historic overlook at Serra Cross Park. The cities of Oxnard and Camarillo also are worth a closer look for family farms, excellent shopping and restaurants, a beautiful harbor, and a great Maritime Museum.
Where to Stay in the Ventura Coast
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Ventura Harbor — This newly-renovated property is located right on the Ventura Harbor marina within easy walking distance to Ventura Harbor Village. Our room overlooked the marina and the ocean beyond and Wow, what a view! We loved the location, the easy but satisfying breakfast included, and that great shower!
Arrive in Ventura in time for a late lunch at Spencer Makenzie’s World Famous Fish Tacos. Living in south Florida, we love fish tacos, so we had to try this place in downtown Ventura to see if they lived up to the hype. It’s not a big place but it’s so much fun, and the tacos? It’s no hype — some of the best anywhere! Right around the corner from Spencer Makenzie’s is the historic wooden Ventura Pier which dates to 1872 and was renovated and updated in 1993. Its a fun and leisurely walk with a snack bar, public restrooms, and a seafood restaurant. It’s also a great place to watch surfers and on a clear day have great views of the Channel Islands.
Also downtown is the Mission San Buenaventura, a beautiful old Spanish style mission church founded in 1782 by the Franciscan Junipero Serra and a large part of the area’s history. Over the years the church has been destroyed by fire and damaged by earthquakes, but has been restored to the adobe style that is seen today. A beautiful fountain and grounds along with a museum are part of the mission complex which remains a functioning Roman Catholic church.
After all the sightseeing, stop into the Ventiki Lounge & Lanai Tiki Bar in downtown Ventura. Did you know tiki bars are making a big comeback? And not a moment too soon! This place has everything a self-respecting tiki bar should have — a thatched roof, real tiki drink glasses, bartenders wearing Hawaiian shirts, island and surf music, a waterfall, and tiki torches. And, wait for it, a video of Elvis playing on the tube in his concert ‘Aloha From Hawaii’. Now that’s a tiki bar!
After a full afternoon, you have a wealth of good choices for dinner downtown. We loved Rice by Mama, a Thai restaurant many people recommended as the best Thai cuisine in town. It didn’t disappoint. Everything you’d expect on an authentic Thai menu is there and our dinner was delicious. Another great choice downtown is Tony’s Pizzaria — the bright and colorful exterior immediately catches your eye and screams fun. It’s hard to figure out the set-up until you actually go to eat — it’s equal parts beach and boardwalk with a pizzeria! We’re now lovin’ Tony’s.
At sunset you must head back into Ventura to Serra Cross Park, a one acre portion of the larger Grant Park. The cross, named for the Franciscan Junipero Serra overlooks the city of Ventura with a great view of the Channel Islands. There’s plenty of parking at the top of the hill to watch the spectacular sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
DAY 7 — Ventura Harbor, in the Sunshine!
We love boats and marinas and the view from our hotel at Ventura Harbor was calling us from our first look! But Ventura Harbor is more than just a huge marina. There’s a mix of dive boats, working boats, Coast Guard and private boats of nearly every shape and size. We explored the harbor for two hours by renting an electric Duffy boat from Ventura Boat Rentals. The route takes you through the marina area and through channels lined with homes right on the water. We think this was a great way to spend a couple of hours and see the harbor from the inside out. We even met a couple of sea lions sunning themselves on a dock, who hardly wanted to be bothered looking up for a photo op!
After lunch, head to the city of Oxnard Beach Park just south of Ventura. The park is very popular and on the day we visited that proved to be very true. Families will love the boardwalk and beach. The pavilions were all full with families and organizations picnicking and there were folks enjoying the day on blankets on the lawn.
For lunch, check out the Annex Food Hall at The Collection in Oxnard, a great outdoor shopping mall with very cool stores and restaurants. We had a lot of choices on what to eat but just had to try Seoul Sausage featuring Korean style bowls with a California twist. Our new favorite bowl — Seoul Tots with kimchi and carne asada. Trust us, it works. Just around the corner from Seoul Sausage is Afters Ice Cream. Don’t know about you but we can’t pass up a good ice cream shop. Afters isn’t just good, it’s an ice cream lover’s heaven.
After lunch is the perfect time to visit the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. What a surprise — it was so much more than what we expected! We happened to be there the same day that a Chowder Festival was going on so the museum wasn’t really open to the public. Fortunately one of the docents at the museum offered to take us on a tour. He was excellent and gave us a great tour. We were fascinated by the incredible array of model sailing ships and historic paintings. Upstairs there’s even more interesting finds for nautiphiles (is that a word?) Seriously, there are ship bells, art installations made from sea nets, and the world’s most comprehensive display of Nauti knots!
If the mountains are calling you and you just want to hike, you absolutely MUST go to Ojai and hike the Piedra Blanca Formations Trail. Ojai is a quaint artsy town located in a valley in the Topa Topa mountains not far from Ventura. It’s a popular tourist destination with boutique hotels, galleries, and New Age shops. We really loved the farmer’s market which had locally grown organic produce along with baked goods, honey, and locally produced goods and crafts. When you’re in town try a kombucha tasting flight at Revel Kombucha Bar & Acai Bowls.
The Piedra Blanca Formations Trail is in the Rose Valley Area of the Los Padres National Forest, Ojai. This is a fairly easy hike of approximately 2.5 miles out and back. There are only a few moderate uphills and the trail is level and easy to follow. Hikers of all skill levels can do this hike and the formations are amazing. Be sure to pack enough water on hot days.
As the sun sets and the last rays of the day play on the Topa Topa mountains surrounding Ojai, there occurs what the locals call the ‘pink moment’. You can enjoy this relaxing end to the day at the Ojai Valley Inn while sipping a local wine. The mountains begin to be colored in a light pink slowly turning to a muted red and the Ojai Valley turns shades of peachy pink. And as the sun finally finishes playing on the mountains the trees at the Inn begin to glow with dozens of softly lit lanterns hanging in the branches. It’s a peaceful fairytale end to the day.
FUN STOPS Along the Way:
Casitas — Country music fans may want to stop in Casitas, a tiny town you’ll drive through on the way to Ojai from Ventura. It’s the home of Johnny Cash, and that’s a pretty big deal! When you see the billboard, STOP — otherwise you’ll miss the town completely!
Camarillo — On your way south out of Ventura, stop at the McGrath Family Farms for lots of fresh organically grown fruits and vegetables. The strawberries and apricots we bought were so good. Camarillo also has a lovely church right in town. We happened onto St. Mary Magdalen Church and stopped to have a look. It’s a simple church with a bell tower and beautiful stained glass windows, mosaics, and a lovely garden area. It makes an absolutely stunning picture. For nature and bird lovers, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo is all about birds. The facility houses a huge collection of eggs, mounted birds, and nests. It’s not open all the time but you can visit here on a monthly open house day and the $5 admission fee is worth it.
Neptune’s Net — If you’re driving Route 101 (Pacific Coast Highway or PCH for short) between Ventura County and Malibu, this seafood restaurant right on the highway is a great place for a beer and a bite. Their seafood platters are fresh and yummy, and the killer unobstructed view of the Pacific ocean across the street can’t be beat!
Favorite Ventura Food Experience?
Tony’s Pizzaria for Food, Fun, & Giant Jenga
Located an hour south of LA, the city of Costa Mesa is in Orange County — or The OC for those initiated to SoCal living like we are! You may not think of an urban area like Costa Mesa when it comes to road tripping California since many times of the day, any hair blowing out your car window might come to a standstill along with the traffic. But you’d be missing out on some of the coolest sights in California if you skip it. We weren’t sure what to expect outside the LA Freeway, but just like any major metro area, there’s always so much more than the highways that run through it, and that’s certainly the case in Costa Mesa. The city used to be largely agricultural but has grown from the rural farming community of 50 years ago to the suburbs today with over 100,000 in its 16 square miles.
But here’s the funny part…for an urban area, Costa Mesa has a relaxed and very livable feel with lots of green space and a dedication to the arts that we haven’t seen in many places. In fact, Costa Mesa is known as “The City of the Arts” and there’s proof on every single corner and city block. Costa Mesa is also the only place in Orange County you can see Broadway shows on stage. Another great reason to visit Costa Mesa is the incredible array of restaurants. There are numerous Top Chefs here and Costa Mesa claims two Michelin-star rated restaurants — Taco Maria and Hana Re — the most in OC. Without a doubt, the variety and quality of restaurants here rivals the best anywhere, from casual eateries serving organic and healthy options to high-end restaurants where the focus on quality is unparalleled, and everything in between.
DAY 8 — To Costa Mesa and Orange County — OC, Baby!
Where to Stay in Costa Mesa
Avenue of the Arts Costa Mesa, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel
Stylish and chic, the Avenue of the Arts Hotel was named Hotel of the Year by Marriott International and is a 4-Diamond AAA property 5 years running. The craft cocktails at the Silver Trumpet restaurant make for a perfect cocktail hour, and the entire property has to be one of the most Instagrammable in southern California! From its prime location to our uber comfy bed, we loved our stay here and can’t wait to come back.
When you arrive in town, head straight for The LAB Anti-Mall, a hipster hangout and the outdoor home of the “little American businesses” with its cool, neighborhood vibe. Here is where you’ll find the most unique finds from clothing to classic vinyl. Across the street, The CAMP focuses on independent and green or sustainable businesses. You’ll need your wallet — not because it’s expensive, but because there’s so many little things you’ll never see at home. There are 3 breweries in The CAMP — Gunwhale Ales, Barley Forge Brewing Co., Salty Bear, and Bootlegger’s at The LAB. We had some really great beer at Barley Forge, known for their Belgian- and German-style ales. “The Patsy” was a hit with us both, and apparently lots of others too — it recently won a big award at the World Beer Cup.
Stay at The CAMP and have dinner at Old Vine Kitchen & Bar (but call ahead for reservations). They specialize in 4-course tasting menus (there are 5 in all) and the meal we had here will stay with us forever. Seriously. I don’t think we’ve ever had so much fun with amazing food all created by Chef Mark McDonald, and how the wines were so expertly-paired with every course by Sommelier Kate Perry. The enthusiasm she brings to tasting good wines is contagious!
DAY 9 — The Art of Shopping at South Coast Plaza
If a good Cuppa Joe is high on your list this morning, Philz is the place to go. Originally started in San Francisco, Philz Coffee has expanded with 52 locations across the country (there may be one near you) but allow some extra time. There’s always a line out the door! Plus, it’s right across the street from the South Coast Plaza, which should definitely be your next stop.
Today is a great day to exercise a little retail therapy at the famous South Coast Plaza. And in between, check off some stops along the self-guided Costa Mesa Art Walk, one of the fun (and FREE) cultural things to do in Costa Mesa. Download the Art Walk map before you start. Shoppers delight — you are in Shopping Heaven my friends! Shopping in Costa Mesa integrates art and architecture, which is what sets the South Coast Plaza apart from just your average mall. It’s the largest retail center on the West Coast and has been here for over 50 years. But it feels brand new. Today, the retail brands and restaurant concepts are current and world-class. It’s truly a shopping experience even if you’re like me and not a big shopper. There’s even a VIP Access Suite near Saks 5th Avenue where you can relax like the VIP that you are… think airline lounge for the shopping experience!
Be sure and walk across the Unity Bridge (a stop on the Art Walk) to the Home-store extension of South Coast Plaza, and take a unique cooking class! Stonewall Kitchen, the East Coast brand known for their farm stand-style jams, jellies, syrups, and salsas, have opened their second cooking school in Costa Mesa, and we LOVED taking a class there. Chef Susan Carter brings such a vivacious energy to her classes, and orchestrates them perfectly so you’re noshing on the food course as she’s preparing it. You’ll receive a full, multi-course lunch and take with you all the info you need to recreate the meal at home. We highly recommend her classes — and her food. Told you this isn’t your average shopping mall!
After class, continue walking along the nearby city plazas and sculpted glass corporate buildings that actually feel quite private. Like the most beautiful scavenger hunt, the Costa Mesa Art Walk tempts you through downtown, through the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and several other plazas to find unique works of art — by artists both local and internationally renowned as well. During summer months on Mondays, grab a blanket and your dog and head to where they show fun family movies on the lawn on Movie Mondays. How about dance lessons on Tuesdays or live jazz on Fridays? There’s always something fun going on.
Why not enjoy dinner tonight at the lovely Silver Trumpet restaurant located inside the very chic Avenue of the Arts Hotel. We enjoyed our dinner here, especially the setting on the outside patio complete with gas fire pits and overlooking the beautiful small lake. If you’re visiting in mid-summer, there’s one place you have to go where the food is always fun and giant turkey legs are everywhere — the world-famous Orange County Fair!
The ORANGE COUNTY FAIR — Summer Fun in OC!
If you time your road trip in mid-July to mid-August, it’s OC Fair time. Whatever you do, don’t miss it — it’s SO much fun! You can go for the entire day, but don’t worry about being worn out from a whole day of amusement rides. There are many other unique things at the Orange County Fair, from the OC Wine Society wine garden and beer tastings, to culinary demonstrations, petting zoos, interactive agricultural exhibits, an overhead chair lift ride… the list goes on. It’s easy to linger with lots of space for the whole family to run around and have fun. Check out general info on the Fair here. The Fair is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
They even have some fantastic live music performances from top artists to faves from your generation. I mean, how can you not love the Bee Gees!
Person Most Responsible for Making Us Appreciate the Marriage of Food & Wine?
Rock Star Sommelier Kate Perry, Old Vine Kitchen & Bar, Costa Mesa
Long road trips can sure make you saddle sore, can’t they? So after a week and a half on the road, there’s no better way to refresh than with a day at the beach! Huntington Beach is the quintessential southern California beach and the Surfing Capital of California with the most consistent waves on the West Coast. Surfing here is a way of life . But there’s something for everyone to enjoy, even if you can’t exactly hang ten. Grommies like us know little about surfing but love watching the pros duck into some rad barrels out there. We saw surfers, inline skaters, cyclists, volleyballers, skateboarders, joggers, beach babes, and sunbathers — the beach, Pier, and bike paths were so full of activity, we didn’t know where to look first! Huntington Beach offers the most authentic surf lifestyle, coupled with 10 miles of uninterrupted coastline. It’s such a welcoming town with warm and mild temperatures and year-round sun where visitors can feel at home on the sand. I don’t think we stopped smiling from the moment we arrived. Yes it’s a bit touristy being so close to Los Angeles and Disneyland but that is also part of its charm, and Catalina Island is just an hour off the coast. There is so much going on and all at the same time. It’s like one big playground from the great beaches to the boutique shops and fun places to eat. So pedal the bike path along the beach, have an incredible milkshake on the pier, then sit around a fire on the beach (there are over 500 fire pits on the beach, first come first serve). And the surf is always up here. This is the historic mecca for surfing’s legends to today’s world class surfers. It’s not called Surf City USA® for nothin’! Can’t you just hear the Beach Boys?
Day 10 — Beach and Spa Day in Huntington Beach!
If you’re road tripping with an RV, the Bolsa Chica State Park offers space for beach RVing, as does Sunset Vista Park in the city (though it’s closed to RVs in the summer).
If you’re going for the day, park underground at the Pacific City mall. There is a parking garage with entrance off of Pacific View Lane, and it’s a great place to base yourself for the day. Have breakfast at the farm-to-table Bluegold (on the second level at the mall just steps from your car), an upscale casual restaurant with a killer view of the beach and ocean. The menu is based on seasonal locally sourced ingredients. Everything here for brunch was excellent.
After breakfast, take a short walk around town and you’ll find all kinds of gems, surfing related and not. The World’s Largest Surfboard is on display in Huntington Beach. It set not just one but two Guinness World Records in 2015. One for being the ‘world’s largest surfboard’ and another for ‘most people riding a surfboard at once’. It’s true. 66 surfers rode a wave on this 42 feet long board for 12 seconds! There are charming souvenir stores, family-run surf shops, trendy women's boutiques, enchanting vintage collections, as well as bicycle and motorcycle supplies. The Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach got its start in 1994. A small group wanted to pay tribute to legendary surfers and their contributions to the sport. Annual ballots are cast by the surfing industry to recognize the very best in the sport who should be added to the walk, a recognition which helps to preserve the rich history of surfing and the contributions made by those dedicated to the sport.
Then head to the beach and rent bikes at Zack’s HB and cruise the 10-mile paved beach path. Look to the west to enjoy the stunning ocean view and to the east to see the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Beach concessionaires renting and selling bicycles, tandem bicycles, electric bicycles, surreys, and more line the route, which also offers plenty of places to stop for a bite, picnic, photo op, or bathroom break. Once you’ve tried your hand at surf lessons or that long beach bike ride has you sore, you need to decompress and have the kinks worked out. And we have just the place — the Aarna Spa at the Paseá Hotel & Spa, near the end of Pacific City mall through the food hall, Lot 570. It’s everything a spa should be. From the time you enter you’re surrounded by the tranquil Balinese-inspired decor with soft lighting, natural wood, and gentle fragrance. After a massage by a skilled professional masseuse relax in the sauna or steam room, or take a dip in a relaxing jacuzzi. They don’t rush you at all and you can relax as long as you like. It’s a perfect oasis of calm.
Coolest Brush With A Totally Rad Surfer Dude?
Rob Machado’s feet and hand prints at the Surfing Walk of Fame, Huntington Beach
Grab drinks or dinner at Lot 579, the incredible food hall at Pacific City, then head to the Surf City Nights Street Fair and Certified Farmers Market. On Tuesday nights, the first three blocks of Main Street are closed to traffic and transformed with local artisans, fresh produce, live music, and kids games, and local shops and eateries open their doors extra wide for the community. This day in Huntington Beach was the perfect ending to our California road trip — not a bad way at all to refresh our mind, body and spirit.
Ten days may seem like a long time to be on the road, but when there’s so much to experience it just isn’t enough. What those ten days do provide though is a desire — a longing even — to return, to revisit places we enjoyed to experience more, and to discover the places we missed. All along the way on this part of the California Coast we found excellent wines, miles of fields that provide farm-to-fork eating, beautiful beaches and mountain scenery, and some really nice friendly folks. If you’re thinking of planning a West Coast road trip, try this California road trip itinerary, with five totally unique destinations and even more in between.
There’s no doubt we’ll visit this part of California again, if for no other reason than the laid-back vibe and the luscious ‘pink moment’.
Many thanks to Visit California for sponsoring our California road trip and the Livermore Valley Wine Association, Visit Tri-Valley, Visit Santa Maria Valley, Ventura County Coast, Travel Costa Mesa, and Visit Huntington Beach for hosting our stay.
As always, all opinions, stories, and photos are our own based on firsthand experience.