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California: Pacific Panoramas Included

Central California has a cache of bucket list items, especially along the coast.

Iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and centuries-old Spanish missions await travelers and their cameras. Towering redwood forests and twice-annual whale migrations remind travelers of nature’s majesty. If it’s an experience they’re after, a group can drive along the iconic Highway 1 for coastal views at sunset, visit a host of wineries or even try their hand at surfing. And fresh seafood and bountiful produce paired with perfect wines to give visitors a perfect taste of the Pacific Coast.

A group trip to central California’s shoreline, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, promises a rewarding combination of cultural, natural and culinary offerings that will leave groups wanting more.

San Francisco

San Francisco, the hilly, vibrant city on the coast is synonymous with its most famous landmarks, from an island that once housed a notorious prison to the massive red-orange suspension bridge that easily identifies the city’s skyline. Any sightseeing tour of San Francisco isn’t complete without a tour of Alcatraz Island or a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge, but the city has even more to offer.

It’s a culturally rich, artsy city, which makes stops at museums such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a must. There’s also the Mission District, full of outdoor murals decorating alleys and storefronts spanning several blocks. Its performing arts scene consists of a medley of theater, comedy and dance shows; groups can finish an evening by catching a show at any one of its theaters, jazz clubs and comedy clubs.

Groups will also enjoy Chinatown, the oldest and largest outside of Asia, where the buildings are graced with dramatic pagodas, bright colors and hanging lanterns overhead. They can roam its 30 blocks on their own, get signature Chinese eats at hole-in-the-wall restaurants and visit tea rooms. If their visit overlaps with holidays such as the Lunar New Year, groups are in for a lively festival and many cultural displays.

Another way to explore San Francisco is through its famous culinary scene, featuring several Michelin-star restaurants, many wineries and some hidden gems. Secret Food Tours are a popular way for smaller groups to explore the city, district by district, to experience their rich culture and even richer food, from the authentic Italian joints on the North Beach to Latin American food in the Mission District.

Santa Cruz

When they hear “Santa Cruz,” most people instantly think of the beach. After all, this central California coast city is known as the birthplace of mainland surfing in the U.S. But as well-known as the beaches along this 29-mile county are, they are far from Santa Cruz’s only attraction. On the other side of the beach, visitors will find towering redwood forests, bucolic agricultural lands, and a rich arts and culture scene.

“It’s part of our culture, but we’re more than just the beach,” said Christina Glynn, communications director for Visit Santa Cruz County. “Most of our land is taken up with agriculture and state parks, so we have a lot of natural beauty.”

There’s no shortage of ways for groups to enjoy the sunshine and sand. They can start with surfing lessons or sailing in Monterey Bay, where they can glimpse aquatic wildlife. For inland adventures, groups can head to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which has been protecting the giant redwoods since 1902, making it California’s oldest state park. The park has an accessible, mile-long hiking trail, so all can enjoy these majestic trees.

Other ways to experience local culture include succulent or terrarium workshops at the Little Shop of Horticulture, picking berries at any one of the you-pick farms in the area, and wine tastings at a local winery.

The county is also famous for its farm-to-fork cuisine, with seasonal menus and local ingredients a staple at every restaurant. Shadowbrook takes visitors by cable car up to the restaurant, where they can enjoy fresh seafood, slow-roasted meats, seasonal vegetables and fine wines. Right on the water, Ideal Bar and Grill is located on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Guests can dine on seafood dishes such as clam chowder and stuffed salmon or enjoy a variety of down-to-earth dishes.

Monterey County

Monterey County encompasses a variety of seaside regions and communities across a 99-mile stretch of coastline, including Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Salinas. Each of these has its own personality. In total, the county has over 225 vineyards and 82 wineries, hundreds of boutique shops, and several local parks and natural landmarks for groups to explore. They can hop from community to community, enjoying scenic drives along the way, including the 17-Mile Drive, a famous stretch of road along the coast between Monterey and Carmel.

“A lot of visitors find themselves very inspired by the scenic beauty in the area,” said David Cater, business development executive, travel trade at See Monterey. “It’s a combination of all the great different things about California.”

In Monterey, groups can visit the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to over 550 species of marine life. A two-story sea otter exhibit and a three-story kelp forest exhibit are among the most popular attractions at the aquarium; there’s also decks with ocean views for visitors to whale watch.

Just south of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, sometimes simply called “Carmel,” is a stunning fairytale village founded with artists in mind. With its dozens of art galleries and workshops and the Carmel Mission Basilica, a historic mission church, it’s an arts and culture haven. Carmel is also a culinary hotspot in Monterey County, with nearly 50 eclectic restaurants.

In Salinas, at the southern tip of the county, the National Steinbeck Center is a museum dedicated to celebrated author John Steinbeck. It’s one of the largest literary museums in the country and has exhibits dedicated to Steinbeck’s works and his lasting literary legacy. Groups visiting Salinas Valley can visit Pinnacles National Park or take a wine or agriculture tour of the region with Ag Venture Tours.


The 80 miles of coastline stretching between Monterey County and Santa Barbara is occupied by San Luis Obispo County, affectionately nicknamed SLO CAL. Its coast includes a variety of beaches and 26 micro-climates, meaning groups don’t have to travel far to experience both tide pools on rocky beaches and a day of surfing on warm, sandy beaches. It’s also home to some of California’s most famous dunes, plenty of vineyards and a variety of wildlife, including whales, sea otters and sea lions on the coast.

“SLO CAL has some incredible biodiversity that will take folks out of their day-to-day and slow things down,” said Lisa Belsanti, vice president of communications at Visit SLO CAL. “It’s definitely a place to reset. Because of the immersive experiences, folks walk away having really spent time together.”

Some of these immersive experiences entail exploring the sustainable, farm-to-table philosophy of the region, such as tours of its many wineries. Or, for a more unique tasting experience, Kiler Ridge Olive Farm gives olive oil tastings. There’s a downtown farmers market in San Luis Obispo on Thursday nights that offers a mix of fresh produce and street food from over 100 vendors. And there are dozens of additional farms where groups can observe how everything from honey to oysters are farmed. Even dinner can be interactive. Etto Pasta Bar, a Tin City restaurant, makes its own pasta in-house and offers demonstrations for groups.

Some of the region’s most popular attractions for tours include Hearst Castle, an opulent 60,000-square-foot castle built by journalism founding father William Randolph Hearst; Sensorio, an illuminated, dynamic art installation with 100,000 lights; and Covell Clydesdale Ranch, a nearly-2,000-acre Clydesdale horse ranch, the only one in California.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is often called the American Riviera, thanks to its year-round Mediterranean climate and its easygoing way of life.

“Santa Barbara has a lot to offer in a very small footprint,” said Beth Olson, director of sales at Visit Santa Barbara. “The ocean and the mountains are within 15 minutes of each other, and downtown and the beach are right on top of each other.”

Once occupied by the Chumash tribe, the area was settled by Spanish in the 19th century, before changing hands between Mexico and the United States. Its mix of heritage influences everything from the city’s architecture to its festivals and events. Trolley tours of Santa Barbara let groups explore its culture at sites like Old Mission Santa Barbara. They can also tour any of Santa Barbara’s collection of museums and botanical gardens.

Any group coming to Santa Barbara should relish its culinary scene, almost exclusively made up of local gems rather than chain restaurants. The Lark serves elevated dishes like hanger steak, buttermilk fried chicken, crispy Brussels sprouts and line-caught crudo, with unexpected pops of flavor. El Paseo serves classic Mexican dishes with an upscale outdoor setting. Wine is also big part of Santa Barbara’s story, with both an urban wine trail and vineyards surrounding the city as far as the eye can see. Tours and tastings are an exceedingly popular group activity.

The outdoors also plays a large role in life in Santa Barbara, from horseback riding to parasailing to whale watching. The Santa Barbara Channel is known as the “Whale Superhighway,” because twice annually, orcas, blue whales and others cross the channel during their migration. Groups can enjoy an afternoon excursion in the spring or fall to watch the whales and other sea life, including sea lions and many species of birds. For a day-long excursion, they can travel by boat to Channel Islands National Park for a tour of its five islands and their pristine shores, massive sea caves and beautiful wildlife.