Capitola-by-the-Sea started in the 1860s as a resort town, a place for people from “over the hill” in San Jose to escape the heat. In the 1920s, it took on a Mediterranean feel, sprouting bungalows and stucco shacks reminiscent of those found in Italian fishing villages. But the Mediterranean doesn’t have surf like Capitola’s. That’s why world-renowned surfboard and wetsuit manufacturer O’Neill is headquartered here, and why marine environmental causes are big. And why even residents like Stephen Hanecak, chef at the Paradise Beach Grille, learn to balance their time between hard work and play. “Four or five days a week,” he says, “I’m out there first thing with my surfboard, trying to start my day by catching some waves.”
The small surf town of Cayucos has remained miraculously immune to over-development for decades, despite its great wines to the east and white sandy beaches to the west. With sand dunes climbing hundreds of feet above miles-long beaches and eucalyptus-lined hiking trails, the Montaña de Oro park (parks.ca.gov) is a must. Have dinner there at Duckie’s Chowder House ($; 55 Cayucos Dr.; 805/995-2245), which serves super-fresh fish tacos, steamer clams, and yes, chowder—all of which go well with the local ale.
Rising from a rocky shoreline into hills covered by Monterey pines, Cambria has a spirit shaped equally by ocean and forest. Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this Central Coast town boasts several miles of coastline and is bordered by rolling hills green enough to evoke the Welsh origins of its name. The village itself sits deep in a knoll between wooded slopes. Quaint but not cloyingly so, it has 19th-century cottages set in lush gardens while a lawn-bowling green commands a prominent place on a main street named Main Street. Don’t miss Moonstone Beach, the kind of beach that makes even seasoned coastal wanderers stop and whisper, Wow.
Twelve miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is the kind of place where you wish you’d learned to bodyboard as a kid, with a wide sandy beach and beginner-size waves. Mornings can be foggy, all the better to enjoy the slow pleasures of Linden Avenue—like Esau’s for a chile relleno omelet or Robitaille’s for homemade chocolate—before hitting the beach.
Rounding a bend along Highway 1, most people pass right by this hamlet of 250 people in their rush to the marquee town of Mendocino. But those who do pull over—not for gas, since there’s not a single pump in town, but maybe for a slice of blackberry tart at Queenie’s Roadhouse Cafe—learn that here, you can get away from it all. There’s a handful of B&Bs like the Elk Cove Inn scattered atop the bluffs, a gloriously unpopulated salt-and-pepper spit of sand at Greenwood State Beach, and hardly any cell service.