The garlic in my kitchen back home in Vancouver, B.C., had come from the Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, CA., but I didn’t know that when I bought it. In fact, I didn’t know anything about Gilroy until I pulled up to the visitor centre in the Gilroy Premium Outlets.
Gilroy Welcome Center
Located along an inland stretch of Highway 101 (about an hour’s drive south-east of San Francisco), Gilroy is easily passed-over by those bee-lining it to Central Coast hotspots like Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey and Pismo Beach. This time though, after a conversation with friendly locals at the Gilroy Welcome Center, I’m convinced to stay put. Turns out, Gilroy is prime hub-and-spoke territory.
The city is all about garlic. More than 100,000 revellers descend on the wonderfully stinky annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, but the place celebrates its herbal history year-round. I immediately set out on the Garlic Trail, which leads me to Garlic City Café in old Gilroy. This is a quiet, heritage neighbourhood – a stark contrast to the functional strip mall motif of the highway-side 145-store Premium Outlets. The café’s garlic soup makes a fine lunch; I can feel the immune-boosting benefits with every spoonful. Nearby, The Milias makes a fancier dinner joint with a similarly scented menu. (It’s haunted though, so bring your bravery.)
The fertile Santa Clara Valley in which the town sits grows more than garlic. To the east, vineyards begin in earnest. My first stop out of town is Solis Winery, a family-owned operation famous for its small batch pinot noir. I sip from a flight, buy two bottles, then pull out my road map to discover some 22 other wineries in the immediate area. Plus, there is Gilroy Gardens, an agricultural-themed amusement park, 400 kilometers of hiking trails in Henry Coe State Park to the northeast, local agritourism… this hub is big. But the spokes are even bigger.
I take the scenic route west from Gilroy over the Hecker Pass Highway – the slowest route to Monterey and the Pacific Coast; Highway 101 will get you there in less than an hour. I dawdle past avocado and kale farms in Watsonville and the artichoke capital of the world in Castroville before parking outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium on cutesy Cannery Row. Here, dozens of exhibits put me up-close with fascinating marine species: giant sunfish, elusive octopus, playful otters, sleek sharks and fluffy penguins. Monterey Bay Aquarium is also dedicated to saving sea otters and great white sharks, operates the Tagging of Pacific Predators program, and founded the marquee Seafood Watch program, to name just a few of this not-for-profit’s good works.
It’s a full day’s outing from Gilroy but after comparing local accommodation prices, the benefits of the hub-and-spoke become obvious. Gilroy’s hotels suit budget-savvy travellers, more so than Monterey and even more so than next-door Carmel-by-the-Sea – an adorable town worthy of a second day trip south-west.
Meric Dagli | Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
In Carmel-by-the-Sea, the streets are lined with wine tasting rooms (the Wine Walk by the Sea), boutique shops and Hugh Comstock-designed cottages that look like they should house Hobbits of the Shire. The jewel of Carmel, though, is white sand Carmel Beach, cresting gently from Pebble Beach in the north towards Point Lobos State Park in the south. Not only is it dog-friendly, it is also campfire and booze-friendly. And it is a sublime spot to watch a sunset before the hour-long cruise back to Gilroy.
California’s Central Coast is huge and the roads encourage a slow pace, especially the coastline-hugging Highway 1, which leads to San Luis Obispo about halfway along its twisty Golden State leg. Not just another roadside attraction, this city offers amazing access to regional delights. The best-known is Pismo Beach, 15 minutes south-west.
Pismo Beach is a California surf town the way you want one to be: approachable and palpably chilled out. I immediately set out to explore 400-hectare Pismo State Beach on a rented beach-cruiser bicycle while pondering a surfboard excursion to tackle the consistent shore-break. Luckily, I’ve arrived on a Wednesday and Pismo Pier is hosting its weekly afternoon farmer’s market. I refresh with locally sourced strawberry lemonade after I return the bike and stroll onto the 400-meter-long pier. Curious pelicans get too close for comfort and locals cast fishing lines for the day’s dinner. I gaze over the arid foothills behind the low-lying townsite, which roll into the tempting wine country of the Santa Lucia Mountains and beyond. Bring on the vino! San Luis Obispo also offers easy access to what would become my favourite wineries in a state rich with top-shelf producers – those of the Santa Ynez Valley, in and around the town of Santa Maria, just a 30-minute drive south from town.
Norman Beko, proprietor of Santa Maria’s Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery, is a computer-graphics specialist-turned-wine-scientist with 26 years of impassioned viticulture experience. He specializes in fruit forward, French-style wines. I stop by on a sunny weekday morning for a private winery tour and a visit to the Wine Cave – a drilled-out subterranean cellar where Cottonwood’s vino is barrel-aged and its heavy fruit profile is revealed. I learn a great deal. Cottonwood Canyon has a reputation for leaving guests drunk with… information.
Nearby Presqu’ile Winery is also an impressive operation. It has a different vibe from homey Cottonwood, immediately obvious by the ’Downton Abbey’-worthy stone gates that lead into 30-hectares of certified-sustainable vineyards and the marvel of masonry that is the tasting room. There, a patio boasts a view over the Santa Ynez Valley that stretches all the way to the coastline; an idyllic backdrop for me to appreciate Presqúile’s quality pinot noir and chardonnay.
Jalama Beach County Park, Lompoc | Tim Mossholder
There is so much more in the region. Thirty minutes beyond Santa Maria, the tri-cities of Buellton, Solvang and Lompoc each offer a unique experience. Buellton with its famous pea soup (seriously) and ample wineries; Solvang has its rich Danish heritage; and Lompoc offers its unlikely Wine Ghetto – a cluster of tasting rooms housed in a Home Depot. Despite it all, the sandy shores of Pismo Beach remain my favourite stop in the region. There’s a solid reason its motto is simply: “Classic California.”
Hub-and-spoke adventures like this require a lot of driving. But in Central California, where the road curves along the coastline with panoramic vistas and dips through verdant valleys dotted with endless reasons to stop, the journey itself is a reason to go.
This article originally published in Canadian Traveller's America Yours to Discover 2017 special issue. Subscribe today: https://www.mypassionmedia.com/Store/Canadian-Traveller-Magazine