Anyone who thinks that Los Angeles and San Francisco have a monopoly on California's most intriguing hotels should take a drive along the Central Coast. Take Highway 1 or U.S. 101 — doesn't really matter which — because both of these storied coastal routes are spangled with unusual and upscale lodging, ranging from wilderness retreats and beach resorts to quaint bed-and-breakfast inns and guest ranches.
How does one improve on what nature has already rendered at Big Sur? By creating places like the Post Ranch Inn, which tenders a level of luxury rarely seen in the great outdoors. Set in the middle of a 100-acre ranch established by the Post family, early Big Sur pioneers, the rustic-chic resort features fabulous food, cozy rooms and vertigo-inducing views of the Pacific far below.
Monterey Bay and its surrounding environs also boast some fine accommodations. One of the region's most spectacular B&Bs, the Tickle Pink Inn, offers endless ocean views and cozy accommodations on a panoramic perch near Point Lobos Reserve. Named after the Tickle family stone cottage that once graced the dramatic bluff-top property, the inn features 35 rooms, some with a fireplace, wet bar and whirlpool tub large enough for two.
On the north side of the bay, the Dream Inn along the Santa Cruz shore is a bona fide beach resort where you can step from your room onto the sand. In addition to surfing, kayaking and swimming in the bay, this hip Joie de Vivre boutique is just up the strand from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Giant Dipper rollercoaster. Surfboard and bike storage — plus a heated beachfront pool — rank among the hotel's most notable amenities.
The elegant Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley is a bastion of fine wining, dining and living among the vineyards and oak trees just east of Monterey. Pampering takes many forms, from the gourmet cuisine of Marinus (perpetually listed among the top restaurants in California) to the lavender-, rosemary- and lemongrass-scented treatments in the lodge spa. Guest rooms are enormous, each of them outfitted with a stone fireplace, a sitting and dining area, a king bed with Italian linens and goose down comforter, French doors leading onto a private garden or patio, and a small wine grotto filled with the Bernardus estate's award-winning reds and whites.
Vision Quest Ranch is an entirely different animal. This wildlife rescue center on the outskirts of Salinas doubles as a safari-style luxury camp. Guests sleep in large, comfortable permanent tents (with private bathrooms) scattered around an enclosure inhabited by elephants, zebras and other African animals. An elephant delivers breakfast to your front door each morning, and guests can join behind-the-scenes guided tours that include elephant close encounters and big-cat feedings. The ranch doesn't have a restaurant, so guests have a choice of driving into Salinas or Monterey for dinner — or eating take-out on their balcony overlooking the faux Serengeti plains.
San Luis Obispo and southern Monterey counties make up one of California's emerging wine regions, the back roads studded with vineyards, wineries and very interesting accommodations. Chanticleer Vineyard Bed and Breakfast near Paso Robles captures all the best of the region; it's a great place to stay on the grounds of a working vineyard. With just three guest rooms, the B&B is cozy, quiet and tasty — home-cooked gourmet meals are served with Grey Wolf wines made with grapes grown right outside your room.
The wonderfully refurbished Carlton Hotel in Atascadero oozes Central Coast history. Opened in 1929 as a luxurious place to overnight about halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, the Carlton has welcomed many famous visitors over the years. Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Fred MacMurray and Dick Powell are among those who slept here during the hotel's glory days. After years of neglect, the Carlton was revived in 2005 as a blend of Roaring Twenties furnishings and 21st-century amenities such as high-speed Internet, flat-screen TVs and large modern bathrooms.
Another oldster is the Madonna Inn near San Luis Obispo, and it pretty much defines the word "quirky." No two rooms are the same at this longtime favorite of Central Coast connoisseurs. And all of them boast a specific theme. The Caveman Room resembles a stone cavern. The Safari Room is decked out with faux animal skins and jungle wallpaper. The Love Nest is shocking pink with a spiral staircase that twists up to a private viewing tower.
Alisal Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley combines horses, golf and fine dining. On the dude side, the sprawling rural resort offers trail rides, equestrian lessons and evening stargazing on horseback. Other ranch activities include tennis, boating, spa treatments and wine club. If you can tear yourself away from the ranch, Alisal makes a convenient base for exploring the Santa Ynez wine country and nearby Solvang.
Santa Barbara's historic hilltop hotel, El Encanto, reopened last March after a complete makeover, Orient-Express style. Built in 1918, the hotel was a hangout for Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and other stars during the golden age of Hollywood. Seven years of renovation brought the 92 bungalows into the 21st century without tainting the romantic California Spanish ambience.
Another funky B&B is the restored Bella Maggiore in Ventura, unveiled in 1925 and designed by the same architect who created the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The central location is perfect for hopping on the Downtown Harbor Trolley to visit the beach, harbor and ocean promenade. It also makes a great base for diving into seasonal events like "A Rubicon Family Christmas" and "Friday the 13th Ghosts of Christmas Past." Speaking of ghosts, the second floor of the Bella Maggiore is allegedly haunted by Sylvia, the ghost of a 1940s call girl who once plied her trade within these walls.
If you'd rather stay right in the heart of it all, Victorian Rose in downtown Ventura is the place. This quaint, historic church-turned-chapel-turned-cozy-B&B is a great jumping-off point for exploring Ventura's vibrant shops, main streets and theater life. Once you've gotten your fill of small-town charm and idyllic seaside, retire to a nice, warm room with an 11-foot ceiling, gas-burning fireplace and newly appointed tile bath.