Great Drives and Destinations: California's Inner Treasures

Eric Anderson, MD

There are three very unique destinations on California's Central Coast that are not exactly secrets among the state's residents: a wine lover's destination, the Shangri-La of Southern California and a taste of Denmark.

Photography by the author

There are three very unique destinations on California’s Central Coast that aren’t exactly unknown to the state’s residents. Between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a wine lover’s destination, the self-styled Shangri-La of Southern California and a taste of Denmark.

The car

Many members in the Motor Press Guild will agree BMW builds the favorite car they test, although at today’s prices they may not own one. BMW strengthened its presence in the United States by putting a two-liter engine into a smaller car to create the BMW 2002.

In a way a successor to the 2002, the BMW 135i shows the many improvements most automobile manufacturers have made since cars first appeared in the late 1960s. At that time repairs were expensive in BMWs. I recall being asked by a divorcing New Hampshire couple to mediate their split. One was a psychiatrist and the other a surgeon and they wanted it to be amicable and to keep lawyers out of it. It turned out each wanted the other to pay the combined annual costs to maintain their separate 2002s. Neither wanted to be stuck with the costs!

The moth-eaten appearance of the lower part of the steering wheel is not how it comes from BMW but due to my efforts in Photoshop to remove my skinny bare legs from the image.

Now as an entry-level BMW in 2012 we have the 135i, a dream car. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $39,050. The model tested was priced at $46,075, due to the destination delivery charge, premium package, the seven-speed double clutch trans, heated front seats (which I’d not want to pay for in sunny California), keyless entry (which I would want) and the navigation system. The latter added $2,100 to the bill and is so superior to what is on my early Prius that I’d buy it.

A lot comes with the basic price, such as a moon-roof, lumbar support, Xenon headlights and retractable headlight washers, smart-phone integration and iPod and USB adaptor, and sports suspension. Included also are safety features like dynamic stability control and dynamic traction control, anti-lock disc brakes with dynamic brake control, and front and rear head protection systems with front and side airbags. It has a tire pressure monitor. The trunk is big enough to hold three carry-on suitcases and then some.

The engine is a three-liter dual overhead cam, 24-valve, inline six-cylinder turbocharged engine. The manufacturer offers what it calls BMW Ultimate Service: 12-year rust perforation protection, four-year/50,000-mile full maintenance, four-year/50,000-mile limited warranty and four-year/unlimited mile BMW Roadside Assistance. Expected mileage in city is 18 MPG and Highway 25 MPG.

The drive

Internet calculators say it’s about 220 miles from Los Angeles airport to Paso Robles, a journey of four hours. That sounds too easy. Their maps show the route going up Interstate 5, but why would a visitor choose that course when more interesting coastal routes like California Highways 1 and 101 exist? On our round trip we ended up with about 600 miles on the clock.

Our car model is a coupe. The doors are typically wide, a problem in crowded narrow parking lanes. The seats are low, as is the car, but they are very comfortable. I check the mirrors and catch myself smiling. The lumbar support seems just right. The steering wheel is small and tight. Some of the road surfaces are broken and the car chatters at times in the driver’s choice sports mode. It has a relatively short wheel base.

An experiment with the central console gives enough information to get started then we’re off into the open road and the Hollywood-blue skies of California.

The 135i swings around sharp corners without any roll or lean. The brakes are phenomenal. It is indeed, as BMW says, the Driver’s Car. Surely there are some problems? Not really, except this is a car where the owner has to sit down somewhere at the beginning and read the manual.

The central console is not intuitive and some car journalists, who just want to get into this dream of a car and drive it away fast, may not have the dedication of an owner in learning the subtleties of its design. The cup holders could be better. German engineers have openly told me they add them for the U.S. market and feel car drivers should be driving not fumbling around for their sodas. What must they think of all those drivers who are seen with cell phones held against their ears? At least they are well protected from their mistakes in the 135i.

The sky varies from the clear blue you’d expect more in Big Sky Montana to unusual clouds so gorgeous people walking into Ojai spas remark on them

The road signs vary from National Highway warnings about seat belts (Click It or Ticket!) to enthusiastic town boards (Love Where You Live; Stay Here!) Others advertize Largest Sleep Store in the USA and some remind us, Pinot Noir — Eat Good Food — Avocados!

Great winding country roads take you up into the Los Padres National Forest and give both the opportunity to test the BMW’s handling and a great view of the Ojai Valley that lies below. And to test the brakes when a man on horseback is sharing the country lane with you.

With detours the drive takes us past the whole medley of California’s Central Coast: Traffic, rolling hills, oil rigs, eroded cliffs, horse farms, traffic, RV State Parks, vineyards, cattle, some gorgeous houses all showing the Stars and Stripes, empty fields with rusting farm machines, traffic, modest homes that even today would be reasonably priced in, say, the Mid West, except these houses have a multi-million-dollar view of the ocean.

And always the road stretches ahead, as does the traffic depending on the day of the week, the time of the day and the season. Our trip of 10 days started two days before Labor Day 2012 and prices and road congestion were, not surprisingly, improved after the public holiday.

On this route if we have a late start coming from San Diego we stop for lunch at a great inexpensive fish restaurant in Torrance at 1441 West Knox Street (just off the Normandie exit from I 405) There’s also a Fish’s Wild in Davis but this one is run by a happy Hawaiian called Randy, and if you split the huge meals, you end up with a lunch for two for about $13. You will not see those prices again on your drive through California.

If we get an early start and stop for dinner in Camarillo we go to the marvelous Lure Fish House in the town shopping center. With cocktails or a glass of wine and a dessert you can still escape with a bill under $90, about what we usually pay for a room for the night at the Quality Inn & Suites one mile to the west at 984 West Ventura Blvd., a great stop if you’ve had enough traffic for the day.

But it’s likely you’re heading for Ojai then Solvang.

Solvang is as well known in Denmark as it is in California. Repeat business is high. Visitors who come with their parents return with their own children making it a marketing director’s dream!

The destinations

On California’s Central Coast in high season the prices are slightly less for those who go inland to discover their own special places. Our favorites are not exactly secrets to Californians, but most tourists would be captivated by the three we visited in early September 2012: Ojai, Solvang and Paso Robles.

They are all completely different. We will have separate stories on all three. The first two offer a lot to visitors in general. Their town tourism offices are well established and they have enthusiastic “outside” marketing and public relations associates whose offices lie very close to their clients.

Paso Robles, now home to more than 200 wineries, is a marvelous area for wine enthusiasts, but the “outside” public relations manager we contacted lives in San Francisco, 205 miles away and it shows. Tourists with little wine interests will struggle to find what they want to see until they find the Paso Robles website.

Paso Robles lies at the end of our journey, my son’s favorite winery destination in California. We are here for his birthday celebration and have rented a four-bedroom home, the On the Vine for our three-day visit with four couples. It is ideal for such an event.

The visitors to those three towns are different.

“It’s all about geographics,” a Solvang restaurant owner tells us. He means proximity to Los Angeles. “Ojai is an upscale delightful place. People from L.A. can come as day trippers to visit a spa or just relax; it doesn’t need or have a lot of hotel beds. Things quiet down in the evening. Everyone has gone home!

“At the other end of your drive, Paso Robles is too far away for a day drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco. It’s about midway between the two. It has tons of hotel rooms: 1,115 at last count.”

A local in Paso Robles tells us her city’s visitors come mostly to visit the wineries. They have grown from three, when she first came, to more than 200 now. She adds that a few years ago, before the city added more hotels, it was solidly booked every weekend for a whole year. We can’t be sure of that remark because, in error, we were dealing with the city representative in San Francisco and — like ingénues in travel — did not know there was a city tourism office in Paso.

Solvang has 756 hotel rooms. It needs less than Paso Robles because some of its tourists can come as day visitors. This is a charming place to bring children and show them an American town famous because of its Danish immigrants and its very beginning a century before.

There cannot be three towns in California that offer visitors such wide differences. Common to all, however, is a high-quality fun trip in this Golden State we love.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers and a member of the Motor Press Guild, the largest automotive media association in North America. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.