Perfect California Town For a Solo Getaway
October 5, 2021 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning a solo trip to California the second week in November to decompress after a particularly stressful few months. I don't want to stay in a large city, and am not sure which of the beautiful towns on or near the coast would be best.

Here is my wishlist:

* Close to an airport that has direct flights to and from Denver (ideally I wouldn't have to drive more than 2 hours to get from the airport to my destination)
* Has tide pools to explore nearby (or just cool beaches)
* OR if no tide pools, has other natural wonders (good birding would be a plus)
* Has a bit of a lively nightlife - it doesn't have to be crazy or fancy, but at the end of the day I'd like a nice dinner and a pub or dive bar where I could potentially sit at the bar and chat with strangers

Disclaimer: I am fully vaccinated and intend to follow all COVID-related regulations
posted by GoldenEel to Travel & Transportation around California (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Come visit me in Petaluma! My (new) town ticks all your boxes.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:01 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

San Luis Obispo (you could stay in Morro Bay, Cayucos, or Cambria for a more of a tiny beach town vibe).
posted by Otis the Lion at 12:04 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

As a northern California person I'd say Mendocino or anything around Monterey (including Carmel) are the sort of "classic" areas for a vacation like you describe.

(On preview: Petaluma isn't on the coast, but Sonoma County is wonderful and from Petaluma you're an hour to Pont Reyes which is a gorgeous park on the coast, and to the Muir Woods for beautiful hiking.)

If you want to splurge, Cavallo Point in Marin is just across the golden gate bridge from SF and wonderful. (I got put up for work a couple times)
posted by mark k at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Santa Cruz. College/tourist town with tidepools (at Natural Bridges.) Bonus if you come in November that is when the monarch butterflies are migrating through Natural Bridges as well.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:09 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Santa Barbara! Southwest has direct flights into our cute local airport. We have tidepools at many of the Santa Barbara beaches or at Coal Oil Point Reserve a little farther north. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden sometimes has birdwatching classes, and it has about five miles of easy trails that loop through native California flora (including a copse of modest redwoods). There are also real hikes, like Rattlesnake Canyon and Inspiration Point. Downtown has nightlife; Elsie's Tavern is the local dive. The walkable "Funk Zone" on lower State Street has many wine bars and art galleries. If you like farmers' markets, the one on Saturday is a paradise of local food.

(ETA: Feel free to MeMail me for specific food and drink recs.)
posted by tasseomance at 12:57 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Over Labor Day weekend, I went to Oxnard and did a day trip to the Channel Islands and had an amazing time. You can see dolphins and whales on the ferry to the islands, and the Channel Islands have been called the "Galapagos Islands of North America" - there are no real amenities on the islands and they're very wild. I did a sea kayaking trip and I can't recommend it enough.

I can't speak to nightlife, but I did hear live music from the hotel I was at, so there's definitely something happening there. It's also about an hour's drive from Santa Barbara, which has a lot going on as well.
posted by mogget at 1:02 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Guerneville, on the Russian River. Fly into SFO, drive your rental car two hours north. There's a redwood grove right on the edge of town, and the river hits the Pacific just a few miles downstream. The Sonoma Coast is loaded with tide pools, cliffs, and vistas galore. Go upriver instead of toward the ocean and you get Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and all the other wine (and beer) country glamour.

Guerneville is a classic redwoods summer vacation spot that is just lovely in the off season. I enjoyed taking my parents there one Thanksgiving and they squealed at the charm of staying in a tiny cabin that was literally built up against a redwood tree that was the same diameter as the cabin. Good food, a few bars, and a local culture that's much more hip than you'd expect (in part because a bunch of big queer events happen there in the summer that pour huge amounts of $ into the local economy).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:17 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Petaluman here: short trip out to Bodega Bay for the tide pools. Birding at Schollenberger Park (or assorted other places around Sonoma and Marin counties...

But to be fair, Guerneville/Monte Rio is where we go when we want a getaway...
posted by straw at 1:20 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Lots of good options, but I would go to Monterey. The aquarium is great, too. Be aware that there will still be a high risk of bad wildfires at that point (the Camp fire in Paradise a few years ago started on November 8, for example). The winds at that time of year really increase fire risk, and we're in an exceptional drought right now. Just something to think about- there's a possibility you may not want to go outside because of smoke or that there could even be a direct risk from a wildfire. Sorry to be depressing.
posted by pinochiette at 1:31 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of great tide pools at Natural Bridges SP here in Santa Cruz (best tidepool access is through the adjoining mobile home park), as fingersandtoes says! Plenty of decent restaurants, redwoods to hike in, about an hour from San Jose (SJC) airport by car.

Unfortunately the monarch butterfly population is collapsing: five million overwintering a few years ago, five thousand two winters ago, five hundred last winter. You'll see a few, but no longer the clustered masses.
posted by anadem at 1:46 PM on October 5, 2021

Stay in Princeton Harbor or El Granada (near Half Moon Bay), depending on how small-town your definition of “town” goes. Go tide pooling at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and birding near Pillar Point, and just generally hike around and ooh and aah at the cliffs and beaches. Devil’s Slide, formerly a highway, has been turned into a beautiful walking trail. In El Granada and Princeton, you can drink at Hop Dogma (local brewery), Old Princeton Landing (dive bar), and Moss Beach Distillery (seafood with a view), with the first two probably best for meeting folks. I’m not a seafood fan myself but Sam’s Chowder House and Barbara’s Fish Trap are always inundated. Spangler’s Deli is a new option and there are solid Italian options around (Mezzaluna restaurant and its associated cafe). If you go further afield to Half Moon Bay itself, I recommend eating at San Benito House (if it’s open), Happy Taco, Dad’s Luncheonette, or the venerable Cunha’s Country Store. Enjoy!
posted by a sourceless light at 2:41 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dream Inn, Santa Cruz This vintage hotel is right on the beach in Cruz. It has a vintage coffee shop. There is a large, lovely beach with a small amusement park with one of the best roller coasters in the state. Look at the moon rise over the ocean as you ride the log ride and splash into the water. Nearby is the Coconut Grove with some music.

If you want tide pool action, walk (about forty five minutes along the ocean) or drive north on West Cliff Drive and check out the Long Marine Lab where you can see all kinds of tide pool flora and fauna in lovely user friendly displays. You may see dolphins, orcas and sea lions playing in the water as you walk. Natural Bridges beach is right next to Long Marine Lab, and there's a great beach with some tide/rock hiking, but the displays are better at the lab.

Santa Cruz Pacific Garden Mall has all sorts of choices for different types of good food and coffee. Zoccoli's is a favorite. There are all sorts of great health food oriented stores, and there's Shopper's Corner on the Eastside for a vintage small town grocery with great, great produce and all sorts of good food.

University of California is Henry Cowell's old ranch, and most of the redwoods, oaks and meadows have been preserved, so a walk there is like walking in an academic nature park.

You would have to drive from San Jose airport over highway 17, or get a Super Shuttle to drive you--the Dream Inn most likely has some sort of arrangement since so many UC Students and parents require transport.

I would visit San Juan Bautista, which is a lovely little town inland with their boardwalks still intact and a California Mission where you can stay and have meals.

I hope some of this is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 4:32 PM on October 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

I live in Petaluma myself, but if I wanted to vacay in the way you describe I would go to Guerneville. I would also give some serious thought to Pt Reyes Station which is pretty quiet, but has a few good restaurants a good dive bar, and outrageously superb access to beaches, bays, forests, etc.... Mendocino is great as well, a bit out of the way probably.
posted by jcworth at 4:54 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I grew up in oxnard, but would suggest its neighboring cities of ventura &/or ojai. ventura is like a delightful mini santa barbara, with a walkable main street, plenty of low-key nightlife, and has tide pools at rincon beach. ojai is fifteen minutes into the topa topa mountains, more bougie-hippie but also delightful, hiking & hot springs, etc. you can also visit santa barbara for the day, around 20 minutes north.

pro tip: fly into burbank, not LAX. as long as it's not rush hour, driving to ventura takes about an hour & fifteen minutes.
posted by changeling at 5:56 PM on October 5, 2021

Getting in or out of Santa Cruz on a Sunday is a nightmare I have had. Ventura is pretty great. Fly into Burbank. Antiqueing is good, beaches are good, the coastal road is good. There is a lot of stuff there. It is less tban an hour out of LA on Hwy 1. You might even find a boat to stay on, or go out fishing on, or go out looking at stuff. Between Ventura and Ojai lots of coastal charm. Carpinteria is a nice place to stay up a ways, I stayed at The Prufrock Inn, which always had cookies out. Off season prices can be good.
posted by Oyéah at 6:34 PM on October 5, 2021

Former Petaluman, now here in Denver.
I’d suggest Cambria for you.
Fly from DIA to SBA Santa Barbara.
Cambria is a lovely small town with lots of amenities and good food options. Check it out!
posted by artdrectr at 10:58 PM on October 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Lots of good options, but I would go to Monterey.

If you do, stay at Asilomar, if you can.
posted by Rash at 10:21 AM on October 6, 2021

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