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The vineyards at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, just off Highway 101 (Photograph courtesy Tablas Creek Vineyard)

Insider’s Guide to California’s Central Coast

U.S. Highway 101 stretches 300 miles between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, roughly tracing a footpath of 1760s Spanish explorers and connecting the 21 missions they founded. You’ll want at least three days to do the region justice.

Here’s some insider intel to help you navigate this fertile zone:

> Where to Eat

The flower- and cactus-bedecked brick patio of San Juan Bautista’s Jardines de San Juan sets the scene for margaritas (classic or apricot), from-scratch enchiladas or chiles rellenos, and regional Mexican specialties such as Puebla-style chicken simmered with ham, sausage, almonds, raisins, bananas, and a splash of sherry.

Central Coast farms and ranches supply Artisan, an elegant Paso Robles bistro with a sleek black walnut bar and tabletops made from local wood. Fare is sophisticated, such as roast pheasant with cauliflower, pecan crumble, and fig. The wine list hits regional high points, like Justin Vineyards and Winery’s 2010 Isosceles red blend.

At Jocko’s, a boisterous Nipomo roadhouse established in 1956, generous cuts of beef are grilled over an open oak fire, Santa Maria style, and served with salsa and slow-cooked pinto beans.

> Where to Drink

Paso Robles lies at the heart of Central Coast wine country, with most of the larger wineries on the flat expanses east of Highway 101.

Among the smaller producers tucked into canyons to the west of the freeway, Tablas Creek Vineyard makes organic, Rhône-style wines that are juicy and reflect the limestone-rich soil. One to buy: the 2011 Côtes de Tablas; dark red, rich, and balanced.

At tiny Nadeau Family Vintners, also on the west side of the highway, winemaker Robert Nadeau often gives samples of his full-bodied Zinfandels. One to buy: the 2010 Billygoat; bold, jammy with a hint of oak.

> Where to Stay

The Hacienda is remote, simply decorated, and located at the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett. But how often does one get a chance to sleep in a ranching lodge built for William Randolph Hearst? The only dining option is pizza and beer at the garrison’s bowling alley, so bring supplies for a picnic on the grounds of nearby Mission San Antonio.

In Paso Robles, close to the shaded town square, Hotel Cheval features 16 distinctly designed rooms (from $295), a hushed library, and a cozy wine bar. In the courtyard, two wood-burning fireplaces add a warm spark to cool evenings.

> What to Read

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. Closely tied with the Central Coast, Steinbeck called this Salinas Valley novel his magnum opus.

> Trend to Notice

Missions brought olive oil production to California—and then both languished together. But in the past decade, olive oil has returned to the Central Coast, with some 80 small growers racking up awards for their superpremium, extra-virgin olive oil.

In Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, the We Olive tasting boutique pours dozens of local oils; try the pungent house Tuscan blend.

This piece was reported by Christopher Hall to accompany a feature story he wrote about California’s Central Coast that appeared in Traveler magazine’s December 2013/January 2014 issue.