Creative couple Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon are the brains behind the popular Places We Swim travel guides. They seek out stunning places to submerge yourself in water, but also beautiful hikes, excellent eateries and lesser-known towns to visit on your travels. Their third book – Places We Swim California – is out now. It features 58 inspiring outdoor adventures. Here, the couple shares one of its itineraries for a memorable road trip along the California coast.

This unpopulated strip of coast is a roadtripper’s dream. Drive winding country roads through the epicurean wine towns of the Santa Ynez Valley, before you meet the dramatic coastal bluffs of Big Sur. Swim in freshwater rivers, stay in cabins in redwood forests, and finish up at the white-sand beaches of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey.

Day 1: Santa Barbara to Los Olivos

Santa Barbara is an excellent place to start any road trip. But first, visit the historic hilltop Mission, wander around downtown, and swim at Los Baños del Mar pool. Then get on the road and head 50 minutes inland to Los Padres National Forest and Red Rock Pools where, about 800 metres from the trailhead, you will find several swimming holes along the Santa Ynez River. Plan to spend an afternoon there. Then continue west about 50 kilometres to the tiny town of Los Olivos for a one-stop wine country experience, exploring tasting rooms, eateries, art galleries and shops.

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Day 2: Los Olivos to Cambria

From Los Olivos you could easily explore the other nearby towns in the Santa Ynez Valley, cute and kitschy in varying degrees. But Los Alamos is our first choice. Wine tasting rooms, beer gardens and celebrated restaurants have made this once sleepy town into a food destination with a cult-like following. Stop in for breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery before continuing an hour north to San Luis Obispo. It’s a charming college town with great farm-to-table food and a thriving epicurean landscape. Have a coffee at Scout and visit the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA). Then continue the drive, heading 40 minutes along the coast to Cambria, where you can enjoy the evening with a bottle of Paso Robles wine. Robin’s garden restaurant in a restored adobe home is a favorite.

Day 3: Cambria to Big Sur

Make sure to explore Cambria and its village strip dotted with colorful timber houses, fermentation stores, cafes, and crystal shops touting psychic readings. Then drive 15 minutes to the ornate Hearst Castle estate in San Simeon. A tour is the only way to see the property, and booking ahead is recommended. As you continue north, pull up at Elephant Seal Vista Point on San Simeon Beach to see hundreds of these behemoths hauled out on the sand. Breathe in the briny sea air, then carry on toward the craggy coast of Big Sur. Stop and hike to Upper Salmon Creek Falls, a steep 6.7-kilometre round trip up the canyon to a waterfall and pool. Stop for the night in one of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn’s cozy forest cabins under the redwoods along Highway 1.

Day 4: Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea

Wake up in the sleepy forest at Deetjen’s and wander over to the restaurant for breakfast. Eggs benedict or fluffy buttermilk pancakes are likely candidates to start your day. In April/May, Big Sur is vibrant with wildflowers and flowing waterfalls. For sunny, cloudless days, visit September to November. But during summer, when the water and weather are warmest, Big Sur River Gorge is the place to be. Inland from the coast, the Big Sur River isn’t affected by the summer fog. Here you will swim in the most impressive freshwater pools on this trip. Then follow the wild, unspoiled coastline north to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Bohemian artist enclave turned ritzy seaside village, and settle in for the night.

Day 5: Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monterey

It’s only 19 kilometres to Monterey, but our route is going to take you most of the day. First, follow 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, past several of its famous golf courses. This private community costs $US10.50 to enter and hangs right over the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the drive you’ll arrive in Pacific Grove; continue along the shore to Lovers Point Beach, where we like to swim and warm up in the sun on the concrete wharf. Then head into downtown Monterey. It’s a 4 kilometre walk along the coastal rec trail, if you have the time and energy, or a 10-minute drive. Visit the historic Cooper Molera Adobe and its Alta Bakery and Café for a late lunch out in the gardens – the perfect end to this delicious five-day itinerary.

This is an edited extract from Places We Swim California by Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon, published by Hardie Grant Explore ($45). Available in stores nationally from April 3, 2024. Photography by Dillon Seitchik-Reardon.

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