Anyone can find a room in San Francisco for $200 or more — and the same for a room overlooking the California coast. But I set out to find places that charge a mere $39.99 a night in these locales — and include a solid breakfast.
By solid I mean a choice of cereals, granolas, fruits, yogurts, eggs and coffee. By eggs I mean hardboiled, which makes a great traveling food, so I took an extra one for the road.
I headed north out of Los Angeles bound for San Francisco in a rental car. Along the way I stayed in seven different hostels, including century-old homes in Cambria and San Luis Obispo. I encountered two lighthouse hostels south of San Francisco that invite visitors to share the drama of life on the edge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Along with economy this accommodation offers travelers a bit of nature and exercise. Hiking opportunities abound on the beach or on the cliff sides.
The LA hostel where I started the trip – and had that solid breakfast — is in Santa Monica, right on Second Avenue two blocks from the bluffs and the grand view of the Pacific Ocean. One block in the other direction is the pulsating Third Street Promenade, a crowded pedestrian retail spot offering restaurants, shopping and movie theaters.
After a leisurely half-day drive up Highway 1, I found lodging in the San Luis Obispo Hostel, located on a residential street within walking distance of the hubbub of downtown. Locals refer to their town as “SLO.”
All of these hostels, whether part of the Hosteling International association or independent operators, have a streamlined online reservation system easy to find on the Internet. And well-known hotel booking sites now book hostels, too.
There are three Hosteling International locations in San Francisco: one on Union Square, one in Fort Mason with an arm’s-reach view of both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge and one in the city center two blocks away from a Hilton in a good neighborhood. I stayed one night each in the latter two.
In San Francisco hostel prices are a bit higher: $39.99 only gets you a bunk in a room with private lockers for security. But my girlfriend, Lori, joined me, so I sprang for one of the hostel’s private rooms, now standard in many locations.
The Fort Mason hostel has a professional chef’s gas stove in the communal kitchen available for guest use. These hostels offer 24-hour reception. The City Center hostel has a professional staff that takes care of the rooms and a decorative common sitting room.
A hostel worker told me that Europeans love the Montara Lighthouse Hostel and fill it in the summer months. After all, this little-known coastal spot is 20 minutes southwest of the airport. They can rent a car at the airport and by staying out of the city incur no costly hotel parking fees. They have an inexpensive hotel on a cliff with quite a view of Montara State Beach below the cliffs.
The oldest room has the best view, but it was a bit musty so we changed to one in a newer building that was comfortable and had push-button combination locks on all doors. The combination is changed each day. Here $30 gets you a bed in a dorm-style room, and $80 gets you a private room with a full-size bed.
The hostel closes for the day so the building and rooms can be cleaned by a professional staff, but it’s not hard to plan a day away on the beach or on the many hiking trails nearby. In the communal kitchen I heard stories of world travel and tips about local spots to visit.
Loneliness is not an option at a hostel. Along with the opportunity to be social, I liked the idea of supporting the philosophical mission of the hostel organization: “To help become stewards of the earth while deepening cultural awareness.”
Local restaurant choices include Sam’s Chowder House for the best waterfront dining. While we ate there we took pictures of the kite-boarders blazing by on a windy afternoon. Also popular is La Costanera, a modern Peruvian fusion restaurant that offers a great view over Montara State Beach.
One more lighthouse hostel option about an hour south is Pigeon Point Lighthouse, located south of Half Moon Bay and a bit north of Santa Cruz. This hostel rents out time in an outdoor hot tub, but it was all booked up for the night by the time I checked in. I did find public hot springs in San Luis Obispo.
In Cambria, a cute hillside town a short distance north San Luis Obispo, I discovered a six-room and three-bathroom hostel called the Bridge Street Inn. It is set in a simple historic home that was constructed by a minister who lived in town more than a century ago. Around the dinner table were a mother and daughter from Iowa, a man from Spain and one from England.
Today there is more to San Luis Obispo than just the iconic Madonna Inn — the must-stop for lunch and bathroom visit located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Travelers who stay overnight here can enjoy the inn’s most recent additions: a spa and swimming pool area with views of the valley.
I explored San Luis Obispo for two days on the way to San Francisco and on the way back down south. This is a great place to inhale the aroma of springtime flowers or fully ripened grapes still on the vine in late summer and early fall.
Grab a bike from Wally’s rentals in downtown SLO and do the back roads, crisscrossing the coastal hillsides through places such as Price Canyon that link the valley to the coastline or the new 2.5-mile Bob Jones Trail in the nearby coastal village town of Avila Beach. The California coast is rugged around here, and one can hike beautiful beaches and canyons in nearby Oso State Park. I was stunned by the rugged physical beauty of the coastline and raw, exposed rock bluffs colorful in the late afternoon sun.
After a morning of hiking or bicycling one excellent idea is to enjoy one of two hot-springs options in Avila Beach. One, Avila Hot Springs, offers an all-day soak in simple surroundings for $10. Swimming pool use is included. The other, Sycamore Mineral Springs, offers a more romantic setting for massage, mineral-spring soaks and overnight accommodations.
Avila Beach was originally built back in 1874 as the supply station for Chinese workers who constructed the railroad tunnels in the area. On Monterrey Street a history center is housed in the original Carnegie Library, which was constructed in 1905.
Avila beach is a south-facing beach, and residents here swear they live in a sunny microclimate where rays of the sun permeate the place even on days when Morro Bay — a short distance to the north — is enveloped in fog.
Wine-tasting is available nearby at Salisbury Vineyards, which converted a two-room schoolhouse into their wine-tasting room. Great wine can also be found at Tolosa Winery on Edna Road, which is bicycling distance from downtown SLO.
With all the money I saved staying in the hostels on the way north, I decided to splurge on my return visit to San Luis Obispo. I stayed one night in the architecturally pleasing La Fonda Hotel, which resembled a grand Mexican hacienda with a rich interior and warm, pleasing colors inside and out. The rooms are appointed with a thermostat-controlled fireplace, and a two-person whirlpool tub is standard in each room. A wine reception featuring complimentary local fine wines is offered every afternoon.
Another option for a splurge is the Granada Hotel, located downtown in a beautifully renovated historic brick building, where. I had a colorful drink in the outdoor bar. Another popular downtown spot for dinner or cocktails is the new Foremost Wine Bar in the Old Creamery Building just off Higuera and Broad streets.
Traveling the California coast at a leisurely pace and at a time of record-low gasoline is one joy to remember for a lifetime. And it doesn’t matter if you’re on a budget or not.
WHEN YOU GO
To find international hostels in northern California: www.norcalhostels.org