11 Mar Wanderings: Finding Time in the Sunshine State
In an era of same-day package deliveries and instantaneous texting, taking it slow seems counterintuitive. However, the region hugging California’s Central Coast delivers a sublime “relax-cation” where everyone agrees that going SLO (as in the initials of San Luis Obispo County) is vital for well-being. Driving past Highway One’s necklace of beaches, you encounter memorable wineries and restaurants, historic landmarks, and art enclaves. Take it slow with a stroll on a boardwalk. Take it slow with a spa day. Take it slow in a natural hot spring.
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the 80-mile coastline boasts sunshine 287 days a year. San Luis Obispo, with more than 47,000 residents, is the region’s largest city. Blue Zones, an organization promoting areas in the world with a high quality of life, hails San Luis Obispo as a role model. The fact that the city curates an aesthetically pleasing downtown, supports the arts, and encourages healthy eating habits and outdoor activity collectively contributes to one’s happiness, according to Blue Zones. No wonder everyone is smiling.
This is pinot noir and chardonnay country, where ocean breezes blanket vineyards with morning dew and sometimes sand. Also in the portfolio are diverse Burgundian and Rhone wines and a smattering of white varietals. With such pleasant weather to tend the grapes, wineries have no trouble celebrating with outdoor events. Every July at Chamisal Vineyards, a sellout Lobsterfest brings guests to the winemaking facility’s patio to imbibe and slurp oysters. At dusk, they venture inside the barrel room, put on plastic bibs at a long table covered with butcher paper, and enjoy an epic crustacean feast.
Quirky outlets and unusual adventures are making their way into wineries, too. Rosé maker Malene Wines operates out of a tricked-out Airstream where folks can come inside to sit, sip, and swirl. And at Santa Margarita Ranch, home of Ancient Peaks Winery, visitors can zoom above vineyards and farmlands on a zip-line.
SLO is, indeed, cowboy and farmer country. The nationally-known Thursday night Farmers’ Market in San Luis Obispo is testimony to the bounty of produce, meat, and seafood originating here. Smoke rises from barbeque ribs on one end of the outdoor food hall as growers stack vine-ripened tomatoes and boxes of king oyster mushrooms at the other. The weekly gourmet festival with live music spans six dynamic blocks.
With homegrown ingredients in abundance, it seems criminal to not give every eatery a test drive. Ember Restaurant is worth visiting for its wood-fired oven dishes; Robin’s Restaurant for fusion comfort food; Mistura for new and exotic Peruvian cuisine; Linn’s Restaurant for its famous olallieberry pie; and Big Sky Café for its insistence that healthy fare should be delicious. At Novo Restaurant and Lounge, lines of customers don’t mind the wait for well-honed global cuisine, served either indoors or out on the creekside patio.
After eating, it’s time for eye candy. Once a dairy settlement, the nearby town of Harmony, population 18, serves as a creativity commune with a glassblowing shop, a pottery studio, and wine tasting. A bit further up the coast, in Cambria’s West Village, galleries upon galleries dominate the streets for hours of art appreciation. Or if you decide to stay in San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is always free.
SLO’s diverse landmarks run from the spectacular to the surreal. In the community of San Simeon, Hearst Castle keeps tourists gawking at its sheer size, along with stories of celebrity parties and the shenanigans of former owner and newspaper baron Randolph Hearst. The Julia Morgan-designed property is so immense that California State Parks arranges topic-specific tours to see only portions of the 165-room edifice that’s filled with masterpieces from all over the world.
Not everyone enjoys kitschy things, but if you do, visit the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Book any of the themed hotel rooms to enter a different world. The signature suite is the Caveman Room with faux animal skins and rock walls. Eat at the Madonna Inn Copper Café or Gold Rush Steak House, where bubble gum pink saturates everything.
Historic icons of a more predictable nature include the Piedras Blancas Light Station, managed as a historic park and wildlife sanctuary, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a Spanish mission founded in 1772, and the Dana Adobe, the oldest home in SLO county, now a cultural center.
After exploring man-made landmarks, it’s time to relax amid nature’s splendor. Nearby hot springs encourage guests to soak and surrender. At Avila Hot Springs, de-stress in natural mineral waters in a public pool. At Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, private hot tubs let you steep beneath the stars, and the Oasis Waterfall Lagoon is surrounded by boulders, plants, and tumbling water.
If you stay in downtown San Luis Obispo, spa fantasies await. Spa Cerro, inside Hotel Cerro, is a 4,000-square-foot pamper playground. Of significance is the couple’s room where you can reserve the 125-minute “Love is in the Air” indulgence, comprised of a foot bath, massage, facial, and sparkling wine. Not far is Sol Spa at Hotel San Luis Obispo. The Scrub Bar allows guests to concoct their own salt scrub. And where else would you find a four-step ritual with sauna, whirlpool soak, shower, and foot immersion?
When the therapist is done kneading your body, slumber beckons. New hotels are making waves with dreamy and uncluttered designs, and boutique hotels are shaking things up with attractive, updated interiors.
Downtown’s Hotel San Luis Obispo burst onto the scene as a “modern urban resort.” The hotel offers airy suites and rooms that echo a soft bohemian aesthetic, with white oak floors, colorful pillows, and handmade rugs. Original artwork, down mattress toppers, white linens, slippers, and robes are all on point for embracing the SLO lifestyle. Book the large Morro Suite, and you’ll get a furnished balcony, a separate living room, and a soaking tub that will spoil you so much you’ll never want to leave. The hotel’s Ox + Anchor restaurant, Piadina for casual eats, a lobby lounge, and a rooftop bar provide the finishing touches.
Hotel Cerro hints at sheer elegance without pretense. Sophisticated rooms, suites, and longer-stay residences anchor the property with muted grays and whites. If you want to impress, book the Penthouse Loft, which that overlooks San Luis Obispo’s downtown. Better yet, reserve a one- or two-bedroom apartment, which comes with a fully-equipped kitchen, dining area, and living room.
Vespera on Ocean in Pismo Beach represents the county’s newest beachfront hotel. Milking this view are outdoor fire pits and a pool deck. The building takes its cues from the water with a palette of blues, whites, and grays. The 800-square-foot Pacific Suite comes with a separate bedroom, living room, and an extra-long balcony where friends can join in and gaze upon the sunset afterglow.
To top off your journey, you can wolf down a 2,000-calorie breakfast at the Copper Café, scale Bishop Peak, bike the Bob Jones Trail, and kayak at Morro Bay. These are excellent adventures for a coastal power weekend. But this is your SLO weekend, remember? Rein in your inner beast, relax, and repeat the mantra of movie legend and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back!”