What a long, strange trip these last 15 months have been. At last, California is reopening and now it’s time for much more normal, pleasant trips. The stay-at-home orders have been replaced by leave-your-home orders… OK, not so much orders as recommendations. And perhaps the ideal place to begin your post-Covid adventures is beautiful San Luis Obispo.
The Central Coast was hit hard by the pandemic, as it relies heavily on the tourism dollars that flow in from the Bay Area and the Southland. And just as you dutifully kept your favorite local eateries from going under, you now have the opportunity to support your finest weekend getaway destinations. And it doesn’t get much finer that SLO.
Situated in a lush valley just six miles from the Pacific, in the shadow of the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the climate is mild and warm year-round. Surrounded by a greenbelt, locals say it might grow up, but will never grow out. This is a place where living 15 miles from work translates to a 15-minute commute. The entire 805 is available to you from here. But then again, if you’re in downtown SLO, you may just want to keep the car parked and stroll through one of the most charming downtowns in this time zone.
With that in mind, I’ll briefly highlight some of the local gems that make this laid-back city so special. Keep in mind that just about everything on the list is kid-friendly, as my little one will attest. And with the possible exception of a shop or two, every place is also dog-friendly, as my little terrier will attest (his favorites, if you’re interested, are the restaurants — but he also liked the winery… for the charcuterie, silly… he was the designated driver after all).
So, after three hours on the 101, the first thing you’re going to want to do is to leave your jalopy with the valet and unpack your bags. Maybe it’s been a while, but don’t worry, it’s just like riding a bike… and you’ll also enjoy doing that when you get up here. For our purposes, let’s say that “here” is the Hotel San Luis Obispo, an ideal spot to launch an SLO getaway.
Rising above historic Chinatown, The resort embodies the spirit of the region, showcasing the work of local artists, sourcing the freshest ingredients from local farmers, and offering the finest wines from the vineyards of nearby Edna Valley. If you were to sum it up in three words, you might call it casual modern luxury. The rooftop lounge, appropriately named Highbar, features spectacular views of downtown, as well as sweeping vistas of rolling hills. (877 Palm St. 805-235-0700)
The mission is the cultural heartbeat of the region. The Spaniards appreciated the fertile soil and temperate climate of the location and in 1772, built the parish church along San Luis Creek. The plaza remains a hub for festivals and celebrations, and is a model of preservation (see my cover photo). (751 Palm St. 805-781-8220)
Last year, San Luis celebrated 30 years of public art, the result of which is 100 works from murals to mosaics to sculptures. It’s refreshing to see a city that glorifies art and pays tribute to its own artists. I’m particularly fond of the regionally inspired designs of Steve Thomas, whose vintage-styel travel posters can be spotted in a downtown gallery and throughout the Central Coast; and Sara Frantz, whose colorful homages to local landmarks are on display throughout Hotel San Luis Obispo. And next door to the mission is the SLO Museum of Art, which features galleries and live music venues. (1010 Broad St. 805-543-8562)
Luna Red is basically an SLO institution. It’s spacious garden patio practically an extension of the mission plaza. It’s also an ideal location to enjoy exotic takes on modern cocktails. Of course, it also boasts an award-winning wine list that showcases the finest vintages in and around the Santa Lucias, and beyond. The beloved tapas restaurant is renowned in the area for its street-style tacos. It supports local farmers, artists and musicians as a way of promoting community-based sustainability. (1023 Chorro St. 805-540-5243)
Back at Hotel San Luis Obispo, you’ll find Chef Ryan Fancher, a maestro who harmoniously orchestrates the ancient flavors of Italy with Central Coast ingredients fresh from the field and sea. The vibe is a bit more buttoned-down than the hotel’s sister restaurant, Ox + Anchor. The elegant patio setting plays host to live music Wed-Fri, creating a quintessential SLO ambience. (877 Palm St. 805-234-9969)
Good coffeehouses are a bellwether of civilization. Finding one is among my primary quests when visiting a locale. The downtown area has a few, but for me, mornings here begin at Kreuzberg… they begin a little later than I’d like, but then there’s a certain charm in escaping the early bustle. The Gibraltar is first-rate, the almond croissant airy and flaky, and the space essentially a coffee showroom. (685 Higuera St. 805-439-2060)
When you’re properly caffeinated, it’s time to explore the shops of downtown. A short list of notables include the historic Ah Louis General Store for gifts, cards, balloons, etc. (800 Palm St. 805-704-2477); Baxter Moerman for handcrafted fine jewelry (1128 Garden St. 805-801-9117); Boo Boo Records named by Rolling Stone as one of the best record stores in the U.S. (978 Monterey St. 805-541-0657); Ambiance for womens clothing, shoes, jewelry, and accessories. Walking really is the best way to feel the ethos of a place, and if you want to get off on the right foot, check out the History Center Walking Tour.
Located on Broad Street about four or so blocks north of downtown, through an affable little neighborhood just on the other side of Cabrillo Highway is a local treasure. Lincoln Market & Deli is a distillation of coastal life. Becky Hicks. This is where locals go for the best sandwiches around. The market also stocks an incredible selection of local beers, wines, kombuchas, and craft sodas. There’s a corner arcade with pinball and classic video games for the kids… or for the kid in you. (496 Broad St. 805-543-3443)
The walking part of our tour has concluded. But for those who just can’t get enough, here are a couple of lovely hikes I’ll recommend. Terrace Hill Open Space: A half-hour walk from downtown, enjoy a three-quarter-mile hike to an unobstructed plateau where you can enjoy magical sunsets over the city beneath. Park along the neighborhood street south of downtown. (Entrance is at 1300 Bishop St.) Cerro San Luis Lemon Grove Loop: AKA, Madonna Mountain, this can be a strenuous uphill climb with stunning views or a gentle 1-hour trek. (Follow walking/biking path that runs along the meadows at Madonna Inn. Walk through dirt parking area and continue to trailhead.)
Jump in the car, or if you’re a sport, hop on a bike, we’re heading to wine country. The Edna Valley produces some of the best wines in the state, which is also to say the country. Now, there’s a couple of main ways — both respectable in their own right — of doing wine country. One is winery hopping, the equivalent of a bar crawl but substitute distant vineyards for adjacent pubs. “Touring” sounds classier, and can be used interchangeably.
The other method is the single-estate tasting. This is where you plant your keister on a comfy piece of patio furniture and just let the wine come to you. The trick here is selecting the right winery, as you’re putting all your eggs in a single basket. You can always trust your gut instincts and “end up somewhere” or you can do a little research ahead of time and get a recommendation. Since you’re reading this, let’s assume you’re the latter type personality. Good news, I have just the place for you…
There’s more to a good wine tasting than just good wine. There’s good scenery, there’s good seating, and equally important, there’s a good host. Up or down the coast, you’d be hard-pressed to find the folksy wit and worldly wisdom of Karl Jepsen. On a wine estate, exceptional wine knowledge is a given, amiablilty isn’t. Think of it this way: It’s not just what you’re drinking, it’s who you’re drinking it with.
And since somebody’s probably driving and has to be responsible, it’s fair to want to know that the winery you’re supporting is also being responsible — in their agricultural and business practices. You’ll be happy to know that Tolosa is a SIP-certified leader and model of eco-friendliness; from age-old solutions like the cats and owls it employs to cutting-edge technology like the use of solar power to offset more than 90% of their electricity demand. It also happens to produce some of the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in an appellation famous for the two varietals. The Stone Lion Pinot Noir, a bottle of which is aging right now in my cellar — sorry, my “cellar” — is what the gods must drink. (4910 Edna Road | (805) 782-0500)
There you have it, a traveler’s getaway guide to San Luis Obispo. Pleasant journey, friends.
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