Coasting Through California’s
San Luis Obispo County
Story and photos by John Blanchette
ying halfway between San
Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central
Coast County of San Luis Obispo is the poor sister to the tourist
Meccas of Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties, which border it on the
North and South, but this long neglected Cinderella on the California
coast is finally getting her due.
The magnificent Central Coast
Featuring a 47-mile largely unspoiled shoreline and
a magnificently undeveloped interior of photogenic valleys and hillsides
shaped by ancient seismic and volcanic activity, only 250 thousand people
live in the county. Composed primarily of quiet and picturesque towns
and villages like Nipomo, Los Osos, Pismo
Beach, Morro Bay, Avila Beach, Cambria, Cayucos, San Luis Obispo,
Atascadero, San Simeon etc., the area offers great seafood dining, world-class
wine regions including Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles, splendid
country inns and all the diversions of California coastal living.
Savor the Central Coast is an Annual late summer
event featuring wine and food
I was visiting over the weekend when Sunset Magazine
hosted thousands of attendees at the First Annual Savor the Central
Coast food and wine festival at Rancho Santa Margarita, the oldest
working ranch in California. Food TV Network chef Tyler Florence gave
a cooking demonstration and voluminous wine and food tastings occupied
the crowds hungrily devouring the bounty and beauty of this under appreciated
Golden State treasure.
And the countryside is just that. When the green grasses
from the spring rains dry in the summer months they turn to golden straw
and lie like soft fur on the lumpy backs of undulating hills, moled
with magnificent California oaks that give shade to the Black Angus
cattle, sheep, goats and horses grazing the land shared by deer, elk,
wild turkeys, rabbits, hawks, coyotes and other wildlife. This is one
of the most bucolic areas on the West Coast, with some of Californias
most stunning sea and land vistas stretching on for miles, offering
quiet, long views.
Morro Rock, which juts out of the sea nearly 600 feet
in the air off Morro Bay near the southern end of San Luis Obispo County,
is the first of a string of mountainous volcanic plugs called the Seven
Sisters that run several miles inland along the Edna Valley to San Luis
Obispo. The winding road that leads from the ocean to the hub of the
county is breathtakingly beautiful.
Morro Rock looms over the bays natural boat
San Luis Obispo or SLO as locals refer to
their beloved city, is a college town with two universities and about
44,000 residents and 25,000 students. It supports a symphony, opera
company, Mozart Festival, theater groups, arts, crafts and glasswork
galleries and a number of excellent restaurants housed in a community
of rustic, Victorian and period structures without much modern sprawl.
And its the way locals like it. In fact the town of Cambria fought
the Macdonalds Corporation when they wanted to open a fast food
In the town of Cayucos a slow food abalone farm operates.
It takes between four and six years for the mollusks to reach harvest
size and owner Brad Buckley has a million of them in process. He and
his farm were recently featured on the Food TV Network show Barbecue
Nation, hosted by Bobby Flay, www.abalonefarm.com.
Also dont miss one of the great bakery experiences in the world,
the Brown Butter Cookie Company and stop by the local candy store for
some other hand made treats.
Cayucos feels like a western cowboy town while nearby
Cambria is an artist colony with great seaside dining, art galleries,
and fun walking and shopping.
Morro Bay is a fishing village with an offshore oyster
farm, abundant wildlife and a safe harbor for boats of all sorts. Take
the Lost Isle Adventures tour of the coastline for a close up view of
the oyster beds, seals, seabirds, otters and a menagerie of sea life.
The towns Museum of Natural History has exhibits of the local
flora and fauna.
Lazy sea lion enjoys the quiet of the Central Coast
The Oceano Dunes Vehicle Recreation State Park in Nipomo,
the southern most area of San Luis Obispo County, runs north about four
miles and is the only beach in California where it is legal to drive
vehicles. I climbed dunes in a military hummer driven by a mad staff
member who enjoyed the screams of first timers as he circled over and
down the edges of massive windblown dunes. Its a blast, and he
claims the hummer has never rolled, www.dunescenter.org.
Left: More sea lions;
Right: Young trick or treater in the pumpkin patch at Avila Valley Barn
Along the coast are the Avila Beach Sea Life Center,
Montana De Oro State Park and Piedras Blancas rookery where you can
enjoy hiking beach paths, wading in tidal pools, and close sightings
of otters, mating elephant seals, whales and thousands of marine creatures
in their natural habitat. For sustenance, the Avila Valley Barn has
a farm restaurant, ice cream parlor and sells local fruits and vegetables.
Pool at Hearst Castle
The biggest tourist draw in the area is the magnificent
165 room Hearst Castle, which looms 1,600 feet above the village of
San Simeon at the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and draws 2.3 million
visitors a year (tours begin at $20). Media mogul William Randolph Hearst
invested millions of dollars in artwork, architecture and craftsmanship
over the 28 years he enjoyed the property and you can still spot some
of the zebras and other creatures he imported from around the world
roaming the grounds of this Xanadu. Great-grandson Steve Hearst manages
the ranch next to the Castle; one of the largest grass fed cattle operations
in the country, and owns Hearst Ranch Winery which has a tasting room
in San Simeon.
Grapes days before harvest
in the Edna Valley
Wine grapes were first planted in the area over 200
years ago for sacramental use by Spanish Mission padres. Today there
is still a very high reverence for the premium wine grape producers,
especially in the tasting rooms of the countys 250 wineries, third
largest in California.
The most prestigious area near the coast is the four
by one half-mile Edna Valley with 40 vineyards. You must travel down
Orcutt Road and try Orcutt Road Cellars offerings and Niven Family Wines
and also taste Baileyana, Tranza and Tangent wines. Nivens winemaker
Christian Roguenant, a transplanted Frenchman, had me sample Pinot Noir
and Gewurztraminer juice right from the crusher, spectacularly sweet
The long growing season this year due to cooler weather,
added a great deal to the wine. Also look for Jack Creek Cellars, Niner,
Saucelito Canyon and Clairborne & Churchill Wineries. Laetitia Vineyard
and Talley are two of the top wineries located in Arroyo Grande, the
other coastal wine growing area in San Luis Obispo County. Paso Robles
is inland with vineyards rising in the hill country behind Hearst Castle
and extending 20 miles to the east.
If You Go:
There are a number of housing and dining options sprinkled
throughout the coastal communities including country inns, the unforgettable
Madonna Inn, comfortable and inexpensive seaside motels and quiet bed
and breakfasts, most offering free internet access.
Some recommendations include the Shoreline
Inn, Morro Bay, Cass
House, a restored Victorian with an excellent restaurant run by
a young husband and wife, Bill Hoppe of Hoppes
Bistro & Wine Bar specializes in seasonal cuisine and is one
of the best chefs in the Central Coast. I had the Pheasant with root
vegetables, Sea Shanty for fish, local color, big plates and great desserts,
for gourmet dining in an East Cambria country house, Kaleidoscope
Inn & Gardens is a restored Victorian bed with a great breakfast,
Springs Resort has healing sulfur waters, 72 rooms and fine dining,
Wharf is a must visit for the historic upstairs bar favored by locals
for its view of the ocean, Ruddells Smokehouse for the best barbecue,
Sebastian Café & General store is one of the oldest in the
state and houses the San Simeon Post Office, Hearst Ranch Winery tasting
room and a café that makes some of the best and biggest sandwiches
youve ever had, Giovannis in Morro Bay for oysters purchased
Bay Oyster Company and Harbor Hut Restaurant.
On the grounds of The Lodge at Oak Creek Ranch
If you are planning a visit with a group of 10 or more
you might consider the The Lodge
at Oak Creek Ranch. Located on 163 acres in Santa Margarita, the
one-time Camp Fire Girls retreat features a pool, hiking trails, hayrides,
outdoor barbecue and full access to deer, rabbits, wild turkeys and
native wildlife of all sorts. At night the skies are spectacularly clear
and the air is sweet with the scent of flowers, forest, shrubs and grasses.
For a list of events look for the weekly free paper
New Times, for a designated driver through wine country call the non-profit
Ride-On transportation company.To
explore the "SLO" life visit www.WineCoastCountry.com.
For Cinderellas magical county by the Central California Coast,
contact the San Luis Obispo
County Visitors & Conference Bureau, 800-634-1414.
California on the Central Coast, Oceanfront,
Orange County, San
Francisco, the Golden Gate, Yountville,
Napa Valley, Northern