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John Blanchette: San Luis Obispo
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.

a beach scene along the Central Coast County of San Luis Obispo, California
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.

the First Annual Savor the Central Coast Event at Rancho Santa Margarita
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.

Food TV Network chef Tyler Florence giving a cookign demonstration
Tyler Florence

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 California’s most stunning sea and land vistas stretching on for miles, offering quiet, long views.

rocky beach along the Central Coast

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.

boats moored on the harbor of Morro Bay with Morro rock in the background
Morro Rock looms over the bay’s natural boat harbor

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 it’s the way locals like it. In fact the town of Cambria fought the Macdonald’s Corporation when they wanted to open a fast food restaurant.

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, Also don’t 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.

street scene with a western cowboy feel, Cayucos

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.

a group of white pelicans along the shore, Morro Bay

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 town’s Museum of Natural History has exhibits of the local flora and fauna.

a seal lion resting among the rocks
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. It’s a blast, and he claims the hummer has never rolled,

left: sea lions; right: a child at a pumpkin patch, Avila Valley Barn
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.

a pool at the Hearst Castle
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.

clusters of grapes ready for harvest, Edna Valley
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 county’s 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. Niven’s winemaker Christian Roguenant, a transplanted Frenchman, had me sample Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer juice right from the crusher, spectacularly sweet and complex.

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, Anderson Inn, Morro Bay, Cass House, a restored Victorian with an excellent restaurant run by a young husband and wife, Bill Hoppe of Hoppe’s 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, Robbins for gourmet dining in an East Cambria country house, Kaleidoscope Inn & Gardens is a restored Victorian bed with a great breakfast, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort has healing sulfur waters, 72 rooms and fine dining, Schooner’s Wharf is a must visit for the historic upstairs bar favored by locals for its view of the ocean, Ruddell’s 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 you’ve ever had, Giovanni’s in Morro Bay for oysters purchased from Morro Bay Oyster Company and Harbor Hut Restaurant.

The Lodge at Oak Creek Ranch grounds
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 For Cinderella’s magical county by the Central California Coast, contact the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, 800-634-1414.

a group of sea lions

Other Photos:

old train

grassland turns golden brown in the summer

Morro Bay coast with Morro rock in the right background

pier jutting out from the beach

undulating hills

grasslands turning golden brown in the summer

heron in a pond

driving on the beach

meat dish

children playing at the Avila Valley Barn

shrimp and olive

sunset at the beach

kissing sea lions

sea lion on a wharf, Morro Bay

boats moored at harbor with Morro Rock in the background, Morro Bay

pelicans and geese

3-year old oyster on writer's hand

red boat in harbor

Related Articles:
Classic California on the Central Coast, Oceanfront, Orange County, San Francisco, the Golden Gate, Yountville, Napa Valley, Northern Sonoma County

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Let John know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for South of the Border Wine Country

Hello John – I enjoyed reading your article. I live in La Bufadora and have friends visiting next week, so you have given me some good tips on where to go in our wine country. We have always called Cetto – L.A. (like Los Angeles) Chet-o and it might have been worth mentioning that it is actually Italian in origin. Also, I don't know about when visiting the Valle, but when in town, it is better to have pesos than dollars. Right now the rate is approx. 11.70 for each dollar. Just sayin' and like I said good article!

--- Ella O'Bryan, La Bufadora, Baja, MX

Hi, We here at Country Living Magazine are working on a story about hotels around the US. We would like to feature the Paso Robles Inn. I have to find photos to go along with the story. I was wondering if you could please send me any images of the hotel. This can be anything from the rooms to the food! All images can be submitted low res and if selected I will ask for hi rez later. Also, if you know of any photographers that have photographed the hotel can you please give me the contact info? Thank you so much!

--- Will Morel, Assistant Photo Editor, Country Living Magazine, New York, NY

I am looking forward to my "silver" years, which in my case, will be the years (if fate is good to me) that I will finally be traveling. New Zealand is at the top of the list - I have always been drawn to it.

--- Sandra Mines, Seattle, WA

Yes, was a fun city. Bad wine though.

--- Bo, Portland, OR

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