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VACATION IN THE HAPPIEST PLACE IN AMERICA

1 May
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

San Luis Obispo California has been named by Oprah Winfrey as “the happiest place in America.”  New York Times best-selling author and explorer, Dan Buettner, called San Luis Obispo the top spot for the happiest places in the United States in his book Thrive.  San Luis Obispo was also one of ten recommended best places to see in 2013 by the L.A. Times. People who aren’t fortunate enough to live in San Luis Obispo and its charming surrounding environs can make this a fulfilling vacation destination for well-known attractions, as well as some unexpected finds. The problem, if one wants to call it that, is there are so many things to do and see, is narrowing down the list to a manageable itinerary that has a balance of both energizing and relaxing activities. Trying to explore every area of the County would be exhausting; focusing on one or two areas of the County allows the visitor to really experience a specific region. These are some of the top travel destinations in the County.

San Luis Obispo Creek

San Luis Obispo Creek

The City of San Luis Obispo is centrally located and just inland enough from the ocean to have a temperate, sunny climate most of the year. San Luis or SLO, as it is called by many locals, is a college town, with the bars, stores and eateries that attract that population; they coexist with wine bars and gourmet restaurants which may appeal more to mature audiences. Start by exploring the inviting, historic downtown area which includes a creek, sculptures of bears (that non-locals are surprised to learn are native to this area), and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa started in 1772. The church of this active parish has several unique features including that it is the only “L-shaped” mission.

There are many great restaurants in downtown San Luis, with many types of cuisine in casual to upscale locales. Open all day starting at 11 a.m., Novo Restaurant uses in-house roasted spices in their globally-inspired cuisine, including Asian, Mediterranean, and South American. Novo has a bevy of adult beverages including local and international wines, beer, sake, a full bar, and non-alcoholic selections. The creekside patio offers the relaxing sounds of the babbling San Luis Obispo creek.  A more upscale atmosphere is found at Koberl at Blue located in the historic J.P. Andrews building. They offer creative European- and Asian-inspired dishes for snacks and dinner in their convivial bar or the more formal dining room. A full-bar and wines selected to complement foods are available.

Madonna-Inn-photos-Exterior

Madonna Inn

A short five-minute drive from downtown is the kitschy Madonna Inn celebrated for its unique, themed rooms (Caveman, Old Mill, some which include rock showers or waterfalls),  dominant hot pink paint, and the infamous men’s waterfall urinal where a waterwheel  and waterfall are activated by a laser light when it detects a “customer.” The Madonna Inn boasts a large dance floor which attracts many phenomenal local dancers who impress with swing, salsa, foxtrot, cha-cha, rumba, waltzes and more. Mondays bring out students from the Cal Poly dance clubs who provide energetic, entertaining dance displays, which sometimes includes exciting dance “lifts” or “aerials.”

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Hearst Castle

The County’s northern most beach area starts from just south of the start of Big Sur’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway; San Simeon is the starting point for touring Hearst Castle, almost three decades in the making. The mansion evokes strong feelings from visitors who either find the hodgepodge collection of antiques and architectural styles impressive or tacky. Just seven miles north of San Simeon is the popular northern elephant seal rookery where twice a year these gargantuan mammals stop for birthing, breeding, molting and resting. Each of the county’s many beaches has unique offerings from quirky Cayucos, surf-friendly Morro Bay, teeming tidepools at Montaña de Oro, the classic beach town of Pismo Beach, and the sand dunes in Oceano where cars can still drive on the beach. There are also places where people can fulfill the dream of riding a horse along the beach. Local beaches have a tendency to be foggy in the summer, with Avila Beach and Cayucos tending to be the most likely to be sunny in the summer. Restaurant picks in Cayucos include Hoppe’s Garden Bistro, which features French- and Austrian-inspired cuisine, and Schooner’s restaurant and bar, a diametrically opposite atmosphere, where leather-skinned locals and beach patrons come for the fantastic beach view from the second floor with the hopes of seeing the mystical “green flash.”

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Paso vineyard

Paso Robles and Templeton in northern San Luis Obispo County have become meccas for enophiles, foodies, and festivals, while maintaining their friendly small town ambience. Many of the oak-studded hills of rural northern San Luis Obispo County are lined with rows of zinfandel, pinot noir, Rhone varietals, and native Spanish and Italian grapes. Tasting rooms vary from the small, intimate owner/winemaker operations to larger Mission- and European-inspired venues. Wineries often sponsor events such as winemaker dinners, live music, cooking classes, art exhibits, hot air ballooning, movies and more. For a safe and relaxing wine crawl, transportation is available by local wine trolleys and vans, or reasonably-priced limos. Downtown “Paso” has evolved from a town that emphasized a rural, ranching lifestyle to one that also embraces some of the county’s best cuisine, comfortable to luxurious lodging, and stellar live entertainment. An alternative to driving to the wineries is to stay in downtown Paso and “hoof it” to downtown wine tasting rooms such as Asuncion Ridge, which focuses on Pinot Noir and red blends, Bodegas Paso Robles which features Spanish and Portuguese grapes and wines, and Paso Wine Centre, which serves 48 changing local wines.

From downtown Paso, one can walk to some of the top restaurants in the county.  Il Cortile features seasonal, rustic fine-dining Italian cuisine and warm, welcoming staff. Open for dinner, specialties include creative appetizers, a bountiful selection of mozzarella cheeses, homemade pasta, and when available, pork osso bucco, a house favorite. They have a balanced selection of good local and Italian wines.  Artisan serves locally-sourced, creative American fare. Their lunch and dinner menus are inspired by local farmers’ markets, organic farms and proteins that are sustainably-farmed or caught in the wild. Besides a large California wine selection featuring mostly fine and limited production local wines, they also have a diverse beer selection. Bistro Laurent offers Provencal dishes for lunch and more traditional French bistro cuisine at dinner with the choice of a prix-fixe or a la carte menu. The friendly, knowledgeable sommelier is available to assist in a wine selection in that matches the diner’s palate and pocketbook. An outdoor patio is available for dining al fresco

Hotel ChevalThe best downtown lodging is at the Hotel Cheval, a small luxury boutique hotel, just a half a block from the large city park, which is the hub for the many local festivals and weekly Farmer’s Market. They offer many amenities including cushy linens, welcome cookies, bedtime chocolates, breakfast, fireplace in the central patio, and dog-friendly premises. Although not downtown, the nearby Adelaide Inn and La Bellasera Hotel and Suites also offer comfortable, upscale rooms and amenities. For the more budget-minded, there are several reasonably-priced chain or locally-owned hotels. For those desiring a more pastoral setting, many Bed and Breakfasts are available, most at a very reasonable price.  For lengthy lists of local wineries, restaurants, lodging options, and upcoming festivals or events, go to www.travel.paso.com and www.pasorobleschamber.com.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10_07_04 AMTempleton is a small, historic town just a few minutes south of Paso.  McPhee’s Grill is a popular downtown eatery located in the building that was the first store in Templeton built in 1886. Hitching posts for horses still adorn the front of the building. Friendly, hands-on owner and chef, Ian McPhee, cooks, greets customers, and even clears tables if needed.  McPhee’s specializes in oak-grilled meats, “with a dedication to great food and great service.” They have a good selection of local wines; as well, they have a relationship with renowned winemaker Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat, who crafts wines specifically for McPhee’s. Also on Main Street is locals-favorite wine and beer bar is 15 Degrees C Wine Shop and Bar. Master Sommelier, Ali Carscaden, has one of the largest selections of wine on the Central Coast, with many local and unique international wines. They offer a great charcuterie meat and cheese plate artfully-designed with marcona almonds, castelvetrano olives, seasonal fruit and when available, seasonal, decorative flowers.  Saturday mornings at the Templeton Park is where people can find one of the county’s best farmers’ markets, with local produce, organic grain-fed meats, local nuts, flowers, fresh goat cheese, and food cooked to order.  Serving the community since 1887, the nearby Bethel Lutheran Church is the oldest church west of the Mississippi. While wine-tasting, a great spot for a midday lunch is Farmstand 46, which is in the middle of the “Westside Templeton wineries” on Highway 46. They offer tasty gourmet meals featuring organic, estate-grown produce and herbs.

D’Anbino’s Winery/Concert Venue

An unexpected bonus of staying in northern San Luis Obispo County is the wealth of talented musicians who perform at a variety of local venues. The premier North County music venue is D’Anbino Vineyard and Cellar tasting Room, known for their stellar entertainment, great acoustics, and welcoming ambience of the owners, John D’Andrea and Carmine Rubino, who have had award-winning professional careers in recording, film and television. The tasting room, which is less than four blocks from downtown, offers afternoon performances on the week-end and evening concerts featuring everything from standards to rock and roll. The Pony Club in the Hotel Cheval offers live music on the week-ends, which can be enjoyed on their inviting outdoor courtyard.  During the summer, there are live concerts at the Templeton Park on Wednesdays and the Paso Robles City Park on Fridays. Many of the wineries offer live music, especially in the summer. Unfortunately the winery concert schedules are not available in one central location, but can be found on the individual winery websites.

Additional information on the local music and dance scene can be found in this writer’s monthly column Mostly Music column: slocoastjournal.com/docs/mostlymusic.html