Let’s not deny it: We live largely in paradise, and have all the wants of the modern earth-dweller at our fingertips-from great food and tasty wine to natural splendor, outdoor adventure, luxury accommodations, and plenty of cultural happenings. But even paradise gets old after a while, and we need to get away to somewhere with new sights, restaurants with different menus, and a place, if we’re lucky, where everyone does not know your name.
For those of us with little time between busy work schedules, the two-and-a-half-day weekend excursion-you know, slipping out of work a little early Friday afternoon and returning late Sunday night-makes the perfect getaway vehicle. And for Santa Barbarans, there’s no more restful, beautiful, and decidedly distinct escape than San Luis Obispo County, where rolling hills, sandy beaches, unspoiled coastlines, and emerging epicurean tastes start less than 90 minutes from State Street.
Here are three separate S.L.O. County adventures that you should plan for this year.
For the Wine Lovers
From the award-winning Laetitia Winery on Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande all the way to Paso Robles in the north, SLO’s wine industry is exploding at nearly the same pace as Santa Barbara’s. This itinerary gets you up close with the people and places making the biggest headlines. Clear your palate and prepare.
Where to Sleep: On Friday night, check into The Cliffs, a bluff-top resort above Shell Beach, a sandy-land worth exploring at sunset. Views extend from the crescent moon-shaped Port San Luis all the way to the dunes of Guadalupe. Suites feature Jacuzzi tubs that spill romantically into the bedroom. Oceanfront balconies are the perfect place to watch the reliable Central Coast fog waft into town or to count the stars on a clear night, all framed by the electric glow of the beach towns of Pismo and Avila, visible in the opposing distances. Visit CliffsResort.com or call 773-5000.
What to Do: On Saturday morning, make the trek up to Paso Robles, either in your own car (you’ll be spitting, right?) or via a wine tour company such as The Wine Wrangler or The GrapeLine (gogrape.com). There are more than 150 wineries, but why not focus on a varietal, such as zinfandel, that we don’t grow as much in Santa Barbara? To do so, check out Castoro Cellars, where Niels Udsen-who’s been in the wine biz since the 1980s and whose nickname “Beaver” translates to “il castoro” in Italian-has different vintages for your sampling, plus Bordeaux blends and other varietals as well. From there, select one of the many nearby wineries located on Paso’s westside, from the large Justin Winery (JustinWine.com) to the tiny Dark Star Cellars (DarkStarCellars.com).
Before you head back to The Cliffs, make sure to get your mind blown at Eagle Castle (EagleCastleWinery.com), where good wine takes a second seat to architectural wow and medieval kitsch. The owner, a former developer and concrete dealer, built an actual castle, with thick walls, spacious indoor areas fit for a king, loads of impressive metal work, and a 21st-century kitchen to host events. The place is surrounded by a moat. And, oh yeah, their wines-which are served by people wearing knight and maiden outfits-ain’t bad.
On Sunday, explore Edna Valley, where some of the region’s best pinot noir and chardonnay is being grown. No one does it better than Domaine Alfred (DomaineAlfred.com) in these parts, so make that your first stop on a fresh palate. After trying their $80-per-bottle Cinqasept grenache blend, head over to the olive oil tasting table hosted by the Robbins Family Farm (RobbinsFamilyFarm.com), members of which are usually there on the weekends. From there, take the price down a notch by heading to the popular Edna Valley Vineyard (EdnaValleyVineyard.com), where wines can be purchased for everyday drinking.
How to Eat: Luckily, you’re staying at The Cliffs, home to the tongue-tantalizing California-meets-Spain restaurant Marisol (CliffsResort.com/dining). The name-a mix of Spanish words for “sea” and “sun”-throws together the best of the range with the secrets of the sea, giving an option for every taste, all washed down with matching wines. Try the ceviche trio-spicy scallops with jicama, tuna with pineapple, lobster with coconut and mint-aside a Spanish albarino, and then jump into the house salad with pumpkin seeds, medjool dates, manchego cheese, and pomegranate honey dressing. With some California pinot or a Spanish tempranillo, turn your attention to the short ribs with a bleu cheeseladen sweet potato mash. For dessert, die while eating the aptly named “Chocolate Oblivion,” with a shooter of Mexican cocoa, a white chocolate truffle, and a dark chocolate br»lee.
For the Adventure-Minded
Pockmarked by the “Nine Sisters”-the sharp volcanic hills that jut out of the earth from San Luis to Morro Bay-and eaten away by a rugged sea, S.L.O. County’s natural landscape deserves more exploration than just one weekend. But if that’s all you got, here’s what you need to do.
Where to Sleep: Overlooking the sleepy, New England-esque harbor, the Inn at Morro Bay puts you over the water with falcon-eye views of Morro Rock and the nearby blue heron preserve, where nests hang precariously from the tree tops. And what better way to take in the sea-salt smell and sleepy sailboat scene than from that private hot tub on your balcony? Visit InnAtMorroBay.com or call 321-9566.
What to Do: Though most of S.L.O. County’s coast is whipped by big waves and high winds, there’s no body of water more peaceful and calm on the West Coast than the protected stretches of Morro Bay, where the sea’s only movements come from the slow ebb and flow of the tides. And since some parts of the quaint, wildlife-filled back bay are only a couple feet deep, the only way to really see everything is on a kayak. So join Central Coast Outdoors on one of their many types of kayak adventures-they offer half-day, full-day, sunset, and moonlit paddles-for a few hours of exploration.
Though all the seasons offer their highlights, springtime is particularly promising for bird lovers, as blue herons, brown pelicans, sea gulls, snowy plovers, loons, buffleheads, eared grebes, and Brandt’s geese-which land in the bay after flying four days straight from the Aleutian Islands-are bountiful. While listening to the throaty roar of cormorants atop shoreline trees, you may also spot a harbor seal with a pup learning to swim on her belly. Prepare for a lesson in aquaculture as well, for Morro Bay is also home to an oyster farm. Visit CentralCoastOutdoors.com or call 528-1080.
How to Eat: All kayak adventures are topped off with a freshly homemade lunch, usually of deli meats and breads served with side dishes such as tabouleh and couscous. But when it comes time for fine dining, head back to the hotel and settle into the plush chairs of Orchid, which is perched over the harbor and Morro Rock just like the rest of the property. As you might expect, seafood is a specialty of the chefs, who have an amazing talent for presenting gourmet seasonal foods done in a light, healthy Mediterranean fashion.
Start with some abalone from the nearby Ocean Rose Farm in Cayucos, served with a butter balsamic sauce and pear-jicama salad. For an entree, head for the halibut, topped with a roasted red pepper sauce and green beans. And then sample dessert with a trio of baklava with coriander ice cream, traditional tiramisu, and a cup of mousse. With the fireplace roaring, orchids decorating every open inch, and a mirror guaranteeing views of the harbor no matter where you sit, it’s no wonder that everyone returns for Orchid’s fabulous brunch in the morning. Call 772-5651 for reservations.
For the History Buffs
A land of Chumash, missions, and early-20th-century opulence, San Luis Obispo offers plenty for those who love learning about our past. You might be tempted to spend your entire weekend hanging around Hearst Castle-don’t, because there’s history around every S.L.O. corner.
Where to Sleep: The SeaVenture Resort runs right into the sands of Pismo, which is the Chumash word for “clam” and one of the few authentically funky beach towns still remaining on the California coast. A Cape Cod-style resort whose beachy decor includes plenty of white pickets, hues of mellow green, and a cottage feel-even the TV is housed in a quaint hutch-SeaVenture is just a few minutes walk from the downtown strip, where surf shops and wooden bars mingle with crowded clam chowder houses. Check out the surfers and beach walkers from your oceanside balcony, where-yet again-a Jacuzzi awaits your sunset champagne toast. Visit SeaVenture.com or call (800) 760-0664.
What to Do: Get your history kicks on Saturday by heading north to Hearst Castle, the closest thing us West Coasters have to a royal palace. Built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst as his own personal Shangri-La near the town of San Simeon, the mountaintop castle is a state park and offers a number of different tours, including evening escapades in some seasons. It’s a must-see for any proud Californian, and especially required for anyone interested in the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood. Visit HearstCastle.com or call 927-2020.
On Sunday, soak yourself like one of Hearst’s celebrity friends by heading to Sycamore Mineral Springs, a hotel/restaurant/spa/retreat center located a few minutes off Highway 101 on the way to Avila Beach. Sitting in hot mineral water was an activity once relished by Americans around the turn of the century, and Sycamore Springs is tending to that tradition better than anyone. Spend an hour in one of the private tubs, then get a massage, do yoga, or take a class on aromatherapy. Take a walk or bike ride on the adjacent Bob Jones Trail, a paved creekside path located just past the canyon’s walking labyrinth. Or just listen to some of the staff regale tourists with fascinating history, such as how the hot springs were an overnight stop for Hearst’s guests coming from Los Angeles or how bootleggers cut a hole through the mountain to smuggle booze from San Luis Bay. Visit SycamoreSprings.com or call (800) 234-5831.
How to Eat: On your way to or from Hearst Castle, stop by the cheery Little Market in Cayucos, where gourmet sandwiches and salads can be eaten at their sidewalk tables or taken across the street for a little beach picnic. Then take a 15-minute walk through town and fantasize about calling the quaint coastal village home. Call 995-2076.
Come dinnertime, head upstairs at your hotel to the SeaVenture Restaurant, which overlooks the often foggy Pismo shoreline and serves up a stomach-busting meal. Have the duck salad to start, and then slide into the New York steak and potatoes, washing each back with one of the many S.L.O. County wines-by-the-glass on the menu. Indulge in a nightcap or two at the bar before heading back for a pre-bed soak in your balcony hot tub. And be ready in the morning, because a very substantial continental breakfast is brought to your door in a basket at whatever time you’d like. Call 995-2076 for reservations.
After your Sunday treatments at Sycamore Springs, head to The Gardens of Avila, their onsite restaurant for a light yet luscious lunch. Start with scallops on the half-shell, decorated with toasted almonds, ponzu, and capers, then get familiar with the brown seaweed-wrapped tuna, served on a salad of watercress and ginger. Finish with buttermilk lemon pudding. Call 595-7302.