Much is said about the beauty of Santa Barbara, its mountains and ocean views admired worldwide. But for those of us who live here, Santa Barbara is just the southern gem of a Central Coast full of jewels. I was recently reminded of this fact when I spent a few days enjoying the bucolic charm of Paso Robles.
I made the two-hour drive north on a weekday afternoon, rolling through the hills and valleys through which Highway 101 runs. I arrived at Allegretto Vineyard Resort, a luxury destination hotel boasting 171 rooms, in the late afternoon. After checking in, I went directly to Cello, the hotel restaurant/bar, for a drink and some food. I met Head Chef Justin Picard, who explained that he uses locally sourced ingredients for his Mediterranean-inspired menu. I enjoyed a sampling of salmon with a squash casserole, as well as a delicious charcouterie board. Cello also has a large selection of top-of-the-line wines from area vineyards. I paired a Halter Ranch Rosé from Paso with my smorgasbord. The barkeeps also take advantage of the fruits and herbs grown on the property to make their delicious drinks.
Allegretto Resort sits on 20 acres, eight of which are planted with wine grapes that produce cabernet sauvignon and malbec, among other varietals. Also peppering the property are olive trees — some more than 100 years old — and fruit trees, including Mission figs, pomegranates, lemons, and limes. Inspired by Italian villas, the resort encircles a gorgeous piazza with seating areas, an outdoor fireplace, and fountains all reminiscent of a European estate. My room was lovely and spotless with a view of the Greco-Romanesque saline pool below and the vineyard rising up the hillside. An ode to la dolce vita, Allegretto offers such serenity, fine dining, and imbibing that you may not want to leave.
I did leave, however, as there was much to do and see during my short visit. I popped by Spearhead Coffee in downtown Paso for a delicious espresso drink made with sweetened condensed milk and cloves. From there I drove west on Highway 46, which is dotted by a multitude of wineries. My first stop was Villicana Winery, owned and operated by Alex and Monica Villicana. I was there to taste not vino, however, but rather vodka and gin. Using the discarded saignée — the free-run juice removed from the grapes prior to fermentation — the duo began distilling spirits several years ago, calling their new handcrafted creations Re:Find. The name is a nod to sustainability, which is of major importance to the Villicanas. Vodka and gin are their base liquors, but they also have seasonal offerings such as limoncello (April), kumquat liqueur (November), and cucumber-infused vodka (July). I found the elixirs smooth and palate pleasing.
Next I headed over to Krobār, the brainchild of Stephen Kroener and Joe Barton, both longtime winemakers. I sidled up to the old-timey saloon-style bar in their tasting room and settled in for some sipping. Krobār’s signature liquors include gin made from wine-grape distillate and rye whiskey and bourbon. Kroener and Barton spent years researching stills and distilling methods and testing recipes before introducing their final products. The 90-proof whiskey went down easy and — dare I say it? —rivaled Kentucky-made potions.
To me, there’s nothing as restorative as a horseback ride through rolling hills overlooking the Pacific on a beautiful fall day. All of those requirements were met when I headed to Cambria for a trail ride at Covell’s California Clydesdales Ranch. The family-owned ranch encompasses nearly 2,000 acres and boasts a herd of the majestic draft horses. One of the tallest horse breeds, Clydesdales are gentle by nature, and my trail steed lived up to its reputation. Riding a Clydesdale also proved very comfortable — his canter was so smooth I dubbed his breed the Cadillac of horses. It was a marvelous experience to spend some time with the splendid creatures.
After communing with the flora and fauna at Covell’s, I headed back to Paso Robles for dinner at Thomas Hill Organics, a delightful eatery owned by Debbie Thomas. The menu selection was so enticing it was difficult to choose. I started with short-rib tacos topped with avocado cream, pickled onions, and candied jalapeño cilantro. The meat was unbelievably tender, and the combination of flavors created by the additional ingredients made for a mouthwatering experience. The rest of my meal consisted of Di Stefano burrata (which included pesto, heirloom tomato, avocado, and garlic confit); a wood-fired roasted chicken with maitake mushroom, preserved lemon, kale, and creamed garlic smashed potatoes; and a chocolate brownie dessert that was so decadent it put me into a food coma. Thomas Hill offers a charming dining experience with all locally sourced, seasonal food.
After a restful night’s sleep at Allegretto and a morning dip in the pool, I headed toward home with one last stop on my adventure — riding dune buggies on the hilly sands of Pismo Beach. It was my first time, so I opted for a SunBuggy guide to take me up and over and around the dunes. With the wind (and some sand) in my hair, my dune-buggy chauffeur expertly maneuvered through the extensive field of dunes, sliding down 18-foot sand hills and hugging corners with the centrifugal force of a roller coaster. I drove the buggy for about five minutes but then turned the wheel back over to the pro so I could just enjoy the ride. Rumors swirl around that the Pismo Dunes will one day be closed to recreation vehicles altogether, as there are many who contend that the vehicles erode the natural landscape, disrupt nesting areas of the endangered snowy plover, and cause noise pollution. For now, however, they are open to dune-buggy enthusiasts and novices alike.