Sensorio's new exhibit, Light Towers | Credit: Josef Woodard

From the delayed gratification files comes our tale of a trip up to friendly Paso Robles, originally planned for early March 2020 but pandemically postponed as normal life fell into its forced hiatus. Surveying options for a 36-hour-model close encounter from Santa Barbara, Paso (officially El Paso de Robles) is an easy choice, a two-hour jaunt up into the full embrace of what the Central Coast has to offer.

The Piccolo | Credit: Josef Woodard

On the agenda for my wife, Peggy, and I was a sampling of the tastefully swanky new boutique hotel the Piccolo, close to the beating heart of this small and increasingly covetable city, and a dive into the sensory pool of delight that is Bruce Munro: Light at Sensorio

British artist Munro’s entrancing and vast 15-acre “field of light” exhibition off of Highway 46 has become a “sensation” on multiple levels, especially in its specially extended run, as travel and cautiously “pre-post-pandemic” life resumes. On this Sunday evening, the joint was jumping, with an all-ages, all socio-economic crowd mingling in the phantasmagorical tapestry of morphing, colored lights.

Two years ago, we had stayed at the Piccolo’s mothership property, the historic Paso Robles Inn. But the new boutique hotel next door — which has racked up lofty praises from the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast, and others ― is another notch higher than the Inn in deep-wallet luxury, pampering, and style.

An early indicator of the Piccolo’s high style comes in the form of a vending machine in the lobby proffering Moët & Chandon bubbly ($25 per token) in lieu of soft drinks. In the vintage-meets-mid-century-modern rooms and public spaces, lined with warm brick walls and other distinctive touches, attention to details and local resourcing can be found in plentiful supply. Furniture has been specially crafted by the Paso-based Janine Stone, who works passionately with wood, despite her last name. Chandeliers and other fixtures are handmade by resident veteran blacksmith Hans Duus and team.

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Stepping outside the Piccolo’s cool environs, what we hadn’t counted on was intensely hot weather. A short three-block walk found us desperately seeking AC. Luckily, the handiest escape was the flavor and libation palace of Fish Gaucho, where we dove into a plate of Oaxaca Flocka nachos with Wagyu beef. Another highly recommendable cooling agent is the nearby ice creamery known as Negranti, made mostly with the gentler stuff of sheep’s milk.

Paso has enjoyed an explosion of winery activity in recent years, making wine-tasting a tourist magnet. On this trip, though, we kept the wine consumption at bay, apart from the in-room supply of the Paso-grown Rava Humble Red, and a stopover in the must-visit retro funk of the Pine Street Saloon, in the former Cosmopolitan Hotel, c. 1870. The Saloon ought to be a historic landmark, offering protection from destruction or defacement via the gentrification that is currently rampaging through the Tri-Counties and beyond. 

These days, heading just outta town to Munro’s Sensorio has taken on a life of its own. Screen-wearied people yearn for a real time-space continuum to bask in. Families, hipsters, environmental-art aficionados, and all other manner of folks have been flocking to the site, where a gently sloping canyon is liberally lined with colored lights that have the effect of painting the contours of land before and among the wandering visitors.

Food trucks offer grub and drink in a pleasant hang zone just outside the surreal acreage. On a small stage before the lawn area, musical strains by impressive regional singer Max MacLaury lent apt Roy Orbison/Ricky Nelson mooniness on a set including Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and an especially lonesome “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

It’s best to arrive around sunset, for maximum appreciation of the contrast of the light fields as the gradually shifting hues wash over the property. We sunk happily into the experience, wandering down the pathways to a new exhibit called Light Towers, composed of 17,000 wine bottles lit by entrails of optic fibers with composer Orlando Gough’s entrancing piece “Rise and Shine” emitting its sonic vapors into the night air.

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