If you dream of California but without the glitz of Hollywood and the scrum of Silicon Valley, then San Luis Obispo offers a laid-back scene that is the epitome of chilled. With a population of a mere 45,000, the tiny city is known as SLO (and the wider area is SloCal, as opposed to SoCal for southern California).
The area is surrounded by hills and vineyards, and is close to a peaceful stretch of the Pacific where whales and elephant seals rule the waters, surfers skim along waves by the shore, and beach shacks with seating on verandas serve coffee, wine and snacks. It’s all rather idyllic.
Small town with good vibes
San Luis Obispo offers a laid-back scene that is the epitome of chilled. Pictured is Monterey Street in the city’s historic downtown
SLO has an understated bohemian streak. The quiet streets are lined with twisty ficus trees spouting great plumes of emerald leaves. Walk along in the shade and you will soon come to one of the many pleasant little diners, with seats along counters just like in American movies. Try a chilli burger at the Creeky Tiki Island Bar & Grill or the Awesome Omelette with guacamole and bacon at Louisa’s Place.
Then check out SLO’s independent fashion boutiques, art galleries and jewellery shops, and perhaps take a stroll from there into the hills. Open Space maps detailing 50 miles of well-marked trails are available from the tourist office and hotels.
The best new place to stay is Hotel Cerro, bang in the middle of the city. It has smart, minimalist rooms and a rooftop pool with views across the countryside (hotelcerro.com). In the evening, go for a drink and soak up the local vibe at the Frog & Peach Pub or Black Sheep Bar & Grill.
Playtime with sea otters
Head to Morro Bay to spot the group of sea otters that has found itself a home in the lagoon. Pictured is a mother otter and her pup in the bay
Nearby Morro Bay has an ancient volcanic rock formation at one end, the cooling towers of a former power station at another, and a tranquil lagoon perfect for kayaking in the middle.
It is easy to take to the water from the jetty at Morro Bay Paddlesports (paddlemorrobay.com). You’ll find yourself gliding past grunting sea lions lazing on old wooden moorings as well as a group of sea otters that has found a home in the lagoon. Watching the otters playing around or floating carefree while taking naps is wonderful. The beach on the other side of the rock at Morro Bay has good surfing waves – even if you don’t give it a try yourself, it’s great to just watch the experts.
Barbecues with butlers
One of the best ways to understand the Californian love of sand and waves is to head to Grover Beach at sunset. This is about a ten-minute drive from SLO and it is where locals congregate for barbecues in fire pits each evening.
Butlerz offers a brilliant service for tourists, with ‘butlers’ who light fires on the beach and provide canopies, chairs, blankets and decorations such as lanterns and even dancefloors (butlerzrents.com). Bring your own drinks and either cook your own food or fetch some fantastic clam chowder from the nearby Splash Cafe (splashcafe.com), and marvel at the blaze of colours as the sun dips over the horizon.
Now that’s a breakfast
Californians love enormous breakfasts and brunches. There are plenty of options, but one of the best places to go for a blowout is Dorn’s Breakers Cafe overlooking Morro Bay (dornscafe.com). This down- to-earth spot offers legendary huevos rancheros (tortillas, black beans, eggs, cheese and salsa), scrambled eggs with ground beef, spinach and mushrooms, or steak, eggs and potatoes – yes, that’s all for breakfast! I can recommend the delicious oyster omelette served with onions and mushrooms. Wash it all down with a Bloody Mary or a Red Dog morning cocktail made with rum and grapefruit juice.
Sip chilled wine
Pictured is a sign for wineries in the Paso Robles winegrowing region, which lies to the north of San Luis Obispo city
There are no fewer than 30 wineries in San Luis Obispo County (slocoastwine.com).
Chardonnay and pinot noir are two of the main grapes, but others include syrah, pinot gris, riesling and viognier. Most vineyards offer free wine-tastings and, of course, the opportunity to buy bottles.
Tolosa Winery is set in 1,000 beautiful acres of rolling vines in Edna Valley, five miles south of SLO (tolosawinery.com). Go for a tasting and then relax in the garden beneath an olive tree with a glass and gaze out across the landscape as turkey vultures soar on the horizon.
Another good choice is the Eberle Winery, about 30 miles north near the town of Paso Robles. It has especially good reds and is run by the loquacious former American footballer Gary Eberle, who is usually in attendance with plenty of stories from his glory days (eberlewinery.com).
Paso Robles has many wine stores and tasting bars from local vineyards.
… or a crafty beer
It’s not all about wine around San Luis Obispo County. The craft beer craze that hit California 20 years ago is still going strong, and the best spot to enjoy a tipple close to the centre of SLO is The Rock, where SLO Brew is based.
Sample Indian pale ales and tasty mango and blood orange- flavoured beers in a lounge decorated with cowhides and surf boards. There’s also an on-site whiskey distillery (slobrew.com).
Closer to Paso Robles, a visit to the Firestone Walker Brewing Company is a must. It’s run by brothers-in-law David Walker (a Briton from near Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire) and Adam Firestone (of the Firestone tyre family), and even if you don’t sample the many excellent ales, the food at its restaurant is delicious: mouthwatering tuna tacos, chorizo pizzas, barbecue chicken salads, and local favourite mac-and-cheese (firestonebeer.com).
Madonna Inn is a flamboyant hotel on the edge of SLO. The restaurant, above, serves vast slices of bright pink cake for dessert
Madonna Inn opened in 1958 on 2,000 acres of ranchland on the edge of SLO, and this extraordinary hotel (which is nothing to do with the pop star) now boasts 110 flamboyant pink and boudoir-red rooms, some with crystal chandeliers and curving exposed stone walls as though you are sleeping in a cave.
Over the years, well-known figures aplenty have passed by, including John Wayne, George Burns, Barbra Streisand, Ronald Reagan, Peggy Lee and Monica Lewinsky, among many others. You do not have to stay to dine at its restaurant, where huge burgers, bowls of chilli and salads make up the main courses. But the highlight is dessert in the form of vast slices of bright pink cake (madonnainn.com).
Going Gaga at Hearst Castle
Classic: Visitors can take a tour of Hearst Castle, an eccentric hilltop mansion where Lady Gaga shot a video. Pictured is the Neptune Pool
No visit to SLO is complete without taking a tour of Hearst Castle, the marvellously eccentric hilltop mansion completed by the flamboyant multi-millionaire businessman, politician and publisher William Randolph Hearst in 1947. It’s a 40-mile drive up the coast on Highway 101, perched above the tiny town of San Simeon and facing the beach and its 850ft pier.
The 115-room, neo-Spanish castle took almost 30 years to build and is famous for its extraordinary Neptune Pool (surrounded by Roman columns from the 1st Century, and where Lady Gaga shot a video), giant halls hung with medieval tapestries, original 15th Century Spanish beams, a billiards room, cinema and general all-round opulence.
Winston Churchill stayed, as did Charlie Chaplin (who enjoyed a game of tennis), Harpo Marx and many a starlet from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Hearst Castle is perched above the tiny town of San Simeon and faces the beach and its 850ft pier (pictured)
Elephants, camels and bears used to roam the landscape below, and a few remaining zebra, descendants from Hearst’s era, are still kept near the ocean road. Ghosts of Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, which drew on Hearst’s life, seem to wander about the hilltop. It’s a magical place.
Repairing major storm damage to its approach road has kept Hearst Castle closed for the past year, but it is due to reopen soon. When it does, book a time slot for your tour well in advance (hearstcastle.org), and stay close by at the cosy Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, which has fireplaces in rooms (cavalierresort.com).
See jumbo-sized seals
Seal of approval: After months at sea, elephant seals gather at the Piedras Blancas Rookery (pictured), located on a beach near San Simeon
A large colony of elephant seals is to be found at the Piedras Blancas Rookery on a beach near San Simeon, where the creatures congregate after months at sea.
They are wonderful to watch: snorting, grunting and generally cavorting. Great fun (visitsansimeonca.com).
Yoga by the ocean
Yoga Instructor Terri Harrington runs a ‘yoga walking tour’ on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where you can enjoy ocean views
If you really want to kick back in California, sign up for a 90-minute ‘yoga walking tour’ on the delightful Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, on the edge of the town of Cambria.
Led by yoga instructor Terri Harrington, the tours begin at the south of the preserve overlooking the ocean, and participants are encouraged to ‘polish your hearts and mind so you can see more clearly’ by focusing on the sound of wind through the trees and waves breaking on the shore.
While walking in silence, you are also asked to study the flora and fauna: lovely old pine trees with flickering butterflies at their bases and birds in the branches. Every now and then you stop for a few minutes of yoga poses, which makes for a brilliant experience (tula4you.com).
T. D. Isacke was a guest of SLO CAL, San Luis Obispo County California (slocal.com). British Airways flies to San Francisco from £418 return (ba.com). San Luis Obispo is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, along Highway 101.