California Gem Features Life in the SLO Lane
Like most migrants to California, I spent my early years bouncing between San Francisco and LA. In due course I became acquainted with the delights of San Diego, the stunning beauty of coastal Highway 1 and the patrician delicacies of Napa Valley.
It was not until 2006 that I visited San Luis Obispo on California’s central coast. Actually, the town was discovered by my son who was graduating from high school and interested in attending California Polytechnic University. He liked the school for its undergraduate engineering programs. I admired the place because of its motto: “Learn by Doing.”
And so, punctuated by twice-yearly housekeeping trips to his dorm room, I began my love affair with a 45,000 pop. college town that touts its “life in the SLO lane.”
The town is named after San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a 1772 mission established by Padre Junipero Serra. The town became a railroad hub linking north and south and today still is served by the Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains.
California has a lot of latte-driven college communities like Berkeley, Westwood and Isla Vista. But I prefer SLO, especially on Thursday afternoon when local farmers start erecting tables along downtown’s Higuera Street. The market features beautiful produce, fresh flowers and delicious grilled meats, all sold in a perfect Main Street setting. I’d always try to fill the trunk with fresh vegetables before returning to meander about the town’s early 20th Century brick façades and Victorian Revival neighborhoods. Last stop before hitting the highway invariably was the local Costco – surely the state’s cleanest – that features a huge selection of Central Coast wines.
San Luis Obispo is an All American small town that cherishes its past and refuses to allow drive-through fast food. Still, after a few days you’ll want to start visiting wineries sign up for an agritourism ranch tour or drive the coast highway north to the beach towns of Morro Bay, Cayucos, Cambria and San Simeon. Cayucos and Moro Bay are tiny, yet I always stop, if only to enjoy the ocean air, Cayucos’ Old West saloon and the shops of Morro Bay.
If you plan to spend several days exploring the central coast, I suggest you make your base in Cambria located exactly! Between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are several romantic lodges along Moonstone Beach Drive. Most places serve breakfast a la carte, so plan on starting your day at Lily’s Coffeehouse for crêpes on the patio. If you agree that Cambria is a great place for browsing, be sure to save time for The Vault Gallery located in a 1920s bank building, The Shop Next Door that offers traditional Shaker and Amish designs and Home Arts that sells Oaxacan weavings
Robin’s Restaurant is an interesting place for lunch. It serves great salmon bisque. If you have a few hours of daylight left, I’d head a few miles south to Harmony, an old dairy community center that’s now inhabited by glassblowers, potters and second-career vintners with tasting rooms. The atmosphere is relaxed so no pressure to buy.
From Cambria it’s just a few miles north to San Simeon, the site of George and William Randolph Hearst’s 3,400-acre estate. Chaplin, Cooper, Garbo, Gable and Lombard snoozed here in the opulent 90,000-sq. ft. castle Hearst dubbed “Camp Hill.” There’s an indoor Roman Pool lined with gold tiles and blue Venetian glass and an even larger Greco-Roman outdoor pool that looks as if it was smuggled piecemeal out of Europe before the days of Interpol.
Hearst the Elder was a Missouri miner turned California senator who made his fortune on Comstock Load silver found outside of Virginia City, NV. His son William Randolph used his inheritance to create the most powerful publishing company in America.
With three guest houses and an enormous chateau it’s no surprise that the castle has 165 rooms, all of which are furnished exactly as they were in 1951 when Hearst died. To explore the castle you must take one of four daytime tours offered by the California State Park Service. Most visitors take several.
If you’re in the vicinity in autumn or spring, be sure to sign up for the evening tour and living history program. The tour is presented as though you were a guest. When you buy the ticket you’ll be told, “You’re expected at Casa Grande at 8 p.m. for cocktails and to have dinner at 9 p.m. with the Chief.” There is a bit of limited wandering at night primarily so you’ll bump into one of the historical re-enactors dressed in period garb. These aren’t your average community thespians. No vamping or fake Gable accents. Indeed, these are your fellow dinner guests and each is an expert on the first half of the 20th Century that Hearst dominated.
Where to Stay
Pelican Cove Inn, 6316 Moonstone Beach Dr., Cambria, 93428 (805) 927-4200. Enjoy the complimentary wine tasting from 3 to 5 p.m. and the free dessert buffet from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Don’t miss the boardwalk on the other side of the road that runs along the beach. You may see an elephant seal.
Garden Street Inn, 1212 Garden St., SLO, 93401 (800) 488-2045. Charming and affordable, this B&B is close to downtown bars and restaurants. The Inn will send a shuttle if you arrive by railroad.
Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Rd, SLO 93405 (800) 543-9666. Located south of town, this California landmark features Western, Old Mill or Merry-Go-Round “theme” rooms. Try the all-rock Grotto Room with waterfall shower. It’s Cheech & Chong approved.
Where to eat
Novo Restaurant, 726 Higuera St, SLO 93401. (805) 543-3986. Gourmet restaurant in the heart of downtown with patio seating beside a rippling creek.
Koberl at Blue, 998 Monterrey St., SLO 93401 (805) 783-1135. Napa cuisine without the price and pretension. Locally sourced entrees paired with central coast wines.
The Sea Chest Oyster Bar, 6216 Moonstone Bridge Drive, Cambria, 93428 (805) 927-4514
Central Coast olallieberries (oh-la-leh) are harvested in June. Ask for a tart slice of olallieberry pie at restaurants since it may not be on the formal menu.
Cambria’s historic Camozzi Saloon once was known as “The Bucket of Blood” due to unrestrained violence. It’s more civilized these days, but I don’t recommend ordering an umbrella drink.
Worthy of Note
The motels at San Simeon are structured for large tour groups. Consider staying in Cambria or Cayucos when planning to visit Hearst Castle.
Avila Beach close to SLO is where Cal Poly kids go to surf. Pismo Beach a bit further south is the quintessential California beach with fine white sand.
David DeVoss is Editor and Senior Correspondent of the East-West News Service