Article and Photos By Eileen Rhein, esq. @lighttravelsfaster
Wellness, Wine and Wonder in San Luis Obispo, California: A New Yorker learns to SLO down on California’s Central Coast
As I stepped off the plane in San Luis Obispo, or ‘SLO’ as the city is affectionally known by locals, I was pleasantly surprised by the strong presence of playful witticisms: SLO irresistible, SLO much fun, SLO down and enjoy. It was clear that this central California county loved some good word play, but would this coastal community really help me to SLO down and enjoy? Would it be SLO irresistible as the puns proclaimed? I couldn’t help but wonder.
San Luis Obispo is located on the central Californian coast, which for East Coasters like myself who may be less familiar with the region – is the area roughly spanning the coastal section between Point Mugu and Monterey Bay, lying northwest of Los Angeles and south of the San Francisco Bay Area. SLO is also a key stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, a route which is regularly named one of the best scenic drives in the world. Sandwiched amongst wineries and low-lying hills near the Pacific Ocean, it also includes the rugged, undeveloped stretch of coastline known as Big Sur.
The town is certainly a college town, swelling by 30% during semester time, and this adds a youthful, vibrant charm to the community. But it’s also home to a lot more – with arts, wine, culinary delights and a pleasing amount of quirkiness. So, here’s what you need to know for a perfect long weekend in this sunny California region.
Checking In and Checking Things Out
Arriving in San Luis Obispo is easy: the tiny San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP) (it has just 6 gates), is surprisingly well connected to the rest of the country, with direct air service from Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. So, after my cross-country flight from NYC and a quick 2-mile drive, I arrived in the city center, where I checked in to the enchanting Granada Hotel & Bistro.
This historic boutique hotel was originally built in 1922 and lead several lives before being lovingly restored and reopened as the present hotel in 2012. Within the original brick walls, the hotel offers 17 entirely unique guest rooms, some large and spacious with a private terrace or balcony, others cozy and charming, but all with chic modern bathrooms, in-room fireplaces and decor which provides a beautiful ode to a bygone era. The hotel also has a popular restaurant serving up globally inspired, locally sourced cuisine in a leafy, garden setting; and Nightcap, a speakeasy serving craft cocktails amongst leather, wood and exposed brick.
As I climbed the steps and entered the dimly lit lobby, my eyes adjusting from the bright sunlight outside, I noticed the keys of a piano separated from the rest of the instrument and hung artistically above a set of old-fashioned key boxes behind the check in desk. I sipped a glass of cold California rose poured by the friendly concierge, and the scent of rosewood, copal and amber (the hotel’s signature scent) filled the air. I raised my glass and settled into my chair as the hustle and bustle of New York City already felt like a lifetime away.
My room was one of the premiere suites in the hotel – The Granada Queen, featuring a Juliet balcony, floor to ceiling windows, exposed brick and a lovely, curved shower with a peekaboo window. I peered out over the balcony at the leafy street below and imagined myself sipping a coffee and reading my favorite book. But reading would have to wait, as there was much to see and do in San Luis Obispo.
No Whining in Wine Country
No trip to SLO is complete without a visit to nearby wine country, so this was to be one of my f first stops. Unlike other California wine regions, SLO Wine Country, aka SLO Coast, the official name for this recently designated American Viticultural Area (or AVA), prides itself on being more relaxed and approachable. Most wineries require no reservations, have little to no minimum spend on tastings, and are within a very short drive from the city center. On our sunny afternoon visit, Jean-Pierre Wolff, winemaker and co-owner of Wolff Vineyards alongside his wife and family, remarks that he is pleased when a guest tells him they don’t know anything about wine. “That’s great!” he replies enthusiastically, “we can learn together!” Wolff believes that wine should be inclusive, not exclusive, and this welcoming attitude not only permeates Wolff Vineyards, but SLO Coast wineries in general.
With just under 30 wineries producing cool climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with almost two dozen other kinds of grapes, from Albariño to Syrah, growing in nearby microclimates, SLO Coast is definitely a wine region on the rise. Most vineyards are within five miles from the ocean, and this results in a long growing season where grapes are not subjected to vast temperature swings, and can develop slowly, attaining a balance between concentrated bouquets and acidity. This gives rise to aromatic whites and bold reds that are both high in quality while being surprisingly affordable. It’s no wonder that SLO’s wine country is a major draw for tourism in the region.
A particularly fun way to explore SLO Wine Country is with a sidecar tour from Third Wheel Tours. A modern spin on a vintage sidecar, Third Wheel brins new adventures into wine tasting, and can take you from winery to winery in style (providing great photo opportunities) or drive you around a single vineyard. I felt like the star of a black and white movie as I rode in the sidecar, eye level with luscious green vines, through gently rolling hills at Wolff Vineyards. As we rounded a corner and passed a small slough, smiling faces awaited us with a delightful picnic table spread of cheese and charcuterie along with a selection of wines for tasting. I sat amongst the vineyard, gazing at the gently setting sun, sipping bold varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and both winemaker and guests felt like old friends.
Wherefore ART Thou
If arts and crafts are more your style, then SLO county has plenty to offer in that regard as well. I was particularly enthralled with a hat making experience at The Hat Bar by Kate Kaney. Kate had seen the hat making concept, where guests are invited to select a blank hat from their wide selection before choosing from an array of supplies with which to decorate the hat, take place in other cities before deciding to bring the concept home to her already well-known boutique The Mercantile. I sifted through piles of colorful feathers, bright buttons, ribbons, leather and twine like a kid in a candy shop, thoughtfully selecting items that would color match and offset one another while representing aspects of my own personality and hobbies. After, the staff helped secure the items to my hat and even assisted with personal branding by burning my initials into the hat. Our entire group left with smiles on our faces, proudly donning our new creations.
The following day we spent a relaxing morning at Anam Cre’ Pottery Studio, which offers classes, workshops and a membership community in which students can learn the fundamentals of working with clay. We learned to throw on the pottery wheel, sculpting beautiful mugs and later carved slabs of clay into cheese boards decorated with delicate stamp work. Not only was this a ton of fun, but surprisingly relaxing.
The city’s artistic spirit is also present in the many murals dotted around town, along with the ever quicky Gum Alley, a narrow stretch of high walls between two buildings that have been entirely coated in gum (regularly power washed, of course). To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I was enticed or grossed out, but either way, it was certainly a sight to behold!
Another delightfully quirky artistic site in town is the historic Madonna Inn. Constructed in 1958, the
pseudo-Swiss-Alps exterior gives way to a bright pink lobby accented by an overwhelming amount of flowers, hammered copper, stone and western murals. It’s like if the Swiss Alps and 1950’s Vegas had a baby, and then Elvis and Dolly Parton decorated. It’s wonderfully kitsch, and quite frankly, I was all for it. The signature bright pink color is everywhere – from the pink brocade wallpaper to the pink leather seats topped with ornate gold bannisters alongside pale pink tablecloths, to the bright pink carpet patterned with oversized pink roses and blue hydrangeas. In the evening, diners tuck into steak and drink from enormous, jewel-toned goblets while the enormous stone fireplace roars gently.
The Swiss-Alps style restaurant and bakery next door are equally iconic, serving world famous cakes like the Pink Champagne, a white cake with layers of Bavarian and whipped cream and topped with neon pink curls. The entire place is so grandiose and full of character and well worth a stop for photos or a snack in the restaurant and bakery. So, pink cake in hand, and feeling like I had just returned from a real-life version of Alice & Wonderland, we drove back into San Luis Obispo to continue our ever SLO special weekend.
Food Glorious Food
Pink Champagne cake or not, any trip to SLO would be remiss without enjoying some of the many delicious, creative and diverse dining options in town. On one sunny day, we spent the afternoon learning how to make injera, a form of sour fermented bread from Ethiopia, at Ebony with restaurant founder Helen Abraha, before lunching on her delicious food. A family run business, Abraha and team have a pop-up restaurant every Thursday to Saturday offering organic, vegan, & gluten-free Ethiopian dishes that are hands down the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had. From cooking for her actual neighbors to full blown restauranteur, this is definitely a worthwhile stop on your food trail.
Speaking of diverse world cuisines, Mistura offers Peruvian gastronomy in downtown SLO along with a gourmet chocolatier. From Chicha Morada Pisco Sours (complete with house-distilled pisco), Ají de Gallina and Lomo Saltado to Mushroom or Lobster Ravioli and Peruvian Sushi, Chef Nicola Allegretta serves creative Peruvian dishes with unexpected and adventurous flavors from the traditional to the modern. Meanwhile, gourmet chocolates and desserts made by Michelin-star pastry chef Florencia Breda are provided at Breda, the chocolatier inside Mistura. There, Chef Breda prepares droolworthy sweets which are handprinted edible works of art that could easily be found in any gourmet chocolatier in Paris, and taste even better. I sipped on my cold Pisco Sour and bit into a gooey delicately painted chocolate, wondering whether I’d suddenly landed in Peru or Paris. “No,” I chuckled to myself, “I’m in this special place where cultures intersect and thrive together – I’m in San Luis Obispo!”
Our final night in SLO was spent perusing the Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmer’s Market. The lively event runs for several blocks in the center of town every Thursday, showcasing food stalls, arts and crafts, street performers and more. As elsewhere in town, farm to table is a way of life and vendors showcase the local bounty, which no doubt inspires the vibrant restaurant scene nearby.
Afterwards, we dined Creekside at Novo, in the heart of downtown SLO where locally sourced global cuisine combines with hand selected craft cocktails, an award-winning wine list, and a breathtaking atmosphere. Sitting under the trees which lean out over the creek, I once again, felt as though I was somewhere else entirely. SLO really is irresistibly diverse and delightful in SLO many ways.
After all that indulging in wine and delectable food, it was time to seek out some balance. Fortunately, San Luis Obispo offers a myriad of physical activities and adventures. Whether that’s an aerial yoga class at The Center Slo, which offers a variety of classes for all levels daily; or a gentle sunset hike up Terrace Hill, both of which I sampled during my weekend in SLO. The easy 0.8-mile hike led to an unobstructed plateau where you can sit and enjoy the city below. We used it as an opportunity for a guided meditation with a local guide, but others simply visited with friends or gazed at the view.
To evoke the cowboy past of the region, take a trail ride with Madonna Inn & Stables to the top of a nearby hill overlooking fields and rolling plains below. Trail rides are available to hotel guests and day visitors; with both novice and skilled riders welcome and offer stunning views of the local landscape with experienced wranglers and gentle horses. As I rode Cactus, a brown and white pinto stallion, a prairie dog sat perched on a rock surveying the terrain, pink and yellow cactus flowers bloomed and a turkey vulture circled above. “Was I back in the Old West?” I wondered. SLO was once again taking me to somewhere diverse and irresistible.
I finished my stay in San Luis Obispo with a relaxing spa treatment at Vibe Health Lounge, the city’s go-to healing center and day spa, which offers guests a place to unwind and reconnect. After one of the best massages I’ve ever had (and I do pride myself on being a bit of a massage connoisseur), I indulged in state of the art holistic treatments such as a Chakra Crystal Vibroacoustic Sound Bed, a relaxing massage bed with colored chakra crystals and sound therapy; and the Lucia N°03 Light Experience, a unique form of light therapy meant to lower stress, and provide deep relaxation.
From culinary delights and wine touring to quirky arts and crafts to adventure activities and beautiful scenery, it was easy to see why San Luis Obispo has inspired SLO many puns to describe this relaxed and friendly community. In a matter of days, San Luis Obispo had given me the chance to SLO down and enjoy, and to discover an untapped treasure in the heart of California. I boarded my cross-country flight the next morning feeling relaxed and rejuvenated and my conclusion was clear: San Luis Obispo is in fact SLO irresistible. SLO go and discover it, while this hidden gem remains somewhat hidden.