Photography by Yuri Krasov
Traveling in California, one can’t help but marvel at a string of beach toy towns, almost artificially created in the most picturesque little valleys squeezed between the blue of the Pacific and the green and gold of the mountain ranges. A focal place among them rightfully belongs to San Luis Obispo, whose name very few foreigners can pronounce or spell out correctly. This Central Coast community is located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, 12 miles from the ocean and in the foothills of Santa Lucia in an unbelievably temperate atmospheric zone (mostly 70 sunshine degrees year round). It is not only the wildflowers of the foothills and the frolicking seals of the coast that attract visitors to this nice, clean, friendly town with a population of about 45,000.
One of California’s oldest communities, SLO grew up around Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa founded in 1772. In its early days the mission pioneered wine production in the region, and now its well-preserved building hosts an active church. The city celebrates the centuries-old winemaking tradition with an annual festival of its vintners’ association, Roll Out the Barrels – for the 20th time in 2010.
A weekly farmers market on Thursdays and free public concerts on Fridays attract crowds of locals and tourists alike. SLO is a crime-free city, and being supremely environmentally conscious (a full-time biologist is employed by the San Luis Creek conservation project) it started the all-state smoking ban in restaurants and public places – nobody smokes here. It’s also a University (Cal Poly) town with vibrant student life and a thriving community of about 18,000 future engineers, architects, businessmen, horticulturalists, and wine and dairy producers. Local stores carry wines, butter, cheese, and chocolate made by the California Polytechnic State University students. Several national brands like Jumba Juice and Cliff Bar were created here by the Cal Poly graduates. It is not easy to get a job in SLO; it’s easier to create one.
The city dwellers are mostly self-employed or own small businesses with four employees or less. Petit Soleil Bed & Breakfast is a good example, created by John and Dianne Conner with his business management, her artistic and culinary designs, and their love for everything sunny, relaxed, and Provencal, brought back from their many travels to Europe. A cobblestone courtyard drowning in flowers, 15 individually decorated rooms and a luxurious suite a nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres reception, and a gourmet breakfast in the dining room or in the back patio make regulars come back every season. 1473 Monterey Street. Call for reservations 805-549-0321 or visit http://www.petitsoleilslo.com.
For a business traveler or a family on vacation a good affordable choice is Quality Suites Hotel that has 138 comfortable suites, meeting space, free WiFi, a swimming pool, a complimentary breakfast, and offers all kinds of packages from Wine & Dine and Blissful Spa Retreat to Hearst Castle Tours with an advance reservation. 1631 Monterey Street. Call 805-541-5001 or go to http://www.qualitysuitesslo.com.
Hearst Castle in San Simeon is one of those not to be missed attractions that make any Central Coast visit aesthetically complete and definitely memorable. A childhood dream of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, his famously haphazard castle has never been finished construction-wise. However, generously designed by Julia Morgan and overflown with randomly assembled pieces of art and history from all over the world, it presents a distinguished monument to the American genius, simultaneously profound and naïve. Five different guided tours run daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays. For more information, call 805-927-2020 or visit http://www.hearstcastle.com.
Some of the best local wineries are found in the Edna Valley, with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes best responding to the Mediterranean-type terroir of the area. Claiborne & Churchill Vintners is a husband-and-wife endeavor, best representing creativity of local winemakers. Former teachers at the University of Michigan, the spouses now produce about 10,000 cases a year, growing their own grapes, and buying from other growers. The winery’s tasting room is the first commercial building in California made of bales of straw, which is not only cheap, green, and environmentally super-friendly, but also best suitable for a seismic zone. A round window in the wall shows the construction material. The winery concentrates on Alsace-style Riesling and gewürztraminer, several great pinots, and a wonderful port, among other varietals. The tasting room is open daily at 2649 Carpenter Canyon Road, SLO. Call 805-544-4066 or visit http://www.claibornechurchill.com.
Dining choices in historic downtown abound, and NOVO is one of those modern establishments that brings bold eclectic design into a 19th century solid brick building (a former cigar factory). NOVO’s well-balanced international cuisine is especially pleasing combined with al fresco seating on a terrace overlooking a creek with “singing” frogs. Warm hospitable service, relaxing atmosphere, and delicious food are sure to please any company – be it a romantic couple or a group of friends. Open daily for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, NOVO is located at 726 Higuera Street. Call 805-543-3986 or visit http://www.novorestaurant.com.
Apple Farm Inn is a boutique hotel, a restaurant, a bakery, gift shops, gardens, and a working gristmill. The three-acre property features 104 Victorian-style rooms, pool, Jacuzzi, and a gym, and is famous for its weddings, its movie star guests (like Lindsay Lohan – most recently) and its homemade pies and pastries. Awarded AAA four diamonds, the Inn welcomes guests with an afternoon wine and tea reception and fresh flowers in every room. An amusing yet characteristic detail – if you look under a bed, there is a little note there, saying, yes, we cleaned here, too. 2015 Monterey Street. Call 805-544-2040 or visit http://www.applefarm.com.
Even a short stay in San Luis Obispo grants a restful feeling of a relaxed yet highly energetic place where creative people live and work (in their own businesses). In one day it is possible to visit the mission, tour the SLO County Historical Museum and SLO Art Center, and to shop in downtown art galleries and boutiques. Leaving SLO, it’s good to stop at Pismo Beach to watch a colony of sea lions, then at Cambria – an artist colony town, and at the town of Harmony, population 18… To visit California Central Coast is to feel its magnetic pull, and therefore to come back, time and again. To learn more about San Luis Obispo and its many possibilities, go to http://www.visitslo.com.