Take four days, mix grassy hills dotted with vineyards and oak forests, historic cities, beach cities, state parks along the Pacific Coast Highway and you have an unforgettable interlude. Paso Robles rests midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, just off California Highway 101. In the center of town, a tree-filled park sits surrounded by shops, art galleries and inviting restaurants. The countryside to the west and east of town has vineyards galore.
My photographer daughter, Paula, and I arrived at Paso Robles from our homes in the San Francisco Bay area, but our base point would be ten miles west. We rented a cottage high above a vineyard just off Highway 46W. We planned to explore the surrounding territory and some vineyards, and take a day drive to the ocean. First stop was downtown Paso Robles and lunch. We considered Artisan, a gourmet restaurant at the edge of the park, but chose McClintock on a side street nearby, hoping the food matched the flavor of its namesake in Pismo Beach . The pulled pork sandwich was just as good as we remembered.
After lunch, we explored Paso, as the natives call it. We walked through the park, past its fountain and gazebo, and then wandered into shops around the square. We found Studios on the Park, nine studios with 24 working artists who share the space in the Paso Robles Art Association gallery. Each studio has one side open to the center gallery, the entrance that invites visitors to come in, watch and chat.
Chat and look we did, especially in the Stromsoe studio. They own the Artist’s Cottage in a Vineyard that we rented as our base for four days. Randy Stromsoe created, among other pieces, a lovely bowl of sterling silver and gold. Besides creating art, the Stromsoes create the grapes in their vineyard below the cottage.
From town, we set out for the Artist’s Cottage to see what we had rented from the website, VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). But, one winery, Peachy Canyon, noted for its Zinfandel wine, drew us off Highway 46W, a mile from town. After some good wine sips and a chat with one of the family owners, we bought a bottle of Zin (tasting fee waived) and headed for the car and the cottage.
ARTIST COTTAGE IN A VINEYARD
Ten miles west on Highway 46W, we turned left at Old Creek Road , and went left again through a gate to the vineyard. At the top of the hill sat the small white cottage, a patio with a pergola in the front where we found an expansive view of vineyards and hill beyond hill in the distance.
The setting draws you into being a part of the countryside, but the cottage itself makes the visitor want to cuddle up inside for warmth at sundown. Its dÃ©cor goes from elegant ranch “a brown leather couch and lounge and heavy carved wooden furniture” to bedrooms decorated with ethnic touches. The guest bedroom with carved wooden tables from Mexico, and a plush quilted bedspread and piles of fluffy pillows, inviting you to rest. The large master bedroom, with a dressing nook and a closet that sports carved Indonesian doors, has sliding glass doors that open to a wooden deck surrounded by oak trees.
The sun was setting beyond the rolling hills and it was time to unpack the car and the food. While Paula cooked marinated chicken on the outdoor gas grill, we sat on the patio, drank Peachy Canyon Zinfandel wine and watched the last glow of the orange sunset.
SIP AND SWIRL TOUR
The next morning it was hard to leave our peaceful, wooded hilltop, but we had wineries to explore. They are tucked into the hills across the highway, on and beyond Adelaida Drive . Two-lane roads lead through the countryside; native live oaks drip long, gray-green tendrils of Spanish Moss. Grapevines fill the open spaces, once meadows. Justin Winery on Chimney Rock Road was our first stop.
Justin wines win medals, stars and high numbers from critics. We tasted seven wines, among them Justification, a Bordeaux-style blend. Justin doesn’t give away the secret of wines in the blend. They do disclose that it was awarded a double-gold at the San Francisco Chronicle competition and five-stars by Decanter magazine. The server recommended Justification for our bar-b-qued salmon dinner that evening. He was right.
Back on Adelaida Road , two appealing wineries are close together– Harter Ranch and Tablas Creek. Fun places, good wines. We finished our tour a very few miles away on Vineyard drive at Opolo Winery, a big barn of a tasting room. With all the tastings, we had some nibbles in wineries, and a picnic of our own beside a Justin vineyard.
TO THE BLUE PACIFIC
Early the next day, we headed west to the ocean. From the Artist’s Cottage, the shortest route to the coast would have been Highway 46W, but we chose to take the longer way — our road, Oak Creek Road , at the bottom of our hill. A left turn, away from Highway 46W, past the Stromsoe vineyard, led us through hills where at night, from the cottage, we had seen car lights come and go. It wasn’t total wilderness. After ten miles, and twice as many minutes of winding through the hills, we reached California Highway 1, just south of the delightful small town of Cayucos.
There we found a candy shop with old-time fruit-loops and fudge, knick-knack ornaments (Grandma’s Little Angel) and trinkets. Down the street, the Brown Bear Cookie Company sold yummy cookies just as they popped out of the oven. Oh, what blissful aromas.
Harmony, a few miles north on the hilly side of the highway, has a population of 18. We paused there by the post office, across the street from an antique shop, and looked up the hill at appealing Harmony Cellars. No wine tasting today — next time.
Cambria , a few miles north on Highway 1 is a larger town which seems to have two parts. We stopped in the older section, Cambria Pines by the Sea. A visitor could browse the shops all day. Paula and I left with a candles and popcorn from Oliver Twist, Gifts and Interior Accents.
State beach parks for walks and picnics dot the coastline. We stopped in San Simeon State Beach for a picnic. The ocean rolled in over a sandy beach below us while seagulls waited for a handout on the lawn around us.
Hearst Castle, 7 miles from Cambria, was on our list to re-visit, but extensive Hearst Castle needs a day to tour the grounds and buildings. This trip was to explore towns. We did, however, go north on Highway 1 another 5 miles to see the Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas. It is a state park reserve at the edge of the beach bluff, just feet away from the unusual creatures. A wire fence separates visitors from the mammals.
The young seals (called sub-adults) were flaked out all over the sand for blocks, but it was too early in the season to see the big bulls, the Elephant Seals, with their huge noses. The main show happens from December to March. But . . . lucky for us, we saw one on this late November day.
MORE WINERY TOURS AND PASO
Stacked Stone, in the hills out Peachy Canyon Road, attracted us because of its name. The jolly owner/winemaker poured the wine and gave a sales pitch about his wine club. Guests from Los Angeles tried to convince us, too. Join the club, they said. Besides getting a big discount on the wine, you have an excuse to come here every three months like we do.
We didn’t join, but enjoyed the company and good wine sips. Since we were close to Paso Robles downtown, we browsed candy shops (again) and an antique shop. We could have done wine-tasting in town but wanted to visit one last winery: Wild Horse in nearby Templeton where we could do a wine tasting first and then have a glass of Wild Horse Verdelho out on the patio in the shade of the fruit trees. Bliss.
The four-day odyssey ended, with too little time, of course. We will miss the quiet and the serenity of our Artist’s Cottage and its lovely surroundings where it felt like coming home after a day of touring.
Next time, we will visit wineries on the east side of Paso Robles and Templeton Meridian , Eberle, Robert Hall . . . There are enough wineries left for a dozen more trips.