Ask most travelers to name the destinations on their California bucket list, and San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Los Angeles will likely rank pretty high. But one destination that should not be overlooked is nestled in California’s Central Coast—San Luis Obispo County. This area remains an under-explored oasis, a great combination of wineries and outdoor activities, and a true farm-to-table culture that is both affordable and accessible.
“This is Tuscany with cowboy boots,” says Brigit Binns, author of Eating Up the West Coast: The best road trips, recipes, and restaurants from California to Washington. The people here are rebels, and they have a willingness here to do things differently.”
Not surprisingly, it starts with the wine. The county is the third largest wine producer in the state behind Napa and Sonoma Counties. While driving through this wine country, check out Claiborne & Churchill Winery. With an offering of dry whites (think Riesling and Gewürztraminer), its wines prove that Old World Style can thrive in the Central Coast’s New World setting. If you feel like sipping wine and eating, these wines have a lower alcohol by volume, making them more food-friendly.
“We’re not in competition with other winemakers,” says Coby Parker Garcia, the head winemaker at Claiborne & Churchill Winery. “When one of us does great, we all do great.”
You can also head over to Pismo Beach, where Tastes of the Valleys offers 1,000 wines by the glass. Owners and operators Ash Mehta and Lissa Hallberg offer many of their wines for as low as $6 a glass.
For dinner, try out Café Roma. Located in the historic Railroad Square of San Luis Obispo, this restaurant’s history is as rich as the surrounding farmlands. “We’re not farm to table, we’re farmer to table,” said Marco Rizzo. “We have very close ties to local farmers, and when we say fresh ingredients, we’re talking about a very short travel radius.” Vegetables and fruits are sourced daily from San Luis Obispo County’s various farmers’ markets, and all of the seafood is sourced locally, including the grilled squid. There’s also a great wine cellar.
While visiting San Luis Obispo County, you’ll want to take advantage of the various outdoor activities. You can rent a bike at the Avila Hot Springs and cycle down to Avila Beach Paddlesports for some kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. Even first timers can stand up on the paddleboard on their first try. Owners Vince and Emily Shay will give you detailed instructions on the best places to see marine life as you paddle out. Sea otters, seals, dolphins, and even whales can be seen during your excursion. Or paddle past Smith Island and climb up to explore Point San Luis Lighthouse. You can also try stand-up paddleboard yoga.
Or if you prefer, head north to Morro Bay and see the folks at Kayak Horizons. With 15 miles of protected estuary to explore, Morro Bay is home to dozens of endangered species, along with a wintering area for many more. Sea lions, seals, and otters can be seen congregating in the water.
After, stop for lunch at Ruddells Smokehouse in Cayucos. While it offers smoked pork loin and chicken, you won’t want to miss the signature dishes, which include smoked albacore and tuna tacos.
Hungry for dessert? Check out the Brown Butter Cookie Company, which was started by Traci and Christa Hozie in 2009. This store has an open kitchen plan so you can watch as the cookies are being made. There are ten varieties on the menu, but the locals line up for the cocoa mint. You’ve been warned. Get there early.
While you’re there, drive up Highway 101 to the Madonna Inn. Founded in 1958 by Alex Madonna as a rest stop for travelers driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Inn still offers the same secluded kitsch that continues to make it a popular stop—it’s consistently ranked as one of the most unique hotels in the world. The 110 rooms and suites available have themes that vary from antique cars to Old Mexico to Victoria Gardens, providing you with a one-of-a-kind experience.
Speaking of unique experiences, you won’t want to miss San Luis Obispo County’s fantastic farmers markets. Held every Thursday night in downtown San Luis Obispo, you can expect to find over 120 vendors offering everything from barbecue ribs to fruits and vegetables. But if Thursday evening doesn’t work for you, there are markets throughout the week, including Saturday morning.
“It’s about bringing the community together to meet the people who grow your food,” says San Luis Obispo County Farmers’ Market Association Director Peter Jankay. “Regardless if we’re talking produce and goods sold to restaurants or directly to buyers themselves, we’re building relationships between people and their food growers, and vice-versa.”
Whether you’re traveling north from Los Angeles or south from San Francisco, San Luis Obispo County offers innumerable activities and experiences. Spend a long weekend—or week—and you’re sure to discover for yourself what makes this place so special.
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