An Insider’s Guide to San Luis Obispo, California’s Best Kept Secret
The Underrated Magic of the Middle Coast is a Quick Flight from TexasBY Amanda Eyre Ward // 02.17.23
Pack your bathing suit and sunscreen for Pismo Beach, a stunning paradise of sand and sea. (Courtesy)
Avila Beach is a must-visit when spending time in San Luis Obispo. (Photo by Christopher Petro)
Rent a kayak or join an organized tour to explore Morro Bay. (Courtesy)
Allegretto Vineyard Resort
The courtard of Allegretto Vineyard Resort.
The pool at Allegretto (photo by Steven Ybarra)
Don't miss Flour House when visiting San Luis Obispo. (Courtesy)
Hotel Cheval (courtesy of Hotel)
Hotel Cheval offers a "S'mores Menu" each evening. (Courtesy)
A map of "Slo Cal"
It has always been easy for Texans to jet to major California cities. But a new airport in San Luis Obispo, situated exactly between Los Angeles and San Francisco and minutes away from the Pacific Coast, offers a gateway to authentic pleasures and laid-back luxury both on the beach and in the vineyards. From jagged cliffs to rolling hills as magical as Ireland; ocean adventures; over 300 wineries; and views of crashing waves, the middle coast surprised and entranced me. Direct flights from Dallas to San Luis Obispo make it possible to visit for a weekend…and tempting to stay longer. The middle coast of California is a hidden vacation wonderland that won’t be a secret for long.
My two sisters live in San Francisco, and I convinced one of them to meet me in San Luis Obispo so we could explore the area fully. Whether you call a California friend, rent a car to try all the middle coast has to offer, or choose one delight at a time, read on for an insider’s guide to the area — no matter what thrills you.
For Beach Lovers
Pack your bathing suit and sunscreen for Pismo Beach, a stunning paradise of sand and sea. My sister and I stayed at the nautically-inspired Vespera Resort. Our rooms overlooked the Pacific Ocean, shining sand, and a rustic wooden boardwalk inviting guests to take a beachy walk to the nearby Pismo Beach Pier. The resort also offers star-gazing kits in each room (including a personal telescope!), fire pits, a pool and hot tub, and upscale coastal cuisine at Pequin Coastal Cocina. This is a family- and pet-friendly destination.
Nearby, you can find the Monarch Butterfly Grove, hiking trails in the Pismo Preserve, and be sure to stop for a meal at Blue Moon Over Avila, where we devoured the house specialty, French Onion Soup Lyonnaise, while gazing over beautiful Avila Beach. At sunset, be sure to grab a table at Marisol at the Cliffs, minutes away, and if it rains, the DiaFeliz Spa has a dreamy “Spa Day” package using Red Flower products scented with Icelandic moonflower. In the evening, the Sycamore Mineral Springs offers hot tubs under the stars.
For Outdoor Enthusiasts
Rent a kayak or join an organized tour with Central Coast Kayaks to explore Morro Bay. You might see sea lions, harbor seals, migratory birds, and sea otters. Be sure to cozy in at Windows on the Water for cliffside views and delicious organic produce and wild-caught and sustainably farmed seafood like oysters and diver scallops.
Shopping By the Sea
I also enjoyed strolling around quirky, downtown Cambria, visiting Evans & Guest Antiques, Linn’s Á La Carte Boutique & Books, and Cruise Control Gallery. Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill is a great lunch stop —the slaw bowls and crab salad sandwiches are delicious and you can enjoy a post-lunch walk down the trails under Cambria Cypress trees to the beach.
For Those Who Dream of Italy (without the jet lag)
The Allegretto Vineyard & Resort made us feel as if we were staying in an Italian vineyard, complete with fountains, Italian food at Cello Ristorante & Bar, and an art collection curated by proprietor, Douglas Ayres. Many rooms have a terrazza, on which you can sip a glass of wine from the vineyard and take in “Piazza Magica,” which boasts a bell tower and Moroccan-inspired cupola. Activities like yoga, art tours, and exclusive wine tastings fill your days at Allegreto. Estate-grown lavender is used for resort soaps, lotions, and in the serene Spa Allegretto. I was very tempted by the two-night Tuscan Wellness package!
Nearby Pasolivo Ranch offers olive oil tastings, and the lovely Niner Wine Estates wowed us with a decadent lunch: the three courses included a warm crepe with smoked salmon farmer’s cheese, green peppercorns, and soft-boiled egg (paired with 2019 Reserve Chardonnay); Mangalitsa Pork loin with smoked plum pan sauce (paired with 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon); and Olive oil cake with spiced kumquats for dessert!
More for Foodies
Downtown San Luis Obispo, where the airport is located, is a winning city, bright with both luxe dining destinations and low-key restaurants that appeal to the college students at California Polytechnic State University. I enjoyed meals at Novo Restaurant and Flour House scratch Italian. Dinner at Ox + Anchor was a feast — when our charming server lit our Baked Alaska with banana rum ice cream and Italian meringue on fire at the table, we cheered. If you like to walk after or in-between meals, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is fascinating — it was the fifth California mission, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772. We also enjoyed shopping along Higuera, Monterrey, and Monterey Streets.
For Those Who Like Their Wine With Adventure
Paso Robles, I’m told, feels as low-key as Napa Valley twenty years ago, and offers activities like “Camp Cass,” at Cass Vineyard, which includes horseback riding through the vineyards, archery, and helicopter tours. The charming downtown of Paso Robles has shopping at the Great American Antique Mall and Paso Robles Antique and Vintage. We had a lively evening at Fish Gaucho, an innovative restaurant with Mexican flair and a fantastic list of seasonal margaritas and craft cocktails. The short rib enchiladas and aguachile with sashimi halibut, sliced avocado, and yuzu chile sauce are divine.
Best S’more in California (And Maybe in the World?)
In Paso Robles, we stayed at the luxurious Hotel Cheval, which is a boutique hotel so unique and wonderful it deserves a section of its own. Located a half-block off the historic town square, the Hotel Cheval has only sixteen rooms, each named for a historically significant horse. Our room, the Lexington, had a fireplace and a large soaking tub with fragrant bath salts. When nights were chilly, we enjoyed the Hotel Cheval’s library (complete with a candy bar) and interior courtyard, where cozy blankets and blazing fires awaited.
Each evening, we were given a “S’Mores Menu” by the S’mores Butler. With a drink from the adjoining Pony Club Bar & Lounge, you can order one of five artisan s’mores, including the “Silver” (which includes a melted Andes mint chocolate square) and “Black Beauty,” which features a chocolate chip marshmallow — not to mention the “Cheval Du Jour,” the S’more’s Butler’s special of the day. By the light of a roaring fire, I smiled at my California sisters (my other sister surprised us on the last night!), feeling a world away from Texas, but so happy to be with my beloved sisters, Sarah and Liza. There’s nothing like sisters — and your own S’mores Butler!
In the morning, I went to the San Luis Obispo airport and was home in sunny Texas by the time my children finished the school day.