Travel: San Luis Obispo, California

San Louis Obispo County, Central California.
San Louis Obispo County, Central California.
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THE WAVES lapping gently against the shore at Moonstone Beach, in San Luis Obispo county, could lull the most jetlagged visitor into a peaceful slumber.

Like a delicious sandwich filling, central California is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but it has a character of its very own.

It’s also a wine lover’s paradise. Fifteen years ago there were only a handful of vineyards but now the region is bursting at the seams with dedicated vintners offering many wonderful blends.

Complementing this exciting wine explosion is a neverending supply of delicious local produce, including the freshest seafood, myriad farmer’s markets and exquisite restaurants, all keen to showcase the fruits of the region.

To make it easy, the lovely people at San Luis Obispo county have put together a new “discovery route”, mapping out 101 miles along the 101 Highway, with ten exciting stops along the way.

My jam-packed four-night stay in the region wasn’t long enough to visit all ten, but I still managed to experience many of the highlights as I’d timed my visit to coincide with the Savour the Central Coast Food and Wine Festival, held at the sprawling Santa Margarita Ranch, in Paso Robles.

But I began my food and wine odyssey much nearer the coast. My ocean-front room at the Pelican Inn & Suites in Cambria was perfect, offering a friendly greeting from the cute towel-dog on my bed, while the flickering fireplace helped ward off the morning damp.

About half an hour’s drive away from Moonstone Beach, is San Luis Obispo itself. Slightly more bustling, yet still charmingly relaxed, it won city status in 1876; before then it was all gun-toting bandits and every man for himself.

You can take a slow walking tour around the town, which has just undergone an extensive seismic retro-fit in response to the San Simeon earthquake of 2003. While making the city more structurally safe, it has also encouraged an art explosion. As you wander around this pretty, smoke-free town, you’ll notice the many signal boxes adorned with original designs.

It’s a cute idea, and slightly more palatable than “Bubblegum Alley”, a noted landmark found on Higuera Street. This narrow corridor is covered 12ft high in chewed-up bubblegum, and thanks to the local college students, growing in size. Not for the delicate of stomach.

Nearby at Novo restaurant, which overlooks the picture-postcard creek, decorum was restored. This popular eatery is a 2012 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence winner, and we dined on lightly spiced samosas, shrimp wraps, their house salad and fluffy chocolate mousse.

With so much food, there was only one thing for it – a bike ride around Morro Bay in a surrey (with a fringe on top, naturally), to burn off some calories. Approximately 20 minutes’ drive from SLO, Morro Bay is famous for its giant volcanic rock, bird sanctuaries, languid otters and seafood. It’s also home to one of California’s largest and most productive commercial fishing fleets, which is as good a reason as any to head to Tognazzini’s Dockyard Restaurant.

Park your surrey outside, before enjoying a bowl of Mark Tognazzini’s incredible off-menu ciopinno (that’s fish stew to you and me), piled high with lobster, crab and shrimp.

A true local character, Mark has been fishing these waters for 44 years. “In 1996 when the salmon catch was low I opened the restaurant so that we’d have somewhere to sell our fish,” he explained. “And we haven’t looked back.”

Nearby San Simeon is famously the home of Hearst Castle, publisher William Randolph Hearst’s opulent love letter to the actress Marion Davies. You can book a tour of this unique estate, which Hearst called The Enchanted Hill. And while it won’t give Edinburgh Castle any sleepless nights, it does boast 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms, and was the inspiration for the Xanadu mansion of Orson Welles’ classic movie, Citizen Kane. Gaze upon the exquisite Roman-style Neptune Pool and imagine what it was like to be a billionaire in the 1920s, when £2,000 could buy you a decent-sized family home.

I enjoyed an Enchanting Evening at Hearst Castle, sampling oysters, and nibbling on delicate cookies, accompanied by local port wines. Strolling around the hilltop gardens, I tried to sound as witty as Dorothy Parker, but was probably more Charlie Chaplin.

Back down to earth, I relocated to the Avila Lighthouse Suites in sleepy Avila Beach, about five miles from Pismo Beach (one of the few places in California where you can drive your dune buggy on the sand).

My hotel walls were covered in a variety of nautical nik-naks, and I wandered along the old-fashioned promenade (no neon signs here), inhaling the ocean air like it was going out of fashion.

Nearby, the Port San Luis Lighthouse is one of those hidden gems that every tourist should see. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1974 when modern technology took over. I toured the quaint rooms in this sturdy wooden house where the coastguard and his family lived, before climbing the narrow stairs to the lighthouse itself (getting down isn’t quite as easy, you have been warned).

Leaving the coast, it was time to unpack my bags at my third and final destination, the Paso Robles Inn, in Paso Robles, about 40 minutes’ drive from Avila. I’ve never stayed in a hotel room with a mineral spa Jacuzzi on the balcony, and although I didn’t have time for a proper soak, I went for a dip in the pool – after all, it was an unseasonally hot 95 degrees.

We then drove to the magnificent Santa Margarita Ranch, which dates back to 1787, to enjoy the many edible and alcoholic goodies being handed out at the food and wine festival. This two-day event at the 13,900-acre ranch requires an elasticated waistband, sturdy shoes and a stomach with attitude.

At the marketplace, I sampled tiny bites of food and wine from local restaurants, and vendors including Harris Ranch Beef, Ventana Grill, Cracked Crab (best chowder ever), SLO Donut Co, and Ancient Peaks and J Lohr wines.

There was also an enthusiastic chef’s demonstration called Battle of the Bay, which was more nail-biting than any X Factor final, and a chance to meet celebrity chefs Rick Moonen, Susan Feniger, Nathan Lyon and Aarti Sequeria.

Of course, all good things must come to an end – but not without another feast. My last evening, at the poetically named Paso Glow: A Culinary Experience at Windfall Farms, in Paso Robles wine country, was a foodie finale fitting to the occasion.

Wine tastings accompanied more calorific treats. My favourite dish of the night was the softly smoked pulled pork tacos from the Dean Brothers Smokehouse.

Against the gorgeous sunset, six brightly coloured illuminated hot-air balloons provided the perfect dramatic backdrop but the star of the show was the region itself. As I looked out over the stunning 724-acre ranch, the country and western band played late into the night, and the wine flowed.

If the path to a women’s heart is truly through her stomach, then central California, I’m all yours.


• Fly from Edinburgh to Los Angeles from £500, see

• See for the 101 Highway wine coast driving tour

• For general information visit

• To book tickets for next year’s Sunset Savour the Central Coast food and wine event go to

• All hotel rooms start at around $150 (£93) per night, depending on the time of year.