Coast to Vine: Getting to Know Spectacular San Luis Obispo County

Wheels up, and we were off on Alaska Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, California. As we approached our destination, we could see the lush verdant rolling hills of SLO (its local nickname). But its moniker is a perfect fit, for this magnificently picturesque region represents a slower, more relaxed pace; ideal for a long weekend getaway. Direct Alaska Airlines flights from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles now make this region more accessible than ever before.

SLO County sits along 100 miles of the stunning Central California Coast, extending inland to the spectacular wine region of Paso Robles. Though the area actually covers 3,300 square miles, it’s an easy place to get around by car. And the views are truly spectacular, filled with one “honey, stop the car” moment after another.

Discovering San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, a traditional college town, is home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly for short), and the college vibe only makes the town more fun and appealing. As a matter of fact, it’s often referred to as “Happy Town.”

Nestled between tranquil rolling hills and the dramatic bluffs of the Pacific Ocean, San Luis Obispo’s downtown is filled with turn-of-the-century buildings now home to charming boutiques and delectable eateries. Progressive changes within this community are astounding, including two new luxury boutique hotels– Hotel SLO and Hotel Cerro.

One of the amazing foods from The Carrisa, San Luis Obispo © Noreen Kompanik

Where to Dine

Creekside dining at The Carrisa in the heart of downtown is an amazing experience. Residing in the 1905 Carissa Building, the classy but fun and relaxed eatery is a must-do. The menu is a wonderfully eclectic mix of upscale Mexican-inspired street food and California fusion. Add in some local craft brews and SLO Coast wines, and it’s one place we highly recommend.

The easily walkable downtown makes exploring a treat. Lending heart to the spirit of its lively community is the city icon, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. For more than two centuries, this landmark, founded in 1772 by Father Junipero, has welcomed visitors with open arms. The peals from its melodious bells, still rung by hand, can be heard for miles.

Exploring the Central Coast

There’s something about California’s Central Coast that makes it so special. Its majestic views, laid-back character, and quaint seaside villages give this region an air of authenticity — a throwback to the days when California beach towns embraced the simpler lifestyle.

Incredible views from Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, San Simeon © Noreen Kompanik

Where to Stay

Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, perched on a scenic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, offers the only oceanfront accommodations in the quaint little hamlets of San Simeon and Cambria. Our deluxe ocean view rooms featured a wood-burning fireplace, perfect for warding off the chill of a Pacific coastal evening. The verdant grounds are magnificent. One of the most popular features of the resort is the nightly ritual of making s’mores in the inviting oceanfront fire pits.

Hearst Castle and Winery

Visiting the amazing Hearst Castle in San Simeon © Noreen Kompanik

Central Coast’s crown jewel is, without a doubt, Hearst Castle. The National and California Historic Landmark was once owned by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Completed in 1947, the palatial compound took 28 years to build.

Each time we’ve toured this awe-inspiring property, we’re amazed at its resplendent beauty. This time however, a VIP tour provided us access to places we’d never been before. These included the private wine cellar, guest cottages, and the Hearst Castle kitchen and pantries.

Wine tasting at nearby Hearst Ranch Winery was icing on the cake as we sat on pastoral outdoor grounds overlooking San Simeon Pier and majesty of the Pacific Ocean.

Wine tasting at Hearst Ranch Winery © Noreen Kompanik

“Drinking In” Paso Robles Wine Country

It’s no wonder that National Geographic recently proclaimed Paso Robles to be California’s “Next Great Wine Destination.” One visit here and the reason rang clear as a bell.

Two hundred (200) wineries dot the rolling hills of the bucolic region but nothing here seems rushed, hurried or overwhelming. Winemakers along with distillers and brewers are focusing on sustainability and restaurants like Fish Gaucho and Le Petite Canailles are serving some of the most creative, scrumptious world-class cuisine.

Favorite Winery

Amazing Views from DAOU Winery, Paso Robles© Noreen Kompanik

It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite winery, but on this visit, we have to give a shout-out to DAOU Vineyards for its panoramic mountaintop views, luscious fare, and elegant fine wines.

Paso Robles is also renowned as an olive-growing region. We were inspired by family-owned and operated Kiler Ridge Olive Farm. Creating top-notch high-quality olive oil is an art, and Kiler Ridge does it to perfection.

Downtown Paso Robles is like small-town America of yesteryear. Charming boutiques and eateries surround a central park area with a gazebo as its centerpiece. Studios on the Park is a not-to-be-missed gallery and art cooperative displaying some of the finest artwork and handicrafts of the region.

Where to Stay

Luxury and comfort at The Piccolo in Paso Robles © Noreen Kompanik

The Piccolo, Paso’s new luxury boutique hotel, resides in the heart of town. It’s the perfect location to explore the fun downtown and surrounding wine country. Its chic rooftop bar provides a panoramic vista of the surrounding area. Slumber comes easy in its quiet well-appointed rooms, and the complimentary breakfast bar is impressive.

One of the must-dos of Paso Robles is Sensorio: Field of Light by Bruce Munro. This unforgettable outdoor light spectacular takes place on 15-acres of rolling hills illuminated with over 58,000 fiber optic spheres. At sunset, the grounds slowly transform into a wonder of nature and lights. Blending together in perfect harmony, the result is one of the most captivating light shows we’ve ever experienced.

Awe-inspiring Sensorio Field of Light Experience, Paso Robles© Noreen Kompanik

Turkish novelist and playwright Mehmet Murat Ildan once said, “Beautiful places are almost alive! When you visit them, you can feel their breaths!” San Luis Obispo County is one such place. One visit here is never enough.

Noreen Kompanik

Noreen is a former Registered Nurse turned travel writer from San Diego, California. She loves to write about beach destinations, luxury travel, food, wine, coffee, and family travel. Noreen’s articles have been featured in Travel Pulse/MSN Travel, Europe Up Close, International Living, Great Escape Publishing, Edible San Diego Magazine and other publications.