This weekend, Hubby and I traveled up to San Luis Obispo, known affectionately by the locals as SLO, with a couple of foodie friends. We ate well. We visited two wineries for tastings. We took a leisurely train (and one bus) to and from the Central Coast region. Read all about it below and maybe get inspired to visit this charming region of California.
Imagine yourself reclining against a rustic Adirondack chair with a glass of light pink rosé in your hand. Below, a vista of grapevine-studded hills bunches and spreads like stitched fabric. Insects dance around the potted blooms and planted herbs, and there is only the faint sound of conversation from the patio behind you where visitors sample lush wines and charcuterie boards.
Sound idyllic? You can experience this and more if you find your way to California’s Central Coast which is quickly gaining recognition as a wine region rivaling the famed Napa Valley. My husband and I, along with two foodie friends, hopped on the Surfliner train at the San Diego Old Town station before daylight on Friday. While the train glided along the coast through Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, and San Clemente, the four of us woke up with coffees and conversation.
We parted ways in L.A. Our friends were making a connection with another train that would deposit them in San Luis Obispo. Hubby and I, on the other hand, continued on to Santa Barbara where we were shunted off by Amtrak onto a bus. Note to travelers of Amtrak: always read the fine print!
Though crowded and not too comfortable, the bus did make one interesting stop in a small, Scandinavian-style tourist village called Solvang. The half-timbered, old-European buildings charmed me into snapping several photos through the bus windows, and I hope we get the chance to go back and spend a few days there.
The bus arrived in SLO before the train, so we wandered over to Jan’s Place. She wasn’t officially open until 3 p.m., but noticing us lingering outside, Jan invited us in, and we enjoyed chatting with her about the business, wines, how things have changed in San Luis Obispo since the 1980s when she arrived there, and the best places to eat.
Happily sampling beer and wine at Jan’s Place in SLO, just a short walk from the train.
I tried the Presqu’ile Chardonnay because the name was so similar to a town in Maine, Presque Isle, up near Canada, and I was not disappointed. In fact, this wine was seriously delicious. When our friends joined us after disembarking from the train at the nearby station, I probably should have sampled a red, but I so enjoyed that buttery but light white, I ordered a second glass.
After drinks, we reluctantly bid Jan adieu and went to our motel. Yes motel with an m. Turns out, it was visiting weekend for prospective California Polytech students. Not only that, the rodeo was in town. Rooms were scarce. However, our very basic room was clean if not fancy, and after freshing up, we made our way downtown to meet another couple (friends of our traveling companions) and their two sweet kids for dinner at Luna Red, situated behind the San Luis Obispo Mission de Telosa Bell Tower. We were seated at a long table on the terra cotta patio, and we ordered family-style: ceviche, chorizo-bacon brussel sprounts, stuffed pequillo peppers, bacon-wrapped dates, shrimp with chili flakes and paprika-garlic oil with bread, a variety of tacos, and warm goat cheese with roast peppers and sourdough toast.
I put one of the dates in my mouth and nearly cried it was so good!
After more drinks at a nice and somewhat trendy restaurant called 1865, just steps from our hotel and with the most efficient and skillful bartender I’ve ever witnessed in action, we collapsed, sated and happy, into bed.
A quiet side street in SLO at night.
Saturday morning, we hopped in our borrowed car and drove up to Paso Robles for a late breakfast at The Morning After Cafe, a new breakfast place with scrumptious, hearty breakfasts and pastries to give travelers a base before heading out for serious wine tasting. I had to order the biscuits and gravy with a couple of poached eggs. Hubby had a similar dish with papas instead of biscuits. Our friends tried a breakfast sandwich and the strawberry French toast, which ended up being more like grilled pound cake and served with whipped cream!
Fueled up for the day, we wound our way over twisty, two-lane roads to the countryside where vineyards climbed the hills, rows of grapevines planted in different directions on each field/hill. Up, up, up we climbed. The first winery was only open for those with reservations but person we spoke with was very nice. The view of the entire valley fell at our feet, mouth-droppingly beautiful. (I’m pretty sure this was Le Cuvier, but I’m not 100 % positive.)
There are over 200 wineries in this region, from large operations to small farms growing 40 different types of grapes. We ended up at DAOU Vineyards where we were handed a nice rose on our way to a table. Our knowledgeable server, a wine chemist in training, graciously answered even my geekiest questions: “What exactly does a wine chemist do?” And we had fun guessing the flavors in the wine samples. At $45/person for the tasting, it made sense to buy 3 bottles and waive one fee. Now we have some amazing wines for special occasions. I took the photo of the Adirondack chairs here, even though we weren’t seated at them. The entire experience was relaxing, mellow, lush, and, okay, slightly bougie. And awesome. I don’t think I mind bougie. As our friend said, “Pinkies up!”
We next stopped at a more down-home style winery, Hammersky Vineyards, with a pretty little white farmhouse, gravel pathways, a relaxed atmosphere, and hooray–more Adirondack chairs with shady sunbrellas overlooking the vines and a glorious spreading (oak?) tree. All you could hear were murmuring voices and birds singing. We sat and sipped and pondered the beef critter grazing on a far, green hillside above the vines. Plus some people brought their dogs, so they added to the low-key vibe.
Grape vines just beginning to leaf out.
Our favorite wine at this $25/person tasting was the Hammersky Party of 5, a luscious red blend we preferred over even the more expensive bourbon barrel aged offering. And okay. I’m tempted to get my old stand-by Apothic Red and sample both side-by-side just as an experiment. They share Cabernet, Merlot, and Sirah but the Hammersky has Verdot and Malbec while the Apothic has a Zinfandel.
We reluctantly left the Adelaida Road area wineries and headed to Tin City, a maker’s market “industrial” park where beer, wine, cider, and olive oil makers offer tastings and events. We sampled cider at Tin City Cider before heading over to Barrel House Brewing for some nachos and dancing to the 70s and 80s with the Blimp Pilots. We sat at a table with a guy who, it turns out, jams with some of the band members.
Ending the evening with steak dinners at downtown SLO cowboy hangout, McClintock’s, the four of us peered in shop windows and chuckled at the line of college students waiting to get into this ONE club, obviously the hot spot to be if you were 21 or 22 and your parents weren’t in town for the campus tour. We stopped by 1865 in hopes of getting an espresso martini nightcap, but they were closing up at 10 p.m. It was fine by me. I’d had enough booze for one day.
Our train pulled out the next morning at 6:10 a.m. and we rode straight through to San Diego. Nine hours, but comfortable. The cafe offered breakfast and lunch and coffee and other beverages. I stuck with the coffee. Back on the wagon again, and my liver will thank me.
While on the train, I decided to look up San Luis Obispo and Jack Kerouc because I thought I remembered he’d been there once upon a time. Sure enough, according to this article Off the Road by Kylie Medonca (New Times), in 1953 he spent some time in SLO working for the train and writing. The boarding house he lived in is now a space for creatives called The Establishement. Kerouc had just finished his book Maggie Cassidy and he’d yet to begin The Dharma Bums. Instead, he wrote little snippets he called “word sketches.”
Here is an example:
Behind big engine 3669
In the bright day of
San Luis Obispo the
mtns. of hope rise
up, treed, green, sweet
—a rippling palm
behind the pot Steams—the young firemen of
Calif. waiting to
make the hill up to
the bleakmouth panorama plateau of
stars of the night are holy—ding
I went through a Beats phase a few years back and was especially drawn to Kerouc’s haikus. To know I was actually standing in a town where he’d thought up some of these images/words/beats felt pretty amazing. It might be time to read Dharma Bums. Who knows. It might play into my new novel that will span the 1930s to the 2000s (if all goes according to plan). My character, Julia, isn’t a Beat. She’s a clothing designer. But who knows…maybe she meets an interesting poet or two along the way.
The Morning After Cafe in Paso Robles
I hope you enjoyed this trip up the California coast to SLO. If you did, drop me a line and share the link to your travel-loving friends. If you want to tell about some recent trips of your own, PLEASE feel free to share. This is a welcoming space, and I’m sure all of us would love to armchair travel with you.
AND NEWS: I have been given a pub date of March 2023 for the “Book Formerly Known as Disguised.”