Central Coast: Life in the SLO Lane

Find Fall Adventure in San Luis Obispo

The subtle crispness in the morning air and the calendar tells us that Fall is finally here. If this inspires you to take a Fall road trip, the Central Coast‘s San Luis Obispo County (or SLO as locals call it) awaits your sense of fun and adventure.

San Luis Obispo County is bursting with a dizzying range of diversity found in its various communities. The county is comprised of several vibrant towns — the city of San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, and Atascadero, as well as rustic coastal communities: Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Cambria and others.

SLO also claims one of the smallest towns in California — the town of Harmony. Located near Cambria, Harmony has a population 18! It was founded in 1869 and later became a popular way station for Hollywood’s glitterati passing through on their way to the Hearst Ranch. Today the 2.5-acre, one-block town has reinvented itself as a vibrant art community worth a visit to check out their wares.

Aside from coastal communities, the county’s interior landscape features lushly painted rolling hills that produce some of California’s most notable wines. Another ideal reason for a Fall road trip!

El Paso de Robles

The friendly town of Paso Robles is a good place to start your Central Coast wine sojourn and is ideally located near the 101 Freeway which bifurcates SLO county north and south. From here you will have easy access to the 200 member wineries in the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (pasowine.com). And one of the town’s signature events is just around the corner — the annual Harvest Festival Weekend (October 15-17) — a great time to plan your visit.

The town has adopted its original name when it was incorporated in 1889 -- El Paso de Robles (means “pass of the oaks”) which evokes its romantic early California history.  Driving through the town’s back country roads and byways, you’ll see why “pass of the oaks” is so apt — the trees that dot the landscape are towering old oak trees. Many of them are hundreds of years old, dating back to a time when the Spanish Franciscan padres planted the region’s first vineyards in the 1700s.  

Towering oak trees dot the landscape in El Paso de Robles (pass of the oaks).

It’s Wine O’Clock

With its viticulture pedigree, countrified setting and casual sophistication, SLO has become a new home away from home for countless oenophiles.

My husband and I have been enjoying SLO’s wonderful wines for years — some of our long-time favorites are Opolo, Treana, Halter and Robert Hall. Each time we visit SLO, we like to discover some of the new boutique wineries that keep springing up. But with 280 wineries and nearly 49,000 vineyard acres in San Luis Obipso County, what’s a mere mortal to do?

On a recent visit, we relied on some local insiders to steer us in the right direction. Our first stop was at the family-run 500-acre Steinbeck Vineyards (steinbeckwines.com). For six generations, Steinbeck has produced premium grapes primarily for other local wineries such as J. Lohr and Treana but they launched their own label a few years ago with great success. Their handcrafted wines include four varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Viognier. Besides producing fine wines, the Steinbeck family has been farming their land since the 1800s using sustainable practices, long before it was in vogue.

Our next stop was at Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards (wildhorsewinery.com) which also produces superior wines while emphasizing sustainable farming practices that reduce their carbon footprint. As their name implies, this winery is located in an area of expansive horse ranches and meandering country roads that lead you to Wild Horse in the town of Templeton. The winery takes its namesake from the wild mustangs that roamed the hills after the Spanish brought horses to California.

Their Chardonnay and Viognier are only two of the outstanding wines Wild Horse has been producing for decades, including Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Sampling their wines gazing at perfectly tended vineyards and beautiful gardens, we fully embraced their motto: “Live Naturally, Enjoy Wildly.” Cheers to that.

We had more due diligence ahead, however, so we pressed on. We next headed to Adelaida Cellars (adelaida.com) to sample their prize-winning Pinot Noir. Adelaida Cellars’ estate varietals consistently rank among the best due to the excellent growing conditions – a combination of the rocky limestone soil and the 1800-feet elevation.

These wineries are but a minute snapshot of what awaits you — with nearly 300 wineries in SLO, you’re sure to discover your own special gems on your Central Coast sojourn.

Rich Historical Heritage

SLO’s many historic sites illustrate a fascinating story of its early California roots. With three historic adobe missions within the county, you can get a glimpse of the region’s rich history which dates back to the early 1700s when Fr. Junipero Serra first established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772). Conveniently located in downtown SLO, this mission is a must-see; you can stroll through the mission grounds on your own or take a tour.

In the historic town of Santa Margarita, you can step back in time and see an original Wells Fargo stagecoach stop, many preserved buildings, and some of the 200+ year-old vineyards planted by missionaries.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa offers visitors a stroll through is historic grounds and colorful gardens.
Mission San Miguel Arcangel built in 1797 offers a fascinating lesson in early California history.

Carefree Fun

Another notable stop on your SLO discovery tour might be the charming village of Arroyo Grande, known for its historic Swinging Bridge, the only one of its kind in California. Another of the town’s highlights is Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab. Housed in a historic building downtown, Doc Burnstein’s (docburnsteins.com) has turned ice cream-making into performance art. They have Wednesday evening performances where the guests create a new flavor of ice cream – which explains some of the exotic flavors like Chocolate Chili, Guinness Beer and Vanilla Chai.

San Luis Obispo County’s reputation for a notable wine region has received wide acclaim but SLO offers a tempting variety of things to explore beyond the vineyards. Taking the back roads through undisturbed natural beauty will make you think you are in a faraway country setting, not merely a few miles from city centers. And don’t forget the region has miles of picturesque coastline.

A sunset stroll along the beach is the perfect way to cap off a fun day of indulgence.

A Palate Pleaser

As in every wine region in the world, the Central Coast delivers on its promise of stellar cuisine to match its fabulous wines. Due to its enduring agricultural tradition, the area’s eateries are deeply committed to a field-to-fork approach to dining.

Take a farm tour to visit some of the local growers with Farmstead whose mission is to educate visitors about the importance of sustainable farming practices — especially when water in California is becoming an important issue. farmsteaded.com

The Central Coast is a foodie haven — the climate is perfect for the region’s abundant farms that supply local restaurants.

SLO’s picturesque landscape of farms and vineyards, is a major part of the Central Coast’s great appeal. Its laid back rural vibe balanced with big city amenities offer visitors the best of both worlds.

With such rich history, recreational fun, abundant beauty, and cultural events throughout the year — there’s too much to fit in on one visit. You’ll want to return to continue your SLO discovery. 

Photographs by Lydia Kremer

La Bellaserra Hotel & Suites - Paso Robles - labellasera.com
Vespera Resort - Pismo Beach - marriott.com/hotels/travel/sbpak-vespera-resort-on-pismo-beach-autograph-collection/
Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica - San Luis Obispo - giuseppesrestaurant.com/home
Thomas Hill Organics - Paso Robles - thomashillorganics.com

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