By George Christopher Thomas, Travel Writer
SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA — Located exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the old Spanish town of San Luis Obispo is perfect for a weekend getaway. Downtown sprawls out and around the Spanish Mission, and SLO has a fun, young vibe from having a college in town (California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo). It’s a great destination for a relaxing and energy-charging few days, while fast-paced fun is also on tap for those that prefer it.
We always wanted to have a weekend in SLO, and not just use the town as a place to switch drivers and gas up the old station wagon. (We don’t really own a station wagon, but I like it for dramatic effect.) I had a few friends that went to Cal Poly SLO, and my mom attended Cal Poly Pomona, their sister college, so I knew from an educational angle the school is associated with agriculture and ranching. The wine region in SLO is one of the finest in the state of California, and viniculture is one of the degrees they offer at Cal Poly SLO. I love a good picture with vineyards in the background, and an afternoon of wine tasting after a round of golf can always be a great precursor to a nice solid nap.
We were in SLO with my in-laws and our children, so the logistics of day drinking were not panning out. But there are several wine tasting rooms in town, and many more within a five-minute drive of downtown SLO, so the choices are many.
The Taste of SLO Food Tour
We opted to spend our first afternoon on the Taste of SLO Food Tour, which included cocktails and chocolate, and lots of food. I figured this was the perfect way to get acclimatized to SLO, visiting five different restaurants with a tour guide who knows the area. In the past I have been apprehensive about spending an afternoon or evening with strangers going from restaurant to restaurant, but it was a delightful experience. The food tour will give you a window into being a local, and the people you are with will end up being your friends by the end of it all. Plus it is like meeting an ambassador to the city for an ongoing question-and-answer session while you eat amazing food. Truly, if you have never been to a town before, this is a great way to kick off the weekend.
Our first restaurant and our meeting place was the Monterey Street Market. The salads there are amazing, and they are known for their Italian dishes. The market also has fresh premade pasta that you can take home with you to cook later. We each had a large meatball (about the size of a fist), a side salad and a local beer. I find having local beer really sets the mood and gives me a feel for the area. A fun fact is they have house-made sheep’s milk ice cream, and for those that are lactose intolerant, this is a great option.
Our next restaurant was right up the street and a short walk from the first. The first thing you will notice as you enter SLO Provisions is the huge red rotisserie oven smack dab in the middle of the kitchen. I am told it came all the way from France, and endured the journey on a transcontinental ocean liner. It was the size of a small wall, and my first thought is that could fit a lot of chickens (it does – 29 to be exact). We enjoyed slow-roasted porchetta off the red French rotisserie with local vegetables from the farmer’s market. Now, SLO is famous for the carnival-like farmer’s market on Thursday nights, with live music and food vendors galore. But there is also another SLO market on Saturdays frequented by local chefs, and these delicious peppers and eggplant paired perfectly with the slow-roasted porchetta were from the weekend market. We also had champagne mixed with locally made cucumber-lavender soda, and drinking champagne in the afternoon is always a good way to kick off a vacation weekend. Everything in moderation, so someone please moderately pour me another one and pass the slow-roasted pork.
To cleanse the palate and mix it up a bit, our third stop was Mama Ganache, a high-end chocolate shop famous for vegan milkshakes. Now I had been wine tasting many times, and can pretend to know what I am talking about when it comes to pinot or pinot noir, one is red and one is white. But in the chocolate world, I have no idea. Just as with coffee and diamonds, the business models behind the chocolate trade include less than kosher practices. This is painfully glaring in the chocolate industry, and one might need to take a look at where the Easter Bunny shops next year, just saying. And we were popping in for vegan milkshakes, political discussions, and spicy chocolate, so this was perfect.
Using almond milk instead of regular milk along with coconut non-dairy ice cream made the chocolate milkshake nuttier. The question is can it really be called a milkshake if there is no milk in it? That is for someone way above my paygrade to answer, but I can tell you it was delicious. We sampled several chocolates including spicy chili and peanut butter ones. It was ridiculously wonderful, and I wanted one of everything in the store. I also learned that summer is the worst time for the chocolate shops. I guess nobody gives a big chocolate Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July to their friends and relatives, but they should. I am glad that we only ate fair trade chocolates, and that now might be my newest political stance.
Our next stop and the fourth on our tour was the 1865 Craft House. It was late afternoon and it is 5 o’clock somewhere, so why not have a signature cocktail named after a unicorn. I find anything with a unicorn in the name makes it better, and the guacamole, elote (corn) and fried pita chips sure tasted good as well. We were debating whether to order their famous chicken wings, but instead got the flatbread pizza. I wished I was hungry, and maybe should have done some static stretching and yoga before starting the tour.
Our last stop was Papa Thai for their Tom Kah Gai soup, a vegetarian dish that tastes like it has meat in it. The broth was wonderful, and I could have just drunk that alone. Which I’m told is not weird, and most people make that comment as well. Coupled with the Thai Tea which has loads of caffeine in it, we were on our way to a delightful weekend.
The Taste of SLO Food Tour was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, and they also have a downtown tour that I plan on taking next time we are in town. Sheep ice cream, spicy chocolate, and unicorn cocktails, yes please and thank you very much.
We picked SLO because of the location, with my in-laws living in the Bay Area and us down here near Los Angeles. The drive took exactly half the time it takes to go all the way up to see my wife’s family, and that made it ideal for our kids. SLO was always the place we switched drivers, so to finally get to stay here and check the town out was super cool.
The Hotel Cerro
We booked the Hotel Cerro, a brand new property in downtown SLO. I was looking forward to time by the pool, and a light workout in the fitness room. They also have a restaurant and distillery, and a fancy bakery that sold tarts fit for the Queen. The location is within walking distance of the Spanish Mission as well as numerous restaurants. And right across the alley from the Hotel Cerro, is the most famous attraction in SLO, the very strange and odd “Bubblegum Alley.” (This is something that needs to be experienced in person, and there are no words in the English language I can use to describe it.)
Everything about the Hotel Cerro was great, but firstly the location was supremely ideal for enjoying SLO. We could walk to any of the restaurants, we parked and walked to the Taste of SLO Food Tour, and we could not have asked for a better spot to be located for the weekend.
Our rooms were large and comfortable, with a large shower and bathroom area. The fancy pour-over coffee contraption and long-necked kettle setup was the fun, and it came with packets of fancy coffee. Plus, after some beer and afternoon cocktails, I needed a fancy coffee for that second wind.
SLO Botanical Garden
Traveling with a multigenerational party is a fancy way of saying family vacation. And with many age groups represented, it is sometimes hard to find an activity that suits everyone. But in SLO there are many options for the grandparents and grandkids. One is the SLO Botanical Garden, which was ideal for a nice afternoon of spending time together. We had a flower photo contest, and spent a couple of hours wandering around and taking pictures.
SLO Railroad Museum
Another great multigenerational attraction is the SLO Railroad Museum. Deep down inside every child is a desire to play with a train set. And this place has an entire floor dedicated to a railroad mini re-creation of the area. This is a little kids’ and a big kids’ train playground. We chatted with Gary, one of the docents, about the history of SLO and the train era. To this day, there are still eight trains that come through SLO, and the present station is a quarter-mile up the road.
Dairy Creek Golf Course
One of the mornings I snuck off to play golf at Dairy Creek. This regulation length 9-hole golf course is right next to the SLO Botanical Garden, which is about 5 minutes from downtown. In what would be described as position golf, this course had clever doglegs and interesting design layouts that make you think about your tee shot and not always use your driver. The facilities were in tip-top condition, and the carts came equipped with the latest GPS technology. I love having yardage to the front, middle and back of the green as well as on-point pin positioning. There were turkeys and sheep around the outskirts of the course, and it was a great way to kick off the day. If you are pressed for time and highly scheduled for the weekend, getting in nine holes early in the morning as the family and birds are waking up and getting ready for breakfast is really the way to do it.
The gardens and the golf were so delightful, and everyone loves a visit to the train museum. The food scene is off the hook, and I also highly recommend High Street Deli and Big Sky Restaurant. I hope it doesn’t take another 43 years to visit SLO, because we created fond memories for our multigenerational outing.