San Luis Obispo:Your Perfect 3-Day Family Getaway
By Kathy Chin Leong
Strap on your seat belts, kids! We're going to SLO! About three hours from the Bay Area is unique and delightful San Luis Obispo County, known for year-round idyllic weather, great beaches, and plenty of hiking and biking opportunities. Here is your three-day itinerary where you can create memories with your kids without breaking the bank. Further, the upcoming Christmas holiday is the perfect time to visit this sunny stretch of coastal cities that yield a warm, country feel with urban conveniences. Full of outdoor gems, plenty of boutique shopping, historic venues, and surprising eateries, SLO never disappoints.
CASTLE DAY TRIP
A visit to the infamous Hearst Castle in San Simeon is a must every time I come, and it is on the way to San Luis Obispo. Several official tours, including night time tours, to ooh and aah at various parts of the house, are now a welcome treat. Keep your eyes open for the holiday tours where docents are dressed in period costume. No two experiences can be the same. The tram bus ride up to the castle always evokes images of entering a king's castle. What a treat to be able to see the guest quarters, the personal library, the gardens, and more.
In the past, visitors were not allowed near the turquoise pool, but now guests can walk around the pillared marble area that giddy movie stars once plunged into. Guests can sit in chairs on the pool premises to admire the views until they are ready to depart. This was not the case when I went several years ago, so I was thrilled with this prospect. And inside the visitor's center, you have your pick of Hearst Castle knick knacks- everything from books on Julia Morgan (the architect) to Christmas ornaments brandishing the name.
If you come with kids, they should be 10 and over to really enjoy the tour. There is a lot of walking and stair climbing involved. And you don't have to reserve the tour to have a good time. The visitor's center is a good stop for a food and a restroom break. You can also pay to see the Hearst Castle movie which is also quite interesting.
Holiday Inn Express: At about $130-$210 per night, this is a newly-remodeled, attractive, dependable and clean hotel that offers tremendous bang for the buck. Located above the noisy downtown fray of San Luis Obispo, the Holiday Inn Express features many freebies that other properties would nickel-and-dime you for.
Take note: free Wi-Fi; free breakfast; free parking, free business center with free printing. And families will love the pool and whirlpool, microwave and refrigerator in the rooms, also free. When I stayed this summer, I found the rooms very spacious, the bathrooms also large. It was a truly comfortable place to stay that was not pretentious, and the staff was equally open and friendly. The location is perfect; not too close to downtown and not too far, either. A two-block walk will bring you to the premises of the various shops and eateries. Right outside the hotel is the trolley stop, so you can also get transportation into town if needed.
If you want the iconic SLO experience, you must stop to visit the Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant & Bakery Lavished with gardens and a mill, the destination is a throwback to simpler country times, and the restaurant features old fashioned American favorites such as chicken pot pie, steak dishes, and apple pie. I loved the shops that are here at the farm with boutique finds of dishware and toys. Do eat your meal and leave time for shopping and photos. This iconic stop is a great way to delve into what is essential to the Central Coast.
South of the town of San Luis Obispo is Arroyo Grande, and this agricultural town has a lovely historic downtown with buildings from the 1800s, filled with shops and restaurants. It's small, so figure one or two hours walking around. If you are lucky to come on a Saturday, you can hit the farmer's market from noon to 2:30 p.m., and enjoy local music, while picking up some flowers, ripe fruit and ready-to-serve veggies.
Branch Street and Grande Avenue have lots of little stores that you will find interesting and fun. There's the fabulous Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab with its homemade flavors and a European coffee haunt with an aromatic pantheon of freshly roasted beans and free Wi-Fi . called Café Andrieni Coffee House. Offering Thursday night music and wine and beer and sandwiches, it's a cozy place where the locals probably come all the time to shoot the breeze and park themselves in a comfy lounge chair.
DOWNTOWN SLO SHOPPING
For another type of shopping with big brand names and stuff for college kids (and the college kid in you) the downtown area of San Luis Obispo is a constant party at night and quiet in the day. We loved the Vintage Etc. store on Palm Street with retro aprons, jewelry, and appliances, and the Hands Gallery on Higuera which had lovely artwork that and local hand crafted wares.
The Habitat Home and Garden store on Garden Street, has a lot of produced that are recycled, reclaimed or repurposed. The top slab of a dining table may be sliced from an abandoned tree, or shutters reclaimed from an old church, or the base of side table with a glass top was once a lonely tree stump. The pieces here are lovely, artfully, and tastefully made.
And every time I travel, I like to bring a snack item home. And the SLO chocolate store dubbed Sweet Earth Chocolates features lovely organic handmade truffles that are simply delectable and packaged beautifually. A $12 box is a great gift for the admiring chocoholic.
Another hotspot is the Creamery, the site of a former creamery on the edge of downtown Higuera Street. It houses a variety of businesses, but in particular my favorite is a carefree napkin store called Picking Daisies, full of cotton prints that are happily colorful and a perfect place to buy fabric or a set of nifty napkins.
And if you are in town on a Thursday night, the weekly downtown farmer's market which draws 10,000 people weekly on Higuera Street is a must-go. It is nationally known for its array of gifts, produce,flowers, and restaurant food. A great place to pick up dinner and eat right on the sidewalk.
Montana De Oro State Park never ceases to amaze and thrill me. I've been here at least five times, and this beach and hiking trail with its wildflowers, birds, and views, is as astounding to me today as it was over 15 years ago.
The hiking trail above the water is very easy to walk. It is flat, so kids and grandparents can tread it. Fenced off with a low wooden rail, the trail is immaculately maintained, and you can see the vast blue Pacific and the amazing aquamarine cutout shoreline at its best.
The park's beach, Spooner's Cove, is filled with a gazillion little pebbles, and makes for lots of play with the little ones.
Truly, this feast-for-the-eyes picture-scape is worth the trek for you and the kids. Picnic tables, camping, and bathrooms are available.
What more to do with kids? The San Luis Obispo Children's Museum is ideal for the under-ten set. And for older kids there is the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, an active parish and museum with gift shop, it is open seven days a week.
For something funny and irreverent, the ever-popular Bubblegum Alley is a public alley with both walls covered with wads of gum. This oddball feature has been there for decades, and the number one most-requested attraction.
You can also visit the History Center, an interesting and beautiful spot to visit. The site of the former library built of solid red bricks, it features a rotating exhibit, plus its permanent exhibit highlighting the founding of San Luis Obispo. The weekend I went, I saw an interesting presentation of authentic wedding gowns through the ages, worn by women of San Luis Obispo County. It was fascinating. The museum has a small children's area and gift and card shop.The History Center of SLO has taken advantage of technology to create its own audio and visual walking tours that are downloadable on iPods, iPads, and iPhones for free. Topics include a walking tour of the historic railroad district, the darker side of SLO, and SLO's historic downtown.
Great, great food and ambiance can be had right downtown at Novo, where you can get a table on the back patio and equally enjoy a fine meal with ethnic inspirations from Asia, Brazil, and the Mediterranean. The former cigar factory is so much fun with its authentic brick exterior and lovely artwork. The menu is full of locally sourced foods.
And the atmosphere is elegant, yet casual. The best for a Sunday brunch, with great service and seating. On the rest of the days, it serves lunch and dinner. Lunch is great as well. Choose a warm night for dinner out, but you can sit inside too. Menu items include everything from spring rolls with avocado and shrimp to potato samosas to crab cakes to Korean short ribs. An eclectic fare all delicious and inspiring. Expect to send about $30 to 50 for two people at lunch.
And for lighter meals, you can go to the Splash Café & Bakery which is not bragging when it posts it has the best chowder in town. Gourmet magazines have begged for the recipe, and the soup has won many awards. Splash Café New England clam chowder in a sourdough bowl is a heavenly meal and filling, too. With two locations, one in SLO and another in Pismo, you can come here anytime from 7 a.m. to as late as 9:30 on Friday and Saturday. Yummy desserts, rich hamburgers, fish and chips, breakfast pastries, and the ever-popular clam chowder are sold by the bucket if you want to take some home.
So now you have three full days of food and adventure, and you have not even been to other Central Coast towns of Avila Beach, Cambria, Morrow Bay, or Pismo Beach. That is every reason to return to San Luis Obispo County to get refreshed, restored, and refueled with the freshest bounty the Central Coast has to offer.
WHEN YOU GO:
*Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and hats.
*Prepare for cooler weather at night.
* http://www.sanluisobispovacations.com/ – to book hotels, activities, stay-and-play packages
* http://www.novorestaurant.com/ – for tapas and world cuisine with patio dining
* http://www.splashbakery.com/ - for quick bites and great chowder
* http://www.applefarm.com/ – for menus, room rates, general info
* www.hiexpress.com/hotels/us/en/san-luis-obispo – for room rates, photos, room descriptions, amenity listing
* http://www.hearstcastle.org/ – for booking tours, history, theater times, visitor center details
* http://www.parks.ca.gov/ – for booking camping, directions, photos
* http://www.missionsanluisobispo.org/ – for history, virtual tour, hours
* http://www.arroyograndevillage.org/ – for shops, restaurants, history
* http://www.cafeadreini.net/ – menus, directions, calendar
* http://www.vintageetcslo.com/ – products, photos, directions
* http://www.pickingsdaisiesinslo.com/ - products, photos, store info
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