San Luis Obispo County, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, lays claim to some of California’s most heart-stopping coastline, the 80-mile stretch populated with elephant seals, gray whales, sea otters and shore birds. The dramatic scenery, enhanced by rolling hills, is more than enough to fulfill your vacation fantasies, but toss in a Mediterranean climate of persistent sunshine, a thriving culinary and craft beer scene, and miles of fertile vineyards, and you’ll understand why this destination is like living the California dream.
We’ve booked a room at Pismo Lighthouse Suites, a beautifully maintained, family-friendly property on the shores of Pismo Beach. Our 16-year-old is in paradise; along with easy access to the shoreline, the all-suites hotel features an open-air deck with a swimming pool, a full-size outdoor chessboard, badminton net, Ping-Pong tables, and a putting green.
After a dip in the pool, we set off on a 15-minute walk to Dinosaur Caves Park, a steep ocean-bluff park with hiking trails, a marine-themed playground and cliffs overlooking Shell Beach, a series of small coves that contain fascinating sea caves that soar high above ground.
Kayakers have the best access to the mysterious hollowed-out caverns, many of which are too far from the shoreline for safe swimming, but there are several that are easily accessible by foot via one of several staircases, the easiest of which to navigate is at the end of Pier Avenue, a short distance from Dinosaur Caves Park. (The cave floors are sharp and jagged, so wear protective water shoes.) We spend a few hours exploring the caves and admiring the seals sunbathing on the rocks. It’s a must-do experience.
After the short hike back to the car, we head to Splash Café in downtown Pismo Beach and enjoy bread bowls of clam chowder at a picnic table on the pier. The sun, now dropping behind the horizon, is a masterpiece. Life is good.
The next day, it gets even better. We leave early for San Luis Obispo (locals have nicknamed it SLO), a historic mission town with a collegiate population, thanks to California Polytechnic State University. Located about 12 miles inland, San Luis Obispo may not be surrounded by seascape, but it certainly has its charms, including century-old heritage trees that line Higuera Street, the town’s main drag, and wooded thickets bordering a bubbling creek that provides the backdrop for lunch at Novo, an upscale restaurant that trumpets a smashing wine list and seasonally inspired dishes with Mediterranean and modern Asian influences.
After lunch, we poke into downtown shops, including Humankind Fair Trade, which specializes in handmade artisan gifts from around the world. I buy a birdhouse made from gourds. I like unconventional things, but nothing could have prepared me for Bubblegum Alley, a tourist attraction that involves a 70-foot alleyway, every inch of its surface covered with colorful chewed bubble gum. Off-the-wall is an understatement, and you need to see it to believe it. Then, like us, you might want to move on.
The taproom at Central Coast Brewing is far more palatable, and the award-winning beers are uniformly delicious, especially the black lagers. Hungry (again), we drive to Arroyo Grande, a nearby town that’s home to Ember restaurant, which turns out to be the best dinner of our trip. From the grilled vegetable salad to the deeply rustic wood-fire pizzas, the food is flawless.
No excursion to San Luis Obispo County is complete without a visit to the landmark Madonna Inn, an offbeat historic hotel (rooms from $209), spa, bar and restaurant that’s tricked out in a hot-pink motif. There’s a waterfall in the gentlemen’s bathroom, zebra carpets in the guest rooms and college students perfecting the Lindy hop on the dance floor. This is San Luis Obispo County, where the sun, sea, and swing in your step all intersect.