It feels a bit incongruous to be writing a travel article about California as huge swathes of southern California burn, including parts of Santa Barbara County, where my November sojourn to the state started and ended. My sister lives there, and for the last few weeks I’ve been anxiously glued to evacuation zone updates and news reports from the area. Hopefully by the time this story appears in print, the flames of the Thomas Fire will have been tamed.
And yet, I also want to celebrate the gorgeous vistas and idyllic beach towns of the central coast, which thankfully have been spared from this season’s blazes. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my parents and I flew from chilly Iowa to Santa Barbara, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, to visit my sister. From Santa Barbara, we took a couple of days to drive north along the coast to San Luis Obispo County, or as it is popularly referred to, SLO County.
More than just an acronym, the name could also refer to the pace of life possible on a vacation centered around moving from one gorgeous ocean view to another — with stops at winery tasting rooms, cafes and farmers markets in between. The San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce proudly touts the label “happiest city in America,” as once declared by no less an authority than Oprah.
We started our trip in Pismo Beach on Thanksgiving. Both my parents declared it was the first time they can remember not having a home-cooked meal for the holiday, but my sister’s tiny apartment is just 200 square feet (California rental prices are no joke), and her kitchenette wasn’t exactly equipped to cook a turkey and all the fixings.
Instead, we let others cook for us, with a lavish buffet spread at Ventana Grill. Situated on top of a coastal bluff, the restaurant boasted a wall of windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, along with a wooden porch with chairs facing the water. After a pre-meal walk on the beach, we waited for the restaurant to open on that porch, where others standing there pointed out a special show: white spray and splashes from gray whales, not far off the coast, pausing on their migration between Alaska and Mexico. Those wanting to take a closer look can find numerous whale watching boat tours throughout the county. Peak whale spotting times for gray whales are December through April, while June to September is the best time to see humpback and blue whales. Dolphins and orcas are also plentiful off the coast.
Over the next two days, we set out to explore. A San Luis Obispo farmers market turned up juicy strawberries, fresh citrus and pomegranates — all treats in their own rights, but especially so coming from Iowa in the non-growing season. Another top attraction are the counties wine tasting rooms. Though people typically picture Napa and Norther California when they think of California wine country, SLO County is also filled with vineyards; the area is known for chardonnay and pinot noir. We stopped at the Kelsey See Canyon vineyard, more or less by chance, where a flight of wine and live music proved a lovely respite.
We also went in search of more spectacular ocean views. They weren’t hard to find. Going on little more than a map and some recommendations in the visitor’s guide from our hotel lobby, we made our way along Highway 1 from small town to small town along the coast. We started in Cambria, where we parked at the entrance to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve for an ocean bluff hike. The richly biodiverse preserve includes 437 acres that fore-thinking citizens rescued from development by purchasing in 2000. Hiking trails let visitors explore the Monterey Pine Forest, one of only a few such native stands left in the world, as well as other portions of the preserve, which also boasts seasonal freshwater marshes, wetlands and coastal prairie. Some trails are horse and bike accessible, while others are restricted to pedestrians.
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We stuck to the Bluff Trail, which overlooked the ocean’s sparkling waves. Foot paths snaking out from the official trail wound closer to the water; with a bit of climbing, there were spots where intrepid hikers could make their way down to examine tidal pools near the surf. Pelicans crowded rocky perches; the area is also a good place to spot sea otters.
Around the trail, fields of succulents stretched, the perfect plant life for the dry California climate. After rain, we were told, the plants burst into flowers and become even more strikingly vibrant.
After our hike, we headed into Cambria’s small business district for lunch, where we found plenty of cafes and small shops to chose from. Then we made one last stop in Cambria at Moonstone Beach. As we walked up to the beach, we saw dozens of people all staring out at the waves, mesmerized. It was soon clear why; just offshore, a pod of dolphins glided through the waves and jumped over the swells, putting on a gleeful show.
It would be hard to beat that moment, but SLO County wasn’t done with us yet. On our way back south we took a brief detour at Cayucos, where paddle boarders and surfers played along the beach and boardwalk shops tempted us with ice cream and other treats. Just offshore, we could see a massive rock, jutting into the horizon. Driving toward it, we learned that Morro Rock is actually attached to the land at Morro Bay. We drove as close to the rock as we could and climbed out just in time to watch the sunset. The surf crashed into rocky outcroppings as a small crowd of strangers gathered to face the setting sun. As the sky turned brilliant shades of orange and pink, I thought, I hope I’ll be back here soon.
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