California’s laid-back, lesser-visited San Luis Obispo region is abundant with wildlife, friendly locals and outstanding natural beauty.
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central California coast’s SLO CAL region truly is a taste of life in the slow lane. The nickname for the region, sandwiched between the Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara areas, comes from the initials of its main hub, San Luis Obispo.
Although just a few hours’ drive from LA, it feels a million miles away from the latter’s frenetic pace, as I discover when I make my base in the laid-back harbour town of Morro Bay. SLO CAL may be slow-paced, but there’s plenty to keep clients occupied, with activities from horse-riding to kayaking on offer.
California’s scenic Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, skirts SLO CAL’s rocky coast. At Morro Bay, from the settee of my first-floor studio room at the bijou Front Street Inn & Spa, I gaze out the window at the sun setting over the moored fishing boats, yachts and towering Morro Rock.
The call of the sea is hard to resist, so the next morning I head to Sub Sea Tours along Morro Bay’s Embarcadero waterfront and rent a kayak for an hour’s paddle in the sheltered harbour.
I soon encounter sea lions dozing in a tight huddle on a pontoon, while others hang off the edge with their noses and flippers almost brushing the gently rippling water.
A few paddles away, a group of sea otters lie on their backs, eyeing me warily when I approach – you’re not allowed to get nearer than 30 metres (100 feet) to marine mammals – and occasionally bobbing below the surface to reappear behind me.
Back ashore, I walk to a dock that’s been turned into a sea otter nursery for nursing mothers. As I photograph one mother clutching her pup through tall purple flowers, a hummingbird photobombs the picture.
A couple of days later I return to Sub Sea Tours for a three-hour whale-watching boat trip, setting off in fog that slowly clears to reveal a crisp late-May morning. Humpback whales come to feed in the Central California coast’s nutrient-rich waters from May to October, and we are rewarded with the sight of one spouting and diving to feed, its tail fluke lifting up characteristically before slipping below the waves, while several sea lions and a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins frolic around it to snatch the scraps.
Morro Bay is a popular tourist haunt with a quaint harbour front and eateries serving all-day breakfasts.
Close to town, I stroll along a circular boardwalk through Elfin Forest – so-called for its miniature California live oaks that are stunted by the constant sea breezes – stopping to take in exquisite coastal and mountain views and chat with friendly locals.
In San Luis Obispo I step back in time to visit the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa church, the fifth Spanish mission in California, founded in 1772. Situated in the city’s centre, it’s a short walk from one its more bizarre attractions, Bubblegum Alley, where the walls are plastered with gooey, multi-coloured gum and visitors are encouraged to add their own.
The Cerro San Luis mountain, one of a chain of peaks called the Nine Sisters that includes Morro Rock, overlooks the city and has a giant letter M near its crest. I hike the trail through a lemon grove for a view of San Luis Obispo and surrounding hills. At Pismo Beach, I chow down on clam chowder at Splash Cafe then hit the vast, Sahara-like expanse of Oceano Dunes for two hours of thrills in a dune buggy from SunBuggy Fun Rentals.
I chill out after my adventure with a beer on the Rooftop bar of the Inn at the Pier then walk out onto the wooden-decked Pismo Beach Pier to work up an appetite for a crab sandwich at local eatery the Cracked Crab.
After soothing my aching back with a session on Front Street Inn’s hydrotherapy bed, my final full day is spent in Paso Robles, the heart of Slo-Cal’s wine country. Lunch at the Firestone Walker Brewing Company is augmented by visits to three of the region’s 230 wineries – Grey Wolf Cellars; the neighbouring Tooth & Nail Winery, featuring a Germanic castle-style tasting room and restaurant; and award-winning Cass Winery.
There I meet my steed, Max, for a leisurely ride through the Cass vineyards and a tree-lined, dry riverbed with Central Coast Trailrides’ co-owner Brian Hallett. It’s a wildlife-spotting delight as we see a ground squirrel, an owl and a gopher snake.
SLO CAL’s advertising slogan might be “Life’s too beautiful to rush” but I would return here in a heartbeat – in the slow lane, of course.
Book it: An eight-night California fly-drive with America As You Like It includes four nights at the Inn at Morro Bay, two nights in San Francisco at the Beresford Hotel and two nights at the Beverly Hills Marriott, plus car hire and flights, from £1,280pp departing in November.
For more information visit: frontstreetinnmorrobay.com
Smarter: Clients can see sea lions and sea otters close up in Morro Bay’s harbour, watch elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, north of San Simeon, and enjoy one of the best views of the Pacific Ocean at Ragged Point, at the northernmost point of Highway 1 in SLO CAL – all for free.
Better: If your clients want to try some quirky accommodation, book them into the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, where each room is uniquely themed.
Fairer: Locally sourced food and wine is the norm in SLO CAL. It isn’t just farm to fork, it’s sea to spoon too, with catches served in local restaurants straight off fishing boats.