Escape to San Luis Obispo for beaches, wine country and more

Get on the water in Morro Bay with a kayak tour.
Get on the water in Morro Bay with a kayak tour. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sarah Morris

Defeat the doldrums of winter by heading to a place where it rarely snows and you can still rock shorts if you want to. Yes, we’re talking California. But instead of the usual hot spots, consider San Luis Obispo (aka SLO) County. There you’ll find great food, beaches, wine country, art and a laid-back lifestyle perfect for vacation. Here are four top spots to visit while exploring this vibrant region.

Paso Robles

This charming area features rolling hills chock-full of vineyards and more than 200 wineries. Highlights include Ancient Peaks Winery (22720 El Camino Real, 805-365-7045, ancientpeaks.com); Sisters Ranch Vineyards & Winery (2995 Pleasant Rd., 805-467-2417, foursistersranch.com), for stunning views; and Caparone Winery (2280 San Marcos Rd., 805-610-5308, caparone.com), one of the oldest in the region. Have lunch or dinner at La Cosecha Bar + Restaurant (835 12th St., 805-237-0019, lacosechabr.com), a quaint spot featuring wood-fired pizzas and Honduran-style empanadas.

San Luis Obispo

The namesake town is the most bustling area in SLO. Check out the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (FREE admission; 1010 Broad St., 805-543-8562, sloma.org) to see works mainly by California artists. For dining, the Vegetable Butcher (closed Sundays; 712 Marsh St., 805-439-4801, vegetablebutcherslo.com) serves little artisan tacos and other veggie-focused bites. Head to Novo Restaurant and Lounge (726 Higuera St., 805-543-3986, novorestaurant.com) for a picturesque view for lunch or dinner while nibbling on herb lamb chops or Korean short ribs. The year-round downtown farmers market (Thursdays, 6-9 p.m.) also is an extravaganza of fresh produce, food trucks and music.

Clam chowder on the beach, courtesy of Splash Cafe at Pismo Beach.
Clam chowder on the beach, courtesy of Splash Cafe at Pismo Beach. Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

Avila Beach and Pismo Beach

Though it may not be bikini weather (temps range in mid-60s to the low 70s in the winter), you can enjoy surf and sand at these beaches. Pismo Beach offers easy shopping down Shell Beach Road and crave-worthy clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from Splash Cafe (197 Pomeroy Ave., 805-773-4653, splashcafe.com), which you can get to go to eat on the sand. At Avila Beach, grab a cup of coffee at Kraken Coffee Company (310 Front St., 805-439-1177, krakencoffeeco.com), then take a long walk by the water and check out the 111-year-old pier. Both locations have prime sea kayaking too; book a tour with an outfitter such as Central Coast Kayaks (centralcoastkayaks.com).

Morro Bay

Oyster lovers, head to Morro Bay Oyster Company (by appointment; 1287 Embarcadero, 805-234-7102, morrobayoysters.com), which harvests its Pacific Gold oysters sustainably. Get even more seafood at the low-key Tognazzini’s Dockside (1245 Embarcadero, 805-772-8100, morrobaydockside.com), where the super-fresh fish is cooked perfectly. Tour the estuary and see local wildlife through a kayak jaunt with A Kayak Shack (morrobaykayakrental.com).

Good to know

Getting there: There may not be a direct flight yet from NYC to SLO, but it’s easy to connect from Los Angeles or San Francisco with a minimal layover.

Getting around: Because SLO is so spread out, once there it’s best to rent a car. If driving isn’t an option, car services such as Lyft and Uber function well there, or you can take tours through companies such as SLO Safe Ride (slosaferide.com) or Uncorked Wine Tours (uncorkedwinetours.net), which offer chauffeured services and Central Coast wine tours.

Where to stay: In San Luis Obispo, the famed Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Rd., 805-543-3000, madonnainn.com) is a must, with each of the 110 abodes themed in the most gaudy-yet-enjoyable way (don’t pass on the sweet cake in the restaurant). In Morro Bay, the Inn at Morro Bay (60 State Park Rd., 805-772-5651, innatmorrobay.com) offers simple accommodations with waterfront views.

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