Car Free in San Luis Obispo
By Ann Nelson
friend Pat and I couldn’t wait to board the Amtrak Pacific Surf-liner
from San Diego and head north to San Luis Obispo, California. Located
halfway between L.A. and San Francisco this small city, nestled in the
mountains of Central California, is not far from the majestic Pacific
After we settled into our cushy, oversized seats with coffee and snacks, the train whistle blew and we were moving! I’ve
been fascinated with trains since I was four years old and my nose was
pressed against the window for much of the trip. I couldn’t take my
eyes off the contrasting scenery. The train traveled right next to the
ocean and journeyed through fascinating parts of Los Angeles that I
never knew existed. We passed a huge Fed Ex loading dock with Fed Ex
airplanes and lots of commercial buildings. After leaving Santa
Barbara, the scenery changed again. The green rolling hills and farm
landscapes of this beautiful countryside seemed to go on forever.
San Luis Obispo has the distinction of being called one of the “happiest places on earth.” In a 2008 Gallup-Healthways poll, the city’s residents were ranked number 1 in the U.S. in overall emotional health. Dan Buettner focuses on this topic in his 2008 best seller, The Blue Zones.
have wanted to take a car-free vacation for a while and decided that
San Luis Obispo would be the perfect place to try it out. There are 30
miles of hiking trails and endless miles of designated bike paths in
this city of 45,000. With a little bit of planning, we found it
relatively easy to get around. There is even a Google Trip Planner
available and it’s easy to use. You
just put in your current location and destination, and you’re on your
way. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling by transit, walking or
Downtown is filled with historic buildings, galleries, restaurants and mom and pop shops. From what I understand, there is a
McDonalds and Starbucks, but they must be hidden away. I never saw
them. The city had banned drive-through restaurants in the 1980’s. This
law was originally written to reduce traffic in this college town, but
it seems the law has also had an impact on reducing the waistline of
the residents. The
obesity rate here is 17.6%, versus the national average of 26.5%. A
number of hotels work with the car-free program and offer shuttle
services to nearby destinations. Quality Suites on Monterey Street is
one of them. This
hotel offers a hot breakfast, happy-hour wine and snacks and a shuttle
service. We were on a budget and couldn’t pass this up. All extras are
unpacking and making ourselves at home, we dressed for dinner and the
hotel shuttle dropped us off downtown at Novo Restaurant and Lounge. It
felt heavenly to sit outside on the patio overlooking San Luis Creek
while we munched on lettuce-wrap appetizers and drank local wine while
waiting for our dinner. The seared scallops & bok choy and spinach & ricotta ravioli were perfectly seasoned and exquisitely prepared.
and I slept like babies in our two-room suite. We could not wait to
wake up and go kayaking in the morning. After breakfast, we headed down
to Avila Beach Paddlesports for
the Point San Luis Lighthouse Adventure Tour. We didn’t need to worry
about what to wear: the company furnished everything from wet-suits to
water shoes. Vincent
and Emily found their true calling when they created this company.
Vincent, a natural teacher and world-class guide, fascinated us with
his stories about wildlife, local history and the 1890’s lighthouse.
The company founded “The Pay-it-Forward Paddling Project” for the
purpose of exposing high risk youth to the wonders of kayaking on the
ocean. Spending time here was not only inspiring, but a highlight of
kayaking, we headed back into town and over to Wally’s Bike Shop.
Wally, originally from Guatemala, is one of the most fascinating people
I’ve ever met. He came to this country with nothing and has put
together a very impressive bike shop. He set Pat and me up with our
bikes and in no time, Wally was driving us out to the wine country to
go “biking & sipping.” It seemed like everyone in town knew him and
waved the moment they spotted us driving by. His energy and outlook is
contagious and his bike shop is truly a reflection of him.
are over 30 boutique wineries in the Edna Valley region and they’re all
connected by country roads. I had never heard of “biking & sipping”
before this trip, but it sure was fun and this was the perfect place to
do it. We
did our homework ahead of time, and chose three premium wineries to
check out, all strategically located along back roads that wound
through the vineyards. We visited Cha-misal, the first vineyard planted in the valley and Baileyana,
located up on a hill in an old school house. Our last stop was
Claiborne & Churchill, a small family winery, owned by former
teachers from the University of Michigan.
Ciopinot, a highly-regarded restaurant, was the place to celebrate after spending an afternoon exploring the wineries. Ciopinot is
a perfect example of a farm-to-fork restaurant, consistently using
local fresh ingredients. The décor is classy and sophisticated. Cioppino, the signature dish, is the best! The Oyster Bar menu is filled with creative, luscious samplings, including Dungeness Crab Cakes.
you’re looking for fresh produce and farmers markets, San Luis Obispo
is the place to go. The area boasts 11,000 acres of organic fruit and
vegetable farming, over 300 wineries, fresh seafood from the Pacific
Ocean and locally-raised beef.
our last day, we woke up early and boarded a bus to head north on
Highway 1 to visit The Hearst Castle. Prior to this trip, I wasn’t
aware that William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnet, had actually
inherited the 250,000 hill-top acres with fabulous ocean views. In
addition to building “Casa Grande,” the main house, Mr. Hearst built
three Mediterranean-style guest houses, 41 fireplaces and created 127
acres of gardens. Plan on spending a lot of time here. It’s not an easy place to leave.
you’re considering a car-free vacation, it’s important to plan before
you go. You may want to make reservations ahead of time. Bus, train and
trolley schedules may change, depending on the season.
Luis Obispo (SLO) is authentic. We found it in the people and in the
simple pleasures we experienced each day. The natural beauty that
surrounds this small city is simply breathtaking. SLO is definitely a
place I want to come back to.
Car Free San Luis Obispo: contact www.slocarfree.org
Quality Suites: (805) 541-5001 or www.qualitysuitesslo.com
Wally’s Bicycle Works:
(805) 544-4416 or www.WallysBikes.com
San Luis Obispo Vintners Assoc.: (805) 541-5868 or www.slowine.com
Avila Beach Paddlesports: (805) 704-6902 or www.slocoastkayaks.com
Hearst Castle: (800) 444-4445 or www.hearstcastle.com
San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce: (805) 781-2777 or www.slochamber.org
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer residing in San Diego.