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Awareness Magazine
5753-G Santa Ana Canyon Rd. #582
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Car Free in San Luis Obispo

By Ann Nelson


My 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 Ocean.

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.

I 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 biking.

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 free!

After 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.   

Pat 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 our trip.

After 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. 

There 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.

If 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.

On 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.

If 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.

San 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

Quality Suites: (805) 541-5001 or

Wally’s Bicycle Works:

(805) 544-4416 or 

San Luis Obispo Vintners Assoc.: (805) 541-5868 or

Avila Beach Paddlesports: (805) 704-6902 or

Hearst Castle: (800) 444-4445 or 

San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce: (805) 781-2777 or


Ann Nelson is a freelance writer residing in San Diego.