San Luis Obispo: Coastal Paradise with City Pleasures
By Kathy Chin Leong

A proud native Californian, I'm embarrassed to say I never ventured to San Luis Obispo County until five years ago. Friends convinced us it was an excellent family trip notable for its ocean views, quaint towns, and slow pace. They were right.


From the Bay Area, begin your leisurely drive down Highway 1 to enjoy some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. Take your time. Be in the moment. Remember: San Luis Obispo's initials are S.L.O.! Slow! Along the way, stop for beach breaks and visits to the coastal towns. But FYI, a straight shot to San Luis Obispo takes about four to five hours.


The first major stop on your trip is San Simeon, home of the infamous Hearst Castle . While I have not gone there with my kids, my friend Joni whose children are 11 and 8, love the tour. Her daughter Michelle can't wait until they hit San Simeon again to go on another one which displays other parts of the castle. With a total of five tours including a nighttime excursion, Hearst Castle requires plenty of walking so make sure everyone's shoes are comfortable during the one hour, 45 minute home visit. Purchasing tickets in advance is advisable. Tickets currently run $24 for adults and $12 for kids 6-17. At Christmastime, you can come and take advantage of the castle in its festive glory.

Nearby, the artist colony of Cambria is an attractive hamlet with upscale antique stores and art galleries, coffee hangouts, and ice cream parlors. Because it is three hours away from San Jose, Cambria is the perfect rest stop for stretching your legs and taking in the charm of this tony English village. The two areas of town are called the East Village and West Village, both lined with wonderful shops. My kids' favorite is the Soldier Gallery which sells mniature soldiers from around the world.

Further down the road is the infinitesimal town of Harmony, population 18. The name is intriguing. Once this town had two feuding families. Word has it that one farmer shot and killed the other, and the clans were so distraught they vowed that they would have harmony between them from then on. Today, the former dairy town is an artists' conclave. Rustic barns are home to pottery, stained glass and knickknack shops.

Compared to Harmony, Morro Bay seems like a big city. This laidback seaside village is named after Morro Rock, a 576-foot extinct volcano that juts out of the water. You can kayak the bay as sea otters swim by or walk leisurely around the pier.

All the shops are casual and fun to poke around in, not too expensive and unpretentious. Kids will enjoy the Shell Shop , a colorful store with shells from all over the world. The store has the largest collection of shells in the Central Coast.

With ice cream parlors, restaurants, and eateries, plus an outdoor giant chess set for the public to enjoy, don't miss this gem of a town.

Just south of Morro Bay is Montana De Oro State Park with millions and millions of shiny rocks, all washed smooth by the surf. The walking paths on a hillside overlooking the sea are spectacular. We loved the breathtaking ocean views with giant, thunderous 15-foot waves. Picnic tables are conveniently located on the beach so you can park yourselves there comfortably.

Continuing south, give the kids a taste of academia by stopping at California Polytechnic State University, known as Cal Poly . Go to the student union, wolf down cheese pizza, and throw a few quarters into the video game booths. Your kids will love you for it and think university life is a breeze! On the perimeter of the campus, which specializes in agriculture, you can view the pens for goats, sheep and horses.


If there's any city life to be had, it's in San Luis Obispo. And here in the chic downtown area, you'll be reminded of the cozy streets of downtown Palo Alto. This downtown is alive with shopping, food, bookstores, theaters, coffee houses and salad bars. And it's really, really clean. If you want to get a sense of the scale of the downtown shopping area, board the SLO Trolley, a free ride that loops downtown every 15 minutes.

The San Luis Obispo Children's Museum is perfect for children under 10. Another one is the San Juis Obispo County Historical Museum , across from Mission Plaza, a pleasant and clean town square with a creek running through it.

Within walking distance is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa . If your child is in the fourth grade and studying California history, be sure to stop in and have him take notes or photos. 

If you can, make it a point to be in town on Thursday night. Every Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m., the streets are transformed into an outdoor Farmer's Market . The year round street fair features local growers, restauranteurs, and street artists.


If you go, everyone will be asking you if you went to the crazy Madonna Inn and to the Apple Farm, two landmarks worth visiting at least once.

The unique Madonna Inn is a world-famous hotel, boasting 109 distinctively decorated theme rooms. The Caveman room , for example, features a rock waterfall shower, faux animal skin blankets, stone walls and ceilings. But you don't have to stay overnight to get a taste of the eccentric. The foyer of the Madonna Inn restaurant and adjacent coffee shop screams pink stuffed animals, pink clindrical booths, bright cabbage rose carpeting, opulent Venetian glass and over-the-top wood carvings in the furniture and wall decor. Think Vegas in pink, and you'll get the idea.

The Apple Farm Inn is a more subdued place, almost boring next to the Madonna Inn. However, this Victorian inn, gift shop and restaurant is fun to browse through. Snack on homemade apple ice cream at one of the two county stores. There is a water mill on the premises for that Kodak moment, and you can take in a meal at the Apple Farm restaurant, famous for its hearty American breakfasts.


Below San Luis is Avila Beach a restored beach that is small, but charming. A tiny boardwalk runs along the beach with different seafood restaurants and beach themed shops. Avila Valley Barn is a major kid magnet. This popular produce stand runs its own bakery with to-die-for apple pies. The children love the farm animals, and in the fall, there are huge pumpkins, bales of hay and bins and bins of apples.

Our friends, Al and Susan, introduced us to Avila Hot Springs , a rustic hot springs 20x20 foot pool with a vast swimming pool on the premises. Kids can slide down the twisty waterside and have fun splashing around or do lap swimming. The mineral pool is a great spot to go for a swim or to relax those poor driving muscles in 105 degree water. Avila Hot Springs allows tent and RV camping on its field, and in the main office building there is a renovated arcade, hot food snack bar that sells decent pizza. Entry fees are $8 adult, $6.50 kids for the entire day.

Further down the road, you'll find Pismo State Beach . Famous for being a hot clamming spot, the beat has a monarch butterfly grove. Friday through Sunday, docents lead walks on the interpretive trail.

You can spend a long weekend, even a week or more on the Central Coast. Just remember to take it S.L.O.



Soldier Factory, Cambria 805/927-3804
Hearst Castle, San Simeon 1800/444-4445
Shell Shop, Morro Bay 805/772-8014
Avila Valley Barn, SLO 805/489-2684
Montana De Oro State Park 805/528-0513
Mission San Luis Obispo 805/543-6850
Cal Poly State University 805/756-2161
SLO Children's Museum 805/544-KIDS


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