I chased the sun all the way to California in a desperate search for the sun-dappled, glittery, dry vacation we all dream for. Indeed I found it- in a coastal college town, wine country, LA beaches, and even the desert. But like all wanderers, I ended up with more than I bargained for. Striving for perfection is a dangerous game, after all. But why was I chasing the sun in the first place?
It all started when my husband and I planned a getaway to Denver, Colorado. This would be my first time in the sunny state, and sun was what I craved most, given that our Ohio spring was a soggy one. My travel dreams filled up with what I imagined a golden Colorado summer to be: hiking up floral-covered mountains, cooling our ankles in sun-dappled creek beds, and picking fresh fruits and flowers from local farms.
But sadly, my sunny Colorado dream vanished, and in its place, a week’s worth of forecasted rain. I spent the next 24 hours in denial, like a kid wishing away the storm clouds at the pool. But the outlook only seemed to worsen with time.
We shall re-route, I said with a bit of madness in my resolve and pulled up the national radar. In the early morning hours and with a touch of sleep-deprived hysteria, I turned sun-tracker and found it in The Golden State. And I couldn’t think of a better way to chase the sun than driving along California’s Pacific Coast. Our three stops: San Luis Obispo, Palm Springs, and Santa Monica.
San Luis Obispo
A Laid-Back Coastal College Town
San Luis Obispo (locals call it SLO, pronounced “slow”) is an adorable town smack dab between LA and San Francisco. The route from LA to SLO consists of Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coastal Highway), as well as US Route 101 and State Route 154. You’ll drive through some purely coastal stretches, while other parts wind through golden peaks and valleys lined with vineyards. Depending on traffic, it’s about a 3-hour drive from LAX.
SLO is known for a couple things: home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), the world famous Madonna Inn laden with Barbie-pink trimmings, and holding the humble title of “Happiest Place in America”- to name a few.
What makes SLO so happy? For the one, the name says it all. It’s a much SLO-er pace than the cities which flank its sides. People mosey here, on bikes or on foot. Even behind the wheel, no one seemed to be in a rush. The idyllic downtown streets, strung with twinkling lights and lined with whimsical trees, encourage the moseying. Plus, based on its mountainous geography, you have the feeling of being tucked into the town, a cozy feeling indeed.
You have the Nine Sister peaks to thank for the snug environment, a collection of volcanic rock that surround SLO. They provide not only a feeling of serenity but activity to visitors and locals alike. Though not all are hike-able, due to private ownership, several are open to the public. We didn’t hike this trip, though it’s definitely on our list of things to do when we visit again. But just simply having a view of these beautiful peaks, especially stunning lit in the sun’s early evening glow, made us appreciate this beautiful piece of the world.
Another charming factor of SLO is the weather. A mild climate makes everyone happy, right? And SLO has a reputation of sunny but mild forecast. On a couple of occasions, I actually wore a sweater in the evening, a welcome change from the sweltering temperatures we experienced during our day trips out to the neighboring wine country.
SLO has delicious food- from sophisticated farm-to-table spots to rowdy pizza hangouts and a near century-old deli. One of my favorite dining spots was Luna Red. They serve Spanish cuisine paired with local wines. Our first night in town, we ate on the patio with a view of SLO’s Mission de Tolosa Bell Tower. Spanish tunes and clinking glasses sounded in the background while we enjoyed a deliciously crunchy paella under shaded tree.
We stayed at Hotel Cerro, a boutique hotel in the downtown, just steps away from the local restaurants and shops. We not only appreciated the location but the calm, zen atmosphere. The rooms were delightful- lots of natural light, a super comfortable bed with luxurious linens, and plenty of space. To top it all off was the rooftop pool with views of the city and the quintessential Nine Sister peaks.
Turning Pink in Paso Robles
Flanked by wine country and pristine beaches, SLO provides a perfect landing spot for grape lovers and beach goers alike. One of our days we spent exploring California’s Mediterranean-like agriculture in Paso Robles, just 30 minutes away from SLO. Over 200 vineyards populate the area, but its hilly landscape and climate makes a great home for olives as well.
We toured Kiler Ridge, a 15-acre olive farm with Italian olive tree varieties. To get to the farm, you drive up a steep winding driveway. Once on top of the hill, you’re looking over beautiful groves of olive trees, their limbs swaying in the warm, dry breeze. We visited on a balmy morning, hoping to beat the worst of the climbing temperatures. The heatwave quickly forced us under shade but we still had a beautiful view. I definitely recommend visiting if you’re in the area.
By afternoon, we found Bianchi Winery, only 15 minutes from Kiler Ridge. This vineyard sits on a beautiful landscape, like most in the area, yet is unique in the fact that they have a koi pond and bocci ball court for a little added entertainment. We enjoyed the space as well as their wines.
Finding our scalps pink and tender by the end of the afternoon, we surrendered to the sun. With temperatures reaching 108 degrees, we gladly ran back to SLO with much gratitude for her cool evenings and ficus tree shade.
Check This Out!
To read more about San Luis Obispo- check out this post I wrote for GoNomad Travel
San Luis Obispo turned out to be a lovely landing spot on the central coast. Despite the surrounding heat waves, we left town feeling recharged and refreshed. But the second part of our trip awaited, so southward we pushed, towards Palm Springs.