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San Luis Obispo: California’s last sleepy stretch of coast, hidden in plain sight

“I suddenly realized I was in California. The warm, pleasant air – the air you can kiss – and the palms.”

I think of these words Jack Kerouac wrote in 1951 as I turned off the state’s famous Highway 1 and took the roundabout route, before my eyes the glittering Pacific Ocean. Everything around me was tinged pink in the early afternoon light. The neon lights of a liquor store flicker, the sun-faded motel signs promise space, a couple walk hand in hand across the wide road framed by the rolling Irish hills. If the perfect sleepy beach town still exists in California, I wonder if I’ve found it yet.

Ryan Fortini, born and raised in the area and owner of the Pacific Motel, my two-night establishment, said: “The secret was revealed and there was a bit of a makeover, but it was still there. so for more than 30 years. .

Dawn looking towards Morro Rock from Cayucos

(Ellie Seymour)

I’m in Cayucos, a hidden surf town in San Luis Obispo County on California’s crowd-free central coast — aka SLO-CAL. Exactly halfway between San Francisco and LA, this serene haven is home to world-class surfing, glorious wine country, seal colonies, Michelin-starred restaurants, the most extravagant hotels world and even a luxury castle.

Despite SLO-CAL’s allure, this is an area most visitors stumble across along the Pacific Coast Highway only passing on their way to bigger ticketed coastal hotspots like Big Sur. But when they discovered it, they soon realized it was a vacation worthy destination in its own right and vowed to return.

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The next morning, from the terrace of my new favorite coffee shop, Hidden kitchen, I watched people clear driftwood in the butter-soft sand after a storm. And then I met my Cayucos Cowboy: a big blue corn waffle topped with eggs, smoky black beans, green salsa, avocado, and coriander (for us across the pond it was coriander). It’s California on a plate; perfect breakfast after surfing too, according to my husband Dan, who caught a few waves that morning and was starving.

With two days to play, we spent our first exploration north of the Cayucos, starting at Harmony, population 18. Founded in 1869 as the seat of the Harmony Valley Ice Cream Association, dated Now this is a quaint day destination where you’ll find the Harmony Valley Creamery Scoop Truck, Harmony Glass Works, Harmony Chapel and Gardens – people rent out entire towns for weddings – and craft galleries by Harmony Pottery Shop. There I met Devra, a local from Backwood-Los Osos, not far from the Cayucos. “Even more sleepy,” she promised of her home town, “You have to visit. It’s a real local place.

(Cali soul food at Hidden Kitchen)

Farther north, just past San Simeon at Rookie Piedras Blancas, I had an uneasy moment watching hundreds of elephant seals loiter around this protected 8-mile stretch of sand. And another while walking by the sea has the scent of cypress Fiscalini . Farm Reserve. It lies on the southern boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest marine reserve in the United States. Stroll the cobbled streets lined with purple wildflowers, white-tailed kites soar overhead and two southern sea otters frolicking among the waves.

On the inland detour back to the Cayucos through velvety green hills, we made an unexpected discovery: Stolo . Winery. It opened in 2000 but remains a secret spot for some locals. “I hadn’t even heard of it until last year, and I’ve lived in the area for years!” Jessica said as she poured me a Creekside Estate Pinot Noir to drink in the shaded English country garden.

“We spend the weekend in Cambria next door twice a year with our dog, Maggie,” says Joyce, a woman sitting on a wooden bench next to us, of her and her husband. Bill, both are members of the winery. “It’s just a lovely, beautiful and quiet place, with no one to compete with.”

The secret has been revealed and there’s been a bit of a makeover, but it’s still the same as in 30 odd years

SLO-CAL has received eight Michelin nominations in 2023, but we opted for a casual dinner at the locals favorite Beerwood, on Devra’s home ground, Baywood-Los Osos. When he saw a man step out of a vintage Pontiac convertible outside Merrymaker, a vintage corner street bar, and another man in a pale-stained hoodie parked his VW camper I feel transported to 1960s California. A slow drive home is through the magical Montaña de Oro, alive with wildflowers and towering eucalyptus trees; Campers and cars were already parked to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

It’s all too easy to get sucked into the bubble of small central California coastal beach towns, so on day two, I headed to the town of San Luis Obispo, a 20-minute drive south. Along the way, I peeked at the mighty Morro Rock – one of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic rocks that dot the coast from Morro Bay south to San Luis Obispo. It was once the setting for the first motel, now a slanted facade outside the chain-link fence. It opened on December 12, 1925, and offers accessible luxury for travelers like the Average Joe and celebrities – Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe are said to have stayed here during their honeymoon their secret.

Every Thursday night, the smell of smoky barbecue from the stall of F McLintocks – a local establishment – ​​fills the air at the Downtown SLO Farmers Market, drawing me in to buy a glossy, juicy rib. Though I made sure I made room for dessert at SLO-Cal’s most unexpected landmark, Madonna Inna kitch hotel the size of a small village.

(Ellie Seymour)

On my to-go list for years, this incredible Swiss-Alps-Meet-Barbiecore-style resort was originally created in 1958 by late construction magnate Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis. Luckily for me, Copper Café is open to non-guests and here I tried – and failed – to gobble up an entire slab of the bar’s famous pink champagne, served by a waitress in Lederhosen.

Cayucos check-out was a sad moment, tempered by my first bite of brown butter biscuits – crumbled, caramel-colored – from Central Coast bakery, the Brown Butter Cookie Companyand views of this wonderful stretch of coastline from this sumptuous historic estate, hearst . castle. It was built in 1919 in a prime location overlooking the village of San Simeon and the Pacific Ocean, by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. At least, he soon realized that SLO-CAL was worth more than a glance on the way to another place.

travel essentials

Arrive there

Round-trip fares from London Heathrow to San Francisco start from £577 with United Airlines. Airline British And Atlantic also offers direct flights.


Rooms at the new Pacific Motel in Cayucos from $299, room only.

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