Slowing down in SLO CAL

Having been fortunate enough to partake in a few American road trips over the years, nothing quite prepares you for the change in landscape and climate that you can experience in a relatively short space of time. In a matter of hours you can be instantly transported into another world, the people are different, the air, the food, the roadsides that flash past you in a speedy blur. As we bid a fond farewell to the dry heat and urban jungle of Las Vegas, we settled into our first long drive of the trip. Armed with Twizzlers, Goldfish and a plethora of other American car snacks, we allowed a needed silence to fill the car, the bells and rings of slot machines and roulette tables slowly dimming in our ears and being replaced with woosh of a coastal breeze. 

As we moved further into the Californian coastline it became instantly apparent why West Coasters have a certain reputation of being laid back and carefree. Our weary Vegas bodies began to revitalise. As we put more distance between us and the man made playground, we softened in tandem with the skyline. Sky scrapers and towering hotels were replaced with bloom covered hills and green pastures. The expansive views of city scapes now replaced with blue ocean. Hell, there was even a ‘did that really happen’ moment of a dolphin jumping out of the sea and swimming alongside our car for a stretch of the journey. We had spent our first week rushing in giddy excitement from one experience to the next in a city that makes you think fast and spontaneously, now was the time to slow down and be mindful about our next moves and as we wound our way up the PCH, stopping every couple of kilometres to take in the breathtaking views, we did just that.

Where to stay

The whole coastline of Central California is peppered with accommodations. When conducting some initial research on the Visit SLO CAL website to see the options available it became quickly apparent that tourists from all price points are spoilt for choice.

Fortunately for us our choice had been made for us for one hotel and the second, well that is one I had had on my ‘I have to visit here’ list since the dawn of time.

The Cliffs Hotel and Spa

Picture this, a day on the road in the best possible way. Weaving out of LA and up through Malibu, taking in the elite architecture of the 1%  juxtaposed with surf shacks and surfers vans. Blue waves crashing out to your left, white celebrity homes flash past on your right. Squeals of delight as we see dolphins jump through the surface of the water as if they are racing us, murmerings as we wonder who lives behind those gates – Miley or Gaga? All soundtracked to Hole’s Malibu of course. Then up through the Spanish colonial city of Santa Barabara, backdropped by the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains, a quick stop for ice cream and coffee to fuel up for the final leg up to Pismo – a town known for its surf, beaches and wineries.

There is an old time charm surrounding Pismo Beach, perhaps from the bright lights that showcase the pier or the Americana sign that sits high above the buildings, notifying everyone exactly where they are should they forget. Checking into The Cliffs Hotel, the charm continues. Greeted by an effervescent valet and an even more sparkly concierge, we were ushered to our room. Weary from being in the car for so long, we were now on the hunt for comfort and gentleness. The energy of Vegas had left us, we wanted to hunker down and be looked after, we had come to the right place.

As the door opened to reveal two enormous double beds with a huge jacuzzi style tub perfectly positioned  so you could watch the sunset a wave of relaxation enveloped our bodies. It was as if the hotel new what we needed and was here to look after us, “you’ve had a long few days” she cooed, “come, sit on your private balcony overlooking the ocean with this bottle of red wine and cheese plate, afterwards you can run a bubble bath and rejuvenate”. So we did just that and as we reclined in sheer bliss with wine in hand and cheese on cracker, the sky turned to a fiery orange and a pod of dolphins put on a display, the most magical way to end a magical day. Due to our schedule we didn’t have that much time to explore the hotel but if I am ever back in this area I will be sure to – we only scratched the surface but it was a jolly nice surface to scratch.

Rooms start from £150

The Madonna Inn

A thing of legend and a place where we would be housed for the next two nights of our trip. If you have not heard of The Madonna Inn, look it up immediately. Built in the 1950s, the world famous hotel takes residence in San Luis Obispo. With 110 themed guest rooms ranging from the ‘rock room’ complete with boulders and rock faces to the Sugar and Spice room which literally looks like it has been doused in pink sugar, there is something for everyone. It also has a pool, restaurant, cafe & bakery with its world famous pink Champagne cake, shop (that took far too much of my money, I blame the fringed silk shirts), dance hall, horseback riding and breathtaking views reaching over the Prefumo Canyon. It is truly a unique place, full to the brim with kitsch decor, over the top interiors and camp details and I couldn’t have loved a place more.

The Madonna Inn knows what it is and is totally unapologetic about it. She is bold and brassy and some bits don’t work but everyone seems to be ok with that because what she lacks in blinds that close all the way or aircon that stays on, she makes up for in buckets of personality.

We stayed in the Tack Room – a sexy number. Equestrian paraphernalia at every turn – knee high leather boots, saddles, Stubbs-esque artwork on the walls. Pony skin rugs lined the floor and the walls were drenched in a dark red paint that bled into the equally red leather bed heads. I’m still not entirely sure if this room was meant for two girls sharing a road trip but we had a great time nonetheless. Whilst the walls could probably talk you through far more sordid goings ons, we did the next best thing – ran to the shop, bought matching pink horse print pyjamas and ate bright pink cake in bed – it was glorious.

Propping up the bar at The Madonna Inn is an activity everyone must do at least once in their life, if you are lucky enough to be there on an evening when the famous dance hall comes to life you are in for a treat. But fear not if the calendar doesn’t line up, there is live music most nights and whether you choose to dance or sip your pink cocktail on the sidelines, it is always a hoot. 

Where to eat and drink

As with most things in this region, you are truly spoiled for eateries. Being one of the best known wine regions in the world and having proudly championed farm to table cooking before it was chic, the people of SLO CAL really know what they are doing in the world of food and drink.

Center of Effort

Perched in the foothills of the Edna Valley, this wine estate benefits from the cool ocean breeze and morning fogs rolling in from the Pacific Ocean meaning their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are some of the best. The private estate is available to book for dining by request only, a pretentious notion some may think but in actuality, once welcomed in, the benefits are understood. A perfectly tailored experience that allows the somme and chef to take you through both the wines produced and the menu – usually derived from ingredients grown on site or very close by resulting in an informative and one of a kind experience.

Copper Cafe

The Copper Cafe sits within the aforementioned Madonna Inn. Adopting its namesake from the large copper sculptures that were created from waste of wiring and piping when the hotel was built. The cafe is fun and fabulous. A huge circular bar takes centre stage with bright red leatherette seating surrounding it. Clashing floral carpets and wallpapers make you feel like you are sitting within the brain of a drag queen in the best possible way. Famed for its baked goods, the cake is served in slices about a foot tall – I was convinced this would be a style over substance situation but lo and behold, it was the most delicious cake I have ever eaten – layers of soft sponge with clouds of Bavarian buttercream icing, the cake alone is the stuff dessert dreams are made of. There is also the classic American breakfast, lunch and dinner available where you can expect things to be just as kitsch – think pancakes with pink sugar and baked potatoes wrapped in gold leaf.

The cafe is open to non residents making it a must for anyone passing through.

The Restaurant at JUSTIN

From the brash boldness of the Copper Cafe to the refined and relaxed sophistication of The Restaurant at JUSTIN – perhaps the most peaceful and tranquil restaurant I have ever eaten at. Another proud Californian winery but this one with Chef Rachel Haggstrom at the helm who has won the place both a Michelin star and a Michelin Green Star for their work in sustainable cooking and harvesting.

Tables are cleverly positioned on the terrace far enough away from each other that lounging labradors have space to stretch – it is dog friendly and it seemed this was the dog of choice on this day – but close enough to create a buzzy ambience, all positioned in such a way that diners can look over the overreaching vineyards. The sommeliers and wait staff are some of the most knowledgeable I have ever come across and move with the energy of worker bees – darting from table to pass to wine cooler, never so much as breaking a sweat, constantly maintaining topped up glasses and brains as they impart their wisdom with their guests. On completion of our lunch and wine pairing, a quick turn around the kitchen garden, the foundation of the seasonal menu and Chef Haggstrom’s pride and joy – herbs and leaves of all descriptions jostled with each other, begging to be picked and plucked ready for the next award winning garden salad. This place is the epitome of farm to table cooking.

Hidden Kitchen

An institution within the surfing community of Cayucos, this laid back breakfast to lunch restaurant is famed for its blue corn tacos and waffles and gargantuan smoothies and with good reason. 

I don’t even surf but after a breakfast of champions here, sitting on the outdoor patio, watching the waves crash, I felt I could take on a barrel as well as the ripped, tanned guy sitting next to me.

The offering reeks of ‘california cool’, dishes such as ‘Reef Rancheros’ – eggs, black beans, green salsa and Hidden Kitchen hot sauce and huge 16oz smoothies aptly named ‘Big Sur Blue’ fly out of the kitchen to be gobbled up by hungry patrons. Nice touches like a vintage clothes rail where people can leave their wares for the next person to pick up and curated merch make this place what it is, an intricate part of the Cayucos tapestry.

Things to do

You will never run out of things to do in SLO CAL – we could have spent a month there and still not covered everything there is on offer and that’s not including all the places to eat and drink. No matter your age, budget, activity preference there will absolutely be something that tickles your fancy here.

Kayaking in Avila Beach

This may have been my highlight of the whole trip. I kid you not when I say tears rolled down my cheeks at one point during this excursion. My traveling companion, a much more outdoorsy type than I, is an absolute sucker for a kayak related jaunt. Knowing she was nearing capacity of wine and tacos and my squeals of excitement that go along with them, I planned a morning on water to soothe her.

Not the strongest of swimmers and with absolutely no hand eye coordination, much to her dismay I insisted we take a double kayak out as visions of me drifting out to sea entered my head. After a quick briefing from the team on the shore about which route to take and what we could expect to see we hopped (slid) in. There had been  mention of sea otters and I may or may not have spent the night previous googling ‘how likely is it to see sea otters at Avila beach’. Imagine my sheer joy when we were told “oh yeah, they’re right over there, you can see them bobbing about”. I should probably backtrack slightly here and inform you that I LOVE a sea otter. And there weren’t just a few bobbing about, hundreds of them. Holding hands, rolling around in kelp, ducking and diving – it was one of those moments where you really question “is this my life?” Or at least you do if you are really into sea otters.  The water here  is perfectly sheltered meaning it was like a mill pond when we wet set sail… paddle (?). After what didn’t feel like anywhere near long enough but was probably nearly 30 minutes of staring at these adorable creatures we moved on to the next wildlife installment, a colony of seals basking on a jetty by the pier, another incredible sight to see up close and personal. We continued our journey to a private beach where we moored up and walked to a lighthouse, very picturesque and nourishing. All round, a fantastic way to spend a morning and something I won’t forget for a while.

SOL Spa and Downtown SLO

If even a gentle kayak is too much like hard work, no shame. May I suggest a visit to the Sol Spa at Hotel San Luis Obispo in Downtown SLO. This cavern of tranquility is ready and waiting to welcome you with open arms. As soon as you step foot in the zen oasis, full of neutral tones, soft music and even softer closing doors, any worries and stresses ebb away before you even make your way onto the massage couch. However, on the couch is where things truly get special. Both my friend and I opted for the signature massage and it was perhaps up there with one of the greatest we’ve ever had. Limbs were manipulated and muscles stretched as the folds and creases of car seats were brushed away from our bodies. From here I would suggest slowly wafting your way to the main hotel for a coffee in the lounge whilst your senses return to your body. Once confident that you can walk rather than float out of the hotel, Downtown SLO is itching to be explored. A university town at heart, full of independent cafes, book stores and record shops – the perfect place to wander around and get lost in. If you can schedule it so you land here on a Thursday then all the better for it as when day turns to night, the town comes alive for the SLO Farmers Market.

Downtown SLO Farmers Market

SLO CAL was doing farmers markets before farmers markets were a thing so it was with excitement and intrigue we parked up ready to immerse ourselves in town’s pride and joy. Every Thursday sees the main street pedestrianised and lined with growers, suppliers and producers of the county’s finest offerings – fruit,vegetables, cheeses, nut butters it was all here. Purveyors have the prime real estate here but they make way for street food vendors and food trucks so shoppers can grab their goods and then have a bite to eat. Shout out to the steak slinging cowboys – a treat for the taste buds and the eyes. Alongside food and drink is live music and street shows ensuring that the whole town is shrouded in a palpable energy. It is easy to see why it draws in crowds from far and wide.

Kiler Ridge Olive Oil tasting

High up in the Paso Robles hills sits Killer Ridge olive oil farm. A family run affair producing small batch Extra Virgin Olive Oil, not something stumbled upon very often on American soil but during a cycle trip through Tuscany, the owners pondered if California could produce wine like Italy, why not olive oil? And so the fifteen acre farm was established and 835 Tuscan olive trees planted. Now there is a real sense of community with the farm as people are invited to help with harvest and come together to try each year’s produce. Tastings are available where guests can try the variations of olive oil available and learn about the process from the growers. 


A short drive from Kiler Ridge lies The Bruce Monro installation : Lights at Sensorio. Another highlight of the trip and something that has been on my bucket list since it opened in 2019. An immersive walk through outdoor exhibit in the Paso Robles hills that is comprised of 100,000 solar powered flickering light orbs. Of all the pictures I had pawed over on Pinterest, nothing could do this spectacle justice. Get here as the sun goes down and prepare to lose yourself in something that feels truly otherworldly.

Hearst Castle

No trip to this region would be complete without a visit to the legendary Hearst Castle. Once home to William Randolph Hearst and now a museum allowing us mere mortals who could only dream of such an estate a look into the inner workings of such an establishment. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived here, I had never heard of it, nor could I find much information online but curiosity peaked and culture vulture engaged, we made our way to San Simeon to see what we could find. If you had told me I would be alighting a bus that climbs the mountain tracks with flocks of zebras either side (yes real ones) I wouldn’t have believed you but that’s exactly what happened. As people congregated at the visitors centre, ready to be ushered on to their allocated vehicle, things started to feel a bit Jurassic Park. The bus heaved its way up the mountain side, through pastures we were told once housed all manor of wild beasts. Past old farm buildings where animals were reared for Hearst’s grand banquets – the originator of farm to table cooking in these parts it would seem, and onto the castle itself. Built in 1947, the complex includes two guest houses, pools and fountains, a cinema and tennis courts. This is where the rich and famous escaped La La land and came to play – if worthy of an invite of course. Designed and curated by one of the first female architects in the US and filled to the brim of wares and finds from travels across the globe, there are seven tours to choose from (it would be near impossible to see everything in detail in one swoop) so choose your preference and prepared to be amazed at what has been created here.

Elephant Seals Vista Point

For our last stop of our trip, we wound down from San Simeon and picked up our beloved Highway 1, stopping at a local fruit stand on the side of the road to grab some locally grown strawberries.Making  the decision to drive as far as we could up the PCH, knowing it was closed about 40 miles north but wanting to take in as much of the breathtaking scenery as possible and comfortable in the knowledge we could pull off in a multitude of vista points along the way, the first of those being home to a huge colony of Elephant Seals. Another example of the multitude of wildlife that resides in this region and the vast variety of things to see and do here.

As we leant our forearms on the fencing and dangled our heads over so we could see the beach below and the odd looking beasts that inhabited it, I drew a parallel as two weeks previous I had stood in exactly the same position on a Vegas balcony. Bright twinkling lights of the strip dots of sunbeams dancing across the Pacific. The ringing and crashes of the Vegas soundscape replaced with crashing waves and grunting seals. The suggestion of a cocktail now and outstretched hand offering the last strawberry. The excitement of two girlfriends about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime now replaced with a bond only brought about by traveling the world together.

We had a clear idea of what we wanted out of this trip and it delivered in spades. We laughed, we cried, we ate, we drank. We reconnected with each other as we connected with the West Coast – from the dizzying heights of Las Vegas to the slow paced ways of SLO CAL. This road trip mimicked our friendship – a whirlwind of excitement that blows out and paves the way for a long and gentle journey together and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Getting there

I will always champion driving through as much of this area as you can. Daily direct flights from the UK are available to Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which are 3.5 hour drive from SLO CAL.

Should you choose not to road trip, there are daily direct flights to San Luis Obispo Regional airport from both Sand Francisco and LA.

Find our more about SLO CAL

Read all about Part 1 of this trip here.

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