Central Coast offers much more than oceanfront beauty
Jan./Feb. 2005 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
From Hearst Castle to local wineries, the Central Coast has much more to offer than a stunning coastline.
Hearst Castle off of Highway 1 in San Simeon features 165 rooms, 127 acres and a view of beautiful coutryside.
Fond childhood camping memories motivated William Randolph Hearst to build a castle in San Simeon, San Luis Obispo County. With 71,000 square feet of astounding architecture, Hearst Castle is the top tourist attraction of this unique part of the Golden State.
The majestic oak trees, scenic rolling hills and ocean beaches that attracted the wealthy publisher continue to lure tourists, although beaches are just the beginning of the county's appeal.
Quaint, unpretentious and multi-faceted, San Luis Obispo County is home to a rapidly-growing wine sector, a bevy of spas, unique and up-scale accommodations, one of the nation's top farmers' markets and a university with a stellar reputation. It's also a naturalist's paradise where you can view everything from Monarch butterflies at Pismo Beach, elephant seals in the surf along Highway 1 and migrating whales from December through March. A quick drive away, in Santa Barbara County, you'll find the Danish community of Solvang and Santa Maria, home of fertile farm fields and famous barbequed tri-tip beef roasts.
San Luis Obispo County is home to two of the state's 21 Spanish missions, one in San Miguel and one in San Luis Obispo. If you're lucky, you can hear the bells toll while you're strolling through the scores of downtown specialty shops or enjoying al fresco dining in one of the unique restaurants.
Visitors to the county can savor the end product of local vineyards at some 100 wineries that bear familiar names such as Meridian and J. Lohr. Or, they can discover for themselves smaller wineries with exotic-sounding names such as Victor Hugo, Wild Coyote, Lions Peak and Grey Wolf. The Peachy Canyon winery features a tasting room that had been a historic schoolhouse, circa 1886.
A staple of early California, the winegrape, is making a smashing comeback throughout the Central Coast. The epicenter of growth is in Paso Robles in northern San Luis Obispo County. There were fewer than 1,000 acres of vineyards in San Luis Obispo County in the 1970s, though they now span close to 35,000 acres, bringing in more than $120 million a year.
"I think our future looks very good," said Steve Carter, J. Lohr's vineyard manager. "We're positioned almost exactly halfway between two large metropolitan areas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's a pretty area and there's been a huge increase in the number of things you can do here, so I think our future is quite optimistic."
Carter said his job is enjoyable but increasingly difficult, as area farmers and vintners pull out all stops to compete in a global wine economy. "For me, it's a nice lifestyle that has provided really well for my family. It gives a person the opportunity to produce something from start to finish."
He said he hopes he can convince his son to maintain the family grape-growing tradition. "A lot of farmers will tell you they would rather their kids grow up to be doctors or lawyers, but I hope that my son will carry this on," he said.
Wine is a hot topic and subject of study at California Polytechnic State University, where students responded in impressive numbers to the university's decision last spring to offer a bachelor's degree in wine and viticulture. Courses cover everything from growing grapes and making wine to marketing.
The motto at Cal Poly is "learn by doing," and the university provides plenty of examples in its widely heralded food and agriculture programs. Students grow organic vegetables, farm a huge grove of avocados, run a dairy, make ice cream, cheese, Atkins-friendly brownies and grow and sell plants.
Not far from the university on Higuera Street, you'll find one of the nation's premiere farmers' markets. Visitors from as far away as Europe head to the Thursday night market to soak up atmosphere that's filled with music, flavorful produce, fragrant flowers and even more fragrant barbeque.
The market has been a Godsend to farmers and has provided an economic shot in the arm to downtown merchants.
"Without a doubt, if I didn't have farmers' markets I'd be out of business," said grower Michael Cirone, who has 70 acres of produce growing at See Canyon farms. "Way back when, this street used to be open on Thursday night for cruising and the city was a little de-vitalized. There was an idea to put on a farmers' market about 20 years ago and it has evolved, for sure, going from a few growers with little card tables to a lot of the merchants coming out onto the street to display their products. It's definitely a community event and has been used as a model for other markets across the state of California."
Many restaurants feature locally grown food, tapping into one of the state's most productive agricultural areas. San Luis Obispo County farmers grow more than one-half billion dollars' worth of food annually, including a salad bar full of vegetables, strawberries, beef and cut flowers.
Dining ranges from the casual (Gus's Grocery Store has won honors as the best sandwich in town for more than a decade) to the Gold Rush Steak House at the Madonna Inn (where you can plunk down $75 for filet mignon and lobster).
Colorful local produce at the peak of ripeness is a stalwart attraction at the San Luis Obispo Farmers' Market.
There's a wide range of places to stay while exploring the area. In San Luis Obispo, the Apple Farm Inn offers elegant country living while the Madonna Inn is a much more "exuberant" experience that includes splashes of pink and what locals say are some of the best steaks in the region.
Local folks and travelers alike can expand their cultural horizons in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly offers upcoming events that include performances by the National Acrobats of Taiwan, Grammy award winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the Trinity Irish Dance Company, the Black Light Theater of Prague and the legendary folk group Peter, Paul and Mary.
Whether it's wine, wildlife or winding down from everyday pressures, a vacation in this part of California will provide a memorable experience?perhaps reason enough for you to follow in Hearst's footsteps and build your own castle.
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.