SLO shows visitors how to get happy

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday March 29, 2017
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There's a reason why people who live on California's Central Coast are so darn happy.

The region is an idyllic sweet spot that has somehow retained its secretiveness even after San Luis Obispo, affectionately called SLO by locals, was named the happiest place to live in America by National Geographic and Oprah Winfrey in 2011.

You can feel that sense of calm and happiness waft over you as you leave the action-packed and crowded San Francisco Bay Area behind. At Monterey, Highway 101 begins to open up from the gnarled traffic. The road opens to a decent pace along the two lane stretch of the historic El Camino Real lined with scenic planted rows of artichokes, avocados, almonds, leafy greens, and other fruits and vegetables in Salinas, the agricultural heart of the Golden State. Then, finally, the rolling hills of vines appear just outside of the historic town made famous by author John Steinbeck all the way to Paso Robles, before dropping down toward sea level into San Luis Obispo.

The two towns are the heart of the California Central Coast's wine region, but for many years it was a quiet coastal area and the perfect resting stop midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, both four hours to the south and north, respectively. Travelers really didn't stay. They had lunch and perhaps checked out the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, California Polytechnic State University (better known as Cal Poly), and the famed Madonna Inn with its unique rooms and ornate men's bathroom before moving onto bigger destinations.

Then there was a movement in the early 1970s to create a true community. The city limited cars in the downtown area, took advantage of the natural beauty of the creek and surrounding area, and created an environment that would encourage residents and visitors alike to walk around and connect with one another. The outcome was a charming town where people are happy. Yet, in some ways, it has a somewhat cosmopolitan flair, with well-educated residents who are interested in the world beyond them and how to participate in global as well as local and national issues. A large part of that is because it's a university town.

However, that is all about to change for two reasons. The wine region, which boasts of heavyweight vineyards Daou, Justin, and Opolo, and has been a coveted favorite of oenophiles and foodies seeking something different from Sonoma and Napa, is becoming increasingly well known. Second, San Luis Obispo Regional Airport is expanding its service, which will make it easier for travelers to visit. At the beginning of the year, the airport announced that United Express, operated by SkyWest Airlines, will offer four daily round trip flights between San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. That service started March 9.

"I feel like this is a unicorn town. How did I not know about this place before?" asked Fawzia "The Faz" Mirza, a queer Pakistani Muslim woman from Chicago. Mirza was in town to present her film "Signature Move," which had just premiered at South by Southwest, at the recent San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

She called San Luis Obispo "magical."

"As we were flying in and the fog cleared and we came below the fog all of the sudden I felt like we were landing in Europe," Mirza said. "We are in some beautiful space."

"Everything is very cute," lesbian filmmaker Betsy Kalin said about the walkable downtown centered around the Mission and the creek that runs through the city. "The beauty too, Montana de Oro is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I mean just if you are talking about lesbians and hiking ... it's just gorgeous. I love it."

Kalin was also in town for the film festival, which featured a number of LGBT movies. She moderated the festival's women in film panel and the "The Girls Just Want to Have Fun" lesbian shorts discussions.

"I'm sure I have to come back to SLO with my partner," said Mirza, telling the Bay Area Reporter that there are about 41 things to do that have been recommended to her, but she only had time to do about half during this trip. She also said she plans to tell everyone she knows to visit SLO.

"This town is awesome," she said.


Simply charming

Local gays �" natives and transplants �" agreed with visitors about the charm and plethora of things to do. It's why they either never left or journeyed across borders to call San Luis Obispo and the surrounding area home.

"The Central Coast is a great spot to vacation in general, regardless of whether you are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning or what the other things might be. The Central Coast is just a really fun place to come visit," said Robert Kinports, 49, a gay man who is the property manager of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, San Luis Obispo's LGBT community center, and Pride coordinator.

Gay restaurateur Robin Covey, 60, agreed.

"It's a little bit longer getaway ... there's just more adventure and exploration," said Covey, who co-owns with his ex-wife, Shanny Covey, fine dining restaurant Luna Red and casual dining eateries Cafe Fiero and Mint & Craft, which will open by the end of April.

Covey owns Novo in San Luis Obispo, while Shanny Covey took over Robin's Restaurant in Cambria nearly 15 years ago, he said.

"It's a great wine area. [There's] great hiking. There's the ocean. There's a lot to do and it's very low-key," added Covey, who enjoys golfing at Morro Bay Golf Course, hiking on Montana de Oro and Madonna Mountain, and taking in the arts in San Luis Obispo. "It's not quite as much as a 'been there, done that'" experience, he added.

Kinports noted that since he moved to the area from Florida in 1991 he's observed the community come out of the closet and become more accepted in the once conservative town, which is now more politically moderate.

Other locals pointed out that the LGBT community is simply woven into the fabric of the community. They have been assimilated and are accepted. Local LGBTs like to dine, party, and shop. They go to work downtown or in other neighboring towns, enjoy the outdoors, and raise their families just like everyone else.

"They just participate in life," said Covey, who grew up in nearby Cambria and has lived in San Luis Obispo since 2003.

The largest event for San Luis Obispo County's LGBT community is Central Coast Pride. Usually held in July, it attracts upward of 5,000 gay and straight attendees from all over the county and beyond, Kinports noted. The event is hosted in front of the Mission in San Luis Obispo and the after-party is hosted at Novo, which is just across the bridge over the creek from the Mission.

This year will be Central Coast Pride's 21st celebration.

Novo also hosts a Beleza Nights every Friday and Saturday night, which is popular both with the gays and straights.

Wendy Eidson, executive director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, also talked about the community.

"We have a strong and wonderful LGBT community," said Eidson, a 58-year-old ally, who is proud to have offered LGBT-themed films and filmmakers at the festival over the 12 years she's worked there.

There were several LGBT documentaries, which the festival is known for, and movies this year, including "The Freedom to Marry," "Happy," and the lesbian shorts.


Dinner and a movie

My girlfriend and I recently made the drive down Highway 101 to go wine tasting at the beginning of the year in Paso Robles. I traveled solo to San Luis Obispo to attend the film festival earlier this month. It was a perfect weekend escape.

I got into San Luis Obispo late Friday night and unwound with a wonderful dinner at Novo. It was an amazing dining experience. My waiter, who was gay, was knowledgeable discussing the wine and food selections and living "gayly" in SLO. Everything was spot-on, from the 2015 Dolcetto Dogliani from Italy that went perfectly with the chevre to the seared Diver Scallops on a bed of spinach and pureed butternut squash that was a perfect dining experience under the trees along the creek. This wasn't the only good dining experience I had in the area. During a separate trip to Paso Robles, which is only 30 minutes from San Luis Obispo, earlier this year, my girlfriend and I had excellent experiences at La Cosecha and the Steakhouse at Paso Robles Inn Restaurant.

Lunch was a pizza affair. I dined on artisan wood oven fired pizza at SLO Brew, which was recently remodeled, in San Luis Obispo. In Paso Robles, we both enjoyed the pizza at Artisan and Opolo.

For breakfast I enjoyed more great service and a healthy Mediterranean omelet at the charming Big Sky Cafe, which was gay-owned until recently, in San Luis Obispo. However, I couldn't say the same for the overhyped Louisa's Place Restaurant. The food was average diner fare and the service was amazingly slow even at the counter. I also heard great things from others about gay-owned SLO Provisions and Splash Cafe and Artisan Bakery for breakfast and lunch options. In Paso Robles, we enjoyed breakfast at Cowgirl Cafe and Springside restaurants. Cowgirl Cafe took home the prize for the biscuits and gravy.

San Luis Obispo restaurateur Robin Covey stands outside at Novo, his popular restaurant. Photo: Heather Cassell 


What to do

The breakfast fueled us for a day of wine tasting and marathon movie watching. We headed up into the Paso Robles hills to Daou, stopping at Alta Colina winery on the way. We continued our tasting adventure at Justin and Opolo before heading down the hill to Eos Vineyards. I also met Katie Hayward, owner of Uncorked Wine Tours, at gay-owned Asuncion Ridge Vineyard Tasting Room for a tasting and lunch.

These were our choices of activities, but San Luis Obispo offers more than wine, food, and movies. Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the more than 30 trails in the county, championship golf courses, great surf spots, and more.


Where to sleep

After full days of watching movies and wine tasting we checked into Best Western Plus Black Oak in Paso Robles and the Lamplighter Inn in San Luis Obispo before hitting replay the next day.

Both hotels we stayed at were conveniently located close to town and the highway, making it easy to get anywhere we wanted to go.


How to get to there

Drive south on Highway 101, also known as Historic El Camino Real. Fly from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. Take Amtrak along the coast.