The New York Times
May 14, 2004, Friday Late Edition - Final
Section F Page 4 Column 1 Desk: Escapes Length:2507 words
JOURNEYS; 36 Hours | San Luis Obispo, Calif.
By CHRIS DIXON
IN September of 1772, Junipero Serra, a Jesuit missionary,established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa along a babblingbrook in a verdant valley near the Pacific Ocean. Today, he might beastounded to learn that a city of 44,000 people has sprung up aroundhis historic church. Yet Father Serra would also happily find thatthe oak-dotted grassy mountains and forested canyons surrounding SanLuis Obispo are much the same as when he walked the California coastcarrying mustard seeds to mark his trail. Indeed, his yellow flowersnow cover the springtime hillsides, adding even more color to analready vibrant community. By the way, Obispo means Bishop. CHRISDIXON
1. Feeling Blue
Early last year, a few local restaurateurs turned a downtownsteakhouse into Blue (998 Monterey Street, 805-783-1135), asurprisingly intimate bar, restaurant and jazz club where regularshave private lockers for their wine. If you like to people watch, sitin the bar or the downstairs lounge and start with a Blue martinigarnished with a Maytag blue cheese-stuffed olive ($7). Live musicusually begins about 10 p.m. as dinner service ends. Whet yourappetite with one of the Asian lettuce wraps with hoisin mincedchicken and soy wasabi sauce ($8). ''The Best Filet in Town'' ($26)comes with potato gratin with Maytag blue cheese butter,sautéed spinach and a Cognac demi-glace.
2. Down the Creek
If you don't want to stick around for the music at Blue, strolldown the winding art- and plant-lined path that runs beside San LuisObispo Creek, which carries much of the water from the surroundinghills to the Pacific. Don't wake up the sleeping ducks.
3. The Fruits of Their Labor
Every Saturday morning from 8 to 10, more than 45 vendors can befound at the bustling San Luis Obispo Farmers' Market (305 MadonnaRoad in the Applebee's parking lot, 805-544-9570). The Pure &Simple Bakery sells fruit-filled scones ($2) and croissant-doughswirls filled with Marsala-marinated currants in orange pastry cream($3.75). But don't fill up: The friendly Peacock, Windrose andDomingo Farms folk offer assortments of fruits, vegetables andcheeses.
4. On Your Feet
San Luis's downtown shopping district is filled with offbeatstores like California Blonde (1137 Garden Street, 805-783-2890). JoyBaker, the owner, proudly calls herself a ''retail slut,'' and hershop is stuffed with vintage posters, Hawaiiana and Varga prints.Just across the street at Finder's Keepers (1124 Garden Street,805-545-9879) a consignment Prada sweater will set you back $189. Acouple of blocks south, Captain Nemo Games (563 Higuera Street,805-544-6366) has a remarkable array of rare comics, action figuresand, upstairs, rows of vinyl recordings that would take many hours tobrowse fully. Then grab some Bubble Yum and leave your mark atGumball Alley, on Higuera Street between Garden and Broad. At thisgrotesque oddball shrine, brick walls hold perhaps hundreds ofthousands of pieces of used chewing gum.
5. Under the Big Sky
Arguably San Luis Obispo's most popular restaurant, the Big SkyCafe (1121 Broad Street, 805-545-5401) has been serving eclectic fareunder a painted ceiling of an open sky for nine years. The chef,Timothy Koch, incorporates local produce into the menu and localvintners onto his wine list. The Gulf Coast seafood tacos ($10.95)are filled with fish sautéed in salsa with a chipotle limeyogurt and a mango salsa. The pesto chicken sausage sandwich ($7.95)has Asiago cheese, basil, pine nuts, roasted garlic and tomatoes.
6. On a Mission
Making your way to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa be sureto stop in at the John Ramos Gallery (385 Higuera Street,800-528-0219), well known among California's surf-art aficionados.You may also wish to stop into Phoenix Books (990 Monterey Street,805-543-3591), where there's a surprising section of pulp erotica ($1to $4) with titles like ''Love Me to Death.'' On a less profane note,the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (751 Palm Street, 805-781-8220)was once the richest in California. Its massive arched wooden doorwayopens to reveal a long L-shaped sanctuary. Just off it is a small andserene prayer room. Light a candle for a loved one or a friend inneed.
7. Fine Wining
There are many excellent wineries in the nearby Edna Valley. Oneof the most unusual is Claiborne & Churchill Vintners (2649Carpenter Canyon Road, 805-544-4066; open until 5 p.m.). Claiborneand Fredericka Churchill Thompson started making wine in 1983 andtoday they produce about 5,000 cases a year of Alsatian-influencedwines, including an edelzwicker, a blend of four traditional Alsatiangrapes. The warehouse and tasting room is built from 16-inch-thickbales of straw. Regardless of the weather, it maintains a perfectcellar temperature of 65 degrees rarely relying on heating or coolingequipment.
8. Creekside Dining
At the Mission Grill (1023 Chorro Street, 805- 547-5544) you candine under the stars and trees (and propane heaters if necessary),beside San Luis Obispo Creek. The menu, by the chef Troy Tolbert,features produce that is locally farmed and fish that is deliveredovernight from Hawaii, Florida and Maine. A large selection of localwines includes Baileyana sauvignon blanc ($23) and Edna Valleychardonnay ($26).
9. Too Much Is Never Enough
Alex Madonna died in April, but his one-of-a-kind hotel lives on.Begun in 1958, the Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Road, 800-543-9666) wasbuilt much to the initial chagrin and later the astonishment of SanLuis Obispo's city leaders. You have to book one of the 109 themerooms to see its over-the-top décor (photos are atwww.madonnainn.com), but tourists (male and female) line up to gapeat the hotel's eight-foot waterfall urinal. Breakfast is served inthe wildly ornate Copper Café and includes pastries that oozefresh whipped cream ($2.75), strawberry waffles ($10.95) and themassive Madonna frittata ($10.45) with spinach, tomatoes, mushroomsand zucchini. Mr. Madonna was buried in the Old Mission Cemeteryafter two horses pulled a historic hearse with his casket throughtown.
10. A Seaside Hamlet
Just a few miles away, set at the base of green hills is the tinytown of Avila Beach. In 1999 and 2000, Avila was shut down and itsbeaches dug up to remove an underground plume of oil. Today there islittle sign of what could have been an environmental catastrophe. The1,685-foot pier, white sand beaches and boardwalk make a perfectplace to walk off your breakfast. Though the water is generally toocold for swimming, you're likely to see impervious seals, dolphinsand otters feasting on abalone, sea urchins and perch.
11. Springs Eternal
Between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo lie a series of naturalhot springs. The best way to experience them is at the SycamoreMineral Springs Resort (1215 Avila Beach Drive, 805-595-7302), whichdates to the 1880's. There, shaded by oak and sycamore trees, are aseries of redwood hot tubs that can be reserved for $30 a couple foran hour. Thoroughly soaked in the sulphur-tinged water, you're readyfor the week ahead.
Visiting San Luis Obispo
The San Luis Obispo airport is served by regional carriers,including United Express, America West and American Eagle. It isthree and a half miles from downtown San Luis. The town is alsoserved by Amtrak: the Coast Starlight and the Pacific Surflinertrains. It is best to rent a car.
The Garden Street Inn (1212 Garden Street, 805-545-9802) was builtin 1887 and beautifully restored in 1990. Its nine guest rooms andfour suites are $140 to $200 a night on weekends.
The Bridge Creek Inn (5300 Righetti Road, 805-544-3003), abed-and-breakfast, is on a ranch at the base of the Santa LuciaMountains. It has two suites ($150 and $175 on weekends) and anoutdoor hot tub.
In 1982, Aljean Harmetz wrote in The New York Times that theMadonna Inn (100 Madonna Road, 800-543-9666) ''is delightfully vulgar-- gable piled on gable, furbelow on furbelow -- in some dizzyingblend of a Swiss Alpine village, an ice cream pie and Disneyland.''It hasn't changed. Its 109 rooms are $147 to $330 a night.
Images: Photos (Photographs by Phil Klein for The New York Times)
Map of California highlighting San Luis Obispo and points ofinterest. (Drawing by Steven Shukow for The New York Times)
Correction: July 9, 2004, Friday
The 36 Hours column on May 14, about San Luis Obispo, Calif.,misstated the religious order of Junipero Serra, the missionary whofounded the town. He was a Franciscan, not a Jesuit. A reader alertedThe Times last week about the error.