San Luis Obispo, California: America’s happy valley

A few years ago my husband and I rented a bungalow in the Californian mission town of San Luis Obispo. We lived next to a firefighter and an octogenarian cowboy named Webb. There were annual block parties, potluck suppers, a coveted tomato growing prize (the champion donning a flowing silk cape, parading around our cul-de-sac). Saturday nights at the Sunset Drive-In, one of the few remaining outdoor cinemas in California, we swung our legs from our car boot, wrapped in blankets, radio tuned in for the movie. On the giant screen a cola bottle sang and danced with a tub of popcorn. We couldn’t believe our luck.But, as the song goes, nothing ever lasts forever. When word got out we were moving, Webb came by with a bottle of moonshine. “Goddamn,” he said, leaning against his farm truck, shaking his head. “Los Angeles?” He had a demonic view of big city life. This was a bad business. Webb gazed into the middle distance in the direction of his cattle ranch. Why in the world, he pondered, would anyone be stupid enough to leave San Luis? It was a good question.San Luis Obispo map

San Luis Obispo (SLO) is often used as a refuelling point for motorists cruising up and down scenic Highway 1, which runs along California’s Pacific coastline, and is home to the world’s first motel, originally called the Milestone Mo-Tel. Perhaps no surprise, then, that most visitors tend to just stretch their legs or stay a night at the uber-kitsch Madonna Inn on the outskirts before motoring on. This is a crying shame because this dreamy college town, once named the happiest place in America by Oprah Winfrey, should be a destination all of its own.

On a warm autumn morning, I dodge Friday traffic and catch the early train from LA to revisit old friends. As we draw close the landscape is mesmeric: golden hills, vineyards, citrus groves, craggy peaks. The leisurely speed of the train, which teeters along the precipitous Californian coastline before arcing inland towards San Luis, feels fitting to the relaxed pace of life in SLO, a town with a laid- back attitude.

Nothing much seems to have changed. In Scout Coffee, locals – in no hurry to get to work – sun themselves in the window of the airy cafe. Like me, the owners, Sara and Jon Peterson, moved to the area on a whim. “I’m from the midwest,” Sara tells me. “I remember stopping through here when I was in college and we got a sandwich from this tiny health food store which blew my mind.” She gestures towards the leafy avenue of shops. “I thought it was the coolest town.”

SLO Brew Restaurant and Pub. Photograph: Alamy

Round the corner on the main drag, Higuera Street, freshmen from California Polytechnic State University on the edge of town are having a guided tour. The street is wide and shady, the ficus trees knitting into a canopy overhead. One student ducks down a passage to make his mark on SLO’s most baffling attraction, Bubblegum Alley, a walkway so stuccoed with gum it’s almost Pollock-esque. By nightfall, inhibitions gone, most of the freshers will end up at SLO Brew, the largest music venue in town which doubles as a brewery. As locals we used to roll our eyes at the students’ drunken antics – a neighbour found one asleep on her sofa – but the truth is they gave us something to grumble about.

SLO Brew has a number of large, loft-like suites for rent, my home for the night. Each plush apartment comes furnished with a ukulele and, mercifully, a jar of complementary earplugs. Which is lucky because I’ve persuaded two friends to join me on a pre-dawn hike up nearby Madonna Mountain (the sort of early bird, outdoor activity that SLO natives pride themselves on).


Bubblegum Alley Photograph: Lisa Kimberly/Getty Images

At 5.30am we’re not the first to hit the trail. Joggers’ torches flicker on the hillside ahead of us as we corkscrew 1,300 feet to the top, scrambling the last few meters to the boulder tipped peak just as the sun rises. The town below is cupped by the surrounding hills, flaxen in autumn, turning a lush emerald in late winter, almost implausibly green. My favourite time of year is spring when Californian wild flowers bloom, spray-painting the fields neon orange and pink. A herd of cattle grazing on the far hillside is a reminder that this is cowboy country. (The annual Mid State Fair in nearby Paso Robles hosts a sweltering 12-day hoedown in July, complete with turkey racing, rodeo, corn dogs, tractor pulling and cow milking demos.)

From the summit I can see at least two of the Nine Sisters chain of volcanic mountains and hills. It’s thanks in part to these long-extinct volcanoes that produce grown around San Luis Obispo is so good. The first time I visited SLO’s Thursday evening market, my husband and I sat on the pavement and devoured an entire punnet of strawberries shiny as patent leather. The weekly event feels more like a street party. Smoke billows above racks of BBQ ribs; chefs yell orders and rattle their utensils. Tri-tip, a sirloin cut, is the local speciality but I love the grilled artichoke, which comes with a pot of warm garlicky butter.

BBQ at the weekly farmers’ market, an event that feels ‘more like a street party’. Photograph: Alamy

Down from the mountain I grab a breakfast burrito at vegetarian café Linnaea’s, excellent fuel for some window shopping. San Luis Obispo is not known for high- end fashion, it’s more a shorts and T-shirt kind of place, but it has a few gems. Design store, Len Collective, has a tempting selection of textiles and chic clothing. Another favourite is Ruby Rose with its secondhand treasures: vintage cotton smocks, cowboy boots and mid-century furniture. The rainbow striped building next door is the HQ of Pipsticks, a sticker emporium, whose industrial storefront makes stationary feel hip.

In the summer months, when students depart and temperatures rise, SLO has a languorous feel. Locals and tourists alike head to the beach. Nearby Morro Bay has some excellent waves but from May to October the star attractions are humpback whales. Boat tours from the harbour get you surprisingly close (we once had a humpback circling our boat). Just south of SLO, Avila Beach has slightly warmer water and mellower waves for swimming, though the real draw is the Olde Port Fish Market. In a shed at the far end of Port San Luis Pier, fishmongers cook up fresh crab while you wait. Best of all, beneath the pier are piles of snoozing sea lions, close enough to see their whiskers twitching.

Morro Rock, in Morro Bay. Photograph: Alamy

Before I catch my train home I take one last stroll through the Mission plaza, blinding white in the late-afternoon sunshine, past City Hall and the candy-striped front of Frank’s Famous Hot Dog’s, towards my old neighbourhood. Home from feeding his cows, Webb pulls up his truck. “Look what the cat dragged in. Get over here.” He gives me a long, vice-like hug. There is an exchange of news: babies born, heifers sold, the price of a tank of petrol. Just over the hill cars glide along Highway 1 and disappear into a golden horizon.

It’s no surprise that America, a nation built on migration, has such love for the open road. But leaning against Webb’s bonnet, chewing the fat, I have to wonder, what’s the big hurry?

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner service runs daily from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo (5 ½ hours, $42 each way)

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