It’s a beautiful drive up to ‘SLO Town’

Snapshots driving north on Highway 101 en route to San Luis Obispo: Transparent blue skies. Hawks circling, riding the wind. A sparkling, sapphire ocean with lacey-surf edges. A well worn road ahead, weaving through velvet-green foothills. Saffron-colored mustard hugging the pavement. Naked grapevines stretching to the foothills.
Philosophers say it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. In this case, it’s both, and I’m feeling lucky. Getting through the L.A. traffic was a breeze, and from Thousand Oaks on, it’s been nothing but beautiful vistas. All this when much of the country is battling snow storms for the ages.
Is California great or what?
I arrive in San Luis Obispo (SLO Town as locals call it) and exit the 101 at Monterey Street. I check into the Quality Suites, a 10-minute walk from the city’s charming, shaded downtown. I flip on the television and — what a coincidence. Oprah is talking about SLO –— “the happiest town in the country.”
Seems that a 2008 Gallup-Healthways Poll surveyed multiple cities and SLO residents scored highest for “overall emotional health” meter and are “more likely to experience joy” than peoples elsewhere. Why?
According to the survey, SLO folks like the pedestrian-friendly streets; the many trails for cyclers and hikers; the great air quality; the popular Thursday farmers market; restaurants that serve local fare (no drive-ins allowed here); the ban on smoking in most public places; and a location that affords easy access to California’s spectacular Central Coast and all that it has to offer.
Good food is one offering and upon recommendation, I have dinner at Big Sky Café (1121 Broad Street). The eatery is so named not after Montana’s nickname, but from a Chinese proverb which notes that the world’s people, as different as we are, all reside under the same big sky. My ancho chile-glazed fresh salmon, sautéed vegetables and brown rice couldn’t be better, and it’s gluten free, as are several entrees. The server says they receive frequent requests for gluten-free entrees.
The piece de resistance, however, is a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake made of polenta. Strange, yes, but beyond scrumptious.
The next morning, we challenge the happiness meter with an arduous hike up nearby Bishop Peak. At 1,559 feet, it’s the highest of nine morros or rounded hills — in this case, ancient volcanic peaks — that lie between Morro Bay and SLO. The 2-mile climb (4 miles round trip) goes up, then up, then up some more, and sometimes the following the trail requires scrambling over boulders. The sun is warm, there is little shade and we’re a bit short on water, so we surrender before reaching the top. But we get plenty high enough to be rewarded with panoramic views of SLO, Los Osos and El Chorro valleys and the other morros.
From Bishop Peak, we drive to the coast where the most recognized morro stands. Although only 581 feet high, Morro Rock creates a dramatic picture, standing like a sentinel at the terminus of Morro Strand State Beach. It is so often shrouded in fog, but today the air is clear. We walk around this giant boulder, once a million pounds larger until its was used to create nearby jetties. Thankfully, in 1968, it was declared a historical landmark.
We walk along the black-stone breakwater and marvel at the force of the ocean water as it meets the barrier. A climb to the top provides perspective on nature’s wonders here on the Central Coast.
Where to stay: Quality Suites San Luis Obispo — Free hot breakfast, wine/beer happy hour, Wall Street Journal and wi-fi. Roomy suites have frig and microwave. Rooms start at $109. Call 800.4CHOICE or visit www.qualitysuitesslo.com.
For SLO visitor information, see sanluisobispovacations.com
Next column: Elephant seals and downtown San Luis Obispo.
Desert blooms
It’s February – and that means it’s time to think Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Recent rains could mean a great bloom. Two motor coach trips offer a day adventure with author, naturalist and SDSU professor Phil Pryde. Activities include a stop at Dudley’s Bakery; lunch at the Borrego Springs Resort; a visit to the park’s visitor center; stops to see flowers and the larger-than-life Brecera sculptures; and an optional easy nature walk. For March 17, call (760) 726-9440. For March 24, call the Ecke YMCA at (760) 942-9622.

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