Seals, stores and more to see in SLO Town

There they are — hundreds of elephant seals lounging in the sand, doing what these creatures do every winter on Piedras Blancas beach: hang out, give birth, nurse, mate and molt. It’s one of the strangest and most intriguing sites the West Coast has to offer, and you’ll find it about 20 minutes north of San Luis Obispo on Highway 1.
Once almost extinct because hunters valued their oil-rich blubber, elephant seals are now protected by federal law. A few migrated to this beach in 1990, told their friends, and two years later, the first pup was born.
The last time I was here, there were no viewing platforms or fences between visitors and this mass of oleaginous mammals. This time, busloads of school children and seniors line the barriers and circulating docents answer questions like: “When are the seals here? (Males begin arriving in late November to stake out territory and fight over the females. They leave March or April); “Why are they making that noise?” (The males are challenging each other); “What do they do when they aren’t on the beach?”(They swim in the ocean and eat continuously, diving as deep as 5,000 feet for food).
After photographing the seals and the people watching the seals and the seals watching the people, we drive south about seven miles to Hearst’s Castle visitor’s center. No time to tour the castle, but we do explore the expansive center (free admission) and its William Randolph Hearst Exhibit. The history of this publishing tycoon (1863-1951) is a bit sugar-coated, but the artifacts and photos are worth a look.
In search of lunch, we head back to bustling downtown SLO and discover the Oasis Café (675 Higuera St.) which specializes in Moroccan and Mediterranean fare. My chicken curry and rice is the best I’ve ever had.
Next on the itinerary: the elusive Bubblegum Alley. We walk up, down and around Higuera Street and can’t find it, despite directions from at least three people. Finally — there it is — the gum-graffitied walls (15 feet by 70 feet) next to 733 Higuera St.
It takes a minute to get past the “ick factor,” but once I do, I find the Dubble-Bubble-Hubba Bubba-Bubblicious artwork to be fascinating. Exploring this communal mural is like trying to find pictures within the picture. When my eyes adjust, names, designs, fraternity letters and more emerge.
Bubblegum Alley backgrounder: Like many oddities, this has a hazy history. Plastering gum on the walls might have begun as a post-World War II graduation ritual at SLO High School, or it may have evolved as a rivalry between local high school and Cal Poly students. Downtown business owners tried in vain to keep the alley walls clean. Finally, in 1996, they turned lemons into lemonade and designated it an attraction that complements the shops, restaurants, cafes and art galleries on the pedestrian-friendly shaded streets.
Exploring downtown on foot will bring you to many unique boutiques. One of the “funnest” is KwirkWorld (766 Higuera St.; kwirkworld.com). Owner Kirk Psenner calls it “the South Park of stores … irreverent with a lot of love.”
Easily offended? Do not enter KwirkWorld. But if you’ve got a sense of humor about life, love, politics, sex and religion, come on in. I laugh out loud more than once and don’t leave empty-handed. No, I won’t tell you what I bought.
After KwirkWorld, Mission San Luis Obispo, just a short walk away, provides a contrasting environment. The courtyard is a quiet oasis, and the beautiful, cool interior of the church is a treasure. Built in 1794 and restored in 1933, the mission complex features a museum with a rare collection of early California photographs, Father Serra relics and baskets and other works crafted by the Chumash Indians.
SLO Town, as locals call it, hosts many events throughout the year, including the annual international film festival. This year’s, March 9 through March 13, features a salute to females in films, including filmmakers and stunt women. Visit SLOFilmFest.org.
Lodging suggestion: The Apple Farm (applefarm.com). Offers country Victorian themed rooms that are cozy, colorful and detail-oriented with many amenities. Off-season prices begin $109; in-season at $119.
To see how SLO can be a base for seeing the Central Coast, visit sanluisobispovacations.com.

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