Let there be light – and there it was.
It actually happened a bit more slowly than that, but anticipation is part of the experience at Field of Light, an exhibit at Sensorio, an outdoor arts venue in Paso Robles.
British artist Bruce Munro, who specializes in large installations, has turned an otherwise barren, rolling countryside in San Luis Obispo County into a unique, immersive visual experience. The exhibit continues through Jan 2, but check the Sensorio website for a possible extension.
Field of Light is an other-worldly, walk-through experience created using 58,000 small glass spheres lit by fiber optics and planted throughout 15 acres. The lights are solar-powered and always on; the reveal comes gradually with growing darkness.
On a brisk, breezy October evening, we traversed well-graded, mostly accessible paths to watch the transformation. The illumination intensified and eventually our patience was rewarded with a sea of pinpoints of light that continuously morphed into waves of changing colors.
Not to be satisfied with this, artist Munro recently added 69, 9-foot Light Towers constructed of 17,000 wine bottles stuffed with fiber optic filaments — an ode to Palo Robles Wine Country. The filaments changed colors synchronized with the haunting, harmonious songs of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Soweto Gospel Choir.
Experiencing Field of Light was a fitting finale to our five-day, off-season visit to San Luis Obispo County; the winter months here are unhurried and uncrowded. We headquartered in the town of San Luis Obispo, an excellent hub for branching out to explore the scenic, easygoing mid-portion of the Central Coast.
A 45-minute drive north is Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, so named for the thousands of corpulent squatters that have taken possession of two beaches along Highway 101. This seaside real estate is always populated, but the numbers swell in the off-seasons of late January, early May and late October.
Less than 6 miles south on Highway 101 is the village of Cambria, where 6,000 residents go all out for the holidays, and where the shops and galleries are hard to resist. Dozens of life-sized scarecrows – both frightening and hilarious and designed by business owners – populated the main street the day we visited.
Continue south on scenic Highway 1 for another 29 miles and you’ll arrive in the town of Morro Bay. The surrounding parks and beaches offer plenty of space to walk, wander and watch. Visitors can get up close and personal with the 23 million-year-old Morro Rock, a massive, protected land feature that is the plug of a long-extinct volcano. It is one of 13 similar monoliths along the coast, but the only one above water.
Another 25 miles south of Morro Bay sits Pismo Beach, where the unpopulated sand and surf calls visitors to linger. And great news at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. The numbers of butterflies, continually diminishing in recent years, is again on the increase. As of Oct 31, Monarch counters had recorded more than 14,000 butterflies “fluttering in the trees.” This off-season special is best seen in November and December.
San Luis Obispo County has a lot to offer inland, too.
At last count, Paso Robles Wine Country boasts about 300 wineries, but you don’t have to be an oenophile to enjoy all that Sculpterra Winery and Sculpture Garden offers. Its world-class sculpture collection — think multi-million-dollar artworks — is scattered throughout the bucolic property. Animals and fantasy are prominent themes. The grounds also feature a huge story board that unfolds the history of the region. A bocce ball court, giant kaleidoscope, several shaded patios and tables beckon guests to stay.
Lodging: San Luis Creek Lodge, a boutique hotel with English Tudor architecture, surprises guests with its recently renovated rooms done in a sleek, airy, contemporary motif. The rooms are spacious, some with my favorite kind of fireplace – the kind activated with a wall switch. Lodge guests receive coffee and pastries at their door each morning (gluten-free pastries available; request when making reservations). The staff is friendly, helpful and informative.
Petit Soleil (Little Sunshine) is a family-owned “bed et breakfast” a 10-minute walk from downtown and the historic Mission San Luis Obispo. In 2002, innkeepers John and Dianne Connor bought what was then the Adobe Inn and transformed it into a little bit of French countryside. The property features delightfully quaint patios and café — perfect spots for savoring the gourmet breakfasts, enjoying the nightly wine-and-cheese tastings, and, if you must, working.