The bond between horse and rider is proving to be a fleeting one. I urge Cinnamon to just follow the horse in front at a nice steady pace – no sudden movements please! – but the 20-year-old retiree mare has her own agenda.
Veering off the path across the acres of vines that surround us, she defiantly takes another mouthful of Cass Winery’s finest summer crop. Despite my best efforts, Cinnamon is getting her way and having tasted the end product myself I really can’t blame her.
Out of the saddle I’m sampling some of California’s finest wines far from the crowds of Napa and Sonoma. I’m in San Luis Obispo, or SLO CAL as it’s known, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the iconic Highway 1.
Often overlooked as roadtrippers make their way from the main gateway cities, SLO offers visitors the chance to relax and live like the locals do.
And as California’s third-largest wine region with around 300 distilleries, those locals are rarely thirsty.
I sip my way across the fertile Paso Robles region, from the ranch-style Cass Winery to the breathtaking vistas of Daou mountain, which bottles wines with powerhouse names like ‘Soul of a Lion’ and ‘Eye of the Falcon’.
“We grow diamonds here,” says Laura Reynolds, the Trade Ambassador at DAOU Family Estates, as she pours a generous glass of rose that she calls her “summer water”. It’s crisp, refreshing and pairs perfectly with the panoramic views that I’m drinking in.
I feel like I’m part of an exclusive club and yet I’m surrounded by locals. But then that is the SLO CAL way.
Beat the crowds
Brand USA was quick to report an uptick in confirmed bookings for the second half of 2022 and 2023 as a result of the ending of Covid pre-testing for UK arrivals. And Audley Travel reports that client interest in future trips to the US remains high, with a 10% increase in enquiries since the announcement of the removal of testing.
While Los Angeles and San Francisco are California’s shining stars, city crowds may still be off-putting for cautious clients.
San Luis Obispo is unique in that it’s located on one of the most popular driving routes in the world but is still considered off-the-beaten track.
“Most first-time visitors can’t believe there are places in California that are still so untouched,” says Chuck Davison, CEO of Visit SLO CAL. “We have 85 miles of oceanfront, combined with a buzzy arts city and then the rolling hills of our wine region.
“Our ethos is built around slowing down and living like a local, whether that’s chatting to the vinter at a mom and pop winery or sampling locally-grown produce at the weekly farmers market. We pride ourselves on being homegrown.”
Audley includes San Luis Obispo in itineraries for clients who want to stop on their way to Santa Barbara. A spokesperson said: “Clients typically enjoy some time relaxing on the sandy beaches before continuing the last two hours of the drive.”
Market day: Every Thursday central SLO shuts down nine blocks for the largest farmers market on the west coast. Browse stalls selling flowers, fruit and local crafts or grab dinner at one of the BBQs.
There’s also street performers and live music on almost every corner. Find bubblegum alley along the way for a gross but creative use of chewing gum. Slocal.com
Say hi to a sea otter: Take a day trip to the quaint coastal city of Morro Bay to visit the resident sea otters. Sign up for a boat or kayak trip to watch these furry friends play in their natural habitat. Between October and April is the best time to see otter offspring. It’s also the spot to go for fresh seafood and you can even shuck your own oysters. esteroinn.com
Beach BBQ: Pack a picnic (don’t forget the smores) and head just south of San Luis Obispo to Grover Beach, one of California’s only driveable beaches. This is where locals come to watch the sunset over a beach bonfire. For an ultra-romantic experience there’s even the option to hire a private chef to create a personalied menu whilst you watch the waves. project-xo.com
Hit the dunes: Staying in Grover Beach, take a ATV ride over the dunes for some adrenalin pumping fun. Buckle up for a roller-coaster ride with Xtreme Hummer rentals and zip around the sandy playground at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. It’s a thrill-seekers dream. pacificadventuretours.com
Light up: Head to the hills under the cover of darkness to experience The Field of Light at Sensorio, a light art installation that sees 60,000 stemmed solar panelled spheres illuminate and change colour. Visitors can see two light installations created by British artist Bruce Munro. There is live music at the weekends – the place is simply magical. sensoriopaso.com
Exclusive tastings: Stop at Center of Effort in Edna Valley for an estate tour and tasting which includes a chef-curated pairing board featuring local ingredients and purveyors, and seasonal bounty from the Estate orchard and garden. The wines are also pretty good! coewine.com
Opened in 2020 is the Geneseo Inn at Cass, situated at the heart of Cass Winery, Paso Robles. Made from repurposed shipping containers these luxury accommodations look out across the sprawling vineyard. The site offers food and wine experiences alongside horse riding and archery. casswines.com
Just off the downtown square in Paso Robles is The Piccolo which opened in 2019. This luxury boutique hotel has 24 generous rooms with modern furnishings and locally-sourced amenities. The rooftop bar serving local wines and Moët vending machine make for a memorable stay. thepiccolo.com
Opened in 2019 is the family-friendly and dog-friendly beachfront property Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach. With spacious rooms and ocean views, this resort offers California beach house vibes. Complete with pool and firepits, it’s the perfect choice for families. vesperapismobeach.com
Hearst Castle reopened in May after a two-year closure for renovations. It was once the home of William Randolph Hearst and Julie Morgan and comprises the 115-room main house plus guesthouses, pools, and eight acres of cultivated gardens. It is famous for hosting lavish parties for LA’s elite. The new Julie Morgan Tour takes an in-depth look at the life and career of the architect.
Visit SLO CAL has created a virtual 3D site visit tool for agents and their clients to experience San Luis Obispo ‘first-hand’. The tool is live on the training portal at xplorit.com/slocal
Where to book it
USAirtours has a four-night trip with direct flights to San Luis Obispo with American Airlines, from £1,249pp. Departing October 2022, the deal includes a stay at the Shore Cliff Hotel, Pismo Beach – with partial ocean views and complimentary buffet breakfast.