Saturday, January 7, 2012

San Luis Obispo, California

Avila Beach
There are many reasons to travel; some are looking for a family vacation, some seek a party destination, or an exciting wilderness adventure; but if it is a romantic retreat that you are looking for, then I would like to introduce you to San Luis Obispo. The spectacular blend of rolling hills, extraordinary wineries, welcoming beaches, and fascinating countryside is sure to help you find love in the air. The area is low key, uncrowded, and in no way pretentious. It is a beautiful and intriguing area with a lot to both explore and savor.
Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort
 Typically, Ursa and I make good use of corporate discounts through the company I work for, or membership privilege points to keep our hotel budget as reasonable as possible. And while there is a lot to be said for that, it also means that most of our accommodations are usually rather pedestrian. 
misty morning walk at Sycamore
So for this trip we decided to treat ourselves, and opted to stay at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort which was a destination unto itself. The biggest draw to Sycamore Springs (as it's name would suggest) is the mineral spring tubs. Every room comes with a private tub on it's patio, and at the first whiff of sulfur in the air I found myself starting to relax. The hotel was built on a sharp hillside with all the rooms facing out, so that from the comfort of the tub we could look out on a lovely view of the lush, green valley.
The Labyrinth at Sycamore
Each morning I started my day with a walk through the heavy mists that drifted in from the Pacific Ocean. On some mornings I would take the long trail which led down to Avila Beach and listen to the waves lap upon the sand, or on others I could take the short trail which led to the Labyrinth and meditation trail. The Labyrinth should not be confused with a hedge maze, because while a hedge maze is designed to be a decision making game there are no right or wrong choices to be made in a Labyrinth. Following the winding trail to the Labyrinth's center and out again is meant to be a meditative process; a technique to relax the mind and promote contemplation. 
If that doesn't get you rested and restored enough, Sycamore also has massages, Yoga, and spa treatments available. But all of that relaxing can work up quite an appetite, so there is also an exceptional gourmet restaurant at Sycamore, called The Gardens of Avila, which is an absolute must. The Gardens is overseen by Chef Pandee Pearson and specializes in local, sustainable cuisine, so the menu varies depending on what's in season.


When we're talking about San Luis Obispo, we're talking about wine country. The combination of rocky volcanic soils and the stable climate caused by the nearby Pacific Ocean (which creates mild summers and warm falls) is what makes this such a renowned wine region.
While there are simply too many wineries to go into detail of each one, one of the highlights of our tour through wine country included our very first stop, at Tolosa Winery where we had a delicious wine and artisanal cheese pairing. One interesting point about the cheeses is how in the famous wine regions of France the cheese makers make a special effort to pair their cheeses with the local wines but in the United States the cheese makers rarely know much about the local wines and the wine makers don't usually know what cheeses to pair their wines with. The ability to pair the two has become an art unto itself and it was a real pleasure to enjoy a genuine wine and cheese experience.
As for the winery itself; Tolosa is a beautiful facility, and tasting room and featured a very nice No Oak Chardonnay that was crisp more than buttery and was one of the better chards that I had on the trip. They are also well known for their Pinot Niors as well.
I was REALLY impressed with the wines of Saucelito Canyon which was one of the few wineries in the area to specialize in Zinfandels. Their best Zin is their 1880 Zinfandel which is made from the grapes grown in the original 13 and a half acre vinyard in Arroyo Grande Valley, the same vines that were planted back in (you guessed it) 1880. I couldn't leave without buying a bottle for my parents.
Next there was Kelsey See Canyons which was a quaint, family winery nestled in among an apple orchard and presided over by the Kelsey family and their small army of peacocks. The wines there were pretty good on the whole; the Grenache was tasty, and the Rsv Cab was nice, but the signature of Kelsey See Canyon Winery is their apple wines. We bought a bottle of the "Golden Delicious" which is made from 50 percent Chardonnay grapes and 50 percent fermented apple juice. Having seen the ingredients I had expected the apple wines to be ridiculously sweet, like a Riesling but it wasn't; it was fruity, but lighter than anticipated. Blending fruit wines seems to be the specialty of the Kelseys because their Orange Muscat was also a very nice dessert wine.
a glass of love from Rotta Winery
And last but not least is what was my favorite winery of the trip, Rotta Winery. The list of Rotta wines was very long, and the tasting featured 13 wines for $5! Near the end of the tasting, Ursa and I had pretty much settled on 4 of their fantastic wines, but that was when they broke out their finest yet. Even though I find dessert wines a little sugary for me, Rotta's Black Monukka dessert wine is absolutely exceptional. It's a complex, sherry-like dessert wine that reminds me of the rich flavor of rum-raisin sauce. This was the most unique wine we experienced on our journey into California's wine country and it was fitting that it should be found at the final winery that we visited.

There is a lot of exploring around San Luis Obispo county, and some of the nearby towns make for exciting day trips. We had a great trip en route to SLO, stopping off outside of Santa Barbra to go horseback riding. Thanks to the crew at Circle Bar B Ranch we had a fantastic afternoon riding through the magnificent, forested hills, to get a stunning view, looking out onto the ocean, from the top of the hill we ascended.
We took the hour and a half ride rather than the half day ride, and we are glad that we did, because 6 hours in the saddle would have been WAY too much! You wouldn't think that sitting in a saddle for an hour and a half would work you that hard, but it does. Our group consisted of Ursa and I, and two other couples. We couldn't help but laugh at the one woman who was maybe a little too "cityfied" to enjoy an excursion like this, and she started complaining from the moment that she got into the saddle about how the horse was trying to test her, and how it knows that she wasn't experienced enough. . . and on, and on. We found it funny because we were thinking, "it's a horse, not Sigmund Freud. It's not trying to outsmart you, it's thinking 'mmmm, grass!'" That being said, we all had a great time and a wonderful journey.
A short drive south on the Pacific Coast Highway will lead you to the the small Danish town of Solvang. It was founded by Danish immigrants who had come to America because of poor economic prospects in Denmark from around 1850 until 1930. Most of the Danish community settled in the midwest, but a few decided to create a new Danish colony out west in the warmer climate of California. And so the town of Solvang was born; it has grown into a cute little tourist community, attracting more than a million visitors per year. Around town all of the buildings are built in the half timbered style of Danish rural houses, and gave rise to an architectural style known as "Danish Provincial". The downtown is full of wonderful book shops, eateries, wine tasting rooms, and candy shops. We absolutely had to stop at one of the candy shops, Ingeborgs, where I was giddy to find my favorite sweet, salted licorice, which is an item that is rather hard to come by in the States, but very popular in places like Holland and Denmark, we also picked up an assortment of hand made chocolates and some nougat bars that were fabulous.

Hearst Castle
A short 43 miles north of San Luis Obispo is the National Historic Landmark mansion, Hearst Castle. This opulent manner was built by Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947.
Hearst Castle
The mansion was built for publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who had a great deal of influence in the castle's layout. In fact, many rooms of the castle were designed specifically to support the centuries old ceilings that Hearst had purchased from various places in Europe. Architecturally, the castle is a hodge-podge of classic European styles, such as the Baroque style front room, the great Spanish entry way, the Gothic style   dining room, and the Roman pools. Personally, I can't say that I was a big fan of that technique, mostly because I'm more of the opinion that if you are going to build the most expensive private home in America (it is valued at around $165 million) than why would you want to construct replicas of what someone else has done as opposed to building something original yourself. But that's not to say that it isn't beautiful. Inside the home features 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and a movie theater. Outside there are 127 acres of gardens, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo. Some zebras from the zoo's heyday can still be seen roaming the surrounding hills.

The Food

One of the best restaurants we ate at on our entire trip to southern California was Novo. We sat on the patio, which overlooked the creek gurgling by, and had a lovely meal. We had the best calamari that I've ever eaten as a starter and I had the Malaysian curry chicken which was cooked to perfection in coconut milk. We also had a very nice lunch at the unassuming but delicious, Jaffa Cafe, the falafel was first rate. Strangely, we didn't do any breakfasts while we were in San Luis Obispo, getting out of the room late seemed to be the byproduct of staying at a resort, we were in no rush to get out the door.

Home Cooking

Novo may have been my favorite restaurant of this trip, but the most fitting and memorable gastronomic experience we had was our wine and cheese pairing at Tolosa Winery. As such, I felt that it would be appropriate to include a baked brie recipe. I got this one from an excellent blog called The Barefoot Kitchen Witch. Mmmmmm. . . it's gooey, cheesy, goodness. Try a nice, oakey Chardonnay to go with it.

Baked Brie with Onions

2 onions
3 Tablespoons butter
Balsamic Vinegar (to taste)
8 oz Brie (log or small wheel)
1 sheet puff pastry

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Slice up onions into bite sized lengths. In a regular frying pan, melt butter and cook onions until soft and beginning to brown, then drizzle balsamic vinegar over onions to taste. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.
While the onions are cooling, lay out the puff pastry sheet and lay onions onto it when ready. Place Brie log on edge of pastry and roll up.
Place log onto a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes.
Serve hot.

To conclude this post, I want to say that San Luis Obispo makes it on my VERY short list of places that I really want to return to. What a wonderful and romantic place, I cannot recommend it enough as a destination. One thing that we did not do was to see a show of any kind while we were in town, so there is unfortunately no "Tunes" section on this week's post. Maybe I'll get a chance to amend that after we go back. . . hopefully sooner rather than later. Until next week then, bye.

1 comment:

  1. This is One of my favorite areas in the world and I am so glad you had such a great trip