Friday, December 10, 2010

Going SLO for the New Year

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy
Happy New Year! Let’s start the new year SLO. No, I didn’t say “SLOW”, I said SLO, as in San Luis Obispo. This year, I’m planning on focussing more on specific towns as destinations. Yeah, I know, Road Trips are supposed to be about the journey, not the destination, but eventually, you do arrive somewhere and having a better idea of what cool stuff is in a town that you stop in, especially if the town is worth more attention than a place to eat and a place to sleep. So, in addition to more great roads, expect more details on some great places to visit. 
Marianne and I got mid-week itchy feet a bit back (actually in November, such is the reality of deadlines and production necessities!) and it was mid-week (usually the best time for a road trip, fewer RV’s,) and we were enjoying one of our normal late fall light Santa Ana wind days. As constant readers know, we are ALWAYS up for a cruise up the coast, and that ALWAYS means 101. This time, we had an actual destination in mind, San Luis Obispo. 
For all the driving we’ve done around the Central Coast, I have to admit that SLO has always been a “drive through” or “drive around” city, which is a real shame. It’s got a great mission, wonderfully restored historic district, and great food. The surrounding area has fabulous wineries and the scenery is maybe the best in the world. What else can you want. 
On top of this, the weather turned out to be absolutely FANTASTIC! Really! WE did our usual west on the 210, through La Canada, then out the 118, getting off in Moorpark (ever notice what “Moorpark” spelled backwards is?), then the 118 to Saticoy, then the 126 to Ventura. This avoids the Dreaded Valley. We burst into Ventura to an amazing sight. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE CHANNEL ISLANDS WAS VISIBLE!!!! Not just barely discernible through the haze, but sharply, distinctly defined as if you could reach out and touch them. A few high clouds and a freeway’s worth of jet contrails (damn it gets busy up there in the less-friendly-than-they-used-to-be skies-TSA Pat downers must have been REALLY, uh, satisfied that day?) gave an added definition to the scene. Often, we’ll drive inland through some twisty roads, but that day, we wanted as much of the coast as we could get. It was just amazing.
SLO is only a couple of hundred miles away, so in about three hours and maybe half a tank of gas (depending) you’re there. So what is there? We arrived at lunch time and were ready for food. Exit the 101 at Marsh Street (signs tell you that this is the exit for the “Historic District”) and head into town. Marsh becomes a one way street away from the freeway and you can find public parking lots with meters (bummer, 2 hours for a buck and a quarter, bit tough to eat, stroll AND see the mission in only two hours, so-don’t tell anyone, it’s not really legal-re-feed the meter when you’ve done with lunch for a reset of your 2 hours) and walk over to Higuera St. This is the main drag. Lots of places to choose from SLO is a college town (Cal Poly SLO) and there are a lot of bars/restaurants that cater to this crowd. Funny, when I was in college, no one I knew could afford to hang out in places with $12 burgers and drink $10 shots. The glory of excess student loan money? Ah Well, durn whippersnappers! 
We decided on the Buffalo Pub and Grill.  One of the reasons we picked this one was as we were perusing the bill of fare outside, a couple of patrons were leaving and said, “Eat here, it’s great.” Unsolicited testimony from strangers is always a good sign. Never ignore it! Great choice! We managed to split one of their huge burgers (with apple wood smoked bacon and blue cheese) and fries, along with a pint of Guinness each and we were stuffed! 
Having fed ourselves and re-fed the meter, we walked the town. SLO has done a great job of restoring it’s old town. In many ways, its a cross between Pasadena’s Old Town and Monrovia’s. It’s a mix of small, independent businesses and, at the far end, newer chain stores (Barnes and Noble, GAP, and others of that ilk) in mostly newer buildings built to fit the old town look. 
In addition, right smack dab in the middle of it all is the Mission. San Luis Obispo’s example is one of the prettier one’s, and a lot has been spent on creating a nice park around it. it is well worth the time to poke around. 
As we were about to leave town, walking back to the car, we scored a bonus. McCarthy’s Irish Pub at Nipomo and Marsh. One of the Iron Clad Rules of Travel is to never, EVER pass up a place that has your name on it. Having walked off the pint we had with lunch, we downed one in this cozy, dark Namesake Bar that occupies a strangely incongruous Spanish Mission Style building. I’m betting it was once a Mexican eatery, but in California, we should be used to odd juxtapositions. 
Sated and relaxed, we set off back down the coast, got off in Pismo Beach to find gas, decided to take a brief jaunt along Foxen Canyon Road to the 154, over the San Marcos Pass and WOW! Smack dab into the most glorious sunset either of us can remember. I’m serious! Coming down the hill, we were treated to a panorama of Santa Barbara, the channel and the islands and a horizon that went on forever. If you looked just right, I SWEAR you could see Hawaii! 
As the sun was just starting it’s long slow daily dive into the Pacific, I knew there was one place we had to stop, and preyed that the timing would be right. Not racing, but not lollygagging about, we headed south, past the slowing of Ortega Hill and Summerland, Past Carpinteria, and dove off the freeway to the Old 101 at Seacliff. this is a great stretch of the Old Road, lined on one side by the tracks of the old SP Coast Route and on the other by beach houses jammed cheek to jowl, daring the Pacific to do it’s worst at high tide, and often paying for that dare. This was the kind of day that made that gamble worth it. 
We stopped just shy of the entrance to Emma Wood State Beach and OH MY GOD!  We spent at least an hour staring and taking 114 pictures with the little digital camera and staring and staring. There was a smattering of cars parked with us, the occupants doing the same as the poor lost dead souls up on the highway sped by, seemingly oblivious, too pre-occupied with Getting Somewhere to stop and marvel. The surf beat it’s steady beat, shore birds played tag with the waves, and one of Nature’s Daily Miracles played out a perfect coda for a perfect day. 

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