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Headed Straight for 'Sideways' Country

October 23, 2008 By:
Elyse Glickman, JE Feature
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Who said merlot? No whining about the beauty of San Luis Obispo County, nor its hotel and food offerings. Photos by Elyse Glickman

Thanks to the Food Network, the Travel Channel and movies such as "Bottle Shock" and "Sideways," California's "wine country" destinations are both hotter and cooler than ever.

Because these verdant spreads attract serious food and wine afficionados everywhere, restaurants at all price points tap into the earthy, seductive appeal of wineries that have enriched the state.

Nowhere is this more apparent than California's Central Coast and San Luis Obispo County, with its country charm and abundance of artisan everything -- wines, meats, vegetables, fruits and cheeses. And with this embarrassment of riches comes spas and hotels that are both harmonious with the landscape, but sophisticated with their services and amenities.

While the Jewish community in San Luis Obispo County is relatively small, it is interesting to note that there were Jewish families who saw this potential more than 150 years ago. At that time, Jews from France and Germany found and built upon their American dream by establishing family-run businesses, becoming landowners and creating a flourishing Jewish life in the second half of the 19th century.

Though some of the families migrated toward opportunities in California's larger cities, there was a second wave in the middle of the 20th century, when thousands of Jewish servicemen arrived to train for World War II at Camp Cooke, Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts.

During the war, a Jewish communal organization was created to serve their needs, and, afterwards, attention went to organizing a network of Jewish people and groups into the Amity Club that spanned from Paso Robles to Santa Maria. Today, congregations like Temple Ner Shalom and Congregation Beth David, and branches of Chabad and Hillel in San Luis Obispo feed the souls of many Jewish families, who in turn, nourish the county's food and tourism trades.

For a hotel to thrive in this area, meanwhile, it needs to be the kind of place you aren't in a rush to leave, since the pace of life in "SLO County" is, well, gloriously slow.

For those who opt to be close to the wineries and at one with nature, Sycamore Hot Springs (www.sycamoresprings.com) is an ideal option. The main draw since its inception in 1886 has been therapeutic, sulphur-based mineral water, which today can be enjoyed in hot tubs nestled amid lush trees.

That said, the time-tested property has been retooled in recent years for contemporary-style wellness, incorporating yoga, tai chi, Pilates, a full-service spa, labyrinths for walking meditations and a "Healing Institute" offering ayurvedic and integrative healing and counseling sessions. While the property's staff does its utmost to make you feel as far away from civilization as possible, the real luxury is knowing you are only a short drive from San Luis Obispo, the majestic Pacific coastline, the area's prolific and fabled winery route, and a smattering of charming towns and outposts.

The Hotel Cheval (www.hotelcheval.com), meanwhile, is prime lodging in the town of Paso Robles, which, in many ways, resembles Napa and Sonoma, minus the Disney-fication that now defines much of Northern California's wine country.

Though it has the requisite wine bar (The Pony Club) and lavish public spaces, the equestrian-themed hotel captures the region at its most intimate, with 16 plush suites, as well as such delightful amenities as fresh-baked goods and a daily newsletter delivered to your door in a tin basket.

Giddyup!

If you secure a room for a weekend stay, the Paso Robles staff offers the extra-romantic amenity of complimentary horse-drawn carriage rides to and from one of the many top-drawer establishments in the area.

While wine bistros abound in Paso Robles' quietly fashionable central plaza, Artisan (www.artisanpasorobles.com) stands as one of the best, as it takes the whole "market-fresh-ingredients" trend in a decidedly unpretentious direction. The menu is sophisticated without being intimidating and taps into sustainability, seasonality and the popularity of organics, without the focus being over-the-top.

Nearby Villa Creek (www.villacreek.com) also offers a prolific wine menu and fancy usage of local ingredients for what the management describes as "early California" cuisine. However, should your visit to "Paso" be during the week, take advantage of the special treats the kitchen dishes out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays that have become the stuff of local legend. Better still, different flavors are sure to prompt Tuesday revelers to browse the wine list to find the perfect companions for these memorable morsels.

That said, if you're a self-respecting foodie, you can't really say you've been to the Central Coast without having done the San Luis Obispo Wine Trail. While deciding on your destination wineries can be (surprisingly) daunting, a great place to start is the region's wine-focused Web site (sanluisobispo.winecountry.com), which will advise you to dedicate at least a full day to the pursuit of the perfect cabernet or chardonnay.

One way to get yourself up to speed is by starting with some of Paso Robles' winery tasting rooms, where you can prep your palate for more in-depth visits to wineries. Some of the hottest tips (or sips) include those offered by Hice Cellars (popular with vegetarians and vegans), Silver Stone, Bear Cave Cellars and the Midlife Crisis Winery.

By Sycamore Hot Springs, don't miss the Kelsey See Canyon Winery, home of at least 50 peacocks, which offers apple merlot and apple chardonnay. Once ready to get your "Sideways" groove on, spend the day on one of the highways (41 or 46), stretching from the main interstate (Highway 101) to the Pacific and encompassing dozens of wineries.

Throughout San Luis Obispo County, trendy boutiques abound, but so do outstanding thrift and antique stores. Chances are you will not only score an outstanding wine rack, but great jewelry and home furnishings, as well. During your busy-yet-relaxed days, you will also discover that some of the county's best meals come in the simplest packages.

Pi-Whole in Nipomo (a few freeway exits south of Pismo Beach) does pizza and Italian specialties in the most imaginative ways, all built around a cleverly conceived volcano theme. Lactose intolerant, kosher or vegetarian? No problem!

So what does one do for fun in "SLO County" at night? Next to nothing, and in a place like this, less is more.

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