MoonstoneBeachSituated between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast often gets overlooked. Whether you’re with your family or gal pals, you’re in for a treat when you visit this gorgeous stretch of coastal and agricultural region in San Luis Obispo County. The mix of beaches, vineyards, ranches and historic sites produces a bounty of great food, wine and sightseeing.

DestinationReviewI recently attended the 2012 Sunset magazine SAVOR the Central Coast Food & Wine Festival, which took place throughout San Luis Obispo County (SLO).  The annual event showcases local chefs and winemakers, but provides opportunities to explore beaches, historic sites, diverse dining options, and shopping districts on your own.

San Luis Obispo
MissionPlazaHome to California Polytehnic State University (Cal Poly), this cozy town (named the Happiest Town by National Geographic for its arts) is a fun place to visit. I’ve always enjoyed this pedestrian-friendly area with its plethora of boutiques, restaurants and historical sites, such as the beautiful Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Mission Plaza is a relaxing spot with a fountain, park and creek.  Sculptures, fountains and murals adorn downtown.

If you’re not grossed out by chewed-up gum, take a look at unique Bubblegum Alley, slathered with wads of old gum (it’s traditional to leave your mark!).
BubblegumAlley

Several restaurants overlook the San Luis Obispo creek. One of my favorite restaurants is Novo, which has an Old World ambiance and a diverse menu using local ingredients. A very tasty appetizer: potato samosas, made with Indian spiced potatoes in won ton skins and served with mint chutney and yogurt dips.

Nearby, family-friendly Pismo Beach is a classic, laid-back California beach town ideal for swimming, picnics and playing on the sand.

MorroBayMorro Bay
Known for the huge rock rising out of the ocean, this seaside town is best explored on foot or bike. We rented bikes from Farmer’s Kites and Surreys, and peddled along a picturesque path to the beach.  At the small marina, Tognazzini’s Fish Market and Restaurant serves fresh seafood dishes.

Cambria
Towering pines and rocky beaches exude a dreamy ambiance. At scenic Moonstone Beach, a network of wooden walkways and steps lead to the rocky shoreline.  Look closely to see sea lions draped on rocks. At nearby San Simeon is Hearst Castle, the former estate of William Randolph Hearst who hosted many parties for the rich and famous. We got a taste of what it must have been like during SAVOR’s Opening Night Event: An Enchanting Evening at Hearst Castle, featuring an array of food and wine displayed on outdoor terraces overlooking the Roman-style Neptune Pool. Hearst Castle tours are available year-round.

Paso Robles
This inland agricultural region has long been known for its therapeutic mineral hot springs. But it’s also California’s fastest growing wine region. From rustic to contemporary, there are many tasting rooms featuring more than 200 wineries.

Lodging
Best Western Fireside Inn, located on Moonstone Beach Drive, in Cambria. Complimentary breakfast is included. A few steps away is Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill, a charming family-run restaurant overlooking the beach.

Pismo Lighthouse Suites in Pismo Beach. Beach access is via a scenic pathway and steps. The spacious, family-friendly suites have a bedroom, living room, kitchen and two baths. Complimentary breakfast included.

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa in San Luis Obispo.  Nestled into a hillside, the resort was the perfect secluded location for SAVOR’s Secret Tomato Garden Lunch, with Chef Robert Trester and Sunset magazine Garden Editor Julie Chai. We sipped wine, plucked tomatoes from the chef’s garden, watched a cooking demonstration and enjoyed a scrumptious outdoor lunch. The spa has about 20 private hot tubs (for one or two people) scattered throughout the hillslide.

PasoRoblesInnPaso Robles Inn has a rich history.  Built in 1891 as the Paso Robles Hotel, it was considered the finest in the U.S. in its time and was visited by many notable people, including U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks, Boris Karloff, Bob Hope and Clark Gable. In 1940, the hotel burned down and rebuilt as a garden inn. Renamed the Paso Robles Inn, it offers rooms with private mineral hot tubs on the balconies. The property has a pool, gardens, stream and ponds.

Breakaway Tours (800-799-7657) provides transportation throughout SLO. For more information about the Central Coast, please go to www.visitslo.com.

Disclosure: My trip was hosted by the San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau but my article and photos depict my own experience.