A Quick Visit to Downtown SLO

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Since moving to the Bay Area from Southern California nine years ago, I’ve driven past San Luis Obispo dozens of times on my way to visit friends and family in San Diego. But until recently, I’d never bothered to pull off the 101 and see what the Central Coast college town (home to Cal Poly) has to offer. Turns out, laid-back SLO, as locals call it, is a great place to visit. This trip was short and sweet–not quite 24-hours. Next time, I’ll definitely stay longer.

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My daughter and I spent a night at the hip and stylish Granada Hotel on our way to Santa Barbara.Tucked away in a brick building on Morro Street that was once a brothel, the boutique hotel is ideally situated for exploring downtown SLO by foot.

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After dropping off our bags, we joined the flow of people filling Higuera Street. As we wandered past trees draped with strands of twinkling lights and charming old buildings housing shops and restaurants, it didn’t take long for us to start falling for SLO. Here’s how we spent the next 20 hours:

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Novo – My friend Sydnie recommended this popular restaurant featuring an eclectic Asian-influenced menu. I figured we wouldn’t have a shot of getting in without a reservation during peak dinner hour, but was pleasantly surprised when the hostess told me the wait was just a few minutes. Soon, we were seated at a table on Novo’s lovely patio, graced by  trees and lanterns, overlooking San Luis Creek. Dining on mouth-watering scallops served with an edamame mash, listening to the creek burble and a chorus of frogs serenade us as dusk descended, was the perfect ending to a tiring day on the road. Capping off my meal with Novo’s Chocolate Trilogy dessert didn’t hurt, either.

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Scout Coffee – The next day, I took an early morning walk and stumbled upon what might just be the most adorable coffee house on the planet. I was so mesmerized by Scout’s sunny, inviting interior, I probably wouldn’t have minded much if the coffee sucked. It didn’t. My double-latte was hot, rich and strong, just the way I like it.

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Sally Loo’s Wholesome Café – For breakfast, we headed to this bustling local favorite in a residential neighborhood of the historic Railway District. The tiny eatery specializes in fresh baked goods, simple but tasty farm-to-table fare and some of the best coffee in town. Exposed beams, a corrugated tin ceiling and brick walls popping with colorful artwork give it a funky, cozy vibe that made the slightly long wait for our food easier to tolerate. When it arrived, my savory vegetable quiche was worth the wait. And my daughter relinquished my phone long enough to enjoy her Nutella waffle, too.

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Bubble Gum Alley—This is one site I could have skipped. But while we were poking around the shops on Higuera, we discovered we were just steps away from the infamous alley where thousands have plastered the walls with globs of chewed gum. Yuck. Though my daughter claimed she was as grossed out by it as me, she couldn’t resist dragging me to the disgusting monument and adding her own wad to the collection.

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Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa — We didn’t go inside the mission, but we spent some time admiring the simple beauty of its exterior and walking around the plaza. We watched families posing for pictures, college students zipping by on bikes, couples strolling hand-in-hand and little kids splashing in the bear fountain.

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San Luis Creek Walkway — After, we followed the steps leading down from the plaza to the shady walkway along San Luis Creek. My 13-year-old may have been too old to play in the fountain, but I was happy to see she wasn’t too cool for frog-hunting or hopping back and forth across the creek via boulders.

dallidet houseDallidet Adobe & Gardens — On our way out of town, we made a quick pit- stop at this 1850s adobe surrounded by peaceful gardens laced with brick pathways. The site is also home to the little Ramona Depot and horse-drawn carriage that once transported guests from the San Luis Obispo train station to the elegant Ramona Hotel, which burned down in 1905.

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Retreat to Mount Madonna

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Recently, I spent a few days at an informal writing retreat with a great group of fellow writing mamas. Armed with laptops and notebooks, we abandoned our families and descended on Mount Madonna Center-–an idyllic 322-acre property in the hills outside Watsonville in Santa Cruz County–to hang with deer and some folks participating in a tantric yoga workshop. (Bet my husband wishes I’d signed up for that one!) Perched above Monterey Bay and surrounded by a forest of redwoods, it was the perfect place to escape the distractions of everyday life, get some serious writing done, and bond with other writers.

Mount Madonna offers a variety of workshops and retreats, including personal retreats you can tailor to your needs. The center is also a nice spot for a low-key, affordable family getaway for outdoorsy types. I know a certain 12-year-old who’d have a blast swimming in the small lake, soaring on the secret swing in the woods, and chasing the wild turkeys that roam the grounds. Guess I’ll have to go back with her one day.

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Lodging — I stayed in a no frills but comfortable hotel-style room in the Conference Center. Most of the rooms share a bathroom. I’m a bit squeamish about shared bathrooms, so I splurged on a room with a private one ($165 per night). But my friends swore the communal restrooms were spotless and they never had to wait to use them. So maybe I’ll go the shared route next time.

Some of my friends stayed in rustic cabins set among pines on a hilltop. After visiting one of them, I developed a mild case of cabin envy. The snug, simply furnished, hardwood-floor abodes were more inviting than my somewhat dark, bland room. And at $80 a night, they were a bargain. Of course, you do have to walk outside to a shared bathroom…

Quiet, Please Babi Hari Dass, a yoga master and monk who took a vow of silence in 1952, founded Mount Madonna. So it’s no surprise that this place doesn’t mess around when it comes to quiet-time. Shoes aren’t allowed in most indoor spaces. And loud talking and other noise are verboten after 9 p.m. I confess, it wasn’t always easy for our chatty bunch to stick to this rule.

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Take a Hike  Before hunkering down in my room to write each morning, I took a hike with a friend on one of the many trails that wind through the redwoods. One evening, we wandered up a path—sprinkled with Buddhist altars–that meanders past the lake and up a grassy hill to watch the spectacular sunset and take in the view.

Food and Caffeine— I loved not having to think about when, where or what to eat while at Mount Madonna. Vegetarian meals in the communal dining room are included with all retreats. The food’s not fancy. But it’s tasty, fresh and there’s plenty of it. Outside food and alcohol aren’t allowed on the premises.

I can live without booze. But  take away my coffee, and things get ugly real fast. As a full-fledged addict, I was scared when I read on the center’s website that tea was available throughout the day, but there was no mention of coffee. Writing’s hard enough without trying to do it with a foggy, caffeine-deprived brain. I was relieved to find plenty of surprisingly decent instant organic coffee on hand. And I was over the moon when I discovered the small café where I could order a triple-shot latte from the most blissed out barista I’ve ever met.

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Chant, Massage, Soak– I didn’t get a chance to attend one of the daily chanting ceremonies at the beautiful Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. But I loved hearing the soft peal of the gong and joyful voices wafting through the grounds at sunrise and sunset. When I go back to Mount Madonna, I hope to join in this sweet ritual.

A massage will also be on the itinerary for my next visit. A couple of my friends were smart enough to book one. When they floated into the dining hall that evening looking radiant and serene, I wished I had, too. A few of us tossed around the idea of taking a starlit soak in the hot tub. But the thought of trekking back to our rooms–damp and cold– in the chilly night air, made it less appealing. We opted for bed instead.

Do Yoga – Mount Madonna offers daily complimentary yoga classes. I brought my mat, but as much as I like yoga, I couldn’t pry myself away from my writing to make it to class. Oh well—another thing to try next time.