Eclectic and picturesque San Luis Obispo County occupies a majestic stretch of the Central California Coast, midway - about a three to three-and-a-half-hour drive - from both San Francisco and Los Angeles and just north of similarly stunning Santa Barbara County. It's a diverse region that lends itself to a variety of travel approaches. Visit here to partake of the burgeoning - and nationally acclaimed - San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles wine countries. Enjoy the lively retail and dining in downtown SLO, which is also home to Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University) and the sophisticated cafes and farm-to-table restaurants of downtown Paso Robles.
And then there's the coast. At the north end of coastal SLO County, Cambria and San Simeon (home to world-famous Hearst Castle State Park) mark the beginning of the most dramatic stretch in the state of Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). You'll find a nice mix of affordable seaside motels and quaint B&Bs in these towns as well as, a little farther down the coast, communities like Cayucos and Morro Bay. Continuing south down the coast, you'll come to laid-back coastal towns like Avila Beach and the convivial surfing town of Pismo Beach.
Compared with the Bay Area of metro LA, San Luis Obispo feels both far removed from the hustle and bustle and relatively inconspicuous as an LGBT destination. There is a well-attended Central Coast Pride celebration in San Luis Obispo each July and the region has plenty of lesbian and gay residents, but this is more a place for low-keyed, romantic getaways. Certainly, you shouldn't come here expecting much in the way of gay nightlife. But if it's a relaxing vacation mixed with hiking, wine-touring and perhaps a tour of fabulous Hearst Castle, you've come to the right place. And you'll find a good mix of LGBT-welcoming accommodations throughout the county, in all price ranges. Here's a look at some of our favorites, in alphabetical order.
The gay-friendly Avenue Inn (345 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo, 805-543-6443) offers some of the most pleasant, cleanest and reasonably priced accommodations in downtown SLO. The 51-room motel-style property has warmly updated rooms and a great location within easy walking distance of local restaurants, the Thursday-night farmers market, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and more. Some rooms overlook the surrounding hills and Continental breakfast is included in the rates.
Upon visiting the sunny Wine Country around Paso Robles, you might just think you've stumbled into Tuscany, especially if you spend a couple of nights at the striking Canyon Villa (1455 Kiler Canyon Rd., Paso Robles, 805-238-3362), a lavish four-bedroom B&B on a bluff just west of downtown Paso Robles. Each of the rooms here is fit for a romantic getaway - typical perks include gas fireplaces, two-person jetted rubs and antique beds with downy linens. Part of the joy of staying here is waking up to the complimentary three-course breakfast, which pastries, fresh-fruit parfait and a hearty entree (perhaps scrambled eggs with duck-leg confit). And each afternoon, guests are treated to wine, cheeses, charcuterie and other tasty nibbles. The quiet location makes Canyon Villa ideal for a tranquil Wine Country retreat.
Operated by Christa and Traci Hozie, the sisters and owners of the famed Cayucos sweets spot, the Brown Butter Cookie Company, the lovingly restored 1870s Cass House (222 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, 805-995-3669) is in the heart of the beautiful beach town, Cayucos. It's home to a first-rate bakery and restaurant and also contains five handsomely appointed with cushy bedding and comforters and amenities ranging from fireplaces to private balconies. An exceptional full breakfast is included.
At the start of Moonstone Beach Drive in the coastal SLO County community of Cambria, El Colibri Hotel and Spa (5620 Moonstone Beach Dr., Cambria, 805-924-303) offers among the most luxurious accommodations in the area, although the property itself is set a short distance from the beach. A striking Mediterranean-style boutique hotel with just 34 rooms, El Colibri makes not only a relaxing base camp for enjoying time in coastal San Luis Obispo County, it's also less than a 15-minute drive from Hearst Castle. Rooms are spacious and have gas fireplaces, HDTV with more than 250 channels and plush bedding. Treat yourself to a treatment in the Nest Spa - options include Swedish and hot-stone massage - and the inviting Nectar Wine Bar, where you can sample some of the outstanding wines of San Luis Obispo County and enjoy a light food.
The cheerful and cozy Garden Street Inn (1212 Garden St., San Luis Obispo, 805-545-9802) contains nine rooms and four larger suites done in the decor that harks to the building's 1887 Victorian origins. The pleasant pet-friendly (in certain rooms) inn is just a couple of blocks off of SLO's main drag, Higuera Street. Just walk out the door and you're a short walk from dozens of notable cafes, restaurants, shops and bars.
There are few more fanciful or remarkable lodgings anywhere along the California coastline than the wildly over-the-top Madonna Inn Resort & Spa (100 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo, 805-543-3000), a retro-fabulous compound just off the U.S. 101 freeway a few minutes' drive from downtown SLO. The 110 rooms here are all unique, every one with its own distinctive theme (and matching decor and artwork). Choose from the Old Mexico, Rock Bottom (looks a bit like something out of the Flintstones), Austrian Suite, Caveman, or (pictured here) Safari Room. Guests have been known to stay several days or more, requesting a different room each night, just to try out new looks and styles. There's also a plush full-service spa and outdoor pool (and fitness center), a wine shop and gourmet market, a gift boutique selling all manner of tchotchkes and sounvenirs, the swanky Gold Rush Steak House (with dancing and live music) and a more casual coffeehouse, the Copper Cafe. This rambling compound opened in 1058 and really has to be seen to be believed. It's an authentic slice of roadside Americana. It's also a very popular wedding spot, and the staff welcomes LGBT ceremonies and receptions.
A conveniently located, contemporary, eco-friendly and upscale property on the north side of downtown Paso Robles, the Oaks Hotel (3000 Riverside Ave., Paso Robles, 805-237-8700) has 90 large, comfortable rooms along with a large outdoor pool and hot tub, an exercise room, pet-friendly rooms and free parking. With LGBT management, it's one of the more popular lodgings in the region with gay travelers. Rates are reasonable and there's a full-service and restaurant off the lobby (where a hot buffet breakfast is served each morning).
The historic Paso Robles Inn (1103 Spring St., Paso Robles, 805-238-2660) sits right in the center of downtown, just a few minutes' stroll from numerous tasting rooms and eateries. Designed in the Mission style in 1940 (it replaced an original hot springs hotel that had been on the site since 1891), the 98-room hotel comprises a series of two-story buildings set around a central courtyard and garden. Top rooms have two-person hot tubs fed with mineral hot springs on the balcony, fireplaces and themes and artwork related to different wineries in the region. The wineries that partner with the hotel offer complimentary tastings at their vineyards to guests who stay in that particular room. In-room spa treatments are available and there's a very good steakhouse and bar on site, Cattlemen's Lounge, that's known for quite tasty food and well-crafted cocktails.
With a golden-yellow facade and a romantic design inspired by Provence, the 15-room Petit Soleil (1473 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805-549-0321) offers some of the most charming lodgings in the county. The cheerfully furnished inn that opens to a sunny rear courtyard is on a main downtown street, an easy stroll from several excellent restaurants as well as Mission Plaza and the Downtown Centre shopping complex and cinema. Guests are treated to a full Wine Country-inspired breakfast and in the evenings, there's a complimentary 90-minute wine tasting with an impressive spread of cheeses, breads and dipping oils. You'll find plenty of nice touches in your rooms, including L'Occitane bath amenities.
A handsome, petit boutique hotel right in the appealing beach community of Cayucos, Pier View Suites (12 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, 805-995-0014) is posh little modern oasis that's a great base whether you're headed up the coast toward Hearst Castle and even Big Sur, or planning to venture inland to check out some of the superb wineries in Paso Robles. These all-suite bungalows (there are seven total) have views of the water, full kitchens with top-of-the-line appliances and in some cases sweeping balconies. Some have two bedrooms and bathrooms, and some of them are also on two levels - amenities include DVD players, terry robes, William Roam bath products and ever your very own pet fish in a bowl to brighten things up during your stay. With so much room to kick around and full self-catering options, these are a great option if you're planning to stay for several days.
Sand Pebbles Inn (6252 Moonstone Beach Dr., 805-927-5600) is part of a group of gay-welcoming lodgings in the breezy coastal community of Cambria - the others are the Blue Dolphin Inn, Castle Inn and Moonstone Cottages. The attractive inn with graciously appointed contemporary rooms is just across the street from stunning Moonstone Beach and right off the 1-mile boardwalk that extends along the waterfront. You'll find 32-inch flat-screen TVs and gas fireplaces in the rooms, along with microwaves, refrigerators and other handy extras. The hotel welcomes pets, too, for a small extra charge.
San Luis Creek Lodge (1941 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805-541-1122) is set in three distinctively designed buildings along Monterey Street, just off U.S. 101 and a short drive or 20-minute walk from the center of this bustling university town. The architectural types of the lodge structures are Tudor, Craftsman and Plantation - there's really a style to suit many tastes. Rooms are airy and bright, with high ceilings, custom sleigh or four-poster beds and bathrooms with marble showers; the fanciest units have fireplaces and jetted tubs and are quite a bit more spacious. With these rates, you receive a substantial breakfast with eggs, waffles, rosemary potatoes and other hearty fare.
For an incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating Central Coast getaway, the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (1215 Avila Beach Dr., San Luis Obispo, 805-595-7302) is absolutely ideal. It's set in 100 verdant acres of woodland ten miles south of SLO proper, near the easygoing seaside community of Avila Beach. Hiking trails lead to a hilly overlook with fantastic views down toward San Luis Pier and San Luis Obispo Bay. Popular for its soothing restorative hot springs, extensive spa with a wealth of treatments, daily classes in everything from yoga to pilates and healthy, market-to-table dining (at Gardens of Avila Restaurant), this is the kind of spot where you really start to slow down and shed your stress from the moment you arrive. That said, it's also advisable to spend at least three nights here if possible, just to give yourself a chance to thoroughly decompress and take advantage of the myriad resort offerings.