We've all experienced it...
The road trip from you know where. Maybe it was in your childhood: Sitting in the middle seat of the back row of the family station wagon. Little brother poking you on one side. Older sister sighing out of teenage angst every five minutes on the other side. And you, asking your parents that burning road trip question: Are we there yet?
Or maybe the hellacious excursion took place in your adulthood: Two tiny humans in car seats. A steady stream of Paw Patrol coming from the seat back DVD player. The floor of your car looking like that of a movie theater after opening night of a summer blockbuster. And SO. MUCH. SCREAMING...
The truth is, the key to a great road trip isn’t more technology, the right snacks or different siblings—although those things might help. The key to road tripping is knowing where to stop; and that’s what makes San Luis Obispo County the hidden gem of California. (Ok. Perhaps we’re not as hidden as we used to be. Thanks, Oprah.)
My family and I have been fortunate to live in SLO County (as us locals call it) for nearly 10 years. During that time, we’ve honed our pitch about “what to do in San Luis Obispo” to fit any destination in the county—and there are many of them to choose from. However, since my husband and I and our two young boys live in the city of Arroyo Grande, the southern part of San Luis Obispo County is near and dear to my heart.
From Avila Beach to Arroyo Grande, there are so many places in "south SLO Cal"—right off Highway 101—to stop, stretch your legs and recharge as you travel through our great state. So, whether you’ve got 2 days, 2 hours or 20 minutes to spend in south San Luis Obispo County, here are my kid-friendly, adult-approved places to go. To me, each of these recommendations gives a taste (sometimes quite literally) of what it means to be a SLO Cal resident: Creating big memories through beautiful experiences in a small town.
The boardwalk and main beachfront in Avila are fun and very kid-friendly, but if you have some time, I’d recommend driving all the way through town to Port San Luis. If you don’t mind getting wet and sandy, walk down to Port San Luis Beach (the beach closest to the pier). It’s less crowded than the other beaches in Avila, and exploring the tide pools is fun for kids of any age.
After you dry off, saunter over to the Port San Luis Pier. It’s a total sensory experience, complete with the bark of sea lions, the smell of freshly caught and filleted fish and a number of places to grab a bite to eat. (I’d recommend Mersea’s.)
On your way out of Avila, stop by Avila Barn to feed the farm animals, eat some ice cream or pick up an olallieberry pie.
If you’re planning to stay the night in San Luis Obispo County, I can’t think of a better place than The Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach. My husband and I stay there every year for our annual staycation. The view is breathtaking; and the hotel is kid-friendly without losing a high-end, you-should-be-over-21-to-stay-here vibe.
Bonus: The Cliffs is located right beside Dolphin Bay Resort—another beautiful (but slightly more expensive) property with an even better happy hour. Double Bonus: Both resorts are within walking distance to south SLO Cal’s best sushi restaurant, Kanpei Sushi! (Get the Diablo Canyon Roll.)
If you’re looking for breakfast or lunch in Shell Beach, check out Zorro’s Café or Ventana Grill. Zorro’s has outdoor seating options that are perfect for tiny humans who can’t sit still. Ventana is a bit more upscale, with fantastic appetizers (carne asada nachos or calamari), an affordable kid’s menu and a decent chance you’ll see a spouting whale.
I’m gonna be honest with you: Downtown Pismo Beach in the summer is not my favorite place. It’s extremely crowded with tourists, and I avoid it at all costs. If you’re looking for a bite to eat in Downtown Pismo during the summer—or the off-season--I’d suggest The Boardroom. Good food, great beer and it’s a off the beaten path, so it’s usually not as crowded as other Pismo eateries.
What I’d really suggest doing if you’re passing through Pismo is stopping at California Fresh Market to grab some food for a picnic lunch with the kids at Chumash Park. Cal Fresh also has an amazing selection of local wines if you can't make it to an actual winery but want to stock up! PSA for all the ladies: Before you leave the shopping center, head over to Harper Jo. It’s my favorite place to shop in South SLO Cal. Kristen, the owner, is so sweet; and she’s a mom too. So, she has candy, seating and lots of patience for little ones.
If you’re passing through Grover in a truck or SUV, I’d highly recommend cruising down the beach in your car. It’s the only beach you can drive on in California, and it’s a fun, unique experience.
If you’re in need of caffeine while in Grover, get your fix at Red Bee Coffee. And if they have any Superfood Bites left, get one of those too!
I had to save the best for last, right? Hands down, the best restaurant in Arroyo Grande--and arguably in all of San Luis Obispo County--is Ember. It's fairly upscale, so if you're worried about the tiny humans, ask to sit on the back patio.
No stop in this town is complete without a visit to the Village of Arroyo Grande. The main thoroughfare is lined with places to eat and shops to peek into. Planted and Jaffa are my favorite “fast” food places; and Mason Bar and Kitchen is a fantastic gastropub (get the brussel sprouts or the Duo of Yellowfin).
After you're done eating, take a walk across the swinging bridge and go on a rooster hunt. Actually, hunting for roosters probably won’t be necessary. The village roosters love people. Sort of...
And speaking of people, the folks in Arroyo Grande--and San Luis Obispo County, in general-- are some of the friendliest people in California. (Yes, I might be slightly biased.) Don’t be shocked if almost everyone you pass says “hello,” and I won’t be surprised if you decided to stop back in SLO Cal on your way home.