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The San Luis Obispo Collection Marries a New Wave of Luxury to Central California's Quaint Charm

Jun. 30th, 2017

When Oprah calls your city the "Happiest Place in America," there's probably some truth to it. For those not familiar with California's central coast, here's a little backstory. Located approximately 11 miles inland, the region is a occupied by miles of fertile farmland that lead to powdery beaches and breathtaking views on the coastline. San Luis Obispo is approximately equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and is one of the oldest continuous communities in the state thanks to the mission established by Junipero Serra in 1772. The mission is also the focal point of the downtown area, with much of the rest of the community built around it. Higuera Street, now considered the city's main drag, hosts a multitude of locally-owned boutiques, restaurants, and other small businesses. 

There's a saying among locals about "living life in the SLO lane," which serves as a gentle reminder that things in the area are, well, slow. After living in San Luis Obispo for four years as an undergrad at Cal Poly, I jumped at the opportunity to see this quintessential California college town in a new light. While much about the pace of life remains the same, the San Luis Obispo Collection is ushering in a new era of luxe, community-focused development that takes the town's rural charm to new heights. High-end retail spaces and locally sourced restaurants usher in a welcoming atmosphere that both natives and college students can enjoy.

San Luis Obispo Collection
Photo Credit: San Luis Obispo Collection

To get a feel for what San Luis Obispo is all about, it should be noted that there are no fast food drive-thrus in the city, nor are there any plastic bags in grocery stores and smoking on the street is met with a heavy fine. Because the city is dedicated to maintaining a health-conscious, small town feel, the city works to bring in larger retailers that can develop a luxurious atmosphere, without disturbing the mom-and-pop shops. Though the SLO Collection began elsewhere in the downtown area, it's safe to say that its most enterprising establishment yet is its development on Monterey Street. The buildings are all historic, having originally been built at the turn of the century when the city was first established. The architects and designers did their best to stay true to this heritage, maintaining hardwood floors, steel beams and brick walls that were there during the original construction. To further partner the Cal Poly community with the local scene, several spaces within the building serve as live-and-work spaces for the SLO HotHouse, an entrepreneurship program that pushes students to embark on innovative new business ventures. 

williams sonoma
Photo Credit: San Luis Obispo Collection

I don't know about you, but I find it pretty hard not to get excited when I step inside a Williams-Sonoma or a MAC store. But in terms of ultra welcoming, community-oriented retail spaces, the SLO Collection takes the cake by ensuring the big name retailers kick their offerings up a notch. You don't get a title like "the Happiest Place in America" without an array of activities for locals to engage with. For example, the Collection's Lululemon offers outdoor yoga classes in the park, while the Williams-Sonoma brings culinary genius to SLO's smallest residents with cupcake-making courses. Fashionistas and beauty fiends alike have much to look forward to on the strip, with Lush Cosmetics, H&M and Marine Layer all located on the same block. 

thomas hill
Photo Credit: Thomas Hill Organics

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and there's nowhere better to fuel up for a weekend of vigorous hiking (or shopping, if that's more your style) than at Mint+Craft. From the outside, the eatery greets guests with a cheerful royal purple facade and lime green folding chairs strewn about an outdoor patio. The restaurant is the fifth installment of Robert and Shanny, a foodiepreneur duo that are also responsible for other SLO institutions like Novo and Luna Red. Be sure to dine outdoors while sipping on a frothy almond latte, soaking up the sunshine while your duck confit toastie is being prepared. 

As the country's breadbasket, California produces nearly half of the produce consumed in the United States. A significant portion of that produce is farmed in the valleys of Central California in places like San Luis Obispo County. Taking advantage of this bounty isn't difficult—the new Thomas Hill Organics outpost in SLO offers some of the best local, farm-to-table eats in the county. While the food is the star of the show at Thomas Hill, the cocktail program is nothing to ignore. One sip of the Brown Derby—a mix of Eagle Rare 10-year bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey—sent me to my happy place. 

chamisal winery
Photo Credit: Kat Ward

Fun fact: all 50 states in the US (even Alaska) produce wine. This is just one of the many fascinating details about winemaking provided on our tour of Chamisal Vineyards production facility and tasting room. As the first vineyard to put down roots in Edna Valley in 1973, Chamisal knows a thing or two about producing great wine. The vineyard stretches approximately 83 acres, playing host to vines that produce grapes for crisp chardonnay, pinot noir and rosé. The winery is one of the few in the area that is both licensed organic and SIP certified, with a dedication to sustainability engrained in their winemaking philosophy. They can produce anywhere from around 400 to 700 or more tons of wine per year, despite only having a staff of six on board throughout the year (if you don't count the four dogs that openly roam the property as employees.) Though many of the wines are only available in select locations, the brand hopes to expand to become Edna Valley's go-to for chardonnay.   

farmers market
Photo Credit: The San Luis Obispo Collection

Thursday nights are when the city really comes to life. The San Luis Obispo Farmer's Market is the highlight of the weekly social calendar, curtaining off six blocks of downtown for food (hello, BBQ!), entertainment and local produce for sale. The market is one of the biggest in California, estimating a crowd of 10,000 people coming to the event every week. I personally have fond memories of getting a pound of fresh cherries for an absurdly low price, then sitting next to the creek to enjoy them before the sun came down. On Thursdays many of the stores that normally close at six stay open late, so take the opportunity to browse small businesses that range from a quirky specialty sock store to the ultra-chic cult fashion maven boutiques. 

granada hotel
Photo Credit: The Granada Hotel & Bistro

If you asked a "SLOcal" where to stay, they'd probably point you towards the Madonna Inn, one of California's quirkiest roadside hotels. If you asked me, I'd tell you that the Madonna is great for its novelty (and its pink champagne cake), but the Granada Hotel and Bistro is where it's at. The historical boutique property (and alleged turn of the century brothel) is at once chic and quaint, maintaining old school charm with exposed brick and original hardwood floors and pairing them with modern, colorful furnishings in luxurious leathers and velvet. Upon arrival, guests are greeted with a glass of complimentary rosé, which comes from the vineyard of the hotel's owners. Don't miss an opportunity to dine in at the on-site bistro, which is arguably one of the best eateries in town. Kick off a meal with a generous helping of the Pacific gold oysters, followed quickly by the NY strip steak, which is smothered in a delectable bone marrow butter. 

Though the area was once a place to just stop on road trips up the coast, to not stay and take in the city's rolling hills, pleasant populace and delightful mom-and-pop main street is to do yourself a disservice. To call SLO a community is almost a misnomer; the population in the city is more like a beehive, with all of its parts working together to create one of the happiest places in the country.     

Kat Ward

Kat Ward is the Assistant Editor at JustLuxe. She gets to call sunny San Diego home, but has lived in 4 other countries and most recently returned from a stint in the United Kingdom. When she isn't working or traveling, Kat can be found practicing yoga, enjoying a glass of Cabernet, or playing ukulele to one of her dogs. ...(Read More)