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Come for the Lights, Stay for the Central Coast

Bruce Munro: Field of Light at Sensorio in Paso Robles
By Pati Navalta

The Central Coast had never been a destination of mine until I heard about the Bruce Munro: Field of Light at Sensorio in Paso Robles. Since it opened in May 2019, the massive outdoor light exhibit has attracted well over 100,000 visitors to the 15-acre site where 58,800 stemmed spheres have been “planted” and lit by fiber optics. At night, the fantastical spectacle is a cross between the technicolored, poppy-filled meadow in the Wizard of Oz and the neon-lit flora of Avatar. The exhibit was closed due to the pandemic, but when it reopened in June I told myself I would go—and I’m glad I did. 

I expected the exhibit to live up to all the hype, but what I didn’t expect was the Central Coast to be the true star of the whole trip. From its pristine coastline, rolling vineyards and dramatic mountain ranges, to its boutique shops, eateries and unique attractions, the region is a perfect blend of NorCal’s sophisticated wine country and SoCal’s soul-soothing beaches. Depending on where you are in the Bay Area, it’s a good 3- to 4-hour drive, but it’s well worth the drive. Here are a few highlights from my own trip:

Bruce Munro: Field of Light at Sensorio in Paso Robles: Since this was my main reason for going, let’s start here. When you drive along the dirt path and onto the dirt parking lot to the exhibit, there is no sign of what you are about to witness. Even when you enter the site, you are greeted by various food stalls and an eating area with string lights strewn above, but no sign of the installation. It’s not until dusk, when you follow a one-way trail down into the folds of the hills that you witness the full grandeur of this unique experience. The multi-colored lights cover the open space for as far as the eyes can see. You are able to walk through the fields and into the exhibit along a single path, where, in this case, pictures really can do it justice. This is an Instagrammer’s dream. The installation is an art escape like no other by Munro, a British/Australian artist, who is known for producing large immersive site-specific installations around the world, including Scotland, Denmark and South Korea. If you go, be sure to wear a mask—safety precautions have been prioritized since the exhibit reopened in June. The exhibit ends on Jan. 3, and you must buy tickets in advance. 

4380 Highway 46 East, Paso Robles, 805.226.4287, sensoriopaso.com

Hotel San Luis Obispo: Visitors of the Senorio exhibit can get a discounted rate at several hotels, including the Hotel San Luis Obispo, also referred to as Hotel SLO. The hotel is about a 30-minute drive from the exhibit, but it gives you an opportunity to explore this quaint and quirky college town. Located just a block away from historic Mission San Luis Obispo and a short walk from numerous restaurants, bars and premier shopping, this is the perfect spot for Central Coast newcomers and veterans alike. There are 78 rooms, including six suites, two studio terraces and 10 terrace rooms showcasing views of the surrounding mountains and gardens. The Rooftop Terrace and High Bar serves appetizers, cocktails and craft beers. If you’re looking for a full meal, the hotel offers two on-site restaurants, including Piadina, a fresh California take on Italian cuisine, and Ox + Anchor, a fine-dining experience that offers several signature steaks and a host of Central Coast wines. This can be a great home-base as you drive along the coast and discover surrounding beaches, including the charming Avila Beach (be sure to explore the many shops and restaurants there) and Pismo Beach. If you’re feeling kitschy, book a meal at nearby Madonna Inn, which features over-the-top themed rooms and classic dishes, such as prime rib, lobster, and its classic, pink champagne cake. And don’t forget the hot springs – the region is known for them. River Oaks Hot Springs Spa gives you all the benefits of a natural hot spring, with the privacy of a spa. 

877 Palm St., San Luis Obispo, 805.235.0700, hotel-slo.com

Chamisal Vineyards: It’s hard to miss the vineyards that dot the Central Coast—and even die-hard Napa Valley wine connoisseurs can appreciate the wines produced in this region. The proximity to the ocean and the different terroir offer a brightness and a different dimension to these wines than our Northern California offerings. Chamisal Vineyards is the landmark property that is home to the first vineyard planted in Edna Valley, and is located just outside of the city of San Luis Obispo. The vineyards for Chamisal’s inaugural vintage of San Luis Obispo Pinot Noir, which was just released, are located in the Edna Valley American Viticultural Area, just five miles from the Pacific Ocean, and are known for its very long, cool and coastally influenced growing season. In addition to Pinot Noir and a selection of Rhone varieties, Chamisal Vineyards also specializes in Chardonnay that range from light and refreshing to rich and creamy, conveying the distinct terroirs and styles of the Central Coast. The winery is currently open by reservation only with spacious outdoor seating overlooking estate vines.

7525 Orcutt Rd., San Luis Obispo, 805.541.9463, chamisalvineyards.com

Santa Barbara Inn: Just an hour and half away is the Spanish-tiled sanctuary of Santa Barbara. If you go, this boutique hotel is the perfect spot, located just across the street from the beach and minutes away from the city’s famed Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara Harbor, and popular State Street, lined with shops, restaurants and museums. Its Convivo Restaurant offers oceanfront dining featuring classic Italian fare ranging from wood-fired oven pizza to fresh seafood and grilled meats and homemade pastas. If you’re up for a short drive and are looking to explore the beautiful gardens of Santa Barbara, be sure to visit Lotusland, a non-profit botanical garden in nearby Montecito, or the city’s own Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where you can also take a scenic hike. Speaking of scenic, don’t miss the Santa Barbara County Courthouse—yes, courthouse. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, this historic building offers an unparalleled 360-view of Santa Barbara, where you can take in all the Spanish-influenced architecture and natural wonder of the city.

901 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, 800.231.0431, santabarbarainn.com

Solvang: On the way home, why not stop by Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley? Known as “Little Denmark”, this snow-globe of a town showcases Danish old-world architecture, complete with a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, four windmills, Danish-inspired buildings with gabled roofs, and numerous bakeries and restaurants offering authentic Danish delicacies and pasties. If you’re craving Danish butter cookies, frikadeller (Danish meatball), medisterpølse (boiled sausage), and hakkebøf (hamburger steak in brown sauce), this is the place to be!

All photos courtesy of Pati Navalta

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