San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place

San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place and I don’t have to go far to experience it– it’s in my backyard. It’s exactly why I decided to move here 15 years ago. Of course, the best things about the area are the rural feel, proximity to the coast and the warm weather. Although I don’t want people flocking to the area and spoiling the best of what there is here, I can’t stop sharing how wonderful San Luis Obispo County is.

Photo of 2 plam trees on a cliff in Pismo Beach, California

My top 5 favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo County

  1. Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles
    Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles.

    Wine tasting. There are hundreds upon hundreds (that’s not an exaggeration—check out PasoWine.com and SLOWine.com to see what I mean—do note that listings on both of these are dependent on being members, so not all the wineries in the area are listed). Wine tasting in SLO County is less expensive than other more well-known wine regions. The unofficial stance of the local wine country is that wine tasting is for everyone and the best wine is the wine you like. Wine comes with corks, screw tops and in boxes—what matters is not what it comes in but the quality of the wine that goes in.

    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
  2. Beach day. I love making a day (or at least an afternoon) of visiting the beach, whether it’s by myself, with friends or with my daughter. My favorite beach (shhh…don’t tell anyone) is Cayucos State Beach.  The children like to spend as much time on the playground on the south side of the peir as they do in the water. If I don’t go to Cayucos, Avila Beach is number 2. Although there are many other fabulous beaches.

    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero
    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero.
  3. Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo
    Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo.

    Craft beer tasting. Since becoming gluten-free, I drink more wine than beer, but my dad and brother in particular LOVE beer. My dad’s goal is to visit all the craft breweries in SLO County. There aren’t as many breweries as there are wineries—nowhere close—but it’s still proving to be difficult as there are always more craft breweries popping up. One of my favorites is Libertine Brewing in SLO because of the sour beers. If you haven’t had a sour before, I recommend going to Libertine and trying one—or four by getting a flight.

    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero
    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero.
  4. Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning
    Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning.

    Hiking. One thing those of us living in SLO County often take advantage of — besides living so close to the ocean — is the many hiking trails. There are short hikes that don’t have much elevation change and there are more than a few hiking trails that go up a mountain. There’s one I see every time I head north on the 101 just as the ocean is about to disappear from view at Shell Beach (Shell Beach Bluffs Trail). The ones I hike most often are in Atascadero: Stadium Park and Jim Green, as well as trails at Montana de Oro.

    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles
    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles.
  5. Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles with a birthday candle on it
    Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles for my birthday.

    Gourmet food. With the multiple wine, craft beer and spirits offerings, it’s no surprise that talented chefs have been drawn to the area. Not only can get get a fantastic meal in any of the cities/towns in the county, but you can also venture out into the country and find a delicious meal at one of many wineries. One of my favorites  that I love to hit up for Happy Hour is Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles. In downtown San Luis Obispo, my newest obsession is the Vegetable Butcher. Don’t let the name mislead you into thinking that it’s a vegetarian or vegan, restaurant. While it can make most dishes vegetarian or vegan and most are already gluten-free, there is an assortment of offerings for all tastes.

This is only a sampling of what SLO County has to offer, but part of why I make my home here, not to mention the mild weather year-round.

My journey to Hogwarts

Though I’ve been to Universal Studios in Hollywood several times, thanks to a summer job I have working with students who come to the U.S. from other countries, my daughter has not. After several offers to take my daughter to Harry Potter World in place of a birthday party, my daughter told me she wanted to go. It helped that she’s been sucked into Harry Potter mania—she’s now halfway through reading the entire series for the third time.

The girl with her new wand and map of where she can do spells, while we wait in line at Three Broomsticks.

Universal Studios. So many of us want to enjoy Universal Studios and being prepared with what things actually cost helps for better planning. I’m a thrifty traveler, but I don’t want to sacrifice the experience because of money. So I find ways to get the most of my buck. Below you’ll see how much I spent, what I spent it on and any deals I got. Keep reading to the end for my tips and tricks for making the most out of Universal Studios/Harry Potter World.

This video is of the girl trying out a spell in Hogsmeade, and succeding.
Costs:
  • Round trip Amtrak tickets between San Luis Obispo and Burbank/Hollywood $110.70 (children are half price and we got 10% off with AAA by purchasing the tickets at least three days in advance)
  • Two season tickets to Universal Studios $218 (Costco currently has three-day tickets for $119 each, we were able to beat that by my mom buying the tickets through her union.
Day 1
  • L
    The girl with a cold butterbeer in a souvenir cup in the Hogshead with the Three Broomsticks in the background.

    ocker to keep our things since we arrived directly from the train station $12 (I got a medium locker, I almost thought I should have gotten a bigger one, but it was JUST big enough for my backpack, my daughter’s small one, two small lunch bags and our two sweaters. You can go in and out of the locker all day, so it’s worth it if you have to bring more than a small bag.)

  • Snacks on the train $4.75
  • Interactive wand $54.75 from Ollivander’s Wand Shop (I considered buying one from eBay, but thought that the wand ceremony would be special for my girl)
  • Our first meal at the Three Broomsticks, the plate on the top is a kids meal of a quarter of a chicken with potato wedges and grapes, and the one on the bottom is bangers and mash without the gravy

    Lyft (click on the link to get a code for $10-$20 off your first ride) from the train station to Universal Studios $6.39(it just so happens that I have 50% off rides through Sunday for being a 5-star customer, so many of the trips were only a few dollars more than taking public transit and much faster)

  • Butterbeer in a souvenir cup $14.77
  • Late lunch at Three Broomsticks $23.30 (we got a kids meal and an adult meal, no drinks)
  • Lyft from Universal Studios to hotel in Hollywood $7.13
  • Dinner at In n Out $4.65
  • Hotel two blocks from the Chinese Theatre for two nights $72.26 (I used $220.53 worth of points from one of my credit cards. I wanted to stay near-ish Universal Studios since we wouldn’t have a card while here.)
Bangers and mash again on the right, with potatos and corn on the cob and a cold butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks.
Day 2
  • The girl “feeding” Hedwig a chip while wearing the new hat she bought at The Grove.

    One-way subway fare for two $7.50 (this cost includes the $1 Tap card fee times 2–it doesn’t appear that there are reduced fares for children. The fare was $2.75 one-way)

  • Sweatshirt (I didn’t bring warm enough sweaters), water and chips from La La Land on Hollywood Boulevard $24.73
  • Small locker rental $8
  • Postcard set (10) and 10 Hogwarts castle stamps $30.55 (the stamps were $14.95 for 10–almost $1.50/each. The cashier stamped each postcard and some envelopes I brought with the Hogsmeade postmark. We were able to mail the letters just outside the Owl Post)
  • You are here mugs and cups at Starbucks–they’re $14.99 each.

    Hedwig Puppet $38.27 (my girl used her own money for it)

  • Hot butterbeer & a fire whiskey $16.96 (5.99 for the butterbeer & $9.50 for the fire whiskey)
  • Lunch at Jurassic Café $31.72 (we got two burgers with gluten-free buns, which were $12.99 and there was no extra cost for the GF buns; and a small Caesar salad for $2.99)
  • Pumpkin juice $7.65
  • Lyft from Universal Studios to The Grove Farmers Market $9.22
  • Cupcake from Sprinkles $3.95
  • Ice cream $4.75
  • Wine at The Grove Farmers Market $7 (I think it was happy hour)
  • Dinner at Deanos Gourmet Pizza at The Grove Farmers Market $19.12 (we got a medium gluten-free pizza)
  • Hollywood hat $7.61 (we got this from a vendor at The Grove Farmers Market—the girl used her own money for it)
  • Dried tea $13.66 (I got this last year when I was at The Grove and it’s a favorite with both of us)
  • Lyft from The Grove to the hotel $5.63 (we used Lyft Line this time, so there was one person already in the car when we got in and one person got in right before we reached our destination)
Day 3
Grand Total = $856.44
  • Transportation $159.21
  • Lodging $72.26
  • Universal Studios tickets $218
  • Food $202.40
  • Souvenirs $131.18
  • Misc. $73.39

Tips and tricks for saving money at Universal Studios/Harry Potter World

  1. I purchased a set of three Harry Potter candies from Amazon before we went. I got Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, a crispy chocolate frog and jelly slugs. They are in much smaller packages and costs less than one of the items in Honeydukes. My daughter wants more chocolate frogs (for the trading cards inside) and is happy to order more from Amazon later on, instead of spending $10.95 + tax on one (rather large) chocolate frog that comes with one trading card.
  2. I considered purchasing an interactive wand on eBay or elsewhere in advance, but after reading about the wand choosing ceremony, I knew that would make it special for my daughter and if she weren’t chosen, she’d have fun picking out the one she wanted. If it were a wand for myself, I would have bought in advance at a cheaper price. While pricey at $50+tax, it was worth it for the experience.
  3. Purchase Harry Potter garb—T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweaters, robes, ties, scarves, etc. before you go. The robes at the park are $125+tax, the scarves are around $50. My daughter wore a white collared shirt I bought on Amazon (I couldn’t find any her size in thrift shops) with a pleated black skirt, white tights and black witch’s hat she already had, along with a Gryffindor tie I own. Being dressed really added to the experience. I considered getting her a robe fromAmazon for $20, but I thought it may be too hot. Not so in the winter, but would be in the summer.
  4. Bring snacks and a bottle or two of water (which cost much more for the same thing inside the park or on the Universal City Walk than elsewhere.
  5. If you wish to send letters or postcards from Hogsmeade, it’s not necessary to purchase the postcards or stationery from the Owl Post, you can bring your own and have them stamped with the postmark either from inside the Owl Post or outside on the right side (which is less crowded). You can also buy stamps there, but the 49 cent stamps cost $14.95 for a set of 10 (which is nearly $1.50 per stamp). I did buy the stamps and postcards because I LOVE sending letters and postcards. I also brought some envelopes to be stamped. The cashier opened up my package of postcards and stamped all 10 with the postmark, which is something special for sending letters to friends and family, especially Harry Potter fans.
  • Sweet treats in Honeydukes

    If you’re staying near-ish to Universal Studios take public transit ($2.75 each way or $7 for a day pass—if you don’t have a Tap card, you can buy one for $1 and reload it, but each person
    will need his/her own card) or a Lyft/Uber rather than driving and paying for parking. You can get cheaper parking by parking at the further away parking lots, which is $25 per day, and taking the tram to the entrance. The most expensive (valet) parking is $50 per day.

  • Arm your kids with their own money. My daughter knew how much money she had and what else she wanted to spend her money on, so she was selective and didn’t bug me to buy her things (I bought her food, butterbeer, the wand and a few other things). It was glorious not being begged for thing after thing after thing and she was more than happy with she came home with.

While I could have certainly saved more money, I certainly could have spent more. Our next trip to Universal Studios (our season passes don’t expire until Feb. 24, 2019, so we’ll go again), we won’t spend as much on souvenirs, and we’ll certainly take the wand and Hedwig with us, and now that I’ve been with my daughter (which is different from going for a whole day with 100 foreign teenagers), I’ll be more prepared. For one thing, I’ll go with warmer clothes in the winter!

Hamburger and fries from Jurasic Café in the lower lot.

Other costs (the prices below do not include tax or CRV when appropriate)

  • Banana (from Starbucks) $1.99
  • Water (Starbucks) $4.49
  • Pellegrino (Starbucks) $3.99
  • Zinc Coconut Water (Starbucks) $4.29
  • Orange Juice (Starbucks) $4.99
  • Apple Juice (Starbucks) $3.59
  • Milk (Starbucks) $3.59
  • Tazo Bottle Tea (Starbucks) $2.99
  • Freshly Brewed Coffee (Starbucks) $3.29 for the largest size
  • Carmel Macchiato (Starbucks) $5.50 for the largest size
  • Frappuccino (Starbuck) $5.79 for the largest size
  • Pigmy Puff keychain (Zonkos) $10.95
  • Small Pigmy Puff (Zonkos) $18.95
  • Large Pigmy Puff (Zonkos) $34.95
  • Love Potion (Zonkos) $9.94
  • Milk Chocolate Fizzy Fruit, 6 oz. (Honeydukes) $9.95
  • Sweet and Sour Drops, 8 oz.(Honeydukes) $9.95
  • Jelly Slugs, 3.7 oz. (Honeydukes) $6.95
  • Milk Chocolate Frog, 5.3 oz. (Honeydukes) $10.95
  • Chocolate Wand (Honeydukes) $6.95
  • Fudge Flies, 4 oz. (Honeydukes) $8.95
  • Milk Chocolate Bar, 1.4 oz (Honeydukes) $5.95
  • Glass Honeydukes candy jar filled with candy (Honeydukes) $12.95
  • Empty Glass Honeydukes candy jar (Honeydukes) $9.95
  • Hogwarts robe (Gladrags) $125.00

Though the trip ended up being a bit more than I anticipated, seeing the joy on my daughter’s face as we walked around Harry Potter World, which was like walking into the pages of her favorite series, made it priceless and I would do it again. Share your tips below and let us know how you fared at Universal Studios. Your Harry Potter fan will LOVE this!

Me and the girl (and Hedwig) in front of Universal Studios as we exit the park at the end of our trip.

Discovering Old Edna Townsite

Old Edna Townsite is a small quiet town—though it’s a bit of stretch to call the cluster of buildings housing a gourmet deli, winery and vacation rentals and event venue a town. Not far from the bustling Highway 101, Old Edna Townsite often gets passed over, most people don’t even know it exists. The historic community is nestled in Edna Valley Wine Country, halfway between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach.

I myself have driven by this community more times than I can count when I decided to take the scenic route out of San Luis Obispo, heading south. I finally stopped when I set out to write about our great county.

So that day, enjoying the beautiful day and gorgeous landscape, the first thing I saw when I got to Old Edna Townsite was a sign announcing  “Deli and wine tasting.”  I was hungry and intrigued. 

The historic building houses The Gourmet Deli and Sextant Wines.  Behind that building are two-acres of bed & breakfast, intimate gathering space, chickens and so much more. The Old Edna Townsite had been abandoned for more than 20 years when new life was breathed into it in 1998. 

The deli’s menu has been paired specifically with Sextant’s wines. In addition to having the option to order a range of gourmet items, tasters can order a variety of cheeses chosen to pair with the wine tasting menu. 

Surrounded by antiques and gifts that look old, I felt relaxed—how I want to feel when I’m out wine tasting or enjoying what the area has to offer—and at home. Guests can either eat at the bar while tasting wines or take food—and wine, of course—out on the deck. After my visit inside, I wandered around the property and was struck by the calm and rustic atmosphere. The larger guest house has a small stage in the yard for entertaining. Old Edna is on the top of my list for an intimate event or gathering, or even a night away as there is a small guest house on the property. Between the two guesthouses are the chickens’ home, adding to the rural feeling. 

If you’re driving by or even just looking for something to do near San Luis Obispo stop by this historic place and have lunch and some wine. You won’t be sorry you did. 

Mexico, oh how I love thee

Center of Mexico City–the only part of the city where I felt uncomfortable, even in the middle of the day.

Though I live in California, only six hours north of the Mexico-U.S. border, I’ve never been to Mexico. Until recently. I always wanted to go, however, at the same time, it wasn’t at the top of my list–so many other places to go… What I didn’t take into consideration was that because it’s so close, it’s cheaper to travel to and that everything costs so much less in Mexico.

Two carnitas tacos I got from a vendor at a fiesta near my Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. I paid less than a $1 for both.

As I went to Mexico for a conference, the majority of my airfare was paid for. Therefore, my expenses were fairly low as compared to other places. Compared to where I live in California, I found everything exceptionally cheap.

My Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta.
Churos for 10 pesos (50 cents!!!)

Costs:

  • Airfare from San Luis Obispo Airport (a small county airport) to Puerto Vallarta and from Mexico City to San Luis Obispo Airport $644
  • Airfare from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City $52
  • Four nights in an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta (Fiesta Americana) FREE
  • Three nights in an Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta $66
  • Five nights in an Airbnb in Mexico City $86
  • I got these at a family restaurant inside a mall in Mexico City. I paid less than $5 for the whole meal and I got a drink and chips with my enchiladas.

    Taxi from resort to downtown Puerto Vallarta 65-70 pesos/$3.25-3.50

  • Taxi from Airbnb to airport in Puerto Vallarta 120 pesos/ $6
  • One-way bus in Puerto Vallarta 7.50 pesos/40 cents
  • One-way subway in Mexico City 5 pesos/25 cents
  • One-way bus in Mexico City 4 pesos/20 cents
  • Glass of wine at pizza restaurant 50 pesos/$2.50
  • Glass of wine at fancy restaurant 85-144 pesos/$4.25-7.25
  • Meal at a family restaurant 80 pesos/$4
  • Meal at fancy, trendy restaurant (included mocojete with mixed meats, two glasses of wine, dessert and coffee) 600 pesos/$30
  • One-way taxi from Airbnb to airport 200 pesos/$10 (I was overcharged for sure, but didn’t argue since I wanted to spend the last of my pesos anyway)
The WHOLE plate of bone marrow and tortillas was $4! This, plus queso and 3 glasses of wine in a wine/cheese bar was $16.

Something I’ve learned over the years of traveling is that it is cheaper to get local currency from the ATM or to pay with a credit card. I only used my debit card to get money out of the ATM (I was charged to use the ATM and a foreign transaction fee). The rest of the time I used my credit card, which did not charge me any transaction fees.

I consoled myself for not getting into Frido Kahlo’s house by stopping by a local pizza restaurant and got this pizza and two glasses of wine for $12 including tip. It was a hip place I would have frequented if I lived there.

I loved Mexico for its rich history and culture, especially Mexico City, but also the great exchange rates and how cheap everything was. Every time someone would tell me the cost of something and I’d repeat it incredulously, the person would either lower the price or ask me if it was expensive. It became a challenge of mine to see how fancy of a place and how much I could order. My most expensive meal was $30 including tax and tip for an appetizer, entree, 2 glasses of wine, dessert and a cup of coffee. At home, I once ordered off the starter menu and got one glass of wine for $30 not including tip at a comparable restaurant.

Part of my most expensive meal in Mexico City.

Steve the Zebra Pigeon Feeder

While exploring Waikiki Beach this morning, I walked down a concrete (let’s call it something like a pier, because it went out into the water, but it’s not a traditional wood pier) pier after a long and meandering path down the beach and then back via road (I just walked have a vague sense of direction, figuring if I got lost, alll the better). Walking toward the end of the pier, a man (about my age and Asian) had one hand and arm covered in small birds. An older American man was talking to him. I took a few photos of this. The American man looked at me and asked, “You want to feed them? It’s free.”

“OK,” I said, though I was unsure about having birds on my arm. He gave me a couple of pieces of bread.

“Put your thumb on top of it so they don’t make off with the whole pieces,” he said.

I did that and instantly my hand and left arm were covered with birds. Zebra pigeons he said they are called. We stood there, the two of us. Not talking a whole lot to start with — I never like being nosy, so I often have a difficult time just asking people questions. But after a while — maybe only a few minutes — he asked me where I’m from.

“California,” I said.

“What part?”

“Central Coast.”

Eventually, he mentioned Morro Bay. “That’s really close to me,” I said.

He and his wife lived in Seattle until they moved to Waikiki 11 years ago. He said he retired 18 years ago, but took his time deciding where to retire, until he realized that Waikiki was the place he wanted to be.

He walks out that pier nearly every morning about 7 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 a.m. feeding the birds and talking to visitors. He knows the other regulars who are out there boogie boarding and chats up with a smile all those who stop by.

The zebra birds on my hand and arm.

Waikiki: Early morning exploring

My first view of the beach in Waikiki.

At 2:30 in the morning my eyes were open, my body ready to go, even though I had only sunk into bed three hours earlier and tossed and turned, slipping in and out of sleep, the whole time. At home, it was 5:30, already an hour after my alarm usually rouses me from sleep.

I arrived in Honolulu last night after 9 p.m., to my hostel after 10, so hadn’t even figured out where the beach way or what was surrounding me. I was ready to explore, but since the sun wasn’t even peaking over the horizon yet, I promised myself a sunrise walk if only I stayed in the twin bed — a spring digging into my side — for another two to three hours. So I did. Every so often, every 15 minutes it seemed, I would open my eyes, put my glasses on my face and glance at the digital clock on the stove across the room from my bed.

3:04

3:18

3:37

3:52…..

Finally, 5:03 came up.

I rose, grabbed my new bikini, never worn except to try it on in my closet imagining myself actually wearing it on the beach…in Hawaii, shorts and cover up top, changed quickly in the small bathroom, careful to not wake my three roommates all soundly sleeping in their beds. Two of the women stumbled into the room around 2 a.m., I thought it was much later until I put on my glasses and saw the time.

In my beach clothes, flip-flops on my feet and bag with beach mat, towel, water, smartphone, pen and guides on my shoulder, I headed out. The friendly man with an Australian accent at the front desk gave me directions to the beach.

“It’s easy, Love. Take a right out the door, then turn left at the next road and it’s a block up,” he said with a smile.

The beach was the opposite way that I imagined and the opposite way that I would have gone on my own.

When I turned the corner, I saw narrow palm trees coming out of the light brown sand with blue water lapping onto shore. There were a few other early birds up walking around. Probably afflicted with the same jet lag that I had (well, still have).

I stopped where the sidewalk met the sand, closed my eyes and breathed deeply, bringing in the warm arm, smelling the tropical flowers on the trees around me, and hearing the water lap onto the shore. There weren’t a lot of other sounds, most of Waikiki still being asleep.

I then took off my flip-flops and with them in hand, walked straight into the water. Not far, just enough to feel it. People who have been here before insisted that the water was warm like bath water. I believed them, I really did, but still expected to gasp with surprise when it was ice cold. But I did not, because it was warm, just like they said.

I was prepared to sack out on the beach to enjoy the early morning quietness and take a swim but overwhelmed with excitement to check out the new place, I just kept walking. I took a few photos, but just took in the sights, smells, and sounds of my first real day in O’ahu. My first time, even, in Hawai’i.

I was just going to take a selfie of me with Diamond Head in the background but happened across a couple from Texas taking photos of each other. I offered to take one of them and they took one of me. Tip for people traveling solo, offer to take photos of others because it’ll make it easier for you to ask for them to do the same (or they will offer) so that you get some photos of you on vacation that aren’t all selfies.