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What It’s Like to Visit One of America’s ‘Happiest Places’ on California’s Central Coast

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Written by Nicholas Kontis

About 230 miles south of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge and just over 200 miles north of Los Angeles’s world-famous Hollywood sign – right off highway 101 — lies the central California community of San Luis Obispo.

Referred to by the laid-back locals with the simple moniker “SLO” (pronounced as “slow”), the town and surrounding county of the same name encompasses more than 80 miles of dramatic coastline and nearly 4,000-square miles of lush rolling vineyards. The awe-inspiring green landscapes are populated with quaint and charming towns, award-winning wineries and breweries, as well as an abundance of outdoor recreation.

But what’s probably the most interesting facet about San Luis Obispo is its supposed abundance of the object of arguably the most American pursuit: “happiness.”  SLO consistently ranks in the top 10 of the happiest towns or areas in the United States.

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According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which surveys more than 350,000 Americans in all 50 states on their level of life satisfaction, San Luis Obispo continues to rank near the top in terms of happiness, with residents reporting a stress-free existence, peace of mind, as well as plenty of opportunities for healthy dining and recreation.

One of the people behind the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, bestselling author Dan Buettner, calls areas like SLO, where live the longest and healthiest lives, “Blue Zones.” According to Buettner’s 2010 book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, there many factors that pave the road to happiness, and they’re not wealth, beauty, or intelligence…but can be found in SLO.

A major reason for San Luis Obispo’s bliss is believed to be the fact that its college town — home to California Polytechnic University – and is thus a community whose members include thought provocateurs and visionaries, who seek an equilibrium between work and play, as well as a high level of civic engagement.

SLO consistently ranks in the top 10 of the happiest towns or areas in the United States.  

On a recent trip to the coastal community, I asked local Steve Cohen, who first came to the area for college and never left, what makes SLO residents so content. “There is a real sense of community here,” he explained. “I can bike to work and hike along the beach on the weekend, and we have amazing food, wine, and craft beer scene. What more could you want?”

Indeed, the region’s slow pace, quality of life and stunning scenery is a huge draw to visit; but getting to SLO can also be quite appealing.  Although, you can fly into San Luis Obispo’s regional airport from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, driving along the sun-drenched California coast on scenic Highway One provides some of California’s remarkable panoramic road trips.

Upon arrival, you’ll find San Luis Obispo offers endless possibilities for enthralling adventures. Just nine miles west of the town is Morro Bay, a sleepy fishing village with tranquil waters and where you can balance through the experience of paddleboarding. Open spaces abound in Los Padres National Forest and Montana de Oro State Park, both of which are within SLO county and where anyone pursuing an active lifestyle can enjoy happily partake in hiking and mountain biking.

morro-bay

Image via Nicholas Kontis

A short drive from the town and within county limits are the historical enclaves of Atascadero, Cambria, and San Simeon; the latter where you can find turn-of-the-century media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s massive and whimsical Hearst Castle open to the public.

There’s also a thriving central-coast wine industry in San Luis Obispo country. After Napa Valley and Sonoma, the county has the third largest concentration of wineries in California, with over 27,000 acres of vineyards. One can’t-miss stop for wine aficionados is the up-and-coming wine town of Paso Robles, where you’ll find stellar vintners like Halter Ranch, Ancient Peaks, Niner, Grey Wolf/Barton Family Vineyards. and Castro Cellars.

As for “SLO Town” itself, Thursday night is the unofficial beginning of the weekend. It’s when one of the town’s main drags, Higuera Street, transforms into a vibrant farmers’ market featuring plenty of food and crafts. The market, which is open from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday except Thanksgiving, features more than 120 vendors lining the street, with many meals priced at under $10.00. It’s the place to taste the flavors of a charming town and county. You’ll find MO’s Smokehouse BBQ serving up sauce-slathered, fall off the bone beef and pork ribs; Chef Nicola of Mama’s Meatballs peddling family style sharable Italian meals learned from his family upbringing in the Puglia epicenter of Bari; jam-packed Poke bowls from Aisuru Sushi and Sake Bar; and Blackhorse Espresso & Bakery offering cures for any sweet-tooth.

barrelhouse

Image via Nicholas Kontis

As one would expect in a progressive university town, beer reigns supreme. There’s Central Coast Brewing, where Master Brewer Brendan Gough, who studied business at Cal Poly, epitomizes the SLO spirit by turning his passion for homebrewing into award-winning ales and a thriving business. At Libertine Brewing Company, which has 9,000 square feet of combined drinking area and production facility, barrel-aged wild ales made from local yeast strains. And BarrelHouse Brewing Company is on the site of an old speakeasy and leftover from the days of prohibition.

Daytime in SLO usually revolves around being outside and on the trails. It makes sense since the same studies that name San Luis Obispo as one of the happiest places in America often cite easy access to protected, public open space as one of the things that entice visitors to become locals. And there are more than 50 miles of trails traversing over 3,500 acres, just minutes from downtown, for hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers to find their perfect adventure just minutes from their home

It’s quite common to see people hiking or biking in the middle of a weekday. Some local favorites that you can trek are the Cerro San Luis trail, Reservoir Canyon, and Johnson Ranch.

Although it’s painful to leave San Luis Obispo, you’ll find comfort driving the switchbacks of California Highway 1. As you traverse the turns through the rugged coastal range along Big Sur, you can savory memories of your trip and experiencing San Luis Obispo’s “SLO” pace of life.

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Nicholas Kontis

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