Thanks to our travel reporter Kathy Chin Leong for this great article about a VERY special destination.
Writing this story in front of the blazing fireplace while inhaling the scent of the pine Christmas tree, I could not be happier. Here in the living room at the newly refurbished Farmhouse Motel, I am sipping hot matcha tea. My oversized sweater is more than ample to keep me toasty, and the bottomless hot tea and coffee silo will last me for hours.
Instead of hitting the slopes to Tahoe this winter, I’ve picked the town of Paso Robles close to California’s central coast to be my vacation destination of choice. For the uninitiated, Paso Robles, which means Pass of the Oaks in Spanish, is home to 400 wineries and host to a bounty of restaurants, shops, and venues that make the cold season divine. Post-Thanksgiving tends to be a slow time around here, so this is an ideal time to descend. You are not elbow-to-elbow with other tourists. Meanwhile, wineries, hotels, and restaurants are anxious to fill rooms, book seats, and lock in reservations.
Where to stay?
Hunkering down in a place like the Farmhouse Motel isn’t a bad idea. The roadside lodge has been recently remodeled inside and out. All 27 rooms ooze a tasteful farmhouse chic. At night you are treated to hot toddies in the lobby, and in the morning they offer a continental breakfast with croissants, yogurt, granola, fruit, and hot and cold drinkies. Carry your tea, coffee, or hot toddy to one of the motel’s outdoor fire pits and bundle up in an Adirondack chair. Or you can be like me and Grace (my travel buddy and daughter-in-law) and book room #26 where you get YOUR OWN fire bowl to enjoy.
Adventurous folks can nuzzle in a heated tent at Zoo to You, a private compound for rescued animals. You can choose one of two tents situated smack dab in the middle of the cages. At night you may hear the howling wolves, but you are totally safe. They’re just doing what wolves do. Operated by Lisa and David Jackson who also live on-site with kangaroos and monkeys in their personal backyard, Zoo to You enables them to share their lifelong passion for creatures big and small. Don’t hesitate to treat yourself to an adult sleepover with a light continental breakfast in the morning and a two-hour tour with a cavalcade of animals, reptiles, and birds. It is the thrill of a lifetime.
Eat + Drink
Be forewarned that Paso Robles in the winter can turn you into a human popsicle. Daytime temps run in the 60s and low 70s and past sunset it drops down to the 30s. That’s when you want wintery food and beverages to keep your tummy happy. Consider places such as La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant where the new executive chef, Christian Schnabel scores high marks with seasonal fare utilizing San Luis Obispo county ingredients. The seared ribeye steak that crowned a bed of roasted Brussel sprouts and onions kept me smiling all night. The Latin-inspired menu delivers on dishes such as its lamb ribs slathered with Calabrian chili honey butter as well as grilled octopus with smashed potatoes.
Nearby is the Hatch, owned by Maggie Cameron and her husband Eric Connolly. For the last nine years, the popular hangout has served a consistent clientele who love the rotisserie comfort food Hatch is known for. The fried chicken, says Maggie, cannot be taken off the menu or there would be a riot, so it is served every Wednesday night. Starters are visually stunning such as the Scotch egg wrapped in ground lamb. Served cut in half, the saucy egg yolk shines with valor. Another warming food is the rabbit and vegetable dumpling with crispy mustard greens dolloped with cream sauce. It really looks more like two flattened portions of ravioli when served. You won’t forget where you are when you look up to see the vast brick wall emblazoned with H-A-T-C-H in bold black letters.
If you love grilled foods, head on over to the charming restored cottage housing the new Finca casual eatery, where Mexican seafood specialties reign. We slurped up the deep-fried shrimp tacos, grilled octopus, scallop ceviche in a lime immersion, and grilled halibut tacos. Most items are served on small shiny trays. While there, ask the staff to fire up the outdoor fire pit for you. They do it upon request.
Don’t forget that certain wineries love to cook for you as well. Take the Barton Family Estate. The winery is ever-evolving with new activities and expanded seating. Its new distillery Grain + Vine features an intimate speakeasy space for guests. New is the greenhouse outdoor room. The wide floor-to-ceiling windows showcase Barton’s rolling vineyard hills. Meanwhile, the chef at Barton’s Kitchen nails down the wintery season with hometown favorites such as butternut squash soup, signature Italian mac cheese with sausage, and a flatbread of the day, which happened to be flatbread with slivers of duck, locally grown on the owner’s family farm. Don’t forget to try vintages named after rock songs such as the Purple Rain pinot noir or Don’t Stop Believing grenache noir.
Visit wineries for traditional wine tastings, especially the ones that serve up a cozy ambiance on a platter. Small batch makers such as Summerwood Winery lure winter travelers with indoor fireplaces for warmth, a quaint retail shop for home décor featuring plump pillows and blankets, and seasonal gatherings such as wreath-making workshops and the occasional sip-and-paint. It’s also got a fine lineup of both bubbly and fine reds from estate and regional vines. The Asa Awa sparkling Grenache blanc is said to be great with sushi, by the way.
And over at Adelaida Winery, this hidden gem lies outside the downtown plaza and miles up Adelaida Road. It is well worth the drive to savor and absorb views of the entire valley. The modern building erected in 2016 offers plenty of places for a private sit-down tasting in one of several living room spaces. Reserve the romantic indoor fireplace with your group, or when you want some eats to go with your sips, call ahead for the Food and Wine experience where you get a special pairing with cheese, nuts, dried fruit, and more on a charcuterie board. From rose to rhone to zin and more, all of the wines in the Adelaida portfolio come from their estate grapes.
Whether you’re by the fireplace or on a balcony, you can also imbibe in your private hot tub of natural hot springs water. River Oaks Hot Springs is also off the beaten path on your winter solstice sojourn. River Oaks is tucked off the end of a street in a residential neighborhood near the Kermit King Elementary School. It’s open until 9 p.m. so you can get a nice soak here as well as a massage. Oh yes, there’s a fireplace in the foyer of the spa, so you can hang out in your robe and slippers after your indulgence.
Meanwhile, avid shoppers will trod through rain, sleet, or snow to get what they want. Shop for cool holiday gifts like we did in historic downtown Paso Robles where you get two hours of free parking. But be careful, we got a $50 ticket by being ten minutes past the two-hour mark. And it’s easy to be late when you are mesmerized by independent shops such as The General Store, Second Hand Books, Firefly Boutique, and Orange Dot Quilts.
In the evening, the holiday lights illuminate the park plaza square as tree branches sway with color and glowing shapes. Victorian houses are festively decorated. The Paso Robles Christmas Lights parade is the talk of the year as Paso citizens strut their holiday cheer on floats for their two-hour claim to fame.
Before leaving town, grab a hot drink. Pick up a new brew such as a honey bush rooibos at Spice of Life which sells loose-leaf teas. Browse the aisles to add a new salt, rubs, spices, teas, or cooking implement to your collection.
Coffee fiends requiring a caffeine hit will do well at Amstrdm. The moody dark interior has leather couches, petite tables, and a counter next to a long pane of windows for pure people-watching. Faves for cold mornings tend to be the maple syrup oatmeal with berries and brioche bun egg sandwich. The salted caramel latte? Oh yeah!
Quaint Paso Robles is your go-to destination for wintering in style. Boutiques selling homemade caramels and hand-knit scarves, wineries stoking fireplaces, and restaurants touting soups and stews are ready with thick sweater arms wide open.