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Family-Friendly San Luis Obispo

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(Ratings and Contact information appear at the end)

If you are seeking a romantic and family-oriented vacation, let me suggest the charming central California coastal town of San Luis Obispo, once named the best small town in America by USA Today. San Luis Obispo and its enchanting cluster of surrounding towns provide a memorable family vacation destination with a quaint downtown village framed around an old Spanish mission, a festive downtown Farmer's Market every Thursday evening, quiet country drives, and close proximity to Hearst Castle as well as the sleepy coastlines of Avila, Shell, and Pismo Beaches. The whole family can return home rejuvenated after just a few days there.

It has traditionally been said that two types of travelers exist--business and romantic travelers. Yet over the last fifteen years, a third group of travelers, family travelers, have distinguished themselves as a new force within the travel industry. The Travel Industry Association has reported that between 1988 and 1998, the number of people traveling with children has increased 68 percent. Savvy resorts, hotels, and restaurants are rising to meet the needs of this growing group, catering dualistically to the romantic yearnings of parents as well as the interests of their children and babies. Tourism is one of the prime industries of San Luis Obispo, as demonstrated by their website: boasts over sixty various inns, resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, and hotels for SLO (as the locals affectionately call it) and its surrounding towns, as well as over a hundred restaurants (quite a thick concentration for a small town). I have stayed in many of these hotels, including some of the area's more well-known ones--Pismo Beach's Spyglass Inn, The Cliffs, Cambria's Moonstone Inn, SLO's Embassy Suites--along with a handfull of lesser known hotels. Over several years of visiting this area both as a travel writer and a tourist, I have dined in probably three dozen of their restaurants. While each of these establishments maintains its own appeal, three hotels stand out to me as ideal for family vacationing: The Madonna Inn, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, and The Apple Farm Inn. My top picks for child and palette-friendly dining would be the Madonna Inn Cafe Restaurant and F. McLintock's Saloon and Dining House.

When booking a suite at the Madonna Inn, the family-traveler should inquire about the room's accessibility to the parking lot.

It is difficult to drive through Highway 101 toward San Luis Obispo without spotting the signs for the Madonna Inn or noticing the prominent castle-like inn perched on the side of the highway just minutes before reaching downtown SLO. The name itself piques interest. Is it a religious symbol? Homage to the pop star? If you stay there, as I had the pleasure of doing, you will find it to be simply the name of the owners, Alex and Phyllis Madonna, who envisioned and constructed the hotel in 1958. Situated on 2,000 acres, the hotel offers 110 unusual and flamboyant rooms each with their own themes and no two at all alike. Room themes range from honeymoon suites, European-style retreats, Old West, Spanish or Hawaiian motifs, to all-rock rooms with waterfall showers.

I stayed in the Traveler's Suite ($228.00 per night, plus tax), which, like most of the Madonna Inn, causes you to catch your breath with surprise when you first walk through the door and witness the grandly eclectic style. For starters, this room had an enormous authentic stone fireplace that swept across the suite, and was itself the size of most standard rooms. The rest of the room possessed an outrageously emphasized nineteenth-century parlor look with two elevated four-poster beds with a loud floral print that required steppers in order to climb onto and three ornate chandeliers. The ceiling was pink sparkles, the bedspreads were glittery red, the ornate lamps were decorated with cherubs, and the living room set (couch, coffee table, and chairs) was comprised of heavy parlor furniture. Is this decor tacky or just child-friendly and fun? I let my nine-month old daughter decide. She squealed with delight as we entered; the ornate decorations and rich colors fascinated her.

The eclecitc style of the Madonna Inn causes partons to take notice.

Outside my room, young children gazed into the windows of the various rooms, which for them was akin to something out of Disneyland, with their fantasy-themes, brilliant colors, and wild decorations. My toddler stared and giggled when she spotted the inn's celebrated "swinging girl," a large doll that swings from an electronic branch in the central lobby 365 days a year. This doll is redressed throughout the year to match the season, and during the time of our stay in August, she sported a floral dress and straw hat.

The cheerful ambiance of the Madonna Inn Cafe is just right for kids.

The Madonna Inn Cafe Restaurant also happens to be one of my top picks for family dining in the San Luis Obispo area. Locals and tourists cross paths in this colorful dining area decorated with elaborate wood carvings made of English pine, Douglas Fir and soft pine woods. Above the horseshoe-shaped coffee bar is the bold etching, "Lets (sic) eat and Be Forever Happy." The restaurant does indeed retain cheerful ambiance particularly for children, who marvel at the stained glass, Tiffany style lamps, copper tables and colanders, water goblets in all the colors of the rainbow, and the huge mural depicting scenes from the turn of the century.

The first time I ate at this cafe/restaurant, I remember being dubious about the food, inadvertently comparing it to another similarly largely themed tourist point, Anderson's Split Pea Soup in Solvang, an hour south of SLO. Like the Madonna Inn Cafe Restaurant. Anderson's is located right off of the 101 and as such has become a major food stop for travelers. Despite its popularity, I have often found the food at Anderson's bland and oddly seasoned, while the waitresses completely forget you after plopping the food on the table. The Madonna Inn Cafe Restaurant has proved to be nothing like this; the menu offers a full selection of chicken, fish, steaks, salad dishes, and an opportunity to order off the Gold Rush Room (formal restaurant) menu. During our family vacation in August, with my nine-month old daughter, I ordered chicken Caesar salad, my husband had beef ribs (both very well-prepared and savory), and my daughter ate her baby food as she stared out the large etched glass windows onto the flower gardens. Our two servers were both pleasant and accommodating, running back and forth with hot water for bottle warmers and extra napkins for my baby's mess. Perhaps their never-ending smiles were because of the owner, Alex Madonna's presence, which provided excellent quality assurance. This Sunday evening, he was sitting in his booth, as he characteristically does, chatting on the phone and keeping watch of the ship. Several customers went to his table to greet him. I would not describe the dinner (which totaled $39.48) as sophisticated, but then family dining virtually never is. As a place to bring young children, it is perfect, complete with a child's menu of pancakes, French toast, little burgers, hot dogs, and chicken strips. The regular menu also has a very kid-friendly soda fountain: hot fudge sundaes, milk shakes, root beer floats, and banana splits. Even the bathroom has a "little lady" sized basin and tiny commode. Little girls entering with their mothers giggled as they came upon this feature customized for them. Above the bathroom's vanity appeared the corny but cute etching, also for them: "Your beauty is your smile."

Although sometimes this inn feels like it was designed through the eyes of a child, the inn's upscale shops pander specifically to the needs of the parents. The Classic Gourmet and Wine shop offers Central Coast wines, Godiva chocolates, gourmet food, kitchen items and gift baskets. "My Favorite Things" Boutique and "The Brass Tower" feature clothing and souvenirs for men and women. But, nonetheless, the inn's biggest strength is its unique child-pleasing nature. Where else could a kid experience a caveman room complete with leopard skin décor, a rock shower underneath a waterfall, and solid rock floors, walls, and ceilings? If you plan to visit the Madonna Inn with a baby or a young child, make sure to ask ahead of time not only about the room's specific theme and decór, but also about its accessibility to the parking lot. Some of the rooms require climbing up high, spiral, staircases, while others have front doors just a few feet from the parking lot.

A lively atmosphere, stunning ocean view, and delicious food are all to be enjoyed at F. McLintocks Saloon and Dining House.

A more reliable, fun, tasty and visually exciting dining alternative for both the children and the adults in the family is F. McLintocks Saloon and Dining House, fifteen minutes south of downtown SLO in Shell Beach. Upon entering this high-spirited, western Ranch-style restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you immediately feel like you have walked into an immense family party. Jovial servers banter with laughing children dining with their parents, while performing their signature water pouring tradition--tilting the water into the glasses from their pitchers held about six feet into the air. Upon request, the servers will do this bit blindfolded, while some children volunteered to hold the glasses on their heads; nobody seemed to mind getting a little wet. Groups of waiters and waitresses rushed out periodically to deliver cake and sing, with quite some animation, to the birthday children and anniversary adults. On a Thursday evening, the restaurant was bursting with people in all the rooms. My attention was torn between the sweeping ocean view and the inside amusements.

Hanging about the walls were very authentic-looking cattle gear and tools, as well as moose and deer heads, and a stuffed buffalo; this is definitely not a place for vegetarians. One expansive wall displayed a colorful mural scene of stagecoaches in the old west. When a child has a birthday, a server will take the picture of the birthday child and hang it on a designated back wall in the restaurant. This wall was decked from floor to ceiling with such pictures, along with numerous letters from past customers expressing their gratitude for the experience.

With every entrée comes an absolute mountain of food: onion rings, salsa, salad, trail camp beans, garlic bread, ranch fried potatoes, and after dinner liqueur or sherbet or ice cream. Leslie, our cheerful server, informed us that all of this food is "refillable" as well! The menu featured every type of steak: Top Sirloin, Rib-Eye, Filet Mignon, New York, Kansas City, T-Bone, Porterhouse, Rib, Skillet Tenderloin, and Baseball Cut Top Sirloin. Ribs were another big item: Oak Pit BBQ Pork ribs, Baby Back ribs, and Beef ribs. Seafood was also available in various combinations: Salmon and pasta, steak and calamari, filet mignon and scampi, and seafood combo (lobster tail, calamari steak, and scampi). I ordered the Silver Anniversary Special of Maine lobster tails and steak for $29.95 and my husband wanted to try the Buffalo Burger for $12.60. My toddler giggled whenever the water around her poured and sometimes missed the cups of the children on all sides of her. The food, which came amazingly quickly considering the crowd, was excellent. Although the restaurant is acclaimed for its steak and ribs, my lobster was very tender, of a quality expected at a top seafood restaurant. Dinner with drinks totaled $52.31.

After dinner, Leslie brought along a saddlebag filled with various little toys for children. At nine months, my daughter was a bit young for this, but the effort was appreciated. On the way out, we stopped at the restaurant's General Store gift shop which sold the same aged beef served in the restaurant, as well as the restaurant's unique barbecue sauces, cards, magnets, and children's toys. Outside, children waiting for tables with their parents played on the kid's corral--the restaurant's play-yard with swings and toy riding horses.

Wherever you decide to stay and dine in the San Luis Obispo area, you will also find an abundance of family-oriented activities here to complement your visit. You might spend all of your time within the village of SLO itself, browsing along the River walk of shops lining the downtown river. You might visit the County Historical Museum and Child's Museum where children are encouraged to touch everything, or cruise the Thursday-night Farmer's Market on Higuera Street sampling the beef ribs and listening to the live music. Or you might venture towards the many surrounding attractions. The little artist community of Cambria, just thirty minutes north along Highway One, is teeming with antique shops and art galleries. Nearby Solvang hosts its annual Danish Days festivities in mid-September. And of course, Hearst Castle, situated on 250,000 acres of stunning oceanview landscape, is only a forty-five-minute drive from downtown San Luis Obispo, and attracts tourists from all over the world. The pace moves a bit slower in SLO, and that, for the family traveler, is its most appealing draw.

The Madonna Inn


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Contact Information

100 Madonna Road
San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Phone: (805) 543-3000
Fax: (805) 543-1800

F. McLintock's Saloon and Dining House


Baby/Child Friendliness:

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Contact Information

750 Mattie Road
San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Phone: (805) 773-1892


Hearst Castle

750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452
Phone: (805) 927-2020

San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce
1039 Chorro Street
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Phone: (805) 781-2777

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