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Bicycles and bonjour in San Luis Obispo

Two-wheeling around the university town and staying at a new Provencal-style inn make a fine getaway.

August 10, 2003|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

San Luis Obispo — Our 12-mile bike ride from San Luis Obispo to the Pacific was eased by cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s. We then took a seaside break, a couple of hours spent resting and reading on the sand.

About a mile into our return to town, the heavens sprinkled a July surprise. Overhanging sycamores and eucalyptus trees shielded us only partly, but it was fun to feel the raindrops and ponder how different life must have been back home in broiling Los Angeles. I even enjoyed some unanticipated crosstown traffic -- a plump rabbit that darted across the slick pavement and forced me to squeeze the brakes hard. For a city boy like me, weary of bike-riding battles with MTA buses and wild SUVs, the bunny was the only obstacle I wanted on a mini- vacation.

That kind of scenery change is what brought my wife, Leda, and me to San Luis Obispo one weekend when our daughter was safely stowed at camp. We wanted a destination where we could enjoy scenic (but not overly taxing) bike riding as well as the cultural amenities of a university community. San Luis Obispo was a good bet, especially while most of the party-hearty students were gone.

With bicycles on the car rack one Friday, we drove 200 miles to the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the 18,000-student state university known for its engineering, architecture and agricultural programs. Cal Poly has started touting its arts programs too, anchored by the 6-year-old Christopher Cohan Center, a performance facility designed with dramatically swooping forms of metal and glass.

At the box office, we purchased tickets for that night's performance of San Luis Obispo's annual summer Mozart Festival. (With an auto club discount, we got rear orchestra seats for $22 each and a parking pass for $4.) The campus hills looked too steep for semi-wimps like us. So we explored Cal Poly by car and foot, drawn like true urbanites to its back fields of cows and sheep and the Dairy Science Complex. A few summer school students were about, some taking care of their steeds at the Student Horse Barn.

We then drove about three minutes to our bed-and-breakfast, Petit Soleil, which opened in February four blocks from downtown. Its owners, John and Dianne Conner, transformed a motel into a 15-room faux slice of Provence, including a cobblestoned front courtyard and a rear dining patio for breakfast and afternoon wine tasting. The inn's exterior is painted in yellow, blue and terra cotta, and flower boxes add more color.

All the rooms are designed differently along French themes (Chocolat, Van Gogh, Cote d'Azur). Several looked small, but our king-bed unit (Rendez-vous, $179 plus tax nightly on weekends, $125 Sundays through Thursdays) was ample and amusingly decorated with photos of Parisian lovers kissing -- as if to cue the guests. The ceiling fan (with remote control) and a CD-alarm clock (wake up to a violinist performing "La Vie en Rose") were nice touches. The bathroom's antique-style sink was perched on a copper and wood pedestal, below old advertisements of parfumeurs on the wall. Our only complaint was that the room had no closet and the armoire was too small to fit much of anything except the bathrobes the inn provided.

All this Francophilia might seem pretentious or goofy on a street with humble hamburger stands and the occasional rattle of trains over a nearby trestle. But Petit Soleil actually is a sweet change of pace for Central Coast travelers. The afternoon wine tastings included home-baked raisin biscuits, tortes and polenta cakes. The breakfasts, in the dining room or on the patio, had fruits, cereals and pastries, plus treats such as peach waffles or leek quiche.

Luckily for bicyclists, the bed-and-breakfast is just across from A Better Bike Shop on Monterey Street, where the staff gave us a free map of routes. (Bikes rent by the 24-hour period for $25 to $40; the store is attached to a cafe aptly called the Outspoken.)

We toured the lively downtown by bike, noting how gentrified it has become since our last visit about eight years ago. The handsome, late 19th and early 20th century buildings are well preserved, but chain stores have invaded with a vengeance.

Still, enough of the quirky college town remains in its art galleries, jewelry stores and head shops advocating hemp products. We browsed the rambling bookstores that specialize in secondhand and rare volumes. Phoenix Books has quite a collection of the Beats and pulp paperbacks, and Leon's is strong on history, art and children's literature. We also stopped by the Chamber of Commerce visitor center on Chorro Street and bought another map and a bike path book, "Bicycling San Luis Obispo County," by Sharon Lewis Dickerson (EZ Nature Books, $6.95).

At the recommendation of a chamber employee, we had a late lunch at Linn's, a California cuisine restaurant on Chorro. It was a good suggestion: We enjoyed a vegetable quesadilla and a Mediterranean salad.

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