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GET OUT OF TOWN -- OR JUST EXPLORE IT

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San Luis Obispo

January 24, 2008|Mindy Farabee

Once, San Luis Obispo owed much of its prosperity to ranchos and the railroad. Though still agriculturally rich, farmland is but part of the charm of this bucolic county seat (and home to a Cal Poly) that's flanked by seven prehistoric volcanic peaks.

Downtown

WHERE TO GET THE HOT TIPS

The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (1039 Chorro St., [805] 781-2777) sits conveniently downtown, but in this sociable city it's just as easy to ask a friendly food server or cashier what's cooking. Besides, they could probably better clue you in to what band will be taking the stage at Boo Boo Records (978 Monterey St., [805] 541-0657).

YOUR MISSION? TO CONTEMPLATE

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (751 Palm St., [805] 781-8220), site of the modern city's beginnings, makes a good starting point for either historical grounding or simple mind-set adjustment. Pathways slope down to the rustling creek, a key access way. Inside, floral designs and high, wood-beamed ceilings exude quiet for deeper contemplation.

THE QUIRKY SIDE OF SLO

Eminently walkable and bike-able, the compact old city core is home to such quirks as Bubble Gum Alley (700 block of Higuera Street), pictured -- two walls decorated with masticated Bubblicious. Another clue to the local sensibility: idiosyncratic cinematic experiences beyond all proportion. Consider the arty Palm Theatre (817 Palm St., [805] 541-5161), reportedly the nation's first powered solely by the sun, or the Art Deco confection Fremont Theater (1025 Monterey St., [805] 541-2141), which screens retro epics and first-run features. Also worth a look: the family-friendly Sunset Drive-In (255 Elks Lane, [805] 544-4475).

EAT IT UP, BUT MAKE IT SNAPPY

Restaurant Month, a countywide prix-fixe extravaganza, ends this week. Participants include Novo (726 Higuera St., [805] 543-3986), an eclectic creek-side venue unpretentiously specializing in local wines.

Out of Town

GET YOUR DRINK ON, NOT YOUR DRIVE

Though driving among picturesque vineyards may seem like a good idea, here are two ways to not get behind the wheel: Park yourself at Taste Wine Bar (1003 Osos St., [805] 269-8278), which dispenses 1-ounce shots of premium local vino via sleek Italian design. Or hit the Grapeline ( www.gogrape.com/slo, [805] 238-2765), which offers a shuttle service around the wineries. Packages include diverse itineraries and can add a picnic lunch and all tasting fees.

FOR INTOXICATING VIEWS . . .

Montana de Oro State Park (www.slostate parks.com), pictured above, harbors more than 8,000 acres of craggy coastline, sandy beaches, a nearly 1,400-foot peak and loping trails. Get oriented at the Spooner Ranch historical site, the late-1800s home of Aden B. Spooner and family, now a volunteer-run visitors center.

FLY, LITTLE ONES, BE FREE

Each year, monarch butterflies migrate between Canada and Mexico. Many are now wintering at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove (monarchbutterfly.org), pictured below. Talks are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., but volunteer docents stand by much of the day, as do telescopes for closer inspection. On cooler days, butterflies cluster densely on the upper branches; on warmer days, they flit languidly about.

Going to Town

A WORLD UNTO ITSELF

The famed Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Road, [800] 543-9666) isn't a hotel, it's a lifestyle, a whole mini-itinerary unto itself: From frolicking in the rock waterfall showers to gorging on buttery breakfast dishes at the Copper Cafe, a hand-carved, hand-painted, meta-Swiss explosion, to browsing the bling-filled boutiques. And then there are the Jacuzzis -- one with a view of the mountain above and grounds below, the other a secluded oasis beside a 45-foot waterfall. Later, dinner, drinks and lounge band dancing await at the Steakhouse, a baroque exercise in pink and gold, where cherubs hold candelabra aloft at drunken angles, as if egging you on.

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-- Mindy.Farabee@latimes.com

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