Why Europeans Love the Central Coast

Pismo Beach, California

I will never forget the look in the white-haired vicar’s eyes as he described his drive to Big Sur. We stood in the York Minster, the heart of this Anglican vicar’s parish, surrounded by a beauty I could never have imagined. Yet the vicar’s bright wet eyes proved that Big Sur’s beauty had affected him in a way a human creation—even one as stunning as the Minster—never could.

The Yorkshire vicar and nearly two million other Europeans toured California in 2005—the entire population of Brussels, Belgium, might have come to the Golden State! The world-wide recession has since forced that number down by 35% to 1.3 million. Hotel occupancy in San Luis Obispo County has accordingly suffered, falling from 80.8% in August 2005 to 76.2% to August 2010. As the local unemployment rate reached 10.5% in July 2010, our small seaside towns need tourism, now more than ever.

Since I moved to Atascadero five years ago, I’ve chatted with Europeans who have explored our beautiful county, discovering why Europeans choose to come—and not to come—to California’s Central Coast. For instance, the white-haired Yorkshire vicar came to enjoy our scenery. His wanderlust brought him to the Central Coast for about two weeks after Easter when the California poppies, wild mustard, morning glories, and blue lupines blanket the green hills. Though surely unaccustomed to his automatic rental car with its steering wheel on the left side, he dared to drive south on Highway 1 from San Francisco through Big Sur. Perilous enough to make even nonreligious folk recite childhood prayers, Highway 1 threads along the steep, rugged sea-cliffs’ edges, pivoting sharply at craggy corners where the ocean has torn away the land. Many drivers pull over at Hurricane Point, a high headland where one can stand silently, buffeted by the cool, salty wind, and try to breathe in the face of Big Sur’s incomprehensible terror and beauty.  After weaving their way down the coast, countless tourists stop to gawk at the elephant seals that crowd on a beach and in coves clinging to Point Piedras Blancas’ squat bluffs, to ask the volunteer docents for elephant seal trivia, and to reflect on the sublimity they had just seen.

The vicar let his eyes become moist as he told me about Big Sur; another Englishman I’ve met who has explored the Central Coast momentarily wore a similar expression when talking about a popular local restaurant. On Santa Barbara’s one rainy day in 2007, I met a British professor who weekly drove to Morro Bay when he first moved to California to genuflect at The Taco Temple (TTT). Since I’ve braved England’s frigid beaches and York’s premiere “Pan-American” restaurant with its pronunciation guides, I can imagine an Englishman’s confused bliss upon encountering Taco Temple. An unassuming white building on Cabrillo Highway at Morro Bay’s north end, TTT serves up Californian-Mexican fusion fare such as garlic lemon calamari. The “premium tacos”—more taco salads than tacos proper—feature fresh local swordfish, shrimp, sea bass, and salmon with fresh veggies, a snappy mango salsa, and cucumber-avocado dressing. The food isn’t Taco Bell standard, but kids approve TTT’s casual rough wooden tables and surfboard-covered walls. Though he had lived in Santa Barbara for several years in 2007, the British professor still made a point of heading north to Taco Temple every month with his wife and young son.

The following winter, I noticed a middle-aged Danish woman in a green wool sweater and faded jeans curled up on an oversized black leather chair in Starbucks in downtown San Luis Obispo. Warmed on the foggy December morning by her grande coffee cup, she glanced now and then at the people waiting for their lattes who lingered near her chair and listened to her describe her vacation to a young woman in a Cal Poly pullover. When asked why she’d come to San Luis Obispo, she laughed, rolled up her sleeves, and pinched her thin white skin—she came to get a tan! Though Denmark’s weather is “mild” for Scandinavia, Copenhagen enjoys only about 195 sunny days a year, a far cry from San Luis Obispo’s 300 sunny days. With its dense winter clouds and extremely northern latitude, Copenhagen only enjoys one sunny hour per day in December, while San Luis Obispo basks in up to nine bright hours per day.

On the other hand, I have met a few Europeans who do not care to visit the Central Coast. While eating kahlua pork at a Poipu Beach luau, I chatted with a couple from Liverpool, England, who chose to honeymoon in Kaua’i because of Blue Hawai’i and had no desire to explore any other State-side destination. While hiking Hadrian’s Wall, my mother and I chatted with a Cambridge professor’s wife. Although she censured American tourists for limiting themselves to London and congratulated us for venturing to northern England, she limited herself to the Grand Canyon; like the Liverpool newlyweds, she had no curiosity for any other place in America. Even though the Central Coast doesn’t have Elvis Presley movies or the Grand Canyon, our county has many attractions—not only Big Sur, Taco Temple, and 300 sunny days a year, but also Festival Mosaic, PCPA Theatrefest, and a burgeoning wine country. The Europeans who do choose to sojourn on the Central Coast are glad they did.

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