*Please note: Due to COVID-19, venues mentioned in this article which were open at the time it was published may be closed. Check their status before hitting the road.
For the nomadic of heart, COVID lockdown has meant exchanging long drives for flights in the pursuit of adventure and exploration. Recent reopenings have many considering adding more mileage to their outings. Choosing just the right journey that comes with built-in safety isn’t an easy task. A trip that seems custom-made for social distancing is a trek to Paso Robles, California to take in the Field of Light at Sensorio.
Field of Lights: Sensorio
Fans of the whimsical and romantic will be captivated by the description of Sensorio right off the bat. The solar light installation is the brainchild of Ken Hunter, who found himself swept away by the works of British artist Bruce Munro. Word is, Hunter saw Munro’s Field of Light Uluru in Australia and instantly envisioned such an exhibition on a 15-acre plot of land he owns in Paso Robles.
A lot of thought was put into making Sensorio a great experience for visitors. At the moment, tickets, which must be purchased online, are limited in number, making for smaller crowds. Groups can be no larger than six members. Wearing masks on site is mandatory. Fever checks are done via thermal photo imaging, with riders to sign regarding one’s wellness. And security is ample, ensuring everyone has assistance should they need it. Bathrooms are fully-plumbed and permanent (clean, too!).
It’s advised to arrive before sunset. This is when Mother Nature shows off with a light display of her own. Two areas are set aside to await this grand event. The general public has access to picnic tables under tent sails or seating on a lawn that foots a stage where a live music performance is underway. Ricky’s Mexican food is available from a food truck with another snack area offering upscale fare (think molten chocolate cake). Beer and wine are also available for purchase by those aged 21 and up. Set aside is a VIP area with its own cuisine from The Kitchen, Airstream bar and fire tables.
A half-mile, wheelchair-accessible path circles the field of light. Flanking the trail are walls that serve as seating for those who want to soak in Sensorio. But first… that sunset. The sky comes alive in orange and pink, backlighting oak trees in the field. As the sun dips behind the landscape, 58,800 stemmed spheres made of blown glass begin to glow due to solar-powered fiber optics. Pinks, blues, greens, purples… the field is suddenly awash in what appears to be rainbow-colored dandelions. Definitely recommended: lingering until the very last moment. Fifteen minutes prior to closing, the lights dim, messaging it’s time to depart. (Please check the current times of the exhibition, as they vary by month. Expect total time to span three to four hours.)
Ticket prices range by date purchased and level of service. Expect to pay from $9.50 to $22 for children (Kids two and under are free. Child prices are available to youth 12 and under.) General admission starts at $30 plus fees and escalates up to $40 plus fees. VIP tickets are $79 to $85.
Feel like it’s over too soon? Not to worry. There’s still a lot to see and do.
Those who’ve grown accustomed to long drives during quarantine will consider the road trip to and from Paso Robles a breeze. California’s Pacific Coast Highway, which brings with it awe-inspiring views at every turn, makes for a leisurely drive. Those from Southern California can expect around a four-hour, one-way trip. With directives from the governor’s office, visitor capacity to beaches is limited, equalling less traffic. Another COVID change to note: not all restaurants are open for dine-in. Case in point, Neptune’s Net, a favorite Malibu haunt, has set up “drive-thru” service versus allowing for outdoor seating with Pacific views. Advice: Consider packing a picnic.
Accommodations: San Luis Obispo’s (SLO) The Kinney
Paso Robles is considered wine country, and its ability to reach high temperatures during the day is great for terroir. Prefer opting for someplace cooler when it comes to overnighters? San Luis Obispo (SLO), a 30-minute drive south, brings with it ocean breezes, an idyllic downtown scene and, as home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), a college town vibe. One of the closest hotels to Cal Poly is The Kinney SLO.
COVID safety precautions are spelled out via signage from the moment guests enter. At the front desk, a crinkly-eye smile welcomes from a masked reservationist. The fresh smell of disinfectant says the area has been meticulously wiped down between check-ins. With the exception of a required credit card imprint, there’s no need for the sharing of things like pens. Here, instructions, such as needing to make reservations to visit the swimming pool, are relayed.
The Kinney SLO embraces its Cal Poly neighbors with campus chic decor. There are rattan swings in the lobby, a giant LiteBrite set and Scrabble set on the wall of an outdoor lounge area. And the restaurant/bar Leroy’s lures with skeeball. Unfortunately, COVID makes many of these features unavailable. Including, at the moment, dining at Leroy’s. Something to schedule for a return visit — checking out the comfort food-fusion offerings, including its famous ramen.
Rooms and suites are bright and fun. What’s missing due to COVID are items such as coffee machines and hotel information books. Guests can, however, request these from the front desk.
Wine and olive oil tastings, strolling through the quaint historic streets of Paso Robles and dining on tantalizing fare (The Hatch is highly recommended) — yes, yes and yes. There’s even the Paso Robles Children’s Museum set inside a firehouse for the younger set. Further afield are vineyards and wineries for visiting, as well.
SLO’s downtown scene has a sense of fun and excellent places for dining. A fave for breakfast and lunch near the old railroad depot is Bon Temps Creole Cafe. Highly recommended is the Cajun Pain Perdu and Faitdodo. SLO’s museums are currently closed (please check), so we can’t report on those. This includes Hearst Castle, located up the coast in San Simeon.
What this leaves time for — more long drives. Check out Morro Bay’s infamous rock, where fishermen are looking to hook “monsters” and a foghorn sends out plaintive cries. The beach town of Cambria has fun shops (though some may be a bit touristy). And along the Pacific Coast Highway, great surprises appear, such as Elephant Seals sunning themselves cliffside in San Simeon. The sounds heard here aren’t foghorns, but loud, booming, seal calls.
When it’s time to go home, don’t take the short route. Embrace the landscape and the world’s current, slower pace of travel.