I had a hankering to drive by the Whispering Winds Ranch in Creston, Calif., where I had lived for a year in the early 1980s. But mostly I wondered if the little-known cowboy town on the Central Coast had retained its Wild West charm. I headed out recently to discover that large farms and ranches still stretch out from the center of town. And I could still walk from one end to the other in five minutes. Today three outlying wineries are the biggest draw: August Ridge Vineyards, Château Margene Estate Vineyard & Winery and Shadow Run Vineyards. The tab: I spent about $400, including $230, not including tax and tip, for a two-night stay at the Carlton Hotel (thanks to a last-minute deal on Expedia.com) in nearby Atascadero. There is no lodging in Creston, so it eludes most people's radar.
The Carlton Hotel opened in 1929 as a block-long building. In 1999 it began a massive six-year-long renovation and reopened in 2005 as a three-story boutique hotel. The lobby and 52 rooms are vintage European, with lots of wood and upholstered furniture. After tooling around country roads, I welcomed my room's spa-jet tub and cloud-like bed. From Atascadero, Creston is a bucolic 10-mile drive on Highway 41, which passes over the Salinas River, a.k.a. "The Upside Down River" because it flows northward.
The Longbranch Saloon still stands, though a bit rickety, and has been serving grub and pouring libations since the 1930s. It's the kind of place where locals gather to trade stories, speculate on rainfall and perhaps dance on the bar (check out the cracks in the plastic that protects the original wooden bar top). The saloon has changed hands over the years, but my all-time favorite Ortega chile burger ($14) is still on the menu. It's now served on a fluffy brioche bun with hand-cut fries. The sauce is to die for: mayonnaise-based with cayenne, paprika and chipotle. Add bacon, avocado or fried egg for $1 each. Vegetarian broccolini burgers are available on request.
Allgood Custom Leather is in a great old building, circa 1920s. Matt Allgood is the go-to guy for custom saddles, chaps, belts and more. I browsed bootjacks, hand-woven rawhide scarf slides, collectible spurs and bits, and saddle blankets made of alpaca hair sourced from a nearby farm. There's always a fresh pot of coffee on the old-style wood-burning stove.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Beware of the curves on Highway 41 from Atascadero to Creston. They appear suddenly, especially if you're checking out grazing horses, pygmy goats and longhorn cattle. There are places to pull over to take photos. Just be cautious.
Carlton Hotel, 6005 El Camino Real, Atascadero; (805) 461-5100. Wheelchair-accessible.
Longbranch Saloon, 6258 Webster Road, Creston; (805) 779-0028. Wheelchair-accessible.