July 1, 2003
STEVEN W. ELLS
The locals call it simply Paso because El Paso de Robles ("The Pass of the Oaks") has more syllables than can be easily said. A small town located a dozen miles inland from Morro Bay and the famous section of State Highway 1 that progresses up the Big Sur coast, Paso straddles Highway 101 and the Salinas River. The older part of town is on the west side of these two landmarks (three if you count the railroad tracks), with newer development spreading out eastward.
The good news for California pilots is the airport. Collocated with the PRB VOR, Paso Robles Municipal Airport is vast, is blessed with some of the best flying weather in the state, has a spiffy new terminal building, and is home to one of the state's many aviation museums.
Paso Robles is located 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean in Central California. The city of 22,000 residents is situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the famous Highway 101.
The really good news is that the airport is a portal to this small town; that is significant because the downtown is easily walked and well preserved. The airport is also close to one-of-a-kind California treasures such as Hearst Castle.
Located six miles northeast of town, the airport has two runways. The most commonly used — Runway 1/19 — measures just over 6,000 feet long by 150 feet wide. The other runway, 13/31, is 4,700 feet by 100 feet. While there's no tower, there are three instrument approaches. Three approaches and no bad weather — this dichotomy tells the story of the Paso Robles airport. Rarely needed because of near-perfect weather, the instrument approaches are most often used for training and currency by the region's instrument pilots. Unlike the coast, which is hampered by fog-induced low ceilings during the summer, the Paso airport is often closed by the onset of early morning fogs during winter months. But these fogs rarely linger past 9 a.m.
Just as the airport is worthy of a much larger town, so is the new airport terminal. Built within the past four years, this shiny new building awaits a restaurant to lure pilots who, singly and in groups, are always on the lookout for good airport eateries.
The Paso Robles Jet Center (805/239-5860) is the only FBO on the field. There's self-serve 100LL avgas and premixed jet fuel, or they'll bring it out to your airplane in their truck. The folks at the Jet Center also can coordinate car rentals with the local Enterprise office so visiting fliers aren't inconvenienced. Budget and Thrifty also have local car rental outlets. Taxi and limousine services are available and may be just the ticket for fliers who want to enjoy the many wine-tasting rooms around Paso.
Paso Robles began by hosting travelers and vacationers who sought out the quiet of the oak woodlands and the mineral hot springs. As early as 1864 a hotel was built near the hot springs at the present site of the Paso Robles Inn. Visit the Web site ( www.pasoroblesinn.com). Drury James and Daniel Blackburn, the founders of El Paso de Robles, envisioned a city that would thrive as a health resort. When the first train arrived in 1886, the town started to receive wider attention. Polish statesman and pianist Ignace Paderewski visited the hot springs in an effort to cure neuritis in his hands. He stayed, bought land, and introduced Zinfandel grapes.
A dedicated group of people (mostly volunteers) has transformed Paso from a gas stop on Highway 101 with a dying downtown into a town that keeps pulling back visitors because of its ambience. The volunteers of the Paso Robles Main Street Association, led by Norma Moye, a fourth-generation Paso Roblan, are largely responsible for the vitality of the restored and rejuvenated town.
In the middle of Paso is a beautiful green park. The oak trees create shady circles on the lawn and shelter the town's Carnegie Historic Library Museum, which has a gallery showing western art in the basement. Just a few yards away is Paso's restored gazebo. During summer evenings, local musicians take the stage and play free music in the town's "Twilight Concert in the Park" series.
Surrounding the park are meticulously cared-for and restored buildings. On the west side of the park is the Paso Robles Inn, and on the north side is the clock tower building. Although each was finished in 1892, these buildings aren't the oldest standing buildings in town. That honor is shared by The Cosmopolitan Hotel on Pine Street (until recently, Estrada's Bar) and the Booth/Lewis home on Vine Street, both finished in 1887.
The pamphlet, A Self-Guided Tour to Historical Buildings Within the City of Paso Robles is available by calling the Paso Robles Main Street Association at 805/238-4103 or through the Web site ( www.pasoroblesdowntown.org). This Web site is also a good source for an up-to-date calendar of local events.
Between where 9th and 15th streets cross Vine Street, there are nine restored Victorian-era homes. The loving care lavished on these artifacts has generated enthusiastic support from adjacent property owners. As a result, one of the singular festivities in Paso is the Vine Street Victorian Showcase Christmas. From 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the second Saturday of December (the 13th in 2003), the town turns out to walk Vine Street and visit, enjoy the beautiful homes, celebrate the season with music, and listen to Scrooge grumble about Christmas.
The California Mid-State Fair ( www.midstatefair.com) is a country fair that holds its own against many bigger, better-known fairs. This year's fair, titled "Vines, Wines, and Western Times," runs from July 23 through August 3. Expect to see livestock, an Elvis impersonator, Toby Keith, funnel cakes, a rodeo, barbecue, Loretta Lynn, and monster trucks. Additional entertainers ranging from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to Carrot Top will perform on the four stages each night. Billing itself as "The Biggest Little Fair Anywhere," this event makes Paso bustle with summertime energy.
Often tapped as "the next Napa" because of the explosive growth of vineyard acreage over the past decade, Paso still retains its small-town feel. With the vineyards came the restaurants — a downtown building that housed the Rio Grande Café is now named Villa Creek and the menu includes entrées such as butternut squash enchiladas with corn, jack cheese, and tomatillo salsa.
The cross section of restaurants within a 10-minute walk of the Carnegie library features fine foods to tempt almost any palate. In addition to one or two sidewalk-style oak pit barbecues, local restaurants offer Mediterranean fare and the best of local fresh foods skillfully woven into what's termed California cuisine. The result is a variety that is wide enough to satisfy every visitor. Visitors who want to sample the award-winning wines of "the next Napa" can visit more than 35 local tasting rooms ( www.wineriesofpasorobles.com).
Fly-in visitors may want to look around for other local adventures. There are many. Hearst Castle ( www.hearstcastle.com) is only 40 minutes away by car. The small coastal towns of Morro Bay, Cayucos, and Cambria are enjoyable day jaunts, as are the attractions that abound along Highway 1 north of the Hearst Castle turnoff.
Northwest of Paso are two large lakes — San Antonio Lake and Lake Nacimiento — that help keep visitors cool during the heat of the summer. More information about the lakes is available on the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce Web site ( www.pasorobleschamber.com) or by calling 805/238-0506.
Warbird lovers will want to stop at the Estrella Warbird Museum ( http://ewarbirds.org), located in one of the hangars on the south side of the airport.
Paso Robles has a big airport and it's a great destination for the flier who wants to hone his instrument flying skills, or to stay a little longer and visit one of the prettiest downtowns in California. Fly in yourself and search out Norma and the Paso Robles Main Street Association (the office is at 835 D Street, but if you look closely you'll see a sign that says "Norma's Way") to get personal care.
Visit the Victorian homes on Vine Street, take in the variety of preserved downtown buildings, and sip freshly ground coffee as you sit on one of the many comfortable benches around the park. You'll be back for another visit.
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