Little Trips, Little Towns: Moss Landing
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The South Coast of Big Sur might have more hawks than humans. Moss Landing has roughly the same population as a small high school class. And soldiers aside, Fort Hunter Liggett barely has enough bodies to fill out a football team.
Theses places are not big. But their character is huge.
Yurts, raw nature and gorgeous jade further differentiate the South Coast’s as-good-as-it-gets stretch of coastline from anywhere else on Earth. Moss Landing has everything from the most raucous dive bar in the area code to the most peaceful (and wildlife-populated) estuary habitat on the West Coast. Fort Hunter Liggett has a fleet of mighty tanks and much mightier rock formations.
And best of all, in a world where airlines are charging for peanuts, gas stations are accepting first-borns to finance a full tank of fuel and bread costs some serious bread, the requisite expense required to arrive at these places is much more on par with the size of their populations than the size of their personalities.
For our annual travel issue, three Weekly reporters ventured forth to these southwest, northwest and southeast corners of Monterey County to gather straightforward field notes on how to best embrace the qualities of each. –Mark C. Anderson
Mileage: About 18 miles from downtown Monterey.
Directions: Head north on Highway 1 and turn left onto Moss Landing Road.
Its placement between the ocean and Highway 1 seems ordinary. But something happens upon entering the tiny town where pelicans fly overhead, herons perch on the banks of the Elkhorn Slough, and otters play in the protected harbor. The sea breeze smells saltier here, and there’s a stillness that amplifies the birdcalls and the rushing waves. Time seems to move more slowly between the weathered walls of shops and restaurants. Fog ambles over coastal strawberry fields and ranches where horses graze. It’s an enchanted place, invisible from the outside until one passes through its charmed borders.
Furry sea mammals welcome guests gliding upon Elkhorn Slough waters while egrets wearing snowy plumes and golden shoes dance upon the banks. On land, I can’t resist purchasing a papier mâché mermaid– who seems to have swum straight out of a Guillermo Del Toro movie– from one of the many shops. Later, a fairy godmother shows us to our storybook cottage room where luxuries like cheese and grapes, fresh cookies and a massage therapist appear. Mermaids swim in huge margarita goblets alongside a dinner of crab and calamari before we dance across the patio to flamenco guitars. Later, we dream in a bed that was once a salmon trawler.
Things To Do:Hunt for Treasure
Shopping in Moss Landing is synonymous with antiquing, and requires only a stroll down Moss Landing Road. Here, treasure troves– peddling antique furniture, glassware, jewelry, linens and other collectibles– sit tucked inside quaint cottages, waiting to be discovered. Plus, the Moss Landing Auction (632-0180) holds regular weekend afternoon estate auctions and the annual Antique Street Fair, held Sunday, July 27, is a must-visit for those whose eyes light up at the sight of etched-glass decanters and vintage brooches. There are also unusual places like The Tribes Gallery, which sells tribal and ethnic art, the folk art café at the Haute Enchilada (where I bought the aforementioned papier mâché mermaid), and by-appointment-only Stella Page Design Studio, 632-0661, where the world-class designer creates her one-of-a-kind handbags for Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and a few of us (lucky) mortals.
Moss Landing Road and surrounding side streets. www.mosslandingchamber.com.Explore Elkhorn Slough
The Elkhorn Slough reaches inland about seven miles from its mouth at the Moss Landing Harbor, and may be experienced by sea or by land. By land, a good place to begin is the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, about a 15-minute drive from Moss Landing. The reserve features five miles of trails through the slough’s various habitats– oak woodlands, tidal creeks and freshwater marshes. The slough is also an important stop for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway– tens of thousands stop off here as they travel along the West Coast– and a shelter for sea otters and harbor seals.
Kayaking or canoeing guarantee face time with the slough’s marine life, but the last time I went canoeing with my husband, I ended up in the emergency room with a fishing lure embedded in my face. This time, we decide to leave the paddling to the pros and hop aboard an Elkhorn Slough Safari, a 27-foot pontoon boat– free from fishing hooks– departing from the harbor and traveling up the slough. Captain Yohn Gideon and naturalist Kelsi Rey talk about wildlife, wetlands, ecology and history, and serve coffee, soda and oatmeal cookies, baked by Gideon’s wife, innkeeper Melanie. A free comedy routine is also included. We pass a raft of sea otters, harbor seals and their pups, crying “mom,” and sunning sea lions before we even leave the harbor. One of the sea lions sits submerged, with his head and entire body under water except for one fin, sticking straight up in the air. “He’s pretending he’s a shark– trying to fool his buddies,” quips the captain. By the end of the two-hour cruise we’ve counted seven great blue herons, nine great egrets, 15 snowy egrets, 65 otters, 151 harbor seals and 559 sea lions– along with countless other bird species, including pelicans, loons, cormorants and a peregrine falcon.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve: 1700 Elkhorn Rd., Watsonville. $2.50/day-use fee. 728-2822, www.elkhornslough.org.
Elkhorn Slough Safari: departing from the Moss Landing Harbor, 7881 Sandholt Rd., Moss Landing. $32/adults; $25/children 3-14. 633-555, www.elkhornslough.com.Enjoy the State Beach
Surfing, windsurfing, horseback riding and bird watching are choice activities here. It’s also a pretty place for a picnic because it’s protected from afternoon winds by the dunes.
Jetty Road, Moss Landing. www.parks.ca.gov/ ?page_id=574.Watch Whales and Dolphins
Sanctuary Cruises, which departs out of the Moss Landing Harbor, offers year-round whale watching.
Moss Landing Harbor “A” Dock (first dock on the left from Moss Landing Road off Highway 1). 800-979-3370 or visit www.sanctuarycruises.com.Get in Touch With Your Inner Stripper
A floor-to-ceiling stripper pole stands in the middle of the Moss Landing Inn, a funky little dive in the middle of this sleepy fishing town– and the décor is as eclectic as its patrons. A disco ball, quirky road signs and a car-shaped light-fixture hang from the walls and ceiling, alongside dollar bills scribbled with magic-marker messages. Bikers, beachcombers, buckaroos and babes throw back drinks and get their freak on to live music or karaoke almost every night of the week. And then there’s the pole. On a recent evening, owner Ray Retez (sans lucite pumps) gives it a whirl and then grabs the mic. “You know what makes the ocean awesome?” he asked. “It keeps making waves. You are all so beautiful and awesome. Love life.”
7902 Highway 1, Moss Landing. No cover. 633-5398, www.wenchilada.com.
Two Places To Eat:Phil’s Fish Market
More institution than eatery, Phil’s serves fresh seafood at reasonable prices, and never disappoints. The extensive menu includes everything from cioppino to blackened sea scallops, fish and chips to linguini and clams. We decide to start with a cup of clam chowder ($3.50) and then split a half-order of steamed little neck clams ($10.95), served in a broth of tomatoes, green onions, garlic, thyme, white wine and butter, and a half seafood salad ($9.95), loaded with fresh crabmeat and bay shrimp on crispy greens.
7600 Sandholtd Rd., Moss Landing. 633-2152, www.philsfishmarket.com.The Whole Enchilada
A flamenco guitar plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as we enter the colorful walls of The Whole Enchilada, where chef Luis Solano specializes in fresh, locally caught seafood prepared in Mexican coastal style. We start with two Don Julio Fiesta margaritas ($17), pricey, but nearly as big as my head and served with mermaids on the rocks. From what I remember, the mermaids guided us on our walk back to the inn. We order two specials: Calamari Pinocho ($14.95), calamari stuffed with Dungeness crab and shrimp, grilled in olive oil and garlic and served over white rice in a roma-tomato, calamari-ink sauce; and Enchiladas Adobadas ($21.95), chipotle adobo corn tortillas filled with Dungeness crab meat and covered in a lobster-cream sauce, served with rice and beans. While the stuffed calamari is flavorful, the enchiladas are heavenly, assuming heaven is a mouthful of creamy, lobstery crabmeat.
Highway 1 and Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing. 633-3038, www.wenchilada.com.
One Great Place To Stay:Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing
Whimsy and history sail side by side at the Captain’s Inn, a charming B&B in the 1906 Pacific Coast Steamship Company building and accompanying boathouse with rooms featuring waterfront views and nautical décor. Gideon’s wife, Melanie, manages the inn, prepares breakfast and snacks, and serves as resident fairy godmother. She shows us to our room, the “High Seas,” outfitted with a soaking tub for two, a fireplace and an actual salmon trawler from the Monterey Bay that has been converted into a bed and a closet, formerly the boat’s wheelhouse. Removable curtains hang from wooden oars; Melanie takes them down to expose stunning views of the tidal channel, marshes and dunes. For Melanie’s next bit of magic: Massage therapist Carol Jo Marting appears and rubs my worries away as the sun warms my skin through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Meanwhile, my husband relaxes with a beer on the riverfront patio. As my massage ends, Melanie returns with a basket of snacks– spanikopita, cheese, grapes and almonds. Later, she’ll bring lemon sugar cookies. We had planned to explore the town this afternoon; instead we explore the High Seas, enjoying the view from the tub and the sunset from the trawler, where we watch the sun disappear behind gray and purple clouds into shadow.
The next morning, Melanie serves a three-course, home-cooked breakfast of apple strudel, fresh mango and strawberries, German sausage and sweet-potato pancakes. After the meal, we take one more dip in the tub before the spell is broken and it’s back to reality.
8122 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing. $145-$265. 633-5550, www.captainsinn.com.
Other Options:Monterey Dunes Company
MDC rents beach-front vacation homes in the Moss Landing sand dunes.
407 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing. $580-$1,365/two-night weekend; $265-$690/per night, mid week; $1,585-$4,785/seven nights. 633-4883, www.montereydunes.com.
Moss Landing KOA RV Campground
This harbor-adjacent hideout provides full hookups and other amenities– and lies just a short walk from the beach.