20-160 miles or two-3.5 hours drive.
For efficiency and speed, Highway 101 south is the sensible choice. For pure beauty, the coast road—Highway 1 through Big Sur, Cayucas, and San Simeon—is glorious. Morro Bay is a fishing town and harbor in an aqua-watered estuary teeming with marine life in the shape of fish, birds and sea mammals, all guarded by a gigantic volcanic dome about 23 million years old—named El Morro, or “the moor,” in the 16th century by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo as he explored this coast for Spain. The moor’s turbaned head is the last above sea level of the “Nine Sisters,” a parade of dark volcanic cones, or morros, which march along the horizon of the San Luis Obispo County coastal mountains. In the nearby harbor resides one of the coast’s largest and longest-operating commercial fishing fleets; the town grew up fishing and serving the people who did and it still has the flavor of an honest fishing port. Where nearby coastal towns like Pismo Beach have paved themselves over and built high-rise hotels to maximize the tourist dollar, Morro Bay remains a charmingly real town whose Embarcadero offers an assortment of tourist delights while its fleet keeps feeding the Coast.
THINGS TO DO:
The Embarcadero, Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 845 Embarcadero, Suite D, 805-772-4467, morrobay.org. The waterfront is a natural place to start your visit. A walk along the Embarcadero to the north leads to the Rock, a habitat for nesting egrets; southward, the Embarcadero ends at a quiet Marina; the well-posted Visitor Center, meanwhile, is generous with maps and advice. A little park at the center of the Embarcadero features a giant chessboard that can be booked for Saturday games, and tables with normal size chess players meet any challengers. Opposite the chessboard, a great geezer orchestra entertained chessplayers and passersby with spirited big band music, then other smaller groups continued throughout the day.
Rock Kayak, 845 Embarcadero St., 805-772-2906, rockkayak.com. Single: $10/hour; $12/two; $18/three or four; double: $18; $22; $28. This has to be one of the best places in the coast for kayaking. At Rock Kayak, located right in front of the Visitor Center, I was fitted out in a sparkling new red boat, advised about interesting shoreline habitats, fitted with waterproof bags for my goodies, provided a pictorial bird guide, and launched with friendly efficiency by Tony, the owner, who has been doing this for over a decade. It was bliss: three hours of looking at birds, peering into the clear waters to see sand dollars shining below and fish glinting all around, keeping company with a comical sea otter basking contentedly, stopping for a little hike on a sand spit.
SHOPS AND GALLERIES:
Embarcadero and Main Street, morrobay.org The Embarcadero and Main Street areas are filled with galleries and gift shops. FOCUS ON NATURE photography gallery (601 Embarcadero, 805-792-4972) is filled with his nature photography, which has been widely exhibited and reproduced by various international magazines. Nearby, Jayne Behman of the BEHMAN GALLERY AND STUDIO (575 Embarcadero, 805-234-3634) shows works of extraordinary breadth in oil, watermedia, glass and sculpture. THE GARDEN GALLERY (680 Embarcadero, 805-772-4044), meanwhile, is a destination for me every time I visit, a beautifully designed aged-wooden structure that houses a garden shop with art for the outdoors as well as a gift shop with unusual and high quality art and craft items for the home. On Saturday afternoons Morro Bay Boulevard closes down for three hours to host a buzzing farmers market.
PLACES TO EAT:
Various locations; visit restauranteur.com/ca/morrobay/. We ate our way through the weekend, beginning on Friday night at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant & Fish Market (1245 Embarcadero, 805-772-8100), where the fishing fleet unloads their catch and we slurped barbecued oysters as the sun set. Dorn’s (Market Avenue, 805-772-4415) is on a hillside with a vast sheltered patio overlooking the bay, a great place for an afternoon cocktail and also a popular Sunday brunch spot. The highlight was a romantic dinner at the spacious WINDOWS ON THE WATER (699 Embarcadero, 805-772-0677), where I had one of the most delicious meals in memory—including locally raised abalone with seaweed, seared albacore, and succulent roasted chicken with a red onion pasilla chile relleno. Accompanied by a glass of Turley Cellars “Juvenile” Zinfandel, it was heaven.
Bob Zany’s Comedy Outlet, 801 Embarcadero, 805-772-0716, bobzany.com. $15 admission. There are several promising clubs and night spots, but we went for comedy at Bob Zany’s, upstairs at the Embarcadero Grill. Here every Friday and Saturday are two shows of great comics on the coast circuit. Opened early this summer, the Outlet has hosted such names as John Manfrellotti. John Bizarro was the headliner on our evening there and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The scent of wood-fire barbecue from the restaurant and the background chorus of barking sea lions made for an appropriately circus-like atmosphere.
Montaña de Oro State Park, six miles southwest of Morro bay on Pecho Road, parks.ca.gov, 805-528-0513. Montaña de Oro offers 50 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails through eucalyptus forests and a shoreline teeming with tidepools, sea caves and chapparal. We stopped at the Bluff Trail and walked to Corralitos Cove for an hour of sea anemones and starfish-gawking and a picnic. At the edge of this park just south of Morro Bay are several stables for renting horses. J & J Riding offers overnight, moonlight, forest and ocean trail riding.
ONE GREAT PLACE TO STAY:
Masterpiece motel, 1206 Main St., 800-527-6782, masterpiecemotel.com. King: $89/weekday, $159/weekend; deluxe king: $109/weekday, $179/weekend; suite: $189, $229; penthouse: $249, $299. Rates are subject to change. Over the years I’ve stayed in a few pleasant and reasonably-priced motels and camped in nearby Montaña de Oro state park, but in this visit I chose the Masterpiece Motel just for fun.
The exterior is a tiled and towered Spanish-inspired creation; inside, 150 large art reproductions hang in the halls and rooms. Within my comfortable, spacious and quiet room was a large Sakai Hoitsu floral, a frothy Monet and others. The Masterpiece also offers a tower suite with fireplace and Jacuzzi, several Jacuzzi suites and some rooms with fireplaces. My abode was humbler but attractive, comfortable, quiet, with its own tiny refrigerator and microwave. Nearby, the hospitable lobby featured a long counter with perennial overflowing plates of fruit, cookies, constant coffee, generous continental breakfast and convivial happy hour supplies of wine and cheese. Downstairs was a small weight room and a glorious spa almost large enough to swim in, with Romanesque columns and a tiled Michaelangelo reproduction. I was glad to soak here at the end of a few very active days.