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24 Hours in: Morro Bay, CA

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
August 15, 2017
Morro Bay, CA, July 2017
Robert Firpo-Cappiello
More and more travelers are discovering what central-coast Californians have known for years: This beautiful beach town bargain is ready for its closeup.

As you approach Morro Bay, California, from Highway 101 in summer, as my family and I did in July, the first thing you’ll notice is that the outdoor temperature drops a few degrees each mile as you head west, over some switchbacks in the coastal range, and down to the lovely little beach town dominated visually by the iconic Morro Rock, a holdover from the region’s volcanic origins. As the environment along the road quickly changed from inland farmland vistas and 97-degree heat to misty seaside hills with breezes bringing temps down into the 60s, we relished what central-coast Californians have known for years but other U.S. domestic travelers are just now getting to know: Morro Bay is a charming beach town that is a real bargain along this beautiful stretch of coast.

LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING

Our lodging for the night, The Landing at Morro Bay, combines the best aspects of a design-forward seaside hotel (mid-century modern interior design and furniture, ample windows and glass doors facing the water) with the comfy convenience of a family-friendly motel (ample parking, friendly staff, excellent local coffee brewed all day at the front desk). We loved that The Landing is a super-short walk from Morro Bay’s scenic wharf and parkland, not to mention our view of the impressive Morro Rock from the second-story balcony.

WHAT TO DO

There’s enough to do in Morro Bay to keep you busy for days, but our first-ever visit was limited to 24 hours, giving us a chance to get to know the town and add some spots to our “next time to-do list.” Pacific beaches beckon for those who want to catch serious waves (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop first) or just soak up some sun (with some help from Beach Butlerz if needed). The town of Morro Bay and its surrounding area is renowned for hiking in Morro Bay State Park and along the Cloisters Park Trail, kayaking in the bay (or explore via “bay cruisers” or electric boats to see sea otters and sea lions in their beautiful habitat), and golfing on a course affectionately dubbed “the poor man’s Pebble Beach” for its beauty and affordability. Drop by Kites & Surreys to purchase one of the many eye-popping beach-friendly kites on display or to rent a pedal surrey in which to explore Morro Bay’s park trails. And if you’re looking for a splash of urban sophistication amid the natural beauty, we loved Revolve Thrift for its impeccably curated retro-chic collection of vintage clothing, mid-century artifacts, and home decor.

WHAT TO EAT

The evening we arrived in Morro Bay, we enjoyed dinner at Bayside Cafe, in Morro Bay State Park, serving a nice array of seafood in a family-friendly atmosphere (indoor and patio seating) along the marina. I went with some of my personal “comfort foods,” crab cakes appetizer and fried clams dinner, and was happy that I did. The meal isn’t over until you share some desserts like the outstanding Boysenberry Crips, Key Lime Pie, and (the current frontrunner for my favorite dessert name of all time) Chocolate Oblivion. 

Breakfast at popular Frankie & Lola’s is everything you might hope for, with an array of omelet options that include fresh veggies, a reminder of Morro Bay's proximity to the central coast’s incredible farmland. I opted for a massive breakfast burrito, half of which completely satisfied my hunger and the other half of which I packed and happily consumed during our trip down the 101 toward Ventura. Right down the street from Frankie & Lola’s, stop into House of Jerky for artisanal meat snacks made with grass-fed, humanely harvested stock.

Don’t leave town without grabbing a meal at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, where you’ll find not just a great bustling diner-style eatery specializing in fresh-caught Pacific seafood but also a mini-conglomerate of Tognazzini-branded enterprises that includes the Fish Market & Patio and the Smokehouse & Pub. We enjoyed Dockside’s great sandwiches and salads and savored a relaxing stroll along the wharf watching the fishing boats (you may even spot Captain Mark Tognazzini and Bonnie Tagnazzini’s boat, the Bonnie Marietta), and ogling the fresh-from-the-sea bounty at the fish market.

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Inspiration

California's Ventura County Coast: Surf, Style & Shakespeare

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you.” The words, written by William Shakespeare around 1598, resounded in the small theater, a converted church, on a balmy July afternoon, beautifully and simply spoken by an excellent young actor, Seryozha La Porte, playing Signor Benedick opposite the equally excellent Juliet Johnson as Beatrice. I brushed away a tear and smiled, not only because Rubicon Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most energetic, polished, and insightful productions of the play I’d ever seen, but also because those words were not being delivered at the Globe Theater in London or in New York’s Central Park, but in beautiful Ventura, California, a few blocks from a perfect Pacific beach and a short walk from a vibrant, bustling historic downtown. As I learned firsthand this summer, the entire Ventura County Coast, comprising the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, and Hueneme, on the southern end of California’s central coast, offers many such glorious juxtapositions, embracing surfing, style, Shakespeare, and much more. VENTURA From our spacious room at the Ventura Beach Marriott, my family and I were able to walk to the beach - a bracing, foggy place to start your morning, or a relaxing, sunny place to spend an afternoon or early summer evening. We loved wading in the relatively calm waters, standing on the jetty, and engaging in searches for cool rocks and shells with other visiting families. The Ventura Beach Marriott was a great base of operations for exploring the Ventura County Coast region, with a big courtyard that includes a pool, hot tub, and koi pond with waterfalls. We also really appreciated the on-site laundry facilities and round-the-clock services. As lovely as the property is, I got a sneak peek at an upcoming renovation that will bump every room up in terms of eye-popping, contemporary beach-inspired design. If you can ever pull yourself away from the beach, the Ventura Beach Bike Trail is pedestrian-friendly and leads you past breathtaking ocean views, the historic 1872 Ventura pier and promenade, and to the city’s wonderful downtown. My kids loved visiting City Hall for the great view back down toward the ocean, and we enjoyed family-friendly comfort food at the Busy Bee Cafe, which sports retro-chic decor and an old-fashioned jukebox that feels like a neon-colored time machine. (“Yes,” I explained, “a jukebox was like Spotify for Baby Boomers.”) For more grown-up fare, I relished Anacapa Brewing Company’s beer-tasting flight and satisfying (to say the least) brewhouse burger. If unique-yet-affordable shopping is your thing (it’s ours), drop by Rosie Lee Imports for British foods, teas, and nicknacks (my kids insisted that I honor my favorite author by browsing the Dickens-themed souvenirs) or Iron & Resin Garage for great original T-shirts. From Ventura Harbor to San Buenaventura State Beach and beyond, the city offers great seafood, fine local wines, and the chance to watch truly accomplished surfers in action. OXNARD Neighboring Oxnard, a quick drive south on Highway 1 from Ventura, is home to a busy harbor and beautiful beaches. Known as the gateway to the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Oxnard also offers the annual California Strawberry Festival (trust me, you haven’t tasted a strawberry until you’ve tasted a fresh-picked California strawberry), kayaking in the harbor (you may get up-close-and-personal with a harbor seal), and the Henry T. Oxnard National Historic District and Heritage Square, including the rich collection at the Carnegie Art Museum. Fuel up at Seafresh Grill, rent a paddle boat or electric boat to explore the harbor, stop by the Channel Islands Maritime Museum for its cool models of sailing ships, or just relax at Oxnard Beach Park. CAMARILLO Camarillo may be best known for the Premium Outlets, which draw an international crowd of visitors for more than 150 designer and name-brand stores. But the city is also a beautiful weekend (or longer) escape, offering gorgeous views of central coast farmland, a Commemorative Air Force Aviation Museum featuring vintage aircraft, and (speaking of vintage) great wine bars spotlighting the local vino scene in Old Town. You can also get a taste of local produce at the farmers market, sip local craft beers, tour a restored ranch house, visit the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and find unique boutique hotels that match the city’s historic vibe. PORT HUENEME We love the origin of this beach city’s name. “Hueneme” is derived from the native Chumash people’s word for “resting place.” Needless to say, you’ll relax here visiting 50-acre Hueneme Beach Park with its walking paths, fishing pier, seafood snack bar, and ample picnic table and barbecue pits; touring the Naval Battalion Construction Center; or sightseeing at the Port Hueneme Lighthouse, built in 1941, with its scenic shorefront Promenade Walkway. CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK My visit to Ventura County Coast this summer was too short to include a trip to the Channel Islands National Park, 11 miles offshore and accessible by ferry or small plane, but it’s on my list of must-sees next time I’m in the area. Nicknamed the “American Galapagos” for its diversity of unique species of animals and plants. Almost any outdoor activity you can name can be found here, including hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, birdwatching, and camping. Bicycles are not allowed, and you won’t find cars or public transportation here either, so peace and quiet are almost guaranteed. When you’re ready for your Channel Islands adventure, book an excursion with Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

Inspiration

San Francisco's Summer of Love

Visiting San Francisco during its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love was appropriate for me on several levels. In fact, “love” is a word I’ve come to associate with San Francisco for most of my adult life. I first visited the City by the Bay with my then-girlfriend, Michele, and we got married and moved to SF two years later. Over the course of eight years in “the city” (as everyone from Big Sur up to Eureka refers to San Francisco), I came to love the morning fog, the often spooky-gray Pacific, the food (the Mission District’s best-ever burritos in America, a wider variety of East Asian cuisine in Chinatown and beyond than anywhere I’d ever lived), the oasis of Golden Gate Park (we lived two blocks away), and the pinch-me weekend getaways (Muir Woods, the Sierra foothills, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Monterey just a short drive away. So, sure, “Summer of Love.” I didn’t really have to think twice. Luxe-for-Less Lodging And while it’s an admittedly stale construction for a travel writer to claim he found the “perfect” hotel for his destination, I stand by the notion that Michele and I stayed at the hands-down most appropriate hotel in San Francisco. The San Remo, at the top of the North Beach neighborhood just a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, was built in 1906 by Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini to house workers rebuilding the city after the devastating earthquake and fire. If that’s not enough SF cred, in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the city became a mecca for young people seeking to escape what they perceived as stifling Middle American values, the hotel was revitalized by the very countercultural types that made the 1967 Summer of Love possible. Today, the San Remo is utterly unique among Bay Area hotels. You notice the vintage cars parked outside on Mason Street first, then the charming turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, then as you climb the stairs to the main floor you realize the hotel is styled after an Italian pensione with shared bathrooms, exquisitely decorated narrow hallways, cozy rooms, and a quirky, homey vibe you may have never found - and may never find - anywhere else your travels may take you. With rooms under $200/night and a penthouse under $300, the San Remo offers the style, authenticity, and value that every Budget Traveler craves. Fisherman's Wharf Waking up at the San Remo means you’re a quick walk to exquisitely brewed coffee and fresh pastries at the Boudin bakery on the wharf before the hordes arrive. Boudin also offers a cool bakery tour where you can watch the unusual, labor-intensive process by which sourdough bread is mixed, kneaded, cut, and baked. In the early morning, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and fishing boats loom out of the fog on the bay. Vintage streetcars ply Jefferson Street. We loved exploring the wharf during the crowd-free hours, the barks of sea lions cutting through the fog all the way from their favorite perch at Pier 39. In the evening, the wharf can be a nice place to grab a bread bowl full of clam chowder, local craft beer, or a glass of Sonoma or Napa wine at a good price. Bohemian North Beach The San Remo’s neighborhood, North Beach, is SF’s Little Italy, which mostly means, of course, extraordinary food on every corner, from the fresh breads, cheeses, and cold cuts at Molinari’s to snug cafes like Michelangelo Ristorante and Caffe  for pasta dinners and desserts like gelato and cannoli at Liguria Bakery. For a decidedly more upscale (and totally worth-it) splurge, you’ll find Fior d’Italia, the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in San Francisco, on the street level of the San Remo Hotel, serving up classic Florentine beefsteak, light-as-air pastas, a deep wine list, and live jazz by local music-scene veterans of the highest, swingingest order. Walk down Columbus Avenue to stop by City Lights bookstore, a must-stop for those who want to experience the roots of San Francisco’s countercultural movement; the shop was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and became not only a bookshop but a book publisher and meeting place for people who care about literature. “It is as if the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern,” Ferlinghetti famously observed of his shop. Art & Eating Downtown As charming as North Beach is (and I sometimes feel that I could be happy remaining at a cafe table on Columbus Avenue for days on end), we also loved hopping on a nearby bus to reach downtown in minutes. Our CityPass allowed us three full days’ of complimentary public transportation, including MUNI buses and streetcars as well as the iconic cable cars that traverse Powell and Mason and California streets. Downtown juxtaposes old and new in jarring ways that may remind some visitors of London. Stately 19th-century structures stand side-by-side with early 20th-century tenements (some now converted into relatively stylish apartments to feed SF’s insatiable tech-money-fueled real estate market) and sleek office towers like the brand-new SalesForce tower. Lunch or dinner downtown should include a stop in Chinatown, where shops like Good Mong Kok Bakery and Hon’s Wun Tun House serve world-class noodles, seafood, and dim sum. On our way to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), we grabbed lunch at Oasis, on Market Street, serving Middle Eastern favorites like falafel to a young, fast-moving lunchtime crowd. SFMOMA is one of those perfect museums whose exterior and interior design thoroughly complement the vibe of the art collection and the spirit of the neighborhood. Gallery spaces are expansive and uncluttered, showcasing the work of modernists from Matisse and Picasso up through pop artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg, plus provocative new work by contemporary artists. I especially loved Nam June Paik’s “Self Portrait,” which features a vintage television set displaying video of the artist’s face obscured by a screen spray-painted with graffiti. Golden Gate Park A streetcar ride from downtown out into “the avenues” took us to the DeYoung Museum, in Golden Gate Park, which made the excellent Summer of Love Experience exhibit the focal point of its 2017 offerings. The exhibit celebrated the fashion, visual art, and music of 1967 and of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the epicenter of hippie culture (something that, post-exhibit, visitors can do by visiting the nearby crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets for vintage clothing stores, funky boutiques, and a decent helping of latter-day hippie types). The DeYoung’s rooftop observation tower almost steals the show, affording visitors a 360 view of what is widely regarded as the most beautiful city in America. The view turns grownups into kids, marveling at the downtown skyscrapers in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, and the fog crawling back in from the Pacific along the avenues of the Sunset and Richmond districts. The tower also reminds you of all the attractions right there in Golden Gate Park, including the peaceful Japanese Tea Garden; the dinosaurs, hands-on exhibits, and dioramas of the California Academy of Sciences Museum; and the incredible Botanical Garden, which gives you a sneak peek at California’s many climates and landscapes (desert, coastal redwoods, old-growth forest…) all within a short walk of the DeYoung. After living near Golden Gate Park for eight years in the ‘90s, we’re partial to Pasquale’s pizzeria on Irving Street, and it remains a neighborhood favorite and relative “best-kept secret” for San Franciscans and visitors seeking California-fresh toppings like garlic, onion, bell peppers, and other veggies at a reasonable price. Ocean Beach Another quick streetcar ride took us westward on Judah Street to Ocean Beach. If you’ve never been to SF’s massive stretch of oceanfront, prepare to be surprised: This is not your sunny Southern Cali beach by a long shot. But if you show up prepared for fog in the morning, late afternoon, and evening (and possibly every hour in between), temperatures in the 50s, and relentless gray waves and warning signs that tell you flat-out that you’ll die if you try to swim here, you can learn to appreciate it the way locals do. When I lived in San Francisco, I often started my work day with a trip to Ocean Beach, the fog and cold and relative isolation waking me up better than any cup of neighborhood French roast ever did. Yes, Take a Guided Bus Tour I have one more recommendation, and a little confession to make. When Michele and I lived in SF, we would never have considered taking a double-decker guided bus tour of the city. I mean, that's what tourists do, right? But when we realized that our CityPass included hop-on-hop-off privileges, we gave it a try. And we are so glad we did. From our perch on the top deck, we took in familiar sights in a new way and learned history and trivia we’d never heard before (for instance, the clock tower on the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, now known for its incredible food market, survived the 1906 earthquake), and because we were enjoying the ride so much we didn’t actually pay attention to the route, we ended up getting an unexpected ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. If you’ve never zoomed over the bridge from the second story of a bus, there’s a lot of vertigo-inducing activity on the bay you’ve missed. No, four days in San Francisco were not enough. While you can manage to squeeze most of the city’s sights into a day trip if you have to, you can also spend a week, a month, a year, getting to know this complex, ever-evolving melting pot. Whether you’re seeking some kind of transcendence like those kids who headed here back in 1967, or just a great crab salad with sourdough bread and a reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc, or, like most of us, something somewhere in between, I hope you’ll enjoy your own Summer of Love in San Francisco sometime soon.

Inspiration

Get to Know: Chatham, MA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Chatham, MA, is no. 4 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Chatham, which is situated in the “elbow” of Cape Cod, is one of those rare small towns that feels like it was a cool small town 100 years ago. After all, you can’t avoid its history, and it involves lots of eye-catching sites. First, there’s the postcard-perfect Chatham Lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was first lit to guide boats in 1897. The town's historic district has over 300 protected buildings. What’s more is the town has the highest concentration of classic Cape-Cod-style houses. (Think: timber frames, Victorian details) Not least among them is the ultra-luxe resort Chatham Bars Inn. Among its 24-plus buildings, some date back as far as 1914. Also onsite is eight acres of farm and a greenhouse, sources for the hotel’s posh restaurants’ produce and herbs.  While those kinds of gardens are above and beyond what most other restaurants in Chatham offer, one thing that pretty much every dining spot offers is straight-off-the-boat seafood. The town is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lobster, haddock, and skate, to name a few. And about those restaurants—there’s a lot of them. It all starts at the airport, where you’ll find Hangar B, a compact eatery known for its hearty and creative breakfast fare. Other options throughout town range from the classy yet casual Bistro on Main to the Filling Station, a retro diner located downtown that dishes out classic breakfast food all day and burgers on soft pretzel buns, to the legendary Chatham Orpheum Theater, which features a café where you can anything from salads to burgers to sandwiches to sliders as well as beer, wine, and cocktails and indulge while you watch a movie. Toss in plenty of outposts for birdwatchers (the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Services) to take in the show; the new Chatham Shark Center, in case you wanna learn more than you can get during "Shark Week" (Chatham is known for the return of great white sharks); and whale watching excursions and it all adds up to something pretty cool.

Inspiration

Get to Know: Nevada City, CA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Nevada City, CA, is no. 3 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. When I visited Nevada City in July, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, I loved strolling up and down Broad Street, where cool boutiques and unique shops rub elbows with local ice cream, BBQ, and historical sites. When I mentioned to locals (who range from families who trace their roots here back several generations to recent transplants and weekend warriors from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley) that Budget Travel has named their town one of the coolest in America, I generally got one of two reactions: A high-five and a thanks, or a whispered, “Please don’t tell everybody about us.” Well, the secret is out. Nevada City and its surrounding area are definitely having a moment. Just a few days after my visit, the California Arts Council named the region the Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District, honoring its evolution from a gold-mining hub in the mid-19th century to its reinvention, starting in the 1960s, as a cultural hot spot that draws artists, writers, and technology innovators. Where gold-hungry miners once panned, culture now thrives. We love Nevada City for its music and art, food, and the surrounding rivers, lakes, and nearby mountains. I found perfect burgers and wings at Bistro 221, along with local craft beer and lively conversation. Up the street, the Nevada City Chocolate Shoppe serves heaping scoops of great ice cream made by locals with deep roots in the community. Music lovers flock to the Miners Foundry for live acts, the town is the epicenter of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, devoted to nature and adventure filmmakers, and with incredible hills, switchbacks, and scenery, the Nevada City Classic is one of the, well, coolest bicycle races in the U.S. The Miners Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, in nearby Grass Valley, pays homage to the region’s history with a decidedly more upscale welcome than those 19th-century miners ever got. A grand lobby hosts cocktail events for guests, and the hotel’s beautiful woodwork and comfortably appointed rooms are a real treat. My wife and I really enjoyed our gorgeous room, and we loved chatting with the staff about the Grass Valley-Nevada City area, its history, and their recommendations about food and fun.

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