By J.C. Thomas
Morro Bay, a serene little fishing port on the Central Coast of California, is almost exactly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco (200 miles and 230 miles respectively), and the perfect weekend-getaway distance from most of the state. Picturing Morro Bay after a visit brings to mind two distinct landmarks: Morro Rock, the 576-foot tall volcanic plug that separates the local state beach from the harbor; and the three towering smokestacks of a disused power plant, left standing in picturesque harmony with the tall masts of the sailboats and fishing fleet docked close by.
Scenery, seafood and a stroll-able waterfront village are Morro Bay’s top tourist draws, and it’s a delightful destination for children of all ages as well. Your kids might be familiar with the city as Dory’s childhood home in Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” and although the “Marine Life Institute, the Jewel of Morro Bay” is, sadly, fictional, the bay is both a national bird sanctuary and state marine reserve. In this pristine environment the kids can spot harbor seals, sea lions, and in the kelp beds close to shore, families of adorable sea otters floating with tummies up, holding hands and feasting on shellfish. During two full days in Morro Bay with my family of four (including boys aged 2 ½ and 8 months), we discovered how the simple charms of this city span generations.
WHERE TO STAY
The 33-room boutique hotel, 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites, makes a perfect home base for a weekend in Morro Bay. Its waterfront location means you get views of the harbor up-close, and in the background the sandspit, estuary and Morro Rock, a view that continuously shifts as the morning fog gives way to sunshine, then slowly dims and diffuses as sunset approaches. Families can opt for one of four suites if extra space is desirable. Our corner suite featured a separate king bedroom and living room with sleeper sofa, with the spacious bathroom area between them. A long balcony facing the bay, fluffy robes and a fireplace made our time indoors pleasurably cozy. Along with the inn’s central location, within minutes’ walk of the harbor, restaurants and the beach, these upgrades made those daytime returns to the room that are necessary when traveling with children (for naptime, down time, forgotten jackets e.t.c.) a treat rather than a chore.
456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites also offers superior king and two-queen rooms with a fireplace, standard queen rooms, family suites and mini suites. All guests have access to a hot tub on the second floor. The hotel is family-owned and pet-friendly. A continental breakfast is included in the room rates, and there’s complimentary hot coffee in the lobby all day.
WHAT TO DO
Don’t miss the chance to show the kids the underwater world of Morro Bay with Sub Sea Tours. Ride on a semi-submersible vessel with top-deck seating and a short ladder leading into an underwater viewing room. As a knowledgeable guide steers the yellow sort-of-submarine around the bay, by commercial fishing boats, private pleasure yachts and leisurely kayakers paddling around the docks, you’re sure to see harbor seals and California sea lions popping their heads up beside the sub and jostling for sun spots on floating docks. Fluffy sea otters alternately lounge afloat and dart down to hunt, and countless seabirds drift overhead. The show down below features swaying kelp beds, jellyfish and schools of silvery fish who come close for the chum – kids can help the guide drop fish food into the water, then hurry down below to see the commotion they’ve caused. Our older boy helped feed the fish, and even the baby was mesmerized by the ever-moving urchins clinging to a seaweed world stuck on the outside of a viewing window. It’s a 45-minute tour for up to 21 passengers, and a definite must-do for families visiting Morro Bay.
Renting and riding a surrey – those two- or four-seater, four-wheeled bikes designed to cause arguments about who is and is not pedaling hard enough – is one of those popular activities that you all enjoy in retrospect. I’ll readily admit my reluctance to ride one away from Farmer’s Kites & Surreys on Front Street, boys strapped into the front basket seats and husband (at my insistence) at the steering wheel. But once we got that beast moving at all of 1 m.p.h. and navigated toward Morro Rock, the sense of fun silliness kicked in. You can’t take yourself seriously while plodding along in a surrey, so sit back, keep pedaling and explore the bike paths leading up to the rock. You can certainly follow the same path on foot or regular bicycles, but you are not permitted to actually climb onto Morro Rock as it’s a protected peregrine falcon sanctuary. The rock is also a State Historic Landmark, but at 23 million years old better described as prehistoric.
Any avid golfer in the family should consider making a tee time at Morro Bay Golf Course. If there’s any resistance to the plan from the non-golfers, simply explain that it’s probably the top golf course on the Central Coast, with uninterrupted ocean views and immaculate hillside fairways reminiscent of Pebble Beach. They’ll understand. The county-run course also has a rich history dating to 1923, and it is a certified Audubon sanctuary.
On sunny days, families enjoy spending hours at the beach and hiking local trails. Sailing trips and kayak tours and rentals are also popular. The town features numerous interesting boutiques including a memorable shell store, antique stores and gift shops. There’s also the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum, a small venue that manages to pack in exhibits and incredible memorabilia covering the entire history of skateboarding. It also boasts the world’s second-largest skateboard as a centerpiece.
WHERE TO EAT
The local fishing industry of Morro Bay, notably pioneering in sustainable small-fleet fishing practices, means that seafood is the certain star of every menu in town. From take-out windows plying salty, fried fare to white-tablecloth establishments suited to special meals, there’s a great restaurant to suit every taste and budget.
On the special-meal side of the spectrum is Dorn’s Original Breakers Café on Market Street, which has served fine seafood and more in the same location since 1942. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and although it’s kid-friendly, this is a choice place to dine as a couple. The dinner menu is seafood-centric, but for us the mushroom appetizer – whole two-bite-sized mushrooms bathed in garlicy, wine-enriched, buttery broth and sprinkled with Parmesan – was irresistible. Keep that plate close by for dipping the also-irresistible crusty bread. For entrees we ordered the deep-fried assorted seafood, a pile of lightly battered prawns, scallops, oysters, calamari and morsels of cod served with a zesty tartar sauce and steamed vegetables, and from the specials list, a flavor-packed bowl of cioppino generously loaded with a similar array of seafood steamed to perfection in the broth. Warning: If you order a slice of chocolate cake frosted with chocolate mousse for dessert, expect it to be huge. You probably won’t need the crème brulee too, but try your best.
For lunch, grab a table on the patio at Blue Sky Bistro overlooking the harbor and marina. The lunch menu mostly features sandwiches and burgers piled with creative toppings, along with tacos and burritos. You can add a bowl of their rich, creamy lobster bisque to any dish, and I did just that to my “Spicy John Montagu” sandwich, grilled cheese layered with fresh tomato, avocado, cilantro and red onion, with chipotle puree spread on the inside of grilled hunks of sourdough. Mac and cheese for the kids came – as it should – topped with plenty of extra, melty cheese, ensuring it all got eaten as a joint effort. Blue Sky Bistro has a happy hour daily and live entertainment on weekends, with an always-lively and welcoming vibe.
Tognazzini’s Dockside on the harbor is owned by Captain Mark Tognazzini, a commercial fisherman and restauranteur who also runs a fresh fish market in town. Both his indoor and outdoor restaurants naturally specialize in top-notch local seafood, and for very reasonable prices. We were joined by some friends at the indoor venue for dinner, and the friendly atmosphere of the place was perfect for a big group. Between us we sampled quite a share of the menu, including appetizers of mini crab cakes with chipotle aioli and half-a-dozen big fat oysters Rockefeller, an entrée-size Caesar salad topped with grilled fish of the day, a shrimp scampi over linguini and teriyaki-glazed skewers of shrimp and scallops. Many pieces of garlic cheese toast were eaten. Feel free to ask questions about the myriad seafood options – if it didn’t just come in off the boat, steps from your table, it’s almost certainly from the west coast, a point of pride for the locavore-pioneering establishment.
Promising the best breakfast and brunch in Morro Bay is Frankie & Lola’s on Front Street, where every table inside and out on the patio is soon snapped up. They’re known for some truly decadent dishes, so if you’re a lover of sweet breakfasts consider “Lola’s Famous French Toast Brulee, Souffle, Flambe,” which is crème brulee-soaked, baked French toast with a caramelized praline topping. On the savory side, highlights include fried green tomato benedict, an andouille and prawn scramble, and the Sasquatch, two eggs on grilled sourdough with cheddar, herbed cream cheese, Ortega chili, sausage and caramelized onions. All savory breakfasts are served with crispy potatoes, which are everything you ever want a breakfast potato to be – heartily seasoned and cracklingly crunchy.
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors may have received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.
Note: This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2018 print editions of the Valley Vantage, Calabasas Enterprise and Warner Center News.