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Weekender: Road Trip to Morro Bay

Jenna Scatena | November 16, 2012 | Story Travel Weekend Escapes California Destinations

A last-minute four-hour drive south of the city recently landed me in the Central Coast enclave of Morro Bay. Despite having lived in the Central Coast for years, I somehow never made it to this quaint seaside strip of waterfront decks, fishing boats, and sea lions. Think of it as a toned-down Fisherman’s Wharf meets Santa Monica: Yes, it's a little touristy, but it's pluses compensate for the ubiquitous rainbow windmills and postcard shops: intimate, walkable, sunny (usually in the low 70s through January), and a trove of natural outdoor pleasures in every direction. Here are some highlights:

There are plenty of small upscale hotels on the water, but think about it: Do you really want seals barking right outside your window at 6 a.m., or to share your bedroom wall with a bar? Exactly. Two blocks up the street in a quiet neighborhood setting is the Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites, a classic 1930s motor lodge that was recently made over for the modern road-tripper. The exterior still has that vintage charm (plus a fire pit surrounded by addirondak chairs), and the inside has thoughtful homey touches—pillowy beds, wooden shutters, and an inviting fireplace. The stay includes breakfast at one of the popular local diner-style restuarants in town (opt for Frankie and Lola’s diner, where fried green tomato benedict and creme brulee French toast top the menu). And the managing partner, Jim Bray, is a wealth of insider recommendations. Rates from $114 (now through February stay three nights for the price of two).

Bay Cruisers rents electric boats by the hour. Pick up some cheese and crackers and a bottle of pinot, and take one for a relaxing spin around the harbor. Seats up to 8. $75/hour. Or, if you want a more active tour of the harbor, Central Coast Stand Up Paddling rents boards for $18/hour.

Drive fifteen minutes to nearby Montana de Oro State Park for rugged cliffs, secluded beaches, and coastal plains. (Hint: Go at sunrise or sunset, when it’s not too hot and the sky over the Pacific is a mix of blue to pink.) Trails with costal views will take you through shrubs, Eucalyptus groves, valley floors, and up san dunes, but hoof it up the 1,400-foot Valencia Peak for a real workout.

For dinner, Windows on the Water has the romantic panoramic views of any good-natured tourist restaurant, but the food could be from a hole in the wall you brag to your friends about. The produce is fresh, local, and organic, the beef grass fed, and the seafood in-line with Monterey Bay seafood watch standards. But most importantly, the black cod is moist and flaky, the lamb tender, and the menu comes with the disclaimer "subject to change at chef's whim."

Dockside is Morro Bay’s equivalent of Sam’s—a big, always-packed deck on the water with epic views. It usually comes with a wait, but the fresh fish tacos and ambiance is well worth it.

In the morning, stroll down to Top Dog Coffee Bar, on the “local’s” side of town, where a rotating list of local artist's work hangs on the walls. Head out back and lounge at a table in their overgrown garden patio.

If you have a pooch, bring it with you. The Beach Bungalow is dog-friendly, and nearby beaches like Dog Beach are perfect for fetch.

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