MORRO BAY AND THE DELIGHTS OF PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY
By Michael Hepworth
Morro Bay in California is a quiet sleepy fishing town north of Santa Barbara that is famous for the massive pyramid style volcanic rock that juts out of the Pacific Ocean and dominates this rather charming town. My first ever visit there in October was combined with a trip to Cambria about 15 miles to the north and close to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Wine enthusiasts are also in good shape as the rapidly expanding wine mecca of Paso Robles with over 250 wineries is only thirty minutes away.
Morro Bay was incorporated in 1964 and tourists flock to the Embarcadero area where the place to stay is the Embarcadero Inn with a clear view of the mystical rock which is 578 feet tall. It is a perfect base to explore the Embarcadero where you can buy fresh fish, rent kayaks, paddleboards or motor boats, find rare shells or buy homemade salt water taffy. If you are into deep sea fishing then there are plenty of charter options where the prime catches are salmon, rockfish, lingcod and albacore. There is a free
trolley service that takes you to the rather quaint and low key downtown area from the waterside during the summer months, and the place is really a bit of a gem to discover.
Dining options are quite extensive but we only tried a couple of places on our visit, both at the Embarcadero. We went to the upscale Windows on the Water which has been around since 1997 with chef Neil Smith running the kitchen since 2007. They specialize in fresh seafood dishes and have an extensive wine list and spirits for the right pairings. If you want something a bit more funky then go for Libertines for fish and chips with live music nightly which seems to lean towards country style and blues and jug band offerings.
There are two active oyster farms in Morro Bay the prime one being the Morru Bay Oyster Company. There is a limited production of these sought after oysters, but the day we were looking for some of the tasty morsel, there was some kind of problem so no tasting was possible. Local chefs snap them up, so an oyster that costs 25 cents each at origin ends up costing the customer $1.50-$2 each at the table after all the middle men have taken their cut. This farm produces about 800,000 oysters a year
in what is an extremely hard and labor intensive business. You can take a tour out to the farm, or use either a kayak or a paddleboard to get out there to see what is happening if you so desire.
Hikers have plenty of options as well with the Black Mountain trail in Morro Bay State Park, the Morro Bay sand spit at Montana de Oro or the Cloisters Wetlands trails in North Morro Bay. Golfers have the 18 hole Morro Bay State park golf course, and bird lovers can see over 250 species of birds at the Morro Bay National Estuary. If you are a real enthusiast then January is the time to go when they host the Winter Bird Festival which attracts bird enthusiasts from all over the world. Great Blue Herons and snowy egrets can be seen at the entrance of the national estuary in the Heron and Cormorant Rookery.
The place to stay in Cambria is the Fogcatcher Inn, strolling distance to the famous Moonstone Beach to search for moonstone gems or to watch the surfers fighting the aggressive waves. The 60 room hotel is one of many to choose from on beach road, but it has recently been modernized and a hearty cooked breakfast is included in the price with rooms running about an average of $300 a night on weekends. One problem they have however (not for this writer) is that cell phones do not work on the hotel grounds, and the manager did admit that they have lost bookings because of this, but the nights we were there, there were no vacancies to be had.
Cambria is a neat little town with plenty of tourist style gift shops, but everything is higher here in cost and you will pay about a 25% tourist tax just for the privilege of eating, shopping, staying overnight and filling up at the gas pump. We tried a couple of the highly touted restaurants in the area and found Linns by far the best despite the chef admitting that business is 80% tourist year round. Dining options in Cambria are plentiful with places like Robin’s for example which have been around for at least thirty years. My choice however would be Linn’s Restaurant and Bakery, where portions\are substantial and the homemade Chicken Pot Pie for example Is outstanding. They are well known for their pies and desserts in the area, and all Produce comes from their farm about five miles away.
Of course a visit to this part of the world would not be complete without a visit to Hearst Castle, now a State Park with an impressive visitor center. If you don’t mind being herded like cattle on the tour and standing in the hot sun while the well trained tour guide blurbs out facts at 225 words a minute about William Randolph Hearst, then this is a must visit. Most of the tours cost $25 each and last about forty minutes.
When the tour is over you are free to stay and roam the gardens as long as you like. A must see is the indoor Roman pool with its amazing marble and tiles, but the outside swimming pool is currently not being used, which puts a bit of a damper on everything especially for first time visitors. Apart from the Roman pool maybe the Grand Dining Room is worth checking out, and the bus ride up to the castle along the winding road is pretty interesting by itself where you can see all the ‘over the top’ extravagances of the newspaper publisher.
Before you go on the various tours you can see a 40 minute movie about the life of the enigmatic Hearst, but I you really want to know the facts purchase a copy of “The Chief” in the well stocked gift shop. The restaurant does sell hamburgers and many other food items, but if you were hoping for a ‘Hearst Ranch Grass Fed Burger,’ you are out of luck. Because of the drought, production has been seriously affected, although there is a stand on site selling frozen product at $4.99 a pound.