California can be uber-sophisticated. Smart boutiques, fabulous restaurants and a very walkable main street make towns like Carmel elegantly approachable. But a couple of hours down the coast along the incredibly scenic Highway 1 (the distance is short but the twists and turns of the road make it a long drive), you come to two small towns. Both are dominated by the rock, a crouching giant in Morro Bay’s harbour and both seem anchored in a time long gone.
Morro Bay and Caycos remind me of beach towns decades back. I don’t mean that they are simply old fashioned. But they have a nostalgic approach to being beach towns – comfortable, relatively inexpensive and with a line in the kind of kitsch everyone took home when I was a kid.
Cayucos is home to the Brown Butter Cookie Company, a place that won our hearts with delicious shortbread style cookies in a huge variety of flavours. The generous owner Krista, offers tastes to anyone who passes. It’s smart marketing. No one can pass up the goodies after a small sample.
It’s also home to Ruddell’s Smokehouse. Smoked local albacore or salmon or shrimp in a tortilla with apples, celery, tomatoes (like a fishy Waldorf salad) is so incredibly good that the cook tells me, “People drive from San Luis Obispo, 20 miles away, for one of these tacos.”
There are shops that sell t-shirts and others that sell souvenirs. One amazing shop sells seashells by the seashore (OK, I couldn’t resist that). I remember shops selling seashells but this spot has molluscs from almost every part of the globe. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to take up seashell collecting!
What could be better than a freshly made omelette and mimosas by the water? That would be a brunch ON the water.
On a brunch cruise around Morro Bay aboard the Chablis, I ask the captain about the town he patently loves. “The water around here is colder than some other beaches so this place hasn’t developed the way some of the bigger beach cities have further north,” he says. “But it is one of the best kept secrets; it’s where Monterey was 20 years ago. It’s a piece of heaven.”
The enormous volcanic plug that is Morro Rock is what distinguishes these two towns. Visible from Cayucos as well, a walk on its beach at sunset offers lovely views. It changes constantly as the sky and sun cast shadows and light, making it the focal point for photographs.
Our hotel, the Front St. Inn, has huge windows overlooking the Embarcadero and the rock. Each night and morning, I look out to see what’s happening in the bay. On our first evening we heard some barking.
The next morning, we found the source – a whole colony of sea lions who make their home on a raft in the middle of the bay. Some come a lot closer, like the one we found basking next to a restaurant. He seem unperturbed when we sneaked closer to take a photo.
One morning, we spotted fins in the water and were delighted to see a whole pod of orca en route to open water. And when we got to the shore, a fat otter floated by on his back, contently cracking a crab and feasting on the contents.
At the end of the day, it’s the rock at sunset that draws everyone to the shore, to watch the sky change. They head out in kayaks and boats to watch the sun go down over the rock.
Morro Bay was one of many California towns we visited on our travels. From surfing in Half Moon Bay to Maltese Falcons in San Francisco, see what we found: