Morro Bay is a charming little beach town along California’s fabled Highway 1, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. The picturesque village features an embarcadero with shops, little cafes and restaurants. You can enjoy the ocean breeze while you casually sip coffee or dine on a meal as you gaze out over the wind-sculpted sand dunes.
The town is named after Morro Rock, a 581-foot monolith that serves as the centerpiece of Morro Bay. The spectacular rock is the last link in a chain of mounds known as “The Seven Sisters,” or “Nine Morros” depending on how many of the peaks are included in the count. The volcanic plugs are sprinkled in a line starting at San Luis Obispo, about 20 miles southeast. The dome-shaped rock served as an important landmark for mariners of days past.
Morro Bay is a major stop for migratory birds and serves as winter home for more than a hundred species. During cold winters up north, there may be up to 75,000 birds on the bay on any given day. Morro Rock is home to two pairs of nesting peregrine falcons that have found a safe home and an abundant food supply.
There is no telling what you’ll find harbored at the pier. During our visit the Lady Washington, a replica of a ship that sailed in the Revolutionary War era, pulled into the harbor for a week of tours and cruises for those who wondered about the life at sea in the 1700s. This ship was featured in the 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. In past visits to Morro Bay, we have seen replicas of the ships Columbus sailed to the New World.
One of the many shops along the wharf is devoted to kites and other wind-powered whirligigs, and the flat, wide, expansive beaches nearby provide a great venue for launching your kite and watching it ride the sea breezes across the blue sky. Be sure to take advantage of this great opportunity if you have a few hours to enjoy the view. A bottle of wine from one of the hundreds of nearby vintners is an added multiplier for a relaxing day.
Bordering the town’s south side is the 2,700-acre Morro Bay State Park, which includes an ecological reserve, heron rookery, golf course, marina, 135 RV campsites and a museum of natural history. For a $3 entry fee you can operate 26 interactive exhibits that tell how natural forces shape the earth’s environments and impact all of life. The museum overlooks the bay and estuary, providing a great vantage point to observe wildlife, especially large birds such as the white heron and countless pelicans.
For those who enjoy a leisurely stroll, there is a paved path that hugs the coastline. It takes you from Morro Rock, past the embarcadero, through a nice little waterfront park and ends at a harbor where you can watch local fishermen bring in their catch.
If you like seafood, you can’t find any fresher fish than that offered in the many restaurants and casual take-out windows along the embarcadero. Seafood lovers can sample the day’s catch at Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. This family-operated market is known for sashimi grade fish such as salmon and ahi tuna as well as the biggest and best fish and chips around. You can enjoy fish tacos, a fish sandwich or steaming hot clam chowder served in a bread bowl on the outdoor patio that overlooks Morro Rock.
While there are several restaurants on the embarcadero, many tourists and natives alike will venture up the coast a short drive to Cambria and enjoy a longtime favorite seafood restaurant, the Sea Chest. This cozy oyster bar and restaurant is reminiscent of a quaint New England seaside cottage and serves fresh seafood from local waters. A lively dining room provides a view of the ocean. Be sure to try the local halibut, which has a fluffy and flakier texture than Alaskan halibut.
Another popular restaurant in nearby San Luis Obispo is the Big Sky Café, which features fresh market cuisine. This unpretentious restaurant has been charming food critics since 1994 and specializes in unique combinations of foods and spices from local farms. Dishes include braised lamb shank Buenos Aires, Thai marinated fresh catfish with vegetable stir fry and crispy sushi rice balls, and Indian stuffed eggplant with chickpea fritters and mint yogurt. You can also find fresh fish, steaks, and lobster macaroni and cheese on this unique menu.
After the meal, take a stroll around the block and quaff a few handcrafted beers made by San Luis Obispo Brew. This pub was named “Brew Pub of the Year” at the Great American Beer Festival a few years back.
While at Morro Bay, don’t pass up a great opportunity to visit newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon, 20 miles up the coast. Construction of the castle began in 1919 and continued through 1947. The result is a 165-room estate with 172 acres of gardens, terraces, and pools—one of the most ambitious architectural endeavors in American history.
Heavily influenced by his travels to Europe, Hearst transformed a vast, central California pasture overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a palatial estate. Charlie Chaplain, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill were a few of the many famous celebrities to stay at the Hearst mansion.
Just up from Hearst Castle is Piedras Blanca, an immense elephant seal rookery. Some of the adult males weigh up to two tons and measure ten feet in length. These huge seals will cover the beach during breeding season from December to February. More than 4,000 pups were born here last year.
If you are coming to the coast from California’s interior, be sure to visit the highly scenic region around Paso Robles. The rolling hills are home to some of the world’s finest vineyards and wineries. Spanish missionaries started growing grapes in this region as far back as 1790. The unusual microclimate, with summer days getting up to 100 degrees before dropping down to the 50s at night, results in outstanding, robust red wines.
So whether you are looking for wide-open beaches, lots of aquatic wildlife, a rich and famous castle, or a sampling of some of the Pacific’s freshest seafood and a glass of central California’s best wines, Morro Bay is an ideal place to visit.
Before retiring in 2006, Doug Imberi operated the public affairs office at a military distribution center in Tracy, California. He lives in Salida, California, when not traveling in his fifth wheel with his wife and two mini dachshunds.