California travel: Stop at The Rock
Even among the many breathtaking vistas offered by a super scenic drive along Highway 1 down California’s coastline, Morro Rock stands out
I wake to the sound of dogs barking. Why anyone would bring a pack of dogs to the harbour of a pretty seaside town?
At the enormous windows of our room at the Front Street Inn, dogs are forgotten as I get my first real sight of Morro Rock. An enormous volcanic plug rising majestically out of the water, its rock face is hardly marred by trees or greenery. Little vegetation can survive on this 23-million-year-old extinct volcanic cone, but peregrine falcons make their home on it. And it dominates the bustling port.
The barking intrudes on my reverie and I find its source. In the middle of the busy harbour, a large colony of sea lions basks on a floating dock, put here to keep them being a nuisance on the boat docks.
We arrived in Morro Bay, located about 200 kilometres north of Los Angeles, long after the sun had set the previous night, having meandered our way down California's Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey. This must qualify as one of the world's most scenic roads and unable to miss a single scenic outlook, it took us six hours to cover just 200 kilometres.
The state has thoughtfully provided plenty of scenic stopping points, each offering more spectacular and ever-changing vistas of rolling surf, steeply descending cliffs and even glimpses of sea life. Not one could be ignored. Near Piedras Blancas lighthouse, we delighted in a large colony of elephant seals, happily splashing in the breaking waves. As we rounded one precipitous bend of the road, a mist engulfing the distant shore left us with a sense of floating in space.
It's all spectacular, but our first sight of “the rock” from our window in Morro Bay leaves us breathless.
The town sits in a natural estuary, where fresh water and Pacific Ocean meet, so wildlife abounds. On our stroll later that morning, we spot an otter floating along on his back, noisily cracking a crab for his breakfast. On our second morning, the huge windows afford a view of a pod of orca swimming right through the harbour.
And Morro Bay is a birder's paradise − Audubon lists it as one of America's top birding spots. A heron and cormorant rookery near the Morro Bay State Park Museum, just beyond the harbour, is a busy spot in spring.
I feel comfortable walking around Morro Bay and nearby Cayucos, and it suddenly strikes me why. These two towns are anomalies among the fast-paced, rapidly developing seaside towns of California. Almost frozen in time, they remind me of the beach communities of my youth. They have a nostalgic approach to fulfilling their role as seaside villages – comfortable and relatively inexpensive. Indeed, it's apparent that while the wooden sidewalks and some of the clapboard buildings have been around for decades, others have been built to fit the vibe.
Their marinas are shared by leisure craft (everything from kayaks to yachts) and serious fishing boats, some of whom sell their catch to passers-by. Indeed, California is blessed with an ocean's bounty that provides fresh seafood daily to restaurants like Dorn's Breakers Cafe and Fish Bonez, who take pride in serving local, seasonal choices. I enjoy my first delicious taste of California abalone at Dorn's.
Cayucos is home to the Brown Butter Cookie Company, a place that won our hearts with delicious sea salt-topped shortbread style cookies in a huge variety of flavours. The generous owner, Krista, wisely offers samples to anyone who passes. No one can pass up the goodies after a taste. The town is also home to Ruddell’s Smokehouse. Smoked local albacore or salmon or shrimp in a tortilla with apples, celery, tomatoes (like eating a fishy Waldorf salad) is so incredibly good that people drive from San Luis Obispo, 30 km away, just for a taco.
But the common feature for both little towns is “the rock.” As night falls, it offers a spectacular light show as the dying rays create a colour palette one might be forgiven for rejecting as truly natural. They are.
Why have these towns remained relatively untouched? Gary Ryan, a champion banjo picker, also serves as captain of The Chablis, a boat offering brunch cruises around Morro Bay. Fresh omelettes and mimosas with Morro Rock as the backdrop are good enough reasons to take this cruise, but the deck also affords wonderful views of the rookery and a close-up of the sea lion dock.
“The water around here is colder than some other beaches so Morro Bay and Cayucos haven’t developed the way some of the bigger beach cities have further north,” Ryan explains and adds enthusiastically, “This town is one of the best-kept secrets of the California coats; it’s where Monterey was 20 years ago. It’s a piece of paradise.”