Photography by Yuri Krasov
When exceedingly nice people in the town of Morro Bay ask a Russian-speaking journalist if she came here all the way from Siberia, it would be rude to answer with a question under what rock you’ve been hiding? First of all, you are supposed to Discover Your Better Nature here (a marketing slogan for the thriving tourist industry). Secondly, the answer stares you in the face. Morro Rock, a 23 million-year-old 576 feet high volcanic plug, one of nine similarly rounded peaks stretching inland toward San Luis Obispo, is a defining and striking landmark of the California Central Coast, and is located smack in the middle of a picturesque harbor.
Pelicans, gulls, and cormorants conduct their fishing business by the foot of the Rock, while endangered peregrine falcons nest at the top, darting after their prey at 60 mph. A lively estuary and a bird sanctuary, Morro Bay enjoys temperate climate, abundant wildlife, and a number of coastal recreational activities that attract visitors from near and far year round. Stop at the Visitor Center right by the water on 845 Embarcadero to get some necessary information, helpful tips, and colorful brochures about local adventures, lodging and dining options, surfing, golf, or hiking around the Rock. In this coastal town with wide tree-lined streets, ample parking, and cute downtown shops stretched along the waterfront, everything is close by, within reach, or mere steps away… from the Rock.
An excursion to Morro Bay Wine Seller (morrobaywineseller.com) sets the mood for further exploring. Sommelier-proprietors Chris Battles and John Nordhus carry over 300 different wines from all over the world, and of course, from the nearby Central Coast wineries. A tasting bar overlooks the Rock through a bay window, and wine tasting is open to the public during business hours, which includes those liquid-gold sunset moments of pure beauty.
A restaurant whose name reflects its distinct feature, Windows on the Water (windowsonthewater.net) owned by Stanley Trapp, is one of a few fine dining options in town. Dungeness ginger crab cake with wasabi aioli, or seared ahi, served with warm green tea soba noodles and mango-daikon slaw are good examples of creative seafood preparations, while old favorites like roasted pork loin with buttermilk mashed and grilled asparagus surely won’t disappoint. A well-selected wine list, nightly tasting flights, and after-dinner specialty cocktails round up the experience. The restaurant sits 144, and has a classy ambiance with plenty of elbow space, black linen napkins, tea lights, and attentive service.
Another dining choice, more on a casual side, Dockside Tognazzini’s is a local institution, a restaurant and a fish market, owned by Bonnie and Mark Tognazzini. The latter is a captain, who comes from a long line of fishermen (pun intended) and whose 38-foot boat, Bonnie Marietta, brings in a catch of the day (bonniemarietta.com). Jolly crowds consume giant oysters simply grilled with lemon and butter in the dog-friendly patio, or drink beer and crack jokes inside, where salmon is King and where his subordinates are local, fresh, and sustainable.
And then there are more oysters. As the classic put it, “Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, We can begin to feed.” But not before a brief harvesting trip to the Morro Bay Oyster Company’s 126 acres of briny watery fields (morrobayoysters.com). Fresh-faced young marine biologist – the company owner Neal Maloney rides his boat to the oyster beds, or rather bags made of sturdy plastic net, where no sting rays, no otters or walruses can get to the little darlings growing inside – no natural enemies besides the two-legged ones.
I weep for you, the Walrus said, I deeply sympathize.
With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size.
O Oysters, said the Carpenter, you’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again? But answer came there none.
And this was scarcely odd, because they’d eaten every one…
To observe the life of the Bay closer, Sub Sea Tours’ captain Kevin Winfield offers underwater viewing from a glass-bottom boat as well as whale watching and ocean and estuary wildlife tours (subseatours.com). If you’d rather be by the stirring wheel, so to speak, consider Pleasant Journeys (yourpleasantjourneys.com). Father and son Adkisons conduct kayak sales, rentals, and guided tours, and now feature Hobie pedal kayaks – fast, maneuverable, and reliable in the kelp and eelgrass-ridden waters of the Bay.
From the kayak, it is easier to watch up close harbor seals, sea lions, and endlessly entertaining otters that spend hours chilling it belly up by the Rock. From morning till dusk tourists are staring at the otters (especially at that perfectly calm mama with a baby) while the curious otters are staring right back at the tourists.
There are some things to see and do on dry land of Morro Bay, too. Unique gift, clothing, and garden shops line the major arteries of the town (all three of them). There are at least two secret gardens behind the front windows. One is hidden at Coalesce book store on Main Street (a great collection of new and used books, including a complete list of titles by Ayn Rand), and another in the back of Beads by the Bay jewelry shop on Morro Bay Blvd. In other stores you can find anything from “velvety” local avocados produced by Morro Creek Ranch (avocadoofthemonthclub.com) to decadent flavored fudge by Morro Bay Mud Fudge (mudfudge.com).
After all the land and sea adventures, you might decide to stay in town overnight. El Morro Masterpiece Motel on Main is clean, comfy, and decorated with framed prints of dozens of masterpieces from Michelangelo to Kandinsky (masterpiecemotels.com). The room price includes breakfast, however if you consider breakfast the most important meal of the day, you might want to take yours at The Coffee Pot Restaurant (doubleluck.org). It serves stuffed omelets and other full-size American staples and is owned and operated by a local celebrity Lu Chi Fa, a book author of “Double Luck” (memoirs of a Chinese orphan).
For a good cup of coffee and some freshly-baked pastries, come to Top Dog coffee bar (topdogcoffeebar.com). It is adjacent to Coalesce book store, and also has a little garden in the back, where you can spend a couple of preciously peaceful moments with a morning paper and a cup of espresso before a long drive home. For information on year-round events and attractions, visit morrobay.org.