The Magic of Morro Bay

Story and photos by Barbara Beckley

Beautiful Morro Bay.

Sea otters by the dozens. Cute furry moms with babies on their tummies, dads swimming and diving, juniors playing in the kelp. I watched in delight as this sizeable sea otter colony bobbed contentedly in the waters of Morro Bay beneath landmark Morro Rock. I was standing with other onlookers, on the path that winds from the waterfront Embarcadero out to Morro Rock. The charismatic creatures were maybe 20 yards away, easily close enough for us to ooh and aah over and to photograph.

Sea otters had been scarce when I last visited Morro Bay several years ago. Now, sightings are practically guaranteed, thanks to this flourishing colony. One more addition to the natural beauty of this charming seaside hamlet. Located along Highway 1, about four hours north of Los Angeles, Morro Bay was once a remote fishing village. Visitors began arriving in the 1940s (I remember coming here in the 1950s as a child with my parents) to enjoy the scenery, outdoor adventures, and newly opened restaurants, shops, and accommodations — many of which remain open today.  

Wine bars and wine tasting rooms are new — turning up the cocktail scene a notch along the Embarcadero. A good thing. Since Morro Bay is located within the world renowned Central Coast wine region, what better pairing than fine wines and spectacular scenery.

During my weekend stay, I enjoyed tastings at the Morro Bay Wine Seller, a funky-fun establishment with nightly entertainment. The Chateau Margene tasting room, pouring award-winning Chateau Margene cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. And STAX Wine Bar, a casually sleek locals’ favorite overlooking the famous Morro Bay smoke stacks, for crisp sauvignon blancs from their selection of more than 100 Central Coast wines.

But otters and wine bars are about all that’s changed over the years. And that’s the magic of Morro Bay. Strolling along the bay front Embarcadero, I popped into The Shell Shop, family owned since 1955, with still the largest sea shell collection on the Central Coast including hard-to-find large abalone shells. The Garden Gallery continued to tempt me with its perfect plants, whimsical pottery, fountains, and home accessories. The sleek buildings from the ‘70s and earlier remain filled with boutiques and art galleries. Upstairs in the Marina Center Building, the Estuary Nature Center is free and open to the public, showcasing the Morro Bay Estuary Preserve and its wildlife.

Stepping down to the docks, funky boat shacks with weathered wood and tiki carvings house the local boating tour operators. I joined Sub Sea Tours on its daily three-hour whale watching excursion in an open-deck catamaran. This was October, so we were looking for humpback whales. “Hundreds of humpbacks make the central coast waters their home from May through November,” our captain explained. Sailing out to sea, we passed dozens of seals dozing on a buoy and the sea otter colony. Soon we spotted a humpback whale. We followed it for most of the tour, watching as it gracefully swam, dove, and kicked its fluke into the air. Unlike the gray whales, which can be viewed December through March off Morro Bay, the humpbacks appear nearly black and do have — a humped back.

I also kayaked. But not on the bay, like many visitors do. The Morro Bay Estuary Preserve, a National Estuary, is just a few blocks from the Embarcadero. I met up with Central Coast Outdoors tours at the Morro Bay State Park Marina for a morning paddle through this scenic 800-acre wetland, dubbed Morro Bay’s “back bay.” I spotted great blue herons and snowy egrets as we glided past the Heron and Cormorant Rookery (more than 250 species of land, sea, and shore birds inhabit the estuary), tons of harbor seals dozing in their “haul out” (where they gather), and the gourmet Grassy Bar Oyster Company oyster farm. The highpoint came when we beached our kayaks on sand dunes, part of the 4-mile-long sand spit that protects Morro Bay from the open ocean. Climbing the dunes, we discovered an ancient Chumash Indian shell midden and seldom-seen views of the ocean. There were miles of beach with Morro Rock in the distance.

Afterward, I enjoyed old school Coquilles St. Jacque for lunch at the Bayside Café, established in 1986 next to the state park marina. While 1986 may seem long ago, this local hangout is a newbie compared to Morro Bay’s classic favorites, which are all as wonderful as ever, serving the best fresh-from-the-sea fish and locally sourced produce and protein. My dinner at Dorn’s Original Breakers Café, which opened in 1942 overlooking the Embarcadero, was an elegant pleasure. The cuisine at The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, a waterfront icon since 1966, was as memorable and fresh as the views.

Morro Bay offers great accommodations at great rates. I stayed at the eight-suite waterfront Estero Inn, a cozy choice on the Embarcadero that is a short walk to the shops, restaurants, and waterfront tours.

For more information, visit www.morrobay.org.


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Feb 2019


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