When Alfred Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay for filming his famous movie "the Birds," somebody should have told him he could save money on special effects by filming in a little town called Morro Bay, California – home to more seagulls than just about anyplace we can remember.
Apparently the word's out amongst the seagull population: Visit Morro Bay and you'll not only be well fed by curious and somewhat startled tourists, but you can also retire to the local bird sanctuary. In fact, it's a crime to harm a bird once they make it to the sanctuary, so a seagull's golden years are not likely to be cut short by any pesky kids with bb guns.
Morro Bay is the quintessential seaside village, steeped in charm with unsurpassed views of the sometimes angry Pacific Ocean. People travel to Morro Bay, on California's Central Coast, to breathe that fresh salt air, drink in the gorgeous ocean views and listen to the above-mentioned birds. It's one of those places where you can hole up in a local hotel, spend lots of time walking and bird-watching and then settle in for some fresh, hot clam chowder at one of several local restaurants who specialize in seafood.
Driving into town you can't help but notice the big rock monolith that defines the town -- named not so coincidentally Morro Rock. That rock actually was named in 1542 by a Portuguese sailor, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. He called it El Moro because it resembled a Moor – people from North Africa who wore turbans. It certainly was a rock that needed naming – it rises high above the coastline and juts out into the ocean where everyone on sea or land can see it.
Today tourists are drawn to the rock and its nearby trails and beaches that give you an up-close look at some of the most powerful waves you'll ever see. It's common to see seals and other sea life in the inlet on the southeast side of the rock while a series of waves are mesmerizing as they crash upon the broad beach on the northern side of the rock. It is near the rock that you'll encounter a squadron of seagulls trained to swoop in and grab whatever you have that resembles food. Many visitors try to take refuge in their cars but the birds are so intense sometimes that you feel like you barely got the car door shut before the seagulls followed you inside.
It's all part of Morro Bay State Park, which features a lagoon and natural bay habitat. The park has opportunities for sailing, fishing, hiking, and bird watching, and there is a park museum that offers exhibits on the area's natural features and cultural history. Exhibits focus on Native American life, geology, and oceanography.
Within an easy walk of the rock are the restaurants and shops of Morro Bay, stretched along a picturesque boat harbor that allows you to combine your shopping with a truly spectacular nature walk. If fishing boats anchored in a scenic bay are your idea of a really good backdrop for hiking, this walk is for you.
Fishing, in fact, is a big part of Morro Bay's past and present. While the area once had quite a vibrant abalone industry, today the boats are more likely to be carrying halibut, sole, rockfish and albacore. Oysters also are farmed in the area.
We stayed at the Embarcardero Inn, a comfortable hotel just across the street from the water and a perfect headquarters for our brief stay. The hotel is built up a few floors with parking underneath the building giving the front rooms great views of the bay and Morro Rock. Our spacious room came with a fireplace and flat-screen television as well as table and chairs and a balcony where we could sit and enjoy the view and watch our fellow travelers exploring the nearby shops. There were all sorts of nautical paintings and decorations in the room so there was no chance we would forget where we were.
The Embarcadero Inn is also a good base of operations for visiting the many attractions of San Luis Obispo County.
Only about 30 miles away is the famous and spectacular Hearst Castle, once home to William Randolf Hearst. Today, tourists arrive at the Hearst Castle by bus - yes, even if you drive your car, you won't get to the castle unless you're riding in one of the Park Service's motor coaches that shuttle visitors up and down the winding, narrow five-mile road to the castle. With well over a million annual visitors, the castle now has a fleet of buses and a bus station to rival that of a good-size city.
Several tours are offered, so you'll need to visit more than once if you're intent on seeing the entire estate. But we found the two-hour introductory tour to be quite thorough, allowing access to many of the more spectacular parts of the castle. The tour guides here are obviously selected for their storytelling skills and ours, in particular, offered numerous anecdotes about Hearst and his many guests, and about the great time and expense that went into creating one of our country's grandest homes.
We found the city of San Luis Obispo to be an appealing destination city - a small town, really, with just 45,000 souls, but with many historical buildings downtown, and many more under renovation. The downtown area has a Norman Rockwell quality with its tree-lined streets, historic storefronts and easy-going traffic. Take Monterey Street to its downtown end and you arrive at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (circa 1772) which, today, also serves as the city's public square. It is also here that city fathers have created a tranquil walking path that follows San Luis Creek past several local eateries and bars with their outdoor decks perched along the wooded creek banks. Well worth the drive is the historic mission in San Miguel, where the 2003 Paso Robles earthquake has limited some access to the sprawling San Miguel Archangel, founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen. Located about 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo, the adobe buildings and perimeter fence make it easy to transport your thoughts back to when this mission was built to bring Christianity to the many Indians who resided in this particular part of the Central Coast region.
Drive just a few miles south from San Miguel and the Paso Robles area presents another type of getaway experience altogether - a group of 80 tasting rooms just waiting for you to stop and enjoy the fruits of these up-and-coming wineries. Paso Robles hasn't been discovered to the degree that Napa has, so prices at these California wineries are lower and the locals say the quality is just as good. In this particular region, the volcanic soil has made the local grapes especially appropriate for red wines.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Morro Bay is in San Luis Obispo County and is about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are several beach towns in the vicinity and the area is one of California's most popular beach areas.
WHAT: Morro Bay is a picturesque beach community that is heavy on charm. Its connection with the fishing industry makes it feel almost like a New England fishing village and it's especially good for visitors who like long coastal walks and bird-watching.
WHEN: Anytime of the year, although it can be chilly in the winter months. The climate is temperate so that even in summer it doesn't get too hot.>
WHY: Morro Bay's small-town charm is easily reached from San Francisco or Los Angeles, so it's a convenient destination for a weekend or vacation. The ocean vistas are spectacular and the ambience makes you feel like you are far from the Big City.
Photos, from top: Bikers enjoy trails near Morro Rock; Morro Rock stands sentry over Morro Bay; No shortage of birds in Morro Bay; part of the fishing fleet based at Morro Bay
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway