Coastal California's Morro Bay is Treasure Trove for Families
By Karen Rubin

How to get your kids interested in the good stuff-history, nature, science, art? You make it part of an adventure, preferably, one in which your children can participate rather than be a spectator. One of the best places to do this, we discovered, is Morro Bay, in the Central Coastal region of California, a relatively undiscovered region, exactly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

During our all-too-brief visit, we were able to do some really extraordinary things-like see elephant seal pups and their parents on the beach; see how abalone is being cultivated from larvae to four-inch size (a four-year long process); watch art glass being blown and shaped by the artisans; and, at the incredible Hearst Castle, see a private collection of art and antiques spanning a thousand years, as much a view into the cultural product of humanity, as it was this one driven individual, William Randolph Hearst.

From our base at the Inn at Morro Bay, with its spectacular setting right on the bay, next door to a blue heron rookery, and within a state park, we were simply amazed at the wondrous experiences within walking distance, or a nearby drive.

The Inn at Morro Bay is literally next door to a Great Blue Heron Rookery, one of the top bird-watching venues in North America, and nestled within the 4,000-acre Morro Bay State Park. It is easy to see why the birds flock here in such numbers-the rich and diverse food supply, the vast open expanses, the clean ocean breezes. And what a view.

The Inn fronts Morro Bay, dramatically set off by the enormous Morro Rock, a volcanic formation rising 583 feet high above the Pacific, and a picturesque fishing village. From the inn's bar/lounge area and dining room, you see the estuary, a place where fresh and salt water combine, and the first step in the amazing ecological chain of life (as we soon learned at the nearby Natural History Museum), and out to a sand dune where birds and even sea otters and seals collect. On the other side of the sand dune-you can even hike there, is the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.

The setting is dramatic and captivating. On my first morning, anxious to see the blue heron at their most active time of day, I got up before the sunrise, and was dazzled by the sight of a full moon still hovering over the Bay, just beginning to brighten with the first rays of sunlight. Behind, volcanic mountain peaks and rolling hills.

What I loved best was the accessibility of everything: you could borrow a mountain bike (available at no charge to guests), or even walk into the village where there are shops, quaint restaurants and cafes, kayaking, fishing and even whale watching excursions (particularly in Jan.-March); you could walk across the road to a marvelous and beautifully scenic hilltop 18-hole municipal golf course, where greens fees are only $36 (Inn guests can also use the driving range at no charge); you can reach wonderful hiking trails up a nearby volcanic peak, or walk 10 minutes down a dirt path, flanked by Eucalyptus trees, beside the estuary to the Natural History Museum.

One of the most amazing experiences was getting out on the water in a kayak just after 7 a.m., and paddling over to the sand dune to see shore birds; had we more time, we could have paddled up to the estuary where there is an abundance of different birds. Guided kayak tours are excursions are available from the wharf in Morro Bay harbor; Kayak Horizons will even organize birdwatching kayak tours (805-772-6444).

Soon after, we were on our way to explore the fascinating sites that are so close to the Inn, which is at the gateway to Highway 1, frequently billed as the world's most scenic highway and certainly, one of the most famous. These include wineries (there are 64 in the Central Coastal Region, very accessible and welcoming); nature preserves; beaches; quaint art colonies and cowboy towns; and the extraordinary Hearst Castle at San Simeon all contributing to the uniqueness of the Central Coast. Visiting in January proved to be especially magical-with invigorating spring-like weather and none of the summertime crowds; in fact the best time for bird-watching, whale-watching and other natural history pursuits.

San Luis Obispo County is a birdwatcher's paradise. A major stop on the Pacific flyway, more than 95 migratory bird species make their winter home here. Morro Bay is one of the last estuaries of its kind between Mexico and Northern California, and one of the largest bird sanctuaries in the world. There are more than two dozen threatened and endangered species including the peregrine falcon, brown pelican and snowy plover, and more than 200 different species of birds, including the blue heron, black brant, kingfisher, egret and pelican, make their home here.

There is birding all year long, but January-February is when there is the greatest variety of migratory species. The Black Brant, a kind of goose, travels 3,000 miles from Alaska in just two days (a birder in Alaska alerts the Museum of Natural History here when they have taken off); and in mid-January, there is Morro Bay Weekend Bird Festival (which each year draws 500 birders). The bird-watching is so accessible, this is a great place for people who have never done it before, or who like to birdwatch casually. The Museum of Natural History, a short walk from the Inn, is a fantastic place to get oriented to all the bird and wildlife in the area. It has wonderful displays and next year, will have new interactive exhibits (Museum of Natural History, 805-772-2694, www.mbspmuseum.org).

The many beaches and preserves in the area are not just a haven for birds. Pismo State Beach, from November through February, has one of the largest groves of Monarch Butterflies (naturalist led walks are held Friday-Sunday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Nov. through Feb; call 805-489-1869); visitors can also ride horses or all-terrain vehicles, scout the Nipomo dunes for shorebirds and fragile vegetation, and explore the sand dunes designated for off-road vehicles. Montana de Oro State Park is another area where you can see thousands of migrating Monarch Butterflies. Meanwhile, Sandhill Cranes can be seen at their wintering grounds, January and February, in Soda Lake, Carrizo Plains.

From December through March, California grey whales, known as the "gentle giants of the seas," can be seen passing through the waters off California's central coast, as they migrate from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja, California. San Luis Obispo County offers several locations for whale watching: Avila Beach, Morro Bay and San Simeon, You can watch from the beach or take a guided 2 ½-hour tour through Virg's Landing & Whale Watching of Morro Bay (www.virges.com).

Thousands of once-threatened elephant seals have begun to colonize the rocky shoreline. The two-ton adult seals come ashore in winter with their pups, who weigh up to 70 pounds at birth. We spotted a large colony at the beach near Piedras Blancas, very near San Simeon. Docent tours are available by calling The Friends of the Elephant Seal (805-927-4274). Even within Morro Bay you can see seals and sea otters.

The Morro Bay area is very comfortable for families. There are various little pocket parks along the bay area, as well as shops and brestaurants, and on a spit of road leading to Morro Rock, there is a lovely little playground.

We so enjoyed strolling through San Luis Obispo's Farmer's Market, held every Thursday night (5-9 p.m.). The folksy event was even more special, on this night, because the Parks and Recreation Department had trucked in snow so kids could have a snow-ball fight.

Wine Tasting

Wine tasting has become the major lure in the Central Coastal area. Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles wine-producing regions are relatively young and less well known compared to Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. But this is a place where the winemakers are still apt to pour wine at tastings and host special dinners; it is thrilling to hear the winemaker talk about his vision and accomplishment and his special approach to the science and art of winemaking.

One of the most fanciful places to experience wine-tasting (and the best choice if you are coming with young children) is the Tobin James winery. Built on the site of a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop (the actual building has been redone as a guest cottage, and members of the James Gang, the winetasting club, are invited to stay for free), Tobin James has a playful approach to winetasting, and has created a saloon motif, complete with 110-year old bar that is reputed to be the same one, from a hotel in Blue Eye, Missouri, where Jesse James used to drink. As you walk in, the Country Western music is playing and you are invited to belly up to the bar. Tobin James himself, walks us through his winery, where his renowned Zinfandel are maturing in barrels. When you ask what he is best known for, he jokes, "Whatever I have the most of," but it is the Late Harvest Zinfandel-"liquid luhvv" that everyone goes crazy for. When asked, "What do we serve this wine with?" his response is "a fireplace and a love rug." (Tobin James Cellars, Paso Robles, 805-239-2204).

It was night when we came into Templeton. We were surprised to find this an old Western town-there was an old railroad loading station, a feed and grain mill-especially at night, it could easily be 1890s. A perfect restaurant to go along with the Western atmosphere is A.J. Spurs, a delightful saloon-style restaurant, where the Country Western music is live. It proved to be extremely popular with locals, and suits people of any age, but would be a particularly good choice for families. Selections are Texas-sized and the heaping portions of accompaniments are served family style, starting off with an incredible vegetable soup, bowls of tequila beans and salsa (you're supposed to mix them all together); salad, rice pilaf, A.J. spuds (unbelievably good), French garlic bread and, for dessert, root bear float (adults can choose an after-dinner drink instead). The kids are enticed: "all clean plates earn ya a trip to A.J.'s treasure chest." We were a little disappointed when we tried to deviate from the specialties of the house, but this is definitely the place to come for beef.

Touring an Abalone Farm

The Central Coastal Region of California is the pinnacle of man triumphing over nature to create gastronomic perfection. Much as vintners have turned nature into an art of cultivation to make wine, entrepreneurs are cultivating abalone, harvested from the ocean to near extinction, in order to supply gourmands around the world.

The state of California banned abalone harvesting from the ocean, which lead to a group of entrepreneurs creating special farms to cultivate the seafood.

Our visit to Abalone Farm, Inc., in Cayucos, one of the largest such farms, was absolutely fascinating. Brad Buckley, who escorted us around, told us how abalone are an indicating species-they are very sensitive to changes in environment; water quality testing labs buy abalone to test water samples.

We were able to peer into buckets where long strands of larvae were growing, having been spawned under lab conditions. Of the 16 million larvae, only about 7.5 percent make it to the next stage; they start to form shells even by the second day, but it takes a week before they can be seen with the naked eye; in the first week, they can swim, but they soon lose that ability. Spanning a football field sized area along the coast, with ocean water pumped to the various holding areas, we were able to see the abalone-about four million of them--in their various stages of development; it takes 7-8 months to grow to the size of a fingernail, and a full 4 ½ years to grow to 3-4 inches, at which point they can be harvested. Tours of the Abalone Farm are offered during the summer months, but you would need to call in advance or have the Inn at Morro Bay arrange a visit (805-995-2495, 877-367-2271, www.abalonefarm.com).

That night in the dining room of the Inn at Morro Bay, we had some of the freshly prepared abalone steak, created by Chef John Ernst.

Hearst Castle

Another major attraction in the Central Coastal area is Hearst Castle, in San Simeon. This is a truly unique estate, as much for the incredible architecture as the museum-quality antiques and art that cram every inch, inside and out, and image that emerges of the man, William Randolph Hearst, the prominent newspaper publisher, for whom building the mansion became an obsession.

The visit to Hearst Castle, a California State Historical Monument, begins in the new Visitor Center, where you can view a National Geographic Society IMAX film about William Randolph Hearst and the building of the mansion, "Hearst Castle--Building the Dream," which includes vintage photos and film (other Imax films are also presented in the center, such as "Everest).

Then you board a bus for one of four different tours that are offered. The state has kept the estate looking like a private residence, and the tours take you back into time. You listen to flapper music of the 1920s as you ride up the winding road to the mansion and guest homes, 1,600-ft. up on the mountain, and get a sense of just how enormous the estate was and what a extraordinary feat it was to build it. Indeed, what you see is just a small piece of the original 90,000 acre ranch (150 acres were given by the Hearst family to the state).

William Randolph Hearst started off wealthy, from his father, George Hearst, a laborer and miner who became the richest man in the U.S. and later Senator. When he was 10, he spent 18 months traveling in Europe with his mother, and acquired a passion for European art, Mediterranean architecture, and fine craftsmanship.

He made his own fortune and success as a publisher of newspapers and magazines, and in 1919, at the age of 56, decided to build a mountaintop retreat. Originally, it was supposed to be fairly modest, two-story, 18 rooms, but, over the course of the next 28 years, with Julia Morgan as architect, he built and rebuilt the main house to be four-stories, 115 rooms, 72,000 sq. ft., with a full basement, a wine cellar (holding 10,000 bottles; 4,000 still remain, some from the 1850s), a three-lane bowling alley.

He began collecting art and antiquities. At one point, purchased one-fourth of all art sold in the world, spending $50,000 a day on art and antiques. By 1938, he was $126 million in debt and had to borrow $1 million from his long-time companion, actress Marion Davies.

The artwork everywhere you look is breathtaking: the 104-foot long Roman pool, an outdoor pool heated year-round to 80 degrees, made from pieces of roman buildings 1800 to 2200 years old, pieced together; 400-year old Spanish convent gates at the entrance; the wood ceiling in the biggest reception room, called "Assembly Room" because it was where Hearst's guests would gather before dinner, is from a 16th century Italian palace; the fireplace, 400 years old, was originally purchased by Stanford White from the Chateau du Jour; there is a 3rd century A.D. Roman mosaic floor at the front entrance; a statue of Venus at the Bath by Antonio Canova, created for Lucien Bonaparte (the most valuable piece of artwork at San Simeon); Flemish tapestries 500 years old (one was owned by Louis XIV and hung in Versailles; the Louvre in Paris only has a copy. As you walk through another room, there is a 15th century Spanish ceiling, Flemish tapestries that may have been part of the wedding trousseau of Catherine de Medici; a Limoges jewel box from 1652; Milfleurs tapestry, perhaps the oldest complete tapestry in the U.S. The docent who escorts us around is amazing for his knowledge. After seeing a brief film in the theater (as Hearst's guests would have done, but this film is of the "Golden Days of San Simeon," a kind of home movie about the people who visited there), you are taken into the breathtaking Neptune Pool, an indoor pool lined with blue Venetian glass and gold tiles.

There are four different tours: Tour 1 is the best for first time visitors, and includes the Casa del Sol, an 18-room guesthouse; Esplanade and Gardens; and five ground-floor rooms of Casa Grande, the main house. Tour 4 is Available April through October, and features the Hidden Terrace, Neptune Pool dressing rooms, gardens and grounds, Casa del Mar guesthouse (where Hearst resided during his final years on the estate) and the Wine Cellar. Special Evening Tour and Living History Program, available spring and fall, takes over 2 hours and is lead by docents in period dress (call 800-444-4445 for tour dates and tour reservations, which are recommended especially in summer; tours are $14/adult, $8/child 6-12; evening tours are $25/adult, $13/youth; tour and movie combo is $20/adult, $12/youth).

A perfect place to sit and savor what we had seen at Hearst Castle was Robin's, a restaurant in the quaint town of Cambria, filled with lovely boutiques and antique shops. The charming bistro, amazingly modest in price, features an eclectic menu, organic and natural but rich in flavor and texture, with cuisine styles gathered from the Mediterranean, Mexico, Asia, light yet filling. The salmon bisque was scrumptious, and the desserts dispel any notion that this is that '60s-style "health food" (805-927-5007, www.robinsrestaurant.com).

Just next door to Cambria is the unique town of Harmony, population 18, which was actually purchased, lock-stock-and-barrel by a guy for $430,000. Harmony is actually an artists' colony, and at Phoenix Studios Art Glass, we watched as Carl Radke spun glass in the kiln and crafted into a delicate work of art. Even this tiny place has its own winery and wine-tasting: Hug Cellars produces just 300 to 400 cases a year.

It was amazing but in just three days, we had seen an incredible array of Central Coastal California attractions. It was largely due to the superb planning of Jill Tweedie, who runs Breakaway Tours & Event Planning. She can design any type of tour-for corporate groups, spouse programs, families and reunion groups-and her wonderful sense of humor makes it all that much more pleasant (just don't ask her how many antique shops there are in Morro Bay). Breakaway Tours, 805-783-2929, www.breakaway-tours.com.

The Inn at Morro Bay

The Inn at Morro Bay proved a treasure. It was secluded, intimate and sophisticated enough to be the best romantic retreat for honeymooners (there is even a private honeymoon cottage right on the bay), or provide welcome retreat for a couple, yet active and interesting enough to appeal to yuppies and families traveling with their children. The quality and friendliness of the service was that perfect blend of polished and warm. There are nice, pampering touches everywhere-even the toilet tissue is folded with a scalloped edge and the shutters on the French doors to the patio, are open in a pattern.

Comprised of a main lodge and five Cape Code-style buildings, it offers 98 guest rooms. Recently renovated with tasteful, soothing coral and beige tones and plush furnishings of the California look, the rooms have super plush beds, giant pillows, a thermostatically-controlled gas fireplace, porches with your own hot tub, always at the ready, TVs and CD players. Plush terry robes are neatly folded on the bed; a coffee maker and coffee available (though each morning, complimentary Torrefazione coffee is served in the lobby); a refrigerator adds to the convenience. More than half the guest rooms have views of the Bay and Morro Rock; three rooms are oversized family rooms.

The Inn affords just enough activities at the Inn: a heated pool (open 9 a.m. to sunset), mountain bikes available at no charge for guest use, a selection of board games to play by the fireplace in the Conservatory bar/lounge area. You can even borrow binoculars for birdwatching at the Front Desk; guests can also get a voucher for the use of the golf driving range at the municipal course just across the road.

A special feature of the Inn is the Therapeutic Massage Center, where you can get a "Swedish" massage; deep tissue therapies; sports massage; seated massage; foot massage or couples session (rates from $20 for 15 minutes, up to $85 for 90 minutes; guests obtain a discount).

Dining at the Inn proved extraordinary. Executive Chef John Ernst, lured from the Arizona Biltmore for the lifestyle, prepared the most sumptuous feasts: an appetizer sampler of fried shrimp spring roll, roasted garlic and Brie in puff pastry; house smoked salmon; seared Ahi tuna; and sauteed Fois Gras with poached pears which was indescribably delectable, paired with 1997 Seven Peaks Reserve Chardonnay, Edna Valley; the entrée of Roast Prime Tenderloin of Beef was so tender, you could cut it with a fork, Main Lobster with Yukon Gold Potato Gratin and Tarragon, paired with 1997 Seven Peaks Shiraz, Edna Valley; and dessert of chocolate pecan terraine with crème Anglaise, paired with 1997 Seven Peaks Merlot, Edna Valley.

Breakfast was equally imaginative and luscious: like a Belgian waffle served with macadamia nuts ($7.50); sweet brioche French toast, layered with apple-cinnamon compote ($7.50); wild mushroom, bacon and egg casserole ($8.50; smoked salmon and Swiss omelette with hearts of Palm, spinach, tomato and asparagus ($8)and a cheese omelette prepared to perfection.

Lunch selections included charred rare Ahi tuna medallions with Soba noodle, snow pea and shittake mushroom salad ($11); seared Pacific Salmon salad ($11), and grilled eggplant and Foccacia sandwich with goat cheese, roasted peppers and pesto mayonnaise ($8).

The luxurious styling of the Inn at Morro Bay is largely due to the management of the Coastal Hotel Group, which also operates the Marina Dunes Resort in Marina, Sea Venture Resort in Pismo Beach, the Inn at Lunga Beach, the Harvest Inn in St. Helena, the Inn at Oyster Point in South San Francisco, and the Sea Ranch Lodge in Sonoma County, in California. It operates boutique properties in other states as well: Salish Lodge and Spa in Snoqualmie, Wash., The Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove, Fla., The Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Westward Look in Tuscon, Arizona, and The Marshall House in Savannah, Georgia (for information, check www.coastalhotel.com).

Rates at the Inn at Morro Bay range from $79 to $279 a night, with specialty rooms from $199 to $500; packages include a Morro Bay Getaway, with Bayview or Spa room, chilled champagne on arrival and continental breakfast for two, for $99 to $159; and a Golf Morro Bay package which includes a round of golf for two, at $129 to $189 (weekdays). The Inn at Morro Bay is at Sixty State Park Road, Morro Bay, Calif., 93442, 800-321-9566, www.innatmorrobay.com.

To get to Central Coastal California, you can fly into San Luis Obispo Airport, or drive from San Francisco or Los Angeles. It is recommended to get a car rental (The Inn at Morro Bay can arrange it, and makes a superb base to explore the area; rates range from $79 to $279 a night, with specialty rooms from $199 to $500. Check out the "Adventure Package" which includes bottle of champagne, two-hour kayak/canoe trip, disposable camera and admission to Natural History Museum; or the "Massage Rejuvenation Package," which includes two one-hour massages, spa scents, bottled water and admission to the Natural History Museum. The Inn at Morro Bay is at Sixty State Park Road, Morro Bay, Calif., 93442, 800-321-9566, www.innatmorrobay.com.

For further information, contact San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference bureau, 1037 Mill St., San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401, 805-541-8000, 800-634-1414, www.SanLuisObispoCounty.com.

This story was previously published on FTN in 2000.

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