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Weekend Escape: Morro Bay : Bargain Bay Watch : A couple with an appetite for loafing finds a seaside town with just the right ingredients

October 30, 1994|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Wride writes for The Times' Orange County edition. and

MORRO BAY — It was about a month before our real vacation when cabin fever set in. Restless after homebound months of saving for our Europe trip, my boyfriend and I realized we needed a cheap getaway. Heavy on the cheap.

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Looking within a four-hour drive from home, we quickly agreed on Morro Bay: It's easy to do over a three-day weekend and a beautiful trip getting there. The geography and attitude are more Northern than Southern California, so we would feel even farther away.

No cellular phones at the Young's Giant Food supermarket. No beeping watches or pagers intruding on dinner at the local fish house. Had the forecast not called for storms, we would have camped at the beach.

Instead, we arrived in a late spring downpour to our modest 1960s stucco motel--the Sundown--a block from the Embarcadero and the Morro Bay Rock. The good news: The cozy bed was wired with Magic Fingers and the curtains were not vinyl. For $65 a night--$35 on Sunday--and vaulted ceilings, it was the cat's pajamas. (Winter rates: $48 and $35.)

In this naturally cute town, we were expecting beauty and affordability. But as scavengers of goofball salt and pepper shakers, we also hit pay dirt: more square footage of kitsch than a Miami Beach garage sale. On one side of the street was the turquoise Aquarium with barking sea lions and gift shop below with vintage shakers (we bought the mustard-yellow sea mussels set); on the opposite corner of the town's main drag was a shop with shell toilet seat covers and lamp fixtures. Maybe we wouldn't need to stop off at Santa Claus Lane after all. But we digress.

A lazy Saturday start from Long Beach led us to Santa Barbara by midday. We broke up the four-hour drive with sandwiches at an oceanfront cafe for locals called the Brown Pelican. Hidden off the beaten path below Hope Ranch, it was my favorite place when my dad lived a mile down the road. I hesitate mentioning it for fear of crowding the place up, but I suppose this is meant to share swell spots.

Dogs are allowed on the beach with people and you will find all breeds of both, from polo shirt guys taking meetings to surfers and college students from UC Santa Barbara a few miles to the north. Great people watching, and during peak season you can lie on the sand all day and watch wind sailers glide down off the mountains just inland. We lucked out and beat the storm, eating outdoors in breezy sunshine.

A few hours and Was Not Was tapes later, our lovely drive along Kelly green hills and stormy gray ocean delivered us to funky Morro Bay. Our motel was newly painted pink and had a white rock garden to match, but we were relieved to find the room clean and the television reception of the NBA play-off games perfect. That and a working ice machine--we're pretty easy to please.

When the sky cleared, it was about time to head up the coast a half an hour to San Simeon, where we took the evening tour of William Randolph Hearst's extraordinary hilltop estate--a combo of the other tours and, therefore, a relative bargain. But first, a quick dinner in town. No frills, no fuss style is what you get at the Whale's Tail, where diners order before they are seated. Red snapper, the chowder and salads were terrific and we were out in 30 minutes for under $20.

It's more gorgeous coastline on the drive north, and sunset at Hearst Castle is spectacular. But after-sundown is what I liked most. Suddenly this extravagant compound of art and wretched excess is lit up, and the place seems less museum, more inhabited.

A simple thing like lamps made me feel we were wandering through someone's home instead of a state parks landmark, which has been criticized for its sizable maintenance costs but which is the only site in the system, except a Huntington Beach park, that breaks even. Volunteers dressed in period outfits mingled in the salons and clinked champagne flutes privately in the sensual Roman pool--lit by alabaster floor lamps. You could almost imagine a Hollywood tryst unfolding in a hidden corner. That room! I suddenly remembered a childhood fantasy--fueled by the Madeline book adventures--of hiding away in a museum to wander after-hours among the fancy furnishings.

Back in the town of Morro Bay, things were pretty sleepy by 11:30 Saturday night. One can drink until closing in the waterfront lounge of Rose's restaurant, where the gorgeous wood bar is carved into a boat. Couples line-danced to a soft rock duo and their synthesizer and the bartender would chat if you struck up the conversation. This appeared to be the only thing still open from about 10 p.m. on.

Meals are not cheap in these parts, but they seldom are in any beach town. We stopped at the Googie-style market at the edge of town for a bag of fruit to snack on. But breakfast out can run at least $7 or $8 a person for very basic eggs and toast, and lunch and dinner is an easy $20 for two--more if you drink beer or wine.

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