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Weekend Escape: Morro Bay

Beachfront Boogie

Last-minute beach bungalow rental makes for a laid-back, summer-stretching family fling


MORRO BAY, Calif. — When my friend recently suggested we take his three children to the beach the next weekend, I rolled my eyes.

Riiight. Like we'd be able to rent something affordable on one week's notice in the summer. In my mind, this fell into the we-shoulda-thought-of-this-sooner category.

Indeed, Santa Barbara or Malibu or San Diego might have been tough. But we charged ahead and called the Chamber of Commerce at Morro Bay, a sleepy town just north of Pismo Beach and south of Cambria. They gave us a list of a half dozen agents and homeowners.

"But we mean a place for next week, not next summer," I said, thinking I'd been misunderstood.

In fact, our only dilemma was selecting the place we wanted from pithy, enticing blurbs promptly sent in the mail. The descriptions were enough to make an inlander drool: Beachfront houses with panoramic floor-to-ceiling views of surf, sunken hot tubs overlooking the ocean and your very own boat moored at the house dock. (Such places cost between $175 and $300 a night.)

Wanting to keep this an inexpensive weekend, we chose more modest accommodations near the beach: a three-bedroom historic bungalow with a fireplace ($120 per night). The housecame with an equipped kitchen, microwave, barbecue, and a washer and dryer, we were told.

After a five-hour drive from Los Angeles, we opened the door to our bungalow on Trinidad Street with some trepidation. Had we signed on for a complete dive? Were we nuts to try anything other than a hotel? (Admittedly, when 14-year-old Sam reported that the shower didn't work, we were ready to panic. But the shower turned out to be just a little idiosyncratic.)


With a few minor adjustments, the small bungalow, with its flower-filled tiny front yard, was just right for us. The girls on our quiet lane almost instantly became fast friends with 8-year-old Katie.

The house had its own beachy charm: a chair in the living room was made from a surfboard, a sea-urchin shell-lamp sat atop the mantle, a lobster-trap coffee table, even the night lights were made from seashells. To the children's relief, it also had a television and VCR.

There was one snafu. As we dashed from room to room, we quickly realized that only two of the three bedrooms were equipped with beds. Sam and Ben, 11, quickly claimed the room with bunkbeds and cowboy-covered flannel sheets.

"Where am I supposed to sleep?" lamented Katie.

In this house, we quickly discovered, every possible problem was readily solved by our landlord-owner Jacki Marie, who lived next door. She brought over a small mattress so the office could be converted into a bedroom.

Having settled into our house, we strolled down the street to the Morro Strand State Beach. We'd been told it was a "two-block" walk to the beach, but by our tally it was far longer, though still an easy walk. We reached the beach, concluding that it was not a walk we'd allow the kids to do on their own.

The beach itself was glorious. As gulls cried overhead, spry sandpipers and black-bellied plovers dug into the wet sand. Long, dark green, bullwhip-like strands of seaweed washed ashore, tempting each of us to play Clint Eastwood with varying results. (Ben and I both managed to sting the back of our own legs.) Small waves crashed to the shell-dotted shore of the empty beach, and we felt very lucky to have a weekend house so close to such a tranquil spot.

But as we scampered about the rocks, we were suddenly transformed from aimless, happy-go-lucky vacationers to agents with a mission: tidepools, find and explore. Katie and Ben led the charge.

"Exactly what sort of creatures live in tidepools?" Katie asked, tossing her long blond braid. It sounded like an innocent enough question but it marked the beginning of a weekend-long quest.

The next morning we headed to Montanta De Oro State Park at Los Osos, a 15-minute drive from our bungalow. On the advice of locals, we disregarded the scores of tourists who'd parked at a popular spot and continued until the end of the road. There, several paths lead to bluffs overlooking the surf and tidepools teaming with sea life: rose and orange and rust-colored starfish, olive green anemones, lumpy crabs and dark green chitons (a mollusk that creeps along the undersides of rocks). Scads of hermit crabs scrambled about toting borrowed shells. Colorful snails, limpets and periwinkles clung to the wet rocks.

With each discovery, Katie squealed. Sam and Ben were more dignified, pronouncing their findings "awesome." (When we later tried the tidepools at the more accessible Leffingwell Landing in Cambria, the kids pooh-poohed them as ho-hum after Los Osos.)

As the tide began to come in, Sam attempted to warn his father, who was standing quite a bit farther out on the rocks than the rest of us. "Wave, Dad!" Sam yelled.

His father stood up and waved cheerily just as the water swept over his shoes.

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