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Waves of Nostalgia

North of Morro Bay, hiding out in quiet little Cayucos, which bills itself as the last great California beach town


CAYUCOS, Calif. — A sunny, scenic beach usually means one thing: crowds. But this Central Coast gem just five miles north of Morro Bay is a classic California beach town--without the sea of people.

My family visited Cayucos for a weekend in July, and we were charmed by the retro look of the place. Surf shops and restaurants are housed in 100-year-old wooden buildings, and there's nary a fast-food franchise in sight.

On our first evening in town, we made our way to the waterfront to watch the sun melt into the Pacific. Thirty or so people gathered around a beach bonfire. Offshore, pelicans divebombed into the ocean for dinner. Surfboards poked out the back of sport utility vehicles, the woodies of our time.

The beach party, the funky old buildings, the clean blue shimmer of the water and, most of all, the lack of crowds made it seem as though the clock had been turned back 40 years. As we learned later, local boosters promote Cayucos as the "Last California Beach Town." They may be right.

We originally planned to go to Cambria. With son Kevin at camp on Catalina, my wife, Alison, and I wanted to take daughters Kelly and Katie (ages 15 and 8) away for a long weekend.

Friends took their family to Cambria every summer. Or so we thought. When I called to get their motel recommendation, they said they actually stayed at a cottage in Cayucos, and they loved the place.

Cayucos? As a kid, I spent lazy Sundays along the beaches of Morro Bay, Pismo and Avila. In college, a group of us made an annual Big Sur pilgrimage. But I had never stopped in Cayucos.

That may be because, until recently, the town never promoted itself--and can't easily be seen from California 1.

We made reservations at the Beachwalker Inn, mainly because it had the best ranking in the AAA Tour Book--and because it's a block from the beach.

After a four-hour drive from L.A., we checked in and found our room to be clean and cheery, with green-and-pink patterned wallpaper and a decor that was a little bit country. The rate included coffee, juice, pastries and fruit for breakfast and a copy of the San Luis Obispo paper every morning.

Although you can walk to the beach, the main part of town is about a mile away. Other motels are closer to the action but not as highly rated in the AAA guide.

The first thing Alison wanted to do was walk out on the pier, which was built in 1875 by James Cass, the town's founder.

The name Cayucos comes from the little kayak-type boats used by the Chumash Indians who first inhabited the area. The surrounding countryside was settled by Italian, Swiss and Portuguese immigrants, many of whom used the pier to ship their dairy products and beef.

Today the pier is strictly for fishing. There are no restaurants at the end of it, no trinket peddlers cluttering the timbers, no mimes trying to guilt you out of a buck. It's just a pier--a nice place to stroll, watching the seals and pelicans.

As for the fishing, no one seemed to be catching much besides small bait fish, although the tackle shops say you can also land halibut and rock cod from time to time. A rod and reel rents for $7 a day, but we were content to watch.

After our walk, we were ready to eat. Our innkeeper mentioned several places, including the Pier near the foot of the wharf. The knot of people waiting outside for a table was recommendation enough for us.

During the half-hour wait, I followed Alison and the girls into a surf-and-souvenir shop. Here again, it seemed like a time warp: Hawaiian shirts for $19.95, loads of toys and keepsakes for $5 or less. There's no mistaking Cayucos for Newport Beach.

Dinner was worth the wait--great sauteed scallops and fresh clam chowder, and excellent service. Only the water had an unpleasant taste. Cayucos gets its water from wells, so be prepared to buy or bring the bottled stuff.

After dinner, the town seemed to have gone to bed. We got through the door of the Cayucos Candy Counter just before it closed at 9 and enjoyed picking out jelly beans, saltwater taffy and other sweets. Except for the restaurants and the Cayucos Saloon, most merchants shut their doors by 8, the proprietor told us.

One of the great things about Cayucos is its proximity to other places along the coast--notably Hearst Castle (25 miles) and Cambria (15 miles) to the north, and Morro Bay to the south. We had tickets for the upstairs tour of Hearst Castle at 8:40 Saturday morning. After grabbing coffee and pastry at the Beachwalker, we made our tour in plenty of time.

We were pleasantly surprised to find only one other family on our tour, one of the first that morning. We had gone years before and remembered the hot, crowded bus ride to the castle. My advice: Take the early tour if you can.

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