SHELL BEACH, CALIF. — As a busy summer raced to an all-too-sudden close, my family and I eagerly headed up the coast for a quick and relaxing getaway to San Luis Obispo Bay, about an hour north of Santa Barbara. Our no-frills plan: three days of Central Coast grazing, gazing and beachcombing. Yes to sea kayaking and sleeping in. No to anyplace where shorts and sandals weren't welcome.
We've spent some time in San Luis Obispo on other California road trips, but the laid-back college town midway between L.A. and San Francisco mostly has been an inviting green blur (and sudden flash of pink at the landmark Madonna Inn) as we zipped by on U.S. 101. This trip, however, I wanted to linger in the beach towns we had previously driven past.
That's how we ended up in Shell Beach, a bluff-top village tucked between the gritty ticky-tack of the Pismo Beach Pier scene to the south and the revitalized town of Avila Beach just up the coast.
My husband, two children and I checked into the Cliffs Resort, about 10 miles from downtown San Luis Obispo. It renovated all 160 guest rooms this year with modern, sand-colored furnishings and floor-to-ceiling plantation shutters. Many of the rooms are less than $200 a night.
The Cliffs turned out to be an ideal choice for a soothing and unpretentious escape. We quickly discovered the charms of Shell Beach: It's convenient to everything in the SLO area but not in the middle of anything, except an incredible natural setting. As its name suggests, the hotel sits atop a cliff and overlooks a pristine sweep of beach below.
It's more a comfortable, airy beach hotel, exuding Central Coast friendliness, than a full-blown resort. During our stay, the Cliffs played host to families, business travelers and people traveling with dogs.
We arrived early on a cool and breezy Tuesday afternoon, just as the coast's foggy morning blanket lifted and the sunshine slowly peeked across the hotel's oceanfront swimming pool. My 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son made a beeline for the well-heated pool. My husband and I, meanwhile, staked out lounge chairs after the long ride, lapping up the stunning view and proximity to the pool area's fire pit. It's an idyllic spot, and I could have happily spent the entire trip right there, curled up with my book, the sound of crashing breakers and the call of seabirds drifting up the cliff side.
What I liked best about the Cliffs, though, was discovering the path at the edge of the property that meandered down to a secluded cove. On the beach we probably saw more pelicans than people. A pair of parasailors in bright rainbow-hued rigs drifted overhead all afternoon. My son and I explored the cove's rocky peninsula, where dozens of tide pools brimmed with anemones, hermit crabs and pinkie-sized fish darting between crevices and natural aquariums carved into the rocky outcroppings.
When we started to get hungry, we cruised three miles south along California Highway 1 to the Pismo Beach Pier. Touristy beach shops and tattoo parlors dominated the terrain, so it wasn't quite the family destination I had hoped. But it also had some of the best waves we saw during our trip and a wide sandy beach. The surfers were out in force working the swell just before sunset, and it was fun to watch them from the pier.
For dinner, we went to the Splash Cafe, a rambunctious, colorful and modestly priced fish shack known for its clam chowder. When we arrived, the line was spilling out the door. Fortunately, it moved quickly and the creamy clam chowder ($4.50 a bowl) lived up to its billing, even passing muster with my fussy, chowder-loving son. I also liked the calamari ($5.75), which was fresh and served with curly fries.
The next couple of days we did more beach hopping. We explored Avila Beach, a seaside town that was forced to bulldoze its quaint downtown in the late '90s after one of California's worst coastal oil leaks. The funky '60s-era Avila Beach Inn remains overlooking the shore, though much of downtown has been rebuilt with new sherbet-colored shops, cafes and hotels near the beach.
"How come everything is so cute here?" my daughter Gaby wondered as we browsed Front Street, which feels a little bit like Downtown Disney. Two choice stops: the Hula Hut for rich ice cream and Joe Momma's for java.
In nearby See Canyon, we stopped by the Kelsey winery, a likable family farm with a tasting room attached to the barn and a flock of outspoken peacocks roaming the front vineyard, patrolling the gate and staring dolefully at visitors from the farmhouse roof.
Kayaking on the bay
The most fun outing during the trip was our kayak expedition in Morro Bay. We rented kayaks on the Embarcadero at Rock Kayak, an excellent outfitter recommended by a friend, and set out paddling toward the towering bulk of Morro Rock in the distance, the town's dominant and almost always visible landmark.