California: Hooked on Morro Bay

A swimming sea otter in the Back Bay Estuary, Morro Bay California. Max Hartshorne photos.
A swimming sea otter in the Back Bay Estuary, Morro Bay California. Max Hartshorne photos.



Morro Bay California: Home of the Rock

This seaside village with a busy waterfront is the perfect getaway

By Max Hartshorne

GoNOMAD Editor

It’s hard to look anywhere in the town of Morro Bay, California without catching a glimpse of two symbols of this fishing community. One is the huge Morro Rock, that was and is held sacred by the local indians, and from which giant hunks were once torn out to use in local building projects before people thought twice about things like that.

The second symbol of this fun town about 230 miles south of San Francisco are the three 450-foot high smokestacks, part of a now-closed power plant located right in the middle of the town.

Like many visitors I’m sure had done before us, we asked people here what they thought about the stacks, and we found that for the most part, the tall spires have become an indelible part of Morro Bay. There is even a wine bar called STAX, where we enjoyed meeting some friendly locals over glasses of wine. Yeah, those three stacks, which you gaze upon as you sit at the bar and look out the window, are what the bar is named for.

Stax Wine Bar on the Embarcadero, Morro Bay.
Stax Wine Bar on the Embarcadero, Morro Bay.

If you visit Morro Bay, be sure to stop in and have a glass or two at this friendly wine bar on the Embarcadero where they serve 100 wines from the Central coast. Another recommended wine bar is Bella Vino’s Wine Bar at 783 Market Ave.

Some locals would love to see the stacks and the giant power plant torn down, but others have hopes of some future plans that would utilize the high tension wires that are connected to the plant and generate power in a more modern way than burning oil or coal. One project that has been floated in recent years is harnessing the power of the tides using a series of gigantic floating machines to generate power. At this point, it’s a longshot.

What’s Going On?

To get a good sense of what’s happening in this tourist-heavy but authentic fishing village, we met Mark Tognazzini, who has his own little empire on the docks of Morro Bay after growing up in town. He owns everything he needs to be a success in the fishing business—a fishing vessel, three seafood restaurants opened in 2004, and a busy seafood market, all right in front of the famous stacks. We arrived at the Dockside restaurant at lunch, and checked out the specials, listed on a whiteboard. Mark explained the differences between some of his restaurant’s stalwart fish offerings like Sea Bass, Petrale Sole and Rockfish.

Mark Tognazzini of Dockside Restaurant with an employee.
Mark Tognazzini of Dockside Restaurant with an employee

.You see, Mark is a fisherman himself, his boat the BonnieMarie is docked just yards away from where we sat. It’s pretty neat to be able to ask the fisherman about preparing and serving fresh fish, and we learned that contrary to popular belief, most fish tastes better if you eat it 1-2 days after its caught.

“Rockfish has a 12-14 day refrigerator life,” said Mark. “If it’s iced down properly on board the fishing boat and stored properly, it lasts much longer than people think.”

Dungeness Crabs

Behind the restaurant on the fish docks, men were unloading another big haul of rockfish and Dungeness crabs, which Mark said are sweeter and better than other Pacific crabs. These are what he serves in the restaurants.

We asked Mark what people were talking about in town, and he said that tourism has become the number one business here, and in the town of about 10,000, this is the most thriving business. There is a lot of worry about the draught affecting other parts of California, and much talk about the different ideas for the closed power plant.

There used to be fish processing plants and more employees in the fishing business, Mark said, but today it’s hook and line, in smaller quantities than the factory fishing farms that once threatened California’s shoreline.

“We’ve always been sustainable,” Mark said. “Fishermen in the United States are more regulated than in any other country. We are the stewards of our local waters and we ensure that catch limits are obeyed and that the fishery stays healthy.”

Morro Rock
The famous Morro Rock, that was once blasted to get building materials for local projects.

Who Visits Morro Bay?

Kayaking with John Flaherty in the bay along with the sea otters, seals and seabirds.
Kayaking with John Flaherty in the bay along with the sea otters, seals and seabirds

Visitors to Morro Bay are from all over the world, but on the weekends, local Californians who live in hotter climates inland flock to the seabreezes and comfortable temperatures found in Morro Bay.

While June and July can bring the famous ‘June gloom,’ mostly cloudy days, it usually clears up to bring some sunshine later in the day. On our February visit, we saw many tourists and most of the restaurants were full of families and couples, walking along the designated shoreline access path right on the waterfront, checking out the sea lions in the water and touring the art galleries and shops that line the main drag.

Every Thursday night there is a farmer’s market in town, and with the proximity of the vegetable-growing center, the Salinas Valley, you can be sure to find a very wide selection of fruits and fresh veggies.

Kayaking the Bay

In the Morro Bay Marina, across from the Morro Bay State Park Campground, you can join John Flaherty, the owner of Central Coast Outdoors, who will take you on a guided kayak tour.

This was surely the highlight of our Morro Bay visit. We paddled the sleek easy to use kayaks out toward a line of pelicans and egrets and other shore birds and took in the wonder of this natural estuary. The back bay has a nearly deserted beach, right next to an 800-acre wetland that’s home to more than 250 different species of land, sea and shore birds.

Bayside Cafe right next to where the kayaks can be rented.
Bayside Cafe right next to where the kayaks can be rented.
fish fish fish
Fish, fish and more fish at Dockside.

We paddled out and heard the melodies of Bob Marley and the Wailers coming from a small barge with several men aboard. This is one of the two oyster companies who raise oysters in beds in the bay, the music was an attempt to keep birds away from the tasty oysters.

A Sea Otter Up Close

As we paddled nearer, we got a good close up look at a sea otter, on his back paddling along not far from us. Right after this siting, a pair of harbor seals queued up for their close-ups too.

We walked up and down the deserted beach that’s still connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. What a beautiful place for a paddle!

And just steps away from the dock where we stowed the kayaks is the Bayside Cafe, a popular spot for locals and visitors where the portions are huge and the views of the bay are fantastic. A big salad and some clam chowder were just about the perfect way to cap off our day’s adventure on the water.

Where to Stay

Morro Bay is home to many B&Bs and has a wedding venue, the historic Inn at Morro Bay. We chose a wonderful family-owned boutique hotel, the eight-room Anderson Inn, right smack on the water. It’s so close to the sea that the friendly innkeepers have earplugs for guests when the sea lions start making a racket out on the harbor! I can’t remember a family-run hotel that pays such careful attention to their guests, it was refreshing to know that a family member was on call all night, for anything we needed. They also offer parking for guests right on the Embarcadero.

Dorns Original Breaker's Cafe, on the hill above the bay.
Dorns Original Breaker’s Cafe, on the hill above the bay.

Dining in the Village

For seafood, you’re pretty well covered at Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurants, they have Dorns Original Breaker’s Cafe, on the hill above the bay.two restaurants and their fish market has another outdoor eatery as well.  We enjoyed  a cozy dinner up on the bluff above the Embarcadero at Dorn’s Original Breakers Cafe. This local institution has been serving seafood and California specialties since 1942.  Another great spot for seafood is the Dutchman’s Seafood House, right smack on the water where the seafood comes in from their own dock and the clam chowder is terrific.

Mating season at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.
Mating season at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.

Morro Bay is a very dog-friendly village, and you’ll find dozens of pet-friendly accommodations, vacation rentals, and restaurants where you can dine on the patio (like Dorn’s) and bring your small dog along.

Hearst Castle in San Simeon
Hearst Castle in San Simeon

Other Nearby Attractions

Morro Bay is a great home base from which to venture out and see many other interesting and fun attractions, especially those on the coastal historic Route 1.

Heading north, you’ll pass through San Simeon, where William Randolf Hearst built is famous castle.
A wide range of pricey tours can take hours for those who are especially interested in the peculiar history of the newspaper baron.

A stop in the gift shop and visitors center was fascinating to us and free.  Nearby, on the other side of Rte 1 is the Piedras Blancas Elephant seal Rookery, where when we visited in February it was mating season.  Seeing the gigantic males climb atop the smaller females attracts big crowds, and it’s fun to hear all their noises.

Continuing on this most beautiful of highways soon leads to you to Big Sur, and around every corner you’ll want to stop for breathtaking shots of the bridges, the crashing waves. AS you wind around the roads of Big Sur, heading for San Francisco, a nice place to stop is the River Inn, where you can have lunch or dinner next to a pretty rushing river.

Heading south out of Morro Bay in Los Osos, you’ll find the Montana de Oro State Park, where you can hike out on a sand spit and enjoy over 8000 acres of rugged cliffs, sandy secluded beaches and mountain biking rails.

Find out more about Morro Bay at their website, Morro Bay.org.  For more information about Route 1 attractions, visit Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.