It might not have the warm water or long, rolling surf of the Southern California beaches -- or the splendid isolation of the hidden jewels of Northern California. But Cayucos, on the Central Coast, just might be the best beach town in California.

It's a subjective judgment, to be sure. And I don't even have any criteria for measurement. But if there were a platonic "form" for the California beach town, I feel certain that it would look a lot like Cayucos. And the sad truth is, there aren't many of them left. In fact, the locals in Cayucos will tell you that theirs is the last "real" beach town on the California coast. They've been reading Plato, too, it seems.

Beachcombers can walk for miles along the coast, or catch sunshine and sea breezes along the Cayucos strand.
Beachcombers can walk for miles along the coast, or catch sunshine and sea breezes along the Cayucos strand. (Peter Magnani)

Approaching Cayucos along Highway 1 from the north, you'll see the aquamarine splotch of the Pacific widening against the tawny California hills as you get closer, until the full reach of Estero Bay comes into view. The bay forms a deep crescent at its northern end, bisected by the Cayucos Pier, which sags alarmingly in the middle as it picks its way nearly a thousand feet into the water on spindly pilings. Off in the distance, the spectral mound of Morro Rock looms out of the mist like a sacred mountain, marking the bay's southern end.

Boogie boarding fun


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The surf is shallow in Cayucos but adequate for boogie boarding, calm enough for paddle boarding and, when the tide is right, surfable. The beach is broad and long -- and you can walk the full five miles to Morro Bay. As you head south, the sand quickly narrows to a ribbon, backed by a cliff with a line of Malibu-like beach homes perched precariously on top.

Cayucos' main drag, Ocean Avenue, is a two- or three-block stretch of Highway 1, starting at the pier. It's got all the surf, skateboard, swimwear and sunglasses shops anyone would need; a candy store that dispenses excellent salt water taffy in a variety of flavors at one end and ice cream cones at the other; a couple of sprawling antique stores that could accommodate any conceivable taste; and enough walk-up chowder houses and fish 'n' chips joints to more than hold its own among self-respecting beach towns. There's even a factory, right on Ocean Avenue, where they make cookies with brown butter and salt evaporated from the sea and sell them in delicious little packages.

But what takes Cayucos above and beyond some of its fellow seaside meccas is the presence of not one but two ancient dive bars. Ancient looking, I should say, because the architect who built them 20 years ago designed them to look as if they'd always been there.

Schooners Wharf is a typical sailor-themed burger and seafood joint, with wooden statues of sailors, pirates and fishermen standing guard at the entrance, and ropes, anchors and buoys at every turn. Up a straight flight of wooden stairs is a small, glassed-in deck with a tiny bar sheathed in rust-stained corrugated iron. At night, a large chandelier, made from a wagon wheel and studded with reclaimed ship's lanterns, fights a losing battle against the cozy gloom. It's the kind of place that makes you feel like you could nurse a cup of grog forever -- or at least until you were felled by a blow from a belaying pin, dropped through a trap door in the floor and dragged aboard a waiting schooner in need of a crew.

Old West revived

Across the street at the Cayucos Old Town Tavern, patrons are greeted by wooden figures of another sort: a Native American man in full feather headdress and a Native American woman whose once beguiling face has more than begun to succumb to the ravages of the salt air. Inside, a long narrow room -- its ceiling completely covered by dollar bills -- gives way to a game room with two pool tables, a dart board and a long shuffleboard table. Behind that is an honest-to-goodness card room. The front table is covered by a crusty shroud that looks like it might have been put there by Doc Holliday. But the back table hosts a game of Texas Hold 'em, an entertainment grandfathered in from the days when the tavern was a stop on the stage coach line from Paso Robles.

Elephant seals find the Cayucos coastline every bit as attractive for sunbathing as human visitors do.
Elephant seals find the Cayucos coastline every bit as attractive for sunbathing as human visitors do. (Peter Magnani)

The night I was there, a sci-fi Western was playing on the flat screen and a better-than-average country blues trio was performing for a lively crowd. It felt exactly right. Together, the tavern and the wharf justify the local chamber of commerce boast about Cayucos: "A classic California beach town where the old West meets the ocean."

Further elevating Cayucos is its location. With the kayaking and whale watching mecca of Morro Bay just five miles to the south and the quaint, upscale town of Cambria 14 miles north, Cayucos is a perfect staging area for exploring the Central Coast. You can get a motel room on the beach for less than $200 a night, sip your morning coffee while watching pelicans circle over the bay and sleep with the surf crashing just yards away.

If Schooners Wharf and the tavern are too rowdy for your taste, you can relax at the Full Moon or Cayucos Cellars wine bars, or at the elegant bar at Hoppe's Garden Bistro, one of two fine dining spots in town. The other is the Cass House Inn, once the home of Capt. James Cass, who founded Cayucos and built the pier in 1872. Here you'll be served a highly inventive, three-hour, 14-course gourmet meal. The price tag is hefty -- $85 plus $40 for the wine pairings -- but less than you would pay in a more touristy area.

Hearst Castle jaunt

Cayucos also is within easy striking distance of Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Newspaper magnate and robber baron William Randolph Hearst's hilltop fantasyland is one of California's most amazing man-made wonders. The eclectic vanity project was designed by architect Julia Morgan and served as a playground retreat for Hearst and his celebrity friends, including the brightest nuggets of Hollywood's golden era. The castle is now part of the California state park system, which conducts guided tours of the building and lets visitors hang out as long as they want in the magnificent gardens and around the Greek-themed pool.

If you spot zebra grazing along the highway on the nine-mile stretch between Cambria and San Simeon, they're descendants of the herd that Hearst established on the castle grounds, along with scores of other species of exotic fauna.

Nitt Witt Ridge

Before you leave Cambria, be sure to stop at Nitt Witt Ridge, a ramshackle three-story house built by Art Beal, an eccentric Oakland-born trash hauler who carved out the hillside spot with pick and shovel and built the house with his own hands, decorating every square inch of its exterior with a wild mix of junk he salvaged from around the area. It's a folk art temple that the locals refer to as "the poor man's Hearst Castle."

If you continue a mere four miles north of San Simeon, you'll happen upon one of the most spectacular sights in all of California. This place has no name. It's just a gravel parking lot off Highway 1, marked by an easily overlooked and overly modest sign advising "Elephant Seals Next Left."

There are hundreds of the huge marine mammals lying on the sand just a few feet beyond a fence that separates their beach from the parking lot. Most are fast asleep, snuggled tightly up against each other. But the herd itself is constantly undulating, as an animal here or there scrunches into a more comfortable position or shovels cooling sand on its body with a heave of a flipper. Occasionally one or more of the huge creatures will rise, and a neighbor may rear up to challenge him, their long, fat necks clashing against each other in a soft, slow-motion swordfight. The sounds, like the movements, never stop. Together, the herd performs an endless symphony of snorts, gargles, grunts and bellows, with the crashing surf playing a raucous harmony.

You won't find its like anywhere near the surfing meccas of Southern California or the hidden shores of Northern California.

If You Go

Lodgings
Cayucos has an abundance of motels and home rentals. Look for a motel on the ocean side of Highway 1. These include the Cayucos Shoreline Inn (1 N. Ocean Ave., www.cayucosshorelineinn.com); Cayucos Motel (20 S. Ocean Ave., www.cayucosmotel.com); Seaside Motel (42 S. Ocean Ave., www.seasidemotel.com); and the On the Beach B&B (181 N. Ocean Ave., www.californiaonthebeach.com). Home rentals can be found at www.cayucosvacationrentals.com and other vacation rental sites.

Dining
Cass House Inn offers a prix fixe, locally sourced tasting menu, meaning the veggies come from the garden out back and they make their own salt from seawater. You'll need a full night and a fat wallet, but it's worth it for a special occasion. Details: 222 N. Ocean Ave.,
www.casshouseinn.com.
Hoppe's Garden Bistro and Bakery includes a lovely dining room and tables tucked away in the romantic, flower-filled garden. Details: 78 N. Ocean Ave.; www.hoppesbistro.com.
For more casual dining, check out Schooners Wharf (www.schoonerswharf.com), Skippers or Café della Via (www.cafedellavia.com), all along the main drag, and for soulful streetside beach food, there's Duckie's Chowder House, Ocean Front Pizza (www.oceanfrontpizza.com) or Ruddell's Smokehouse (www.smokerjim.com).

Nearby attractions
Hearst Castle is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Guided tours take about two hours and advance reservations are a must. Check hearstcastle.org for details.
Nitt Witt Ridge gives new meaning to the term folk art. The current owners offer guided tours; reservations are recommended (805-927-2690). Or you can just pull off the road and gaze at it for free. Details: 881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria, just above the downtown strip.