More than 18 miles of coastline frame the amazing dunes of Pismo Beach, the most extensive in the state of California.
Countless wildlife, including coyotes, rattlesnakes, egrets and owls, live happily among wild plants such as paintbrush, fiddleneck, surf thistle and dune mint. Wild times are available, too. You may drive your car on limited parts of the beach or, for one of the wildest rides of your life, rent a dune buggy to explore all 1,500 acres of steep, rolling sand dunes.
Larry "everybody-knows-my name" and his military Hummer will take you on an XTreme Hummer Adventure. And wild it is — running the gamut from “I’m going to die” (the first 10 minutes) to “I’m going to lose my lunch” (the next 10 minutes) to “I’m having a blast” (the next 40 minutes) after hollering to Larry "everybody-knows-my-name" over the blowing sand and wind to “Please slow down!”
Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is one of those quintessential California coastal towns that when passing by is easily dismissed as too honky-tonk for further investigation. I’ve done that myself. This time, however, I decided to stay.
Oceanfront estates, RV recreation areas, contemporary beach houses next door to rundown bungalows, sprawling resorts and quaint midtown hotels, trailer parks and funky shops along Price Street — they all co-exist in this, yes, honky-tonk town. Somehow, it all works.
Always a sucker for English cottage seaside ambiance, I pulled off Highway 101 into the Cottage Inn and got my Wuthering Heights-cottage-on-the-moor fix. Perched high on the cliff, exactly 100 steps down to the beach, the view is spectacular whether seated in gardenside Adirondack chairs or fireside wicker chairs in one of the cozy guest rooms.
Every year from November to February, Pismo Beach is host to about 25,000 monarch butterflies. Don’t ask me how they count them. Clustering in the limbs of a grove of Eucalyptus trees, they form dense bunches. Each one hangs with its wing down over the butterfly below, providing shelter from the rain, warmth and protection from the wind for the group. Spectators come from all over to witness this phenomenon and to learn about the monarchs from knowledgeable docents.
My favorite restaurant discoveries include Splash Café for award-winning clam chowder; McClintock's for steaks; Honeymoon Café for burritos and a hippy vibe; Chop Street for soup, wraps and salads — all fresh, imaginative and healthy; Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiano for marvelous wines, pastas and all things Italian; and the Station Grill for a small-town café with just plain good food, next door to the Grover Beach train depot.
But the place I’ll remember most fondly is Cracked Crab, where buckets of mouth-watering steamed Dungeness crab, mussels, shrimp, snow crab, new potatoes and corn-on-the-cob chunks are dumped onto your tabletop with various implements to assist in cracking open these marvels and dipping them in drawn butter, cocktail or Dijon mustard sauce. It's all marvelous and messy enough to require a plastic bib. Don’t miss this or the sweet ending — a slice of genuine key lime pie.
Nearby are local wineries, kayaking, surfing, horseback riding, championship golf courses and the incomparable Hearst Castle. For me, the dunes hold a mystical, come-back-to-me quality.
In the 1930s and '40s, a group of free-thinkers, mystics, nudists and artists lived in the dunes. They called themselves the “Dunites” and believed that the dunes were the center of creative energy in California.
They may have been right.