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Feb 5, 2010

California's Central Coast, Part 2: Morro Bay

Massive El Morro Rock dominates Morro Bay's harbor   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

This is the second in a three-part series about traveling (and eating) on California's Central Coast.
  • Part 1 of this series discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2, which you're reading, covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
Morro Bay

Morro Bay, a thriving fishing port about an hour south of Hearst Castle, offers travelers an endless array of outdoor activities, ocean-going adventures, and excellent bargains.

Whale-Watching on Morro Bay: We started Day 2 with a whale-watching adventure from Virg's Landing, which has been squiring people on fishing and sea-going adventures for decades. January is a prime month for whale migration, but the boats hadn't been able to go out for a week because of the heavy rains. However, we lucked out big time: that morning was clear and calm and soon we were underway. We traveled about six miles out, past the massive rock--really a volcanic plug--that juts from the harbor and guided long-ago explorers; past a buoy where half a dozen baby seals were taking the sun; and through a group of more than 100 dolphins leaping joyously through the water, crossing our wake, and swimming alongside.

Baby seals, Morro Bay Harbor   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

Finally we reached the whales. We saw a bit of spouting and plenty of tails, but no breaching. Then, suddenly, a few feet from the starboard side, a whale popped out of the water, turned on its side to eyeball us, rolled back onto its stomach--we could clearly see the barnacles encrusted on its back--and disappeared. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than 30 seconds, but packed one whale of a thrill! It was so quick, so startling, that nobody managed to grab a photo. One of the crew said he'd been going out for years but had been so close to a whale only twice in all that time.

Cruising Morro Bay by Yacht: The next day we had a completely different boating experience in Morro Bay, never leaving the harbor. We boarded a 72-foot luxury motor yacht, the Papagallo II, for lunch and a slow cruise around the incredibly picturesque bay. The ship is owned by Leonard and Midge Gentieu, a charming pair who owned a series of successful restaurants before realizing Leonard's life-long dream of owning and cooking on a yacht. Download a PDF about the Papagallo II.

Midge and Chef Leonard Gentieu     Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

Leonard is a 1968 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and probably anything he might have prepared for us would have been sensational. But on this particular day we were joined by Brad Buckley of The Abalone Farm on Estero Bay in nearby Cayucos. That's right: farmed abalone, with intake pipes carrying a high flow of ocean water up a cliff to the farm's water distribution facility, simulating the abalone's natural environment (take a photo tour of the facility). For special meals--perhaps Valentine's Day?--you can have fresh abalone sent to you overnight at about $75/pound. Thanks to Brad, we had plenty of fresh abalone for lunch (see Leonard's recipe, below).

The Papagallo II can be privately hired, and it also runs popular public cruises with live music and substantial hors d'ouevres.

Here's Chef Leonard's recipe for abalone:

Abalone for 6

16 oz. abalone medallions
2 whole eggs beaten
2 cups crushed saltine crackers
1 cup clarified butter
1 fresh lemon
2 tsp. Wildwood Blends All-Purpose Seasoning

Mix the Wildwood Blends All-Purpose Seasoning with crushed saltine crackers. Dip the medallions in the beaten egg, then bread in the crackers and spice mix. Melt the butter in a heated sauce pan and place the breaded medallions (medium to high heat) for 45 seconds to 1 minute on each side. Should be golden brown.

Finish with squeeze of fresh lemon before removing from pan. Pour a little pan drippings over medallions when serving. Great served over angel hair pasta with little chopped parsley and butter or cream.
Other Things We Did in Morro Bay:

Judy Aron holding her award-winning Primitivo    Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez
  • Museum of Natural History: Best place possible to get an overview (through interactive and other exhibits) about the flora and fauna--particularly the birds--found in, on, and around Morro Bay. A small gift shop offers nature- and guide-books. Shaded picnic tables provide a beautiful view of the water.
  • Shopping: The Embarcadero, which runs right alongside the water, is filled with shops and restaurants of all kinds. 
  • Aronhill Vineyards: Taste Aron Hill's double-gold Primitivo at their small shop right on the Embarcadero. Owner and grower Judy Aron is often there to pour the wine herself.
  • The Wine Line: We were driven about all day by The Wine Line--the perfect solution for visitors who want to visit local wineries but leave their car at the hotel. The Wine Line offers a hop on/hop off service that lets you get around on your own.
Where we ate in Morro Bay: The town's only Italian restaurant--with a nice emphasis on seafood--Ciao Bella affords fabulous water views and an extensive selection of primi, zuppa, insalta, pasta, and dessert selections.


Credit for all photos: © Suzanne Rodriguez
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To learn more about California's Central Coast:

This is the second in a three-part series about traveling (and eating) on California's Central Coast.
  • Part 1 of this series discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2, which you're reading, covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
A popular book about driving on the California Coast was written by my friend, Karen Misuraca:

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