Pismo Dreamin'


From the outside, it might not look like much. An older place off a side street, with a Tiffany-blue roof and a dungeonous parking garage leading to a lobby. Inside, sand crunches beneath feet, and a small selection of boutique wear hovers off to one side. 

But turn toward the sizzling sound of watery push and pull, and there’s your reason for coming: the cream-colored beach leading to the sea. It’s mere steps from this lobby at the Sea-Venture hotel—out to the deck, down a few stairs, and you’re wiggling your toes in warm white sand. Reserve the right room, and you’re relaxing in a private hot tub on your beachside deck or curled by a fireplace on those evenings when the fog rolls in. This whole property exudes a sense of place: Many of its 50 or so guest rooms face the water, and the seafood restaurant up-stairs provides one of the best ocean views possible and serves a seafood stew packed—packed—with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and other fish, and a full menu of dishes crafted from local, seasonal ingredients. Welcome to Pismo Beach.

It’s worth wondering whether it makes sense to drive almost five hours from Sacramento to a beach when closer ones await in Santa Cruz or San Francisco or near Point Reyes. But it does make sense because there’s no place quite like Pismo. You feel it when you’re cruising south on 101, just out of Paso Robles, roaring down the Cuesta Grade into San Luis Obispo, when the summer temperatures drop by 15 degrees; credit the breezes of the central coast. A couple of miles farther, and you’re in the seaside city of Pismo Beach.

Maybe it’s the nearby dunes, drawing adventure drivers to off-road in dune buggies and ATVs beside the ocean. Or the beachy town itself, with its saltwater taffy shops, old-time bowling alley and beachfront strand—not quite as tourist-trappy as, say, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or San Diego’s Mission Beach, but comfortably unrefined. The weather—perfect coastal sunny (most of the time), not too hot, not too cold—and nearby attractions (wine!) and a not-quite-Southern-California vibe give this region a personality all its own. It’s a little bit of NorCal and a lot of SoCal, with beautiful natural scenery, bikinis and board shorts—and bicycles and boards—and a dining-and-wine scene that lures the foodies.

Here are five ways to do Pismo right.

1. SLEEP ON THE WATERFRONT The SeaVenture is just one in a collection of seafront hotels and rental properties, some along the boardwalk strand leading to the famous Pismo Beach Pier. Others—such as BeachComber Inn and the Sea Gypsy—are a little farther north. Another mile or so north, in Shell Beach, a cluster of hotel resorts overlooks the water, including The Cliffs (where the Marisol fine-dining establishment serves a mean, deep-chocolate Million Dollar Cake) and Dolphin Bay, with the famous Lido restaurant and a lap pool beneath palm trees that really bring the Southern California feel. Wherever you stay, open your windows and listen to the surf all night long. Get out first thing in the morning for a stroll in the sand, dodging seaweed, watching surfers ride the curl.

A bluff above the beach

2. DO DOWNTOWN The few blocks that make up downtown Pismo Beach are home to some of the town’s iconic spots: Pismo Bowl, rumored to have the best burger in town, and Splash Cafe (clam chowder and fish tacos), Hotlix candy store—where you can get yourself a real scorpion sucker or package of chocolate-covered crickets. Pick up a baker’s dozen of delectable fried dough at Surfside Donuts. Maple bacon, Sprinkle Bomb, Dirt Surf (it’s really cinnamon), banana creme-filled, Fruity Pebbles-topped: These are inspirational doughnuts and, served with a side of Stumptown coffee, they might make you think of Portland. Wine enthusiasts will appreciate Tastes of the Valley, a wine bar named by Wine Enthusiast magazine as one of the top 20 in the United States. Here’s why: It pours hundreds of Central Valley wines by the glass—yes, hundreds—and the folks inside know everything about the local wine-and-food scene. The downtown area also includes a number of shops ranging from upscale boutiques to cheap souvenir outlets, and several galleries with works by local artists. Do yourself a favor and sign up for a walking tour with historian and author Effie McDermott—you’ll learn more about Pismo Beach than you could imagine, including what went on back in the day at Pismo Beach Hotel on Pomeroy Avenue.

A vineyard in Edna Valley

3. TASTE WINE IN EDNA VALLEY Adja-cent to Pismo Beach, the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley appellations in San Luis Obispo County produce some fine chardonnay and pinot noir, thanks to the sea breezes. Do it right and take a tour—almost 30 wineries dot the roads, and several operators run information-packed wine rides that will stop at the most picturesque ones with the friendliest winemakers and tasting room attendants. A trip into San Luis Obispo wine country will reveal just how collaborative the wine community is here. It’s not unusual to find a winemaker from a neighboring winery on-site where you’re tasting. Some standouts to visit: Edna Valley Vineyard, with its stunning views; Laetitia for something sparkling and a peek at how sustainable practices can be put to work in the vineyard (ask about the falconry program); and Talley Vineyards for a gorgeous patio perfect for a picnic.

4. RIDE THE SANDS Pismo Beach is known for its dune recreation. The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, located about three miles south of Pismo Beach, is the only place in the state where you can drive ATVs on the beach. The dunes rise for miles along the coastline, some steep and scream-inducing, others gentler. Dune buggy and ATV riders have plenty of opportunities to plow through the sand piles and buzz along the waterline. Rent vehicles at a number of outfits in the town of Oceano. Prices vary widely but should include goggles and helmets and instruction on how to drive the merchandise. Pay attention to the rental agreements: Some rides can be driven on the smaller dunes by children as young as 7 (with adult supervision); others require that adults be 30 or older to take the wheel. Some vehicles have speed limiters—if that’s something that you think will dull your thrill, make sure to ask.

ATV riding on the dunes

5. MARK YOUR CALENDARS: MONARCHS AND MORE Sometime between October and February, visit Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of the black-and-orange butterflies come to winter in the eucalyptus trees. They hang wing-to-wing, creating vibrant shingles. Docents are on hand during the season to dispense information. The grove sits right off Highway 1 south of town and is an easy-access, free experience for the whole family. Also for the future, keep an eye out for Pismo Preserve, a community project by The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. Trail building has been underway for some 11 miles of multiuse track for hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and others. The preserve sits on the far side of Highway 1 and winds up into the mountains, and the trails afford panoramic views of the entire San Luis Obispo County region and all the way south to Santa Barbara. It is expected to open this fall.