Kayaking Across Morro Bay, Never Out of Site of the Smokestacks

Heron and cormorants in Morro Bay, California.

Heron and cormorants in Morro Bay, California.

Morro Bay is a long protected body of water with a big sand bar that keeps the ferocious Pacific breakers away. It’s teeming with bird and mammal life and the waters in the bay are clean enough to raise oysters in. We got a chance to see the bay up close this morning with John Flaherty, the owner of Central Coast Outdoors.

We set out on three kayaks into what John said was an unusually high tide.  The first group of seabirds we can across was a gaggle of white and brown Pelicans, joined by cormorants and wood ducks.  On the shore as we kayaked past, a tiny baby seal was crying out for its lost mama, John called the marine mammal protection squad to help the little guy out.

Morro Bay's famous triple smokestacks.

Morro Bay’s famous triple smokestacks.

What a glorious way to see nature, I thought, as we glided in the sun heading toward a barge where a crew of men were sorting oysters the size of a finger digit.

A radio blasted from their small barge, that and the big net all around were clearly designed to keep seagulls away, since their guano is very bad for the oysters.   John has been a guide since the 1980s, he combines his love of kayaks with a love of bicycling. He said he had ridden his bike the 30 minutes from his Los Osos home to the Morro Bay State park.

A sea otter in the bay.

A sea otter in the bay.

We asked John about those white dead trees that lined the bank of the bay. He explained that this area is a preserve for herons, but that it’s been mostly taken over by the aggressive cormorants, who have covered the ground and the trees with their guano, killing the trees in the process.

In the distance the famous three smokestacks of the Morro Bay power plant loomed over the bay. He said that a year ago, they stopped generating power all together, and now the company that owns the plant is casting about for what to do with the monstrous stacks and the huge power plant building.

One company proposed a tidal power plant, which turned out to be up to 650 200′ tubes that would move with the waves and create energy from the motion. Good idea but no one is ready to turn over that much ocean to the eyesore that would result.  Others have talked about shortening the 450 foot stacks, but the cost of demolition is daunting.

Nobody is really sure what will happen to the iconic towers.

Huge white pelicans gather in Morro Bay.

Huge white pelicans gather in Morro Bay.

 John told us about how once the famous Morro Rock was blasted as a source for rock to fill in the harbor.

It just shows that like the decision to build a power plant right smack on the shore of a pretty coastal town, things used to be a bit different back in the day.

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Mark Tognazzini Knows His Way Around a Fish in Morro Bay

Mark Tognazzini of the Dockside restaurants: a fisherman, fishmonger and restauranteur in Morro Bay Calif. Mary Gilman photos

Mark Tognazzini of the Dockside restaurants: a fisherman, fishmonger and restauranteur in Morro Bay Calif. Mary Gilman photos.

Mark Tognazzini knows his way around a fish–any kind of fish.  He’s a fisherman who lands big King salmon off the California coast in his fishing boat, and when it’s time to come to shore, he emails his loyal following in the town of Morro Bay California and all of the precious filets are spoken for right quick.

We met Mark at one of his three seafood restaurants called Dockside on the working waterfront of Morro Bay just in time to taste two of their locally caught fish species, black cod and bank rockfish.  Petrale sole is another popular fish, along with chowder made from locally farmed oysters.

In this small town of about 10,000, the Tognazzini family owns a long strip of buildings in front of the wharf where the fish come in from the sea. Eleven years ago he began combining his fish market with restaurants to offer his catch to the public, without a middle man.  Today they buy from many different suppliers and the much of the salmon still comes from his boat the Bonnie Marietta.

There are about six species of fish here, but most fishmongers call them all Pacific snapper. Mary Gilman photo.

There are about six species of fish here, but most fishmongers call them all Pacific snapper.

Mark grew up in town, and when we told him we were staying at the cozy Anderson Inn, he recalled that Jeff Anderson was a classmate. Whether it’s a local fisherman or a fishmonger, everyone knows who Mark is and his friendly demeanor and hard work has built a mini-empire here in the Central Coast.

He took us into the back of the fish market and showed us a pile of fish on the floor–eight different species that some fishmongers might all call Pacific snapper. But he explained that at his market they sell each one with its proper name, and though catching fish on lines and hauling them up one by one is more time consuming, it makes for a much better product. We can attest–the black cod was mouth tender and so was the rockfish. Both are worth the extra cost at the fish counter.

Aboard the Bonnie Marietta, Mark showed us how he can do all of the fishing and piloting at the same time, using auto pilot and plotters that allow him to follow a set course or even run in a circle while he’s in the back tending lines. Each of the salmon, ranging from 9-14 lbs, is first stunned with the back of a gaff hook and then hauled one by one over the side. A quick cut to the gills bleeds them and then they are

Morro Rock, the symbol of Morro Bay.  Before the war people used to climb it but now only local native Americans can make the trek.

Morro Rock, the symbol of Morro Bay. Before the war people used to climb it but now only local native Americans can make the trek.

immediately iced.

“The most important thing about a fish is how it is handled by the fisherman, not the fish market.  In fact contrary to what many gourmands might think, a fish that’s been allowed to sit a few days before it is filleted is better than one straight from the hook.  Fish has a shelf life of about 10-14 days, depending on the species, Mark said.

Morro Bay has a zoning law that’s helped keep its working waterfront prosperous. Only fishing related businesses can locate on one side, so the souvenir shops and ice cream joints are all on the far side.  It means you can stroll around and see the fishing business in action while across town there’s plenty of tourist attractions to make you happy too.



Find out more about Morro Bay CA.


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Oceano Dunes Are a Good Place to Take a Spin in a Humvee

One of three Humvees owned by Pacific Adventures for Pismo Beach dunes excursions.

One of three Humvees owned by Pacific Adventures for Oceano dunes excursions.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area  in California’s Central coast looks like a busy street, except that it’s an actual beach and nearly every vehicle is a large 4×4 truck pulling a long camper.

We joined another couple for a beach excursion in a 1987 Humvee, painted desert brown, built to conquer the desert of Iraq but now in service as the biggest, baddest jeep on this crowded beach full of vehicles. Pacific Adventures are the folks who own the Humvees and offer these beach and dune rides at the long stretch of beach and dunes at Oceano, near Pismo Beach.

I had slightly mixed feelings about joining the throng of motorists all streaming down the beach, some heading from campsites, others towing trailers full of ATVs that would be rented to tourists.

I felt bad for the people who had houses on that pretty and wide beach, since all they see in front of their ocean view is the passing parade. But another part of me wanted to let go of whatever thoughts I might have had about whether this was a good use for these hilly dunes, which are mostly protected and make sand drivers adhere to strict rules of the sand.

Sometimes the dune buggies get stuck. And at $250 an hour, that stinks!

Sometimes the dune buggies get stuck. And at $250 an hour, that stinks!

People of all stripes joined the caravan, it might be that I am biased against those who would choose to celebrate driving to the point of doing it on a place that is normally a preserve of quiet, where walkers would normally be those passing by, not full size trucks with oversize tires pulling huge long trailers.

Camping sites right on the beach are just $10 a night. So I realized that this is where the families who might balk at shelling out $150 a night for a hotel can enjoy a beach vacation just like the 1 percent.  It’s an equalizer, this camping and these RVs.

Unlike in Massachusetts, where the fragile dunes are protected by myriad environmental laws, here in Pismo the vehicles–from small four-wheel ATVs to Corvette bodies fitted atop Jeep chassis or an old skool VW bug tricked out with balloon tires all enjoy the freedom to bounce and swerve and almost tip over in the deep crevices and steep slopes of the Oceano dunes. It’s gets to be more fun after you realize that this vehicle with a laughingly wide stance will indeed to the job.

Later on we saw a plant where a company bags up Pismo’s sand and puts it in bags for sale to landscapers and builders. There is so

Pismo Beach is full of trucks cars, ATVs and trailers.

Oceano is full of trucks cars, ATVs and trailers.

much sand in Pismo, I don’t think it will ever all be bagged up.

For a delicious breakfast nearby visit the two rail cars along Route 1, the Rock and Roll Diner. We loved our California omelette with avocado and bacon and my homefries were perfect! You can’t miss the big bright red signs just before the Pier Avenue exit on US 1.

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Edna Valley: Tasting Wines with Pattea and Her Friends

Pattea Torrence runs the Vintage Famehouse cottage at the Old Edna Townsite in Edna Valley, CA

Pattea Torrence runs the Vintage Farmhouse cottage at the Old Edna Townsite in Edna Valley, CA

We drove four hours south from San Mateo yesterday through the agricultural heart of America, Salinas Valley, through towns like Soledad and and Atascatero, where few of the signs were in English.

It was Mexican farm laborer country, and all around us were the vast fields where our nation’s vegetables come from.  Our destination was down the former El Camino Real, now California 101,  dropping 2800 feet in elevation, just beyond San Luis Obispo–the Edna Valley.

Pattea Torrence is well known in this lush wine growing town of about 1600, both for her personality and her warmth. She embraces her guests with her personal charm and her overflowing love for this beautiful part of the world where she’s settled, Old Edna,.  At one time she had two consignment stores but today she spends her time taking cafe of the guests who stay at the small compound of buildings built in the early 1800s.

She owns a pet turkey named Louis and three goats lounge around in a pen out back.  In the morning, roosters crowed us awake. One of the features of staying here are the

Edna Valley countryside.

Edna Valley countryside.

chances to help out around the farm with Pattea, or her husband Jeff and her son Keinun. “People love being a part of the farm, and taking part in these activities makes their experience richer,” Pattea said.

We joined two other couples who live nearby for a wine dinner in the beautiful Victorian blacksmith shop at the Farmstay. Each course was paired with either one of their crisp Edna Valley Chardonnays or the mellow Pinot Noir which were donated by Vicki Carroll, a wine expert and neighbor.   The delicious dinner was even served to us by a gracious young woman who just gave up a career as a model in New York City!

Tasting wines from Edna Valley

Tasting wines from Edna Valley.

Since 1982, the Edna Valley AVA, or American Viticulture Area, has been the classification for 30 local wineries who produce wine in this unique micro-climate. Temperatures are cool at night and early morning with the fog that rolls in the cools the vines.

Jeff, Pattea’s husband, has the distinct and familiar Pittsburgh PA accent that belies his eastern roots. He works at a local power plant while Pattea takes care of the guest houses and the various buildings on the old town site, helped by her tractor loving 16-year-old son Keinun.

Guests who stay at Old Edna have the run of a big house with full kitchen, two bedrooms, and two baths, all with a Victorian charm with fun surprises like clawfoot tubs,  rustic farm tables and in the yard, many old tractors, bicycles and old trucks.  You feel like a houseguest, and that’s just how Pattea likes it.

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California Can’t Come Any Sooner

Icicles in DeerfieldGazing out at the crisp white snow and the icicles that hang from all the roofs, boy it’s sure time to get out of here. After speaking with my daughter and grandchildren from their 80 degree vacation spot in the Dominican Republic on Facetime, seeing the sun hitting her face and then turning the phone to show her mother-in-law our strange snow-filled yard, boy did I realize how psyched I am to be flying someplace warmer tomorrow.

Mary and I will fly to San Francisco just ahead of another winter storm and spend the night in San Mateo. Then we’ll begin a road trip down south to the beautiful town of San Luis Obispo, on the Highway 1 Discovery Route. This stretch of oceanfront highway promotes the natural beauty, wine regions and many adventure opportunities for travelers.  Our stops next week will all highlight the attractions to be found on this iconic road, where so many car commercials have been filmed and where I drive every time I come out to California.

We will stay in a farm retreat, with a vineyard and the home of the Old Edna Townsite, which back in the 1800s was once home to many ranching and farming families. We will join our hostess for dinner and learn about the region from some of her winery friends.

The week will unfold with many activities along this route, from a dunes tour to kayaking in Morro Bay, and all the while the best part will be not putting on our parkas, scarves and mittens.  I’ll share lots of photos and some interviews with locals right here, so I hope you’ll follow along as we tour Cambria, Morro Bay and meet elephant seals north of San Simeon.

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Sleeping in a Parked 767, Delta’s Gate Employees Were Ready for Work

Last week’s snowstorms brought out a host of questions, such as, what do airlines do to get staff to the airports and keep their planes safe during storms.  In the WSJ, I read a story about how Delta Air Lines set up a ‘war room’ and used their own planes as makeshift hotels for airport workers. Scott McCarthy wrote about this in his Middle Seat column.

At New York’s JFK airport, 15 employees rode out the storm in the comfort of a Boeing 767, a plane that features lie-flat beds in business class.  As the snow howled outside, they plugged into heat and electricity from the jetway and gate agents and some pilots snoozed in the comfort of the big business class seats instead of going home and trying to return in the storm.  Besides, their cars were snowed under with the massive snowfall.

There has been a lot of thought lately about where to position aircraft during and after snowstorms.  One consensus is to make the decision to cancel flights earlier–it used to be that travelers would all go to the airports and then find out about cancelled flights. Now even airlines like Southwest, who used to be reluctant about canceling, will make the call early so the planes can be flown to warmer climes instead of stuck on snow-covered tarmacs. You hardly ever see people sleeping overnight at airports since most people won’t even try leaving home to go to the airport.

McCarthy’s cited a new rule that fines airlines for stranding passengers more than three hours has forced them to be quicker to cancel flights and avoiding waiting until the storm has already happened.

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