Weekend Escape: Los Osos : It has the feel of a coastal town in Oregon; a couple of cozy, not-too-pricey places to stay; dramatic dunes and photogenic dogs

Ludovise is a Long-Beach-based free-lance writer

It's a strange thing to hear someone shout, "Shark!" and not feel the least bit terrified--especially when the sea creature in question is swimming straight toward your kayak.

But that's the beauty of Baywood Park. This quiet, coastal town, just west of San Luis Obispo, is the psychological equivalent of a two-hour massage. You can't help but feel totally relaxed, in any situation.

Although only a few miles south of the city of Morro Bay, Baywood Park is a relative unknown. ("Baywood where? " our friends always ask.)

My husband, Paul, and I have been coming here for years. The occasion this time was a quick, budget getaway for our sixth wedding anniversary. Although it was sunny when we left Los Angeles, we drove into San Luis Obispo County with windshield wipers flapping. That was fine by us. Baywood Park--surrounded by rolling hills and the gentle waters of southern Morro Bay--has the look and feel of a small, coastal town in Washington or Oregon. A sudden storm only adds to the atmosphere.

With some trepidation, we pulled into the parking lot of the Back Bay Inn, a motel-like establishment we'd ignored in the past mostly because of its bland, cinder-block exterior. I wondered for a moment if we shouldn't have stuck with our original plan and stayed just across the street at the upscale Baywood Bed & Breakfast Inn (fireplace in room, gourmet breakfast, complimentary wine and cheese).

The Back Bay Inn is a wallflower in comparison, but we preferred its easy-going feel. This is, after all, a place that allows Sweetums the cat to sprawl across the guest registration counter, over a sign that reads: "No Pets Please." It also has the superior location: smack-dab on the bay.

Our room? Well, we could do without the '70s-style furniture (orange hanging lamp, a dresser only Marcia Brady could love), but the room was clean, the queen-size bed was comfortable and the view--our sliding glass door faced the water--was outstanding.

We thought it a fine value for $49 a night, a low-season rate offered November through April. We felt even better when we learned our second night, a Sunday, would cost $10 less. (Regular-season weekend rates range $60-$110.)

First up: a stroll downtown. It takes all of three minutes to walk through Baywood Park's business district, something of a seaside Mayberry. Quiet? You bet. As we crossed the street, we could hear the whoosh of an egret flying over our heads.

We stopped at Noi's Little Thai Takeout, a new eatery with Burmese lacquerware on the shelves, Thai embroidery on the walls and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the stereo. Paul and I sipped Thai iced tea, leafing through Noi's copy of "Buddha's Little Instruction Book." Karma can change life like the swish of a horse's tail , one instruction read. Our favorite: Things to do today: Exhale, inhale, exhale. Ahhhh.

Although technically a part of Los Osos--an unincorporated community complete with tract homes, supermarkets and strip malls--Baywood Park has a flavor all its own. This is, after all, home to the Baywood Navy, a collection of small craft enthusiasts who live by the words: "We don't sail in water deeper than we can stand in."

There are a few decent restaurants in Baywood Park, but our idea of bliss is a meal at Pastore's Trattoria in Los Osos. We dined with Paul's sister, Eileen, and her husband, Kurt, area residents for 15 years. My calamari was excellent, as was Paul's swordfish. But it was Eileen's meal we fought over. Rigatoni nero e bianco con gamberetti. Shrimp and smoked salmon with black and white rigatoni in a vodka cream sauce topped with red caviar. Sure, it sounds pretentious. But I could have licked the plate.

We awoke at dawn for a four-mile run; the air smelled of pine and eucalyptus. We walked next door to Coffee N' Things, the local waterfront hangout. A man strummed a guitar, asking for requests. Jake, the resident golden retriever, stood nose-high to a table, eyes riveted on somebody's muffin. Sipping coffee, we studied the tide. Baywood Park is a paddler's paradise, but in shallow Morro Bay, it is imperative to time the tide correctly.

We set out in a thick fog just before noon. Paul and I in our rented two-seater kayak ($14 half-day, after $6 discount from Back Bay Inn), Kurt and Eileen in their forest green canoe. Less than an hour later, we landed on the shores of the sand spit, a four-mile peninsula of rolling, brush-dotted sand dunes separating Morro Bay from the Pacific.

As a child, I fell in love with these steep, deep dunes--they offer unparalleled opportunities for tumbling. Later I discovered sand-boarding, "surfing" the 30-foot dunes on a snowboard-size plank. But now it's the wild beauty of the place that thrills me--blue lupin, purple nightshade, yellow poppies. We followed tracks in the sand of deer, skunk and rabbit. We spotted a mule deer with her fawn. This is coastline as it's meant to be: desolate and inspiring. We turned back, our hair soaked with sea spray, our spirits light. The bay was still when we climbed into the kayak. We sliced through the water in silence.

It's a shark!

I heard the words. I saw the fin coming toward us through the water. Amazingly, I managed not to freak out and/or flip the boat. OK, so it turned out to be a stingray. I still deserve credit for remaining calm.

We grabbed some so-so veggie burgers and fries at Garland's (our first choice, O'Steeni's deli, was closed on Sunday), and debated where to go next. Montana de Oro State Park? Los Osos Oaks State Reserve, with its 800-year-old oaks? Sweet Springs Nature Reserve, home of the Western pond turtle and the red-legged frog? We chose an old favorite: El Moro Elfin Forest, an ecological reserve set on a bluff overlooking Morro Bay.

That night we passed on dinner and later, with the sound of foghorns in the distance, we drifted off to sleep.

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Budget for Two

Two nights, Back Bay Inn $95.92

Gas from Long Beach 31.25

Breakfast, Santa Barbara 3.93

Lunch, Noi's Little Thai Takeout 8.00

Dinner, Pastore's 47.60

Coffee, muffins, Coffee N' Things 6.50

Lunch, Garland's 7.50

Dinner (wine and chocolate) 13.65

Kayak rental (with coupon) 14.00

FINAL TAB $228.35

Back Bay Inn, 1391 2nd St . , Baywood Park, CA 93402; tel . (805) 528-1233. The Los Osos/Baywood Park Chamber of Commerce , tel. (805) 528-4884.

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