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Easy Come, Easy Go on Holiday at Morro Bay

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TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Eventually, I promise, the story of my tax holiday in San Luis Obispo County will come to include Chee-tos fields, an abalone appetizer, a guano abatement experiment and potential implications for your financial future. But the tale must begin several months ago, when my wife and I found ourselves ahead of schedule on a drive back to Los Angeles from Paso Robles.

Just north of San Luis Obispo, Mary Frances and I took a detour off the Pacific Coast Highway and wound up in an odd little unincorporated seaside community called Baywood Park.

The place stood about four miles south of Morro Rock, about three miles from PCH, all but forgotten by the rest of California, despite the waterfront scenery, the dunes on the horizon, the seabirds wheeling overhead.

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We parked by the tiny pier and took a quick stroll on 2nd Street, the main drag. One Mexican restaurant. One Italian. One Thai. One combination breakfast spot and thrift shop (the Sculptured Egg). A bar for pool-shooters (the Merrimaker). Two lodgings, with fewer than 30 rooms combined. And about 3,500 residents, hidden away in unfancy post-WWII houses.

By way of civilization, this is it, unless you nip over to neighboring Los Osos. But in the way of natural landscape and lazing options, there seemed plenty here, beginning with 2,300-acre Morro Bay (kayaks and canoes welcome) and the trails at Montana de Oro State Park, just three miles to the south.

So we resolved, the way you do, to come back and have a closer look one day.

Now, here’s the even odder thing: That day came. Florida elected President Bush, Bush pushed a tax refund through Congress, and the Treasury started sending checks. So one Wednesday a few weeks ago, Mary Frances and I found ourselves driving up the coast, this time on a mission--two days? three? how far could we go?--to make hay with $600.

Did I say hay? Soon after passing San Luis Obispo, as we zipped along Los Osos Valley Road, Mary Frances gazed out in astonishment at the farmland to our right.

“Chee-to fields!” she said, revealing her not-so-rural roots.

They did look like Chee-to fields: a vast rectangle of ground cover, all an unnatural shade of orange, with rolling hills and wispy clouds beyond. Turned out they were marigolds.

It doesn’t take long to spend $600.

At the Back Bay Inn, a two-story gray building with only a tidy lawn separating it from the water’s edge at high tide, we took an upstairs room with a bay view and fireplace, $160 a night plus tax. (We would incur a $3 phone charge and leave a $2 housekeeping tip.)

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That seemed a bit high. (And in fact, the place’s rates have roughly tripled since 1995, but since then the 13-room inn has been rebuilt and upgraded from the ground up. It reopened in early 2000.) This was, however, the best location in town, and the only competition, the 15-room Baywood Bed & Breakfast Inn across the street, was priced about the same. And anyway, I knew my fellow Americans were counting on me to project consumer confidence. Two nights at $160 per? No problem.

Thus, once we’d checked in and spent $10 on gas, we were already down to our last $241.20.

I tried to imagine what a politician would do in my position.

All right, then, a fancy dinner it would be. Steered by Mary Frances’ sister, Barbara, who works in a nearby winery and knows food, we headed 20 minutes north to Hoppe’s Garden Bistro in Cayucos.

Hoppe’s was nice, all right, with a long wine list and a menu that included sauteed Cayucos red abalone in hazelnut mango butter, $49. (Hoppe’s moved to Cayucos from the Morro Bay Embarcadero in late 2000, and in doing so substantially raised the bar for restaurants in its new neighborhood.) I resisted the $49 abalone entree but agreed to share an abalone appetizer ($12 for six rich, chewy bites), and I followed that with pheasant ravioli amid mushrooms, and then halibut. All top-notch.

Afterward, we took a walk in the dark on the Cayucos pier and looked south to the great black lump in the shallow water (Morro Rock) and the familiar towers that jut from the power station nearby.

Now we had $134.38 to last us about 36 hours, and I was beginning to understand how, during one of those Clinton-era budget standoffs, the feds ended up shutting down the Washington Monument to economize.

The next morning, we strolled next door to Coffee N’ Things for java and muffins ($6.50) and watched hundreds of shorebirds patrol the mud left by low tide.

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When the tide is high, Baywood Park’s endearing little pier stands at the edge of a gorgeous, placid, mile-wide bay. When the tide is low, there may be 50 yards of mud between the pier and the retreating waterline. But either way, the place is a welcome retreat, less crowded than Santa Barbara, less precious than Cambria, less pricey than Laguna Beach, less muggy than most of Southern California.

It’s also a hotbed of cutting-edge science. A sign was posted on the pier’s bench proclaiming “Baywood Navy Guano Abatement Experiment.” Next to it a length of twine had been strung up along the rail to discourage bird loiterers.

It turns out the Baywood Navy has a proud heritage, artifacts from which can be admired in the Baywood Navy Museum, which also is the restroom of Coffee N’ Things.

My original idea was that we’d rent a kayak or canoe in Baywood Park and head straight out from the pier, tides permitting. And there did appear to be a kayak rental shop called Out on the Bay on Baywood Park’s main drag.

But when I called the posted phone number I got no answer, and the storefront disclosed no sign of activity or indication of business hours.

We gave up and drove 20 minutes to the Morro Bay Embarcadero, where at least two rental companies do business.

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Before long we were afloat in a canoe from Canoe 2 U (whose new owners were about to rename it Adventure Marina), nosing our way past the idle pleasure boats on calm water, Morro Rock looming beyond the long sandbar that shelters the bay. If you start early and pay close attention to tides, you can paddle a canoe or kayak all around the more or less triangular bay, which is protected as a national and state estuary.

We sidled up to the dunes, dodged kayakers and circled buoys for about 90 minutes, all the while trying to make out the peregrine falcons that nest on Morro Rock.

The principal marine mammal on the scene, however, was the white Labrador retriever that had decided to abandon its owner’s kayak. Splashing and romping in the foot-deep shallows, the beast made a three-stop vessel-to-vessel tour, including our canoe, before returning to its precarious kayak perch. (Dog owners note: Montana de Oro State Park, which has jurisdiction over most of the dunes, bans dogs. At the Morro Bay National Estuary site they must be leashed.)

The canoe rental cost $15, and the tasty open-air lunch afterward at the Blue Skye Coastal Cafe (at 699 Embarcadero) cost $29. (I had the fish tacos made with local cod.)

After lunch we window-shopped in Morro Bay, where the wares seem to be tilting upscale. The Garden Gallery was especially tempting, but because we were now down to less than $90, I had to leave the $225 birdhouse on my wish list.

Prices were more manageable at the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market. The air was rich with the scent of tri-tip barbecue, the stalls were full of Asian pears and Birkenstocks, and downtown SLO’s tree-shaded Higuera Street really does look best when cars are replaced by merry pedestrians, street musicians and puppet shows.

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Dinner was casual--Mexican food at Las Cazuelas, next door to the Back Bay Inn. Our waiter, a dashing fellow with the air of a tragic protagonist, told the history of the building, back to its days as a pizza place.

“That was long ago,” he said, “when I was young and beautiful.”

Once we’d paid for the meal ($36), tipped him and tiptoed off to bed, we had $47.88 left to last about seven hours and 220 miles on our last day out.

Our first move was another breakfast at Coffee N’ Things (despite a gnawing unease over the missing apostrophe in front of that “N”) for $4.50.

Next, at no cost whatsoever, we drove through the forest into the 8,000 acres of eucalyptus groves, scattered poppies, foggy bluffs and rocky shores of Montana de Oro State Park. After an hour or so on the bluff trail, we reluctantly dashed back to the hotel, paid for phone calls, checked out, left the maid a tip and bought gas ($17 in all). Then, just a few miles down the road, we stopped for doughnuts and coffee in SLO ($2.90) because we weren’t quite ready to go home.

That left $28.48.

At this point the tale degenerates, as so many do in the tax debate, into partisan strife over dueling budget estimates.

Just inland from Avila Beach, we stumbled across the Avila Valley Barn, a roadside retail operation with a petting farm, a shady picnic area and all sorts of countrified goods for sale. Anticipating a dinner party in L.A. that night, Mary Frances bought cider and almond brittle to bring to our hosts. Should that $11.45 count on our budget? We couldn’t agree.

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Then, in Santa Barbara County, we found a well-stocked store and a sun-dappled table waiting at the El Capitan Canyon Campground next to U.S. 101. Snacks, which accounted for about $25 on this trip, were necessary, we could agree.

So in the end, it seemed, we were either slightly over budget (the Chris’ Budget Office version) or slightly under (the Office of Mary’s Budget version).

Defending the OMB perspective, Mary Frances offered this argument: If a gift for an L.A. dinner party has to be counted among our mid-coast travel expenses, she suggested, then shouldn’t those shoes we bought in Morro Bay count too?

The shoes?

The shoes, a pair for each of us, cost $143. With or without the trip, we’d have needed them, I’m pretty sure, although maybe they would have been cheaper at home.

It was beginning to look as though we had a stalemate on our hands, until a perfect compromise presented itself. Never mind the fussing about categories and line items, the CBO and OMB numbers. After a careful examination of our receipts, our shoes and our consciences, Mary Frances and I have decided that everything should come straight out of your Social Security money.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Two

Back Bay Inn, two nights--$353.80

Breakfasts, Coffee N’ Things--11.00

Lunch, Blue Skye--29.00

Dinner, Hoppe’s--106.82

Dinner, Las Cazuelas--36.00

Canoe rental--15.00

Snacks--$25.63

Gas--$22.00

FINAL TAB--$599.25

* Back Bay Inn, 1391 2nd St., Baywood Park, CA 93402; telephone (877) 330-2225, Internet https://www.backbayinn.com.

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