Bounce in a dune buggy on a sandy weekend escape to Pismo Beach

“This is just like Tatooine!” exclaimed my 6-year-old grandson, referring to the sand planet that is Luke Skywalker’s home in “Star Wars.” Wearing what his 4-year-old brother called “ginormous” helmets and sand goggles, my two grandsons looked to me a bit like Imperial Stormtroopers. My husband, Paul, and I, had driven them to Pismo Beach to explore the astounding sand dunes in Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes preserve, which stretches south from Pismo State Beach for 16 miles. To play it safe, we rented a four-seat dune buggy, covered with a protective metal cage, and hired an experienced driver, Zack Zeman of Sun Buggie Fun Rentals at OceanoDunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. While Paul tagged along with a driver in a two-seat dune buggy, I bounced over the dunes with my grandsons as Zeman careened up and down hills, some with drops as heart-stopping as a roller coaster’s. When our 90-minute adventure ended, my younger grandson said, “It was too short!” My older grandson high-fived me and said, “Grandma, may the Force be with you!” The tab for one night for four: $360 for room, $125 for meals, $385 for dune-buggy rentals and drivers, plus gas, service fees and tips.


The Inn at the Pier, which opened in November, borders on luxury in a beach town where many vacationers camp or sleep in their RVs. The 104-room hotel, a block from the beach, features stylish contemporary rooms, a rooftop plunge pool, and a lobby bar and restaurant. With two queen-sized beds, a large bathroom and an entry area with a mini-fridge, our room was comfortable for two adults and two sandy children.



Pismo Beach is filled with cafes and burger and barbecue joints. We strolled to FlagshipPismo, a seafood restaurant with a sweeping ocean and coastline view. The nautical theme extended to a seating area inside a faux pirate ship. The service was friendly, and my grandsons appreciated the homemade potato chips and activities place mats that arrived the moment we were seated. We enjoyed zesty crab cakes and coconut-crusted roast salmon.


Bob’s Well Bread, an artisanal bakery and cafe in the Santa Ynez Valley, is an idyllic rest stop 37 miles south of Pismo Beach. The kids devoured the chocolate croissants; Paul and I savored Eggs-in-a-Frame made with fresh local eggs, roasted tomatoes, goat cheese and organic country bread. I loaded up the car with loaves of bread — sesame sourdough and olive; bacon, walnut and raisin — for my friends and freezer.


Daily permits to enter and use a vehicle are limited at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The park can get crowded, with four all-terrain-vehicle and dune-buggy rental companies, and many visitors bring their own. We arrived before noon but wished we had come earlier. It’s more fun to explore the sand dunes when you feel as if you’re on empty Tatooine, not on our own congested planet.

Inn at the Pier, 601 Cypress St., Pismo Beach, Calif.; (805) 295-5565. Wheelchair accessible.

Flagship Pismo, 1601 Price St., Pismo Beach, Calif.; (805) 295-5502. Wheelchair accessible.

Sun Buggie Fun Rentals, 328 Pier Ave., Oceano, Calif.; (805) 473-8636,

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, 928 Pacific Blvd., Oceano; (805) 473-7220

Bob’s Well Bread, 550 Bell St., Los Alamos, Calif.; (805) 344-3000. Wheelchair accessible. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.