Buckling up the kids for Pismo's wild side

Buckling up the kids for Pismo's wild side
A speeding, skittering, roller coaster-like Humvee tour introduces visitors to the ups and downs of Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area. (STEPHEN OSMAN / LAT)
Our 4-ton, military-style Humvee had just careened down a huge beach dune and was climbing another one when I turned to see what my sons thought of this ride from their bouncy spot in the back seat. Adam, 12, voted with a sand-eatin' grin. Ethan, 9, disagreed.

FOR THE RECORD Pismo hotel--In the Travel section Sunday, the Weekend Escape story on Pismo Beach incorrectly said the Spyglass Inn is south of downtown. The hotel is north of downtown.

"I can't believe I'm not throwing up right now."

Luckily for us all, Ethan didn't lose his breakfast. But the "my little brother almost hurled in a Humvee" tale will live on in our family vacation lore.

Indeed, our recent weekend in Pismo Beach was a little goofy, but that was the goal.

In the hottest part of summer, we often peel out for kayaking in Morro Bay or roasting marshmallows in Big Sur's campgrounds. This year, with less time and a preteen who no longer finds molting elephant seals fascinating, we chose a quick trip to the slightly frowzy but fun area around Pismo Beach to check out the sand dunes and a melodrama playhouse.

We arrived on a Friday afternoon and checked into the Spyglass Inn on Shell Beach, two miles south of downtown Pismo Beach. We paid extra for an ocean-view room ($179.10 plus tax per night), which opened onto a wide bluff-top garden dotted with benches and landscaped with lavender, petunias and juniper hedges. Pelicans dove into the kelp beds below. Later we spotted a sea lion and dolphins.

After a swim in the tiny heated pool, the boys watched baseball in the room while just steps away at the end of the terrace my husband, Keith, and I sipped margaritas from the adjoining restaurant and listened to a happy-hour jazz trio.

Then cool gave way to cornball as we ventured out for dinner at a cowboy restaurant, followed by a show at a Victorian-style melodrama. A friend had recommended the nearby F.McLintocks Saloon & Dining House, which specializes in simple but tasty ranch-style cooking: beef, ribs, salmon or chicken cooked over oak-pit flames.

The food was ample and good, but the real highlight was watching employees refill water glasses. Kids hold glasses atop their heads while busboys clamber onto chairs, blindfold themselves with a dinner napkin--and pour. Just enough ice water dribbles down necks and noses to elicit whoops of laughter from nearby diners.

Such high jinks were an ideal prelude to our evening at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville, three miles south of Pismo Beach in Oceano, a little railroad town straddling Highway 1. As we drove down, we tried to describe the over-the-top art of melodrama, whereby damsels faint, heroes arrive in the nick of time and evildoers are punished for dastardly deeds. Audience members are expected to boo and hiss the villains and cheer the heroes.

Adam thought the booing sounded kind of fun but was skeptical of something that elevated overacting to an art form.

We saw "Orphans of the Storm," which pits country damsels against city thieves with a little "Oliver Twist" theme thrown in. Best of all, the actors were talented, sang well and knew just when to tweak the audience by tossing a conniving little smirk its way. Three of us loved it. Adam, however, felt it was his adolescent duty to point out the obvious.

"This is corny. I mean really corny," the young critic opined.

At intermission the costumed performers sold sandwiches, hot dogs, beer, wine and soft drinks, all the while belting out little ditties of appreciation whenever money landed in the tip jar. "She's a Tipping Queen," sung to the tune of Abba's "Dancing Queen," was weirdly hilarious.

After the melodrama, the cast performed a campy vaudeville musical revue spoofing the great American family vacation. Even Adam thought that was a hoot.

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Saturday morning we ate an overpriced hotel breakfast before driving over to Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area for drama of another sort, a Humvee tour of the area's sand dunes. Our personal Lawrence of Arabia, Larry Haas, who owns the company that runs the tours, met us in a rumbling green Humvee.

We bounced along at a cautious pace on a beach where camping is permitted. Haas chatted about fishing, the weather and the Humvee's "large footprint," which allows it to claw up, down and over rugged terrain. I was enjoying the ride and feeling pretty relaxed.

Without warning, we cleared the slow zone and suddenly gunned up a dune. At the crest, Haas turned the wheel, dropped into a "dune bowl" and rounded it sideways. I felt as though I was riding a skittering, out-of-control monster sand crab. We charged up another dune and plunged down, roller-coaster style.

Just before we reached the top of each dune, Haas paused. Logic suggested he was checking for those little ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, that scuttle around the dunes like noisy bugs. But logic lost out to the panic button flashing in my brain. I was sure we were teetering on a precipice and were about to fall to our death.

At this point, the boys in the back seat reacted to this adventure with one smile and one white-lipped grimace. "I don't like roller coasters, and this is just like a roller coaster," Ethan announced. "Straight and fast is OK, though."

Haas obligingly ratcheted down the thrill factor and, as the dunes allowed, gave Ethan the little burst of speed he liked. The slower pace still included some mild coasting and looping about. We climbed the biggest dune, Independence Hill, for a view of vast, undulating waves of sand. And we plowed through a narrow valley, the rest of the world disappearing behind high sand walls.

Along the way, Haas pointed out fenced-off parts of the dunes, including the sensitive ground-nesting areas of the threatened Western snowy plover as well as an ancient Chumash midden of castoff clamshells. We were reminded that beyond the fences was an altogether different side of the dunes.

We wanted to glimpse that other side, so after the Humvee ride we drove 20 minutes south to the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, run by a nonprofit organization that promotes conservation of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, an 18-mile swath running between Vandenberg Air Force Base and Oceano.

Friendly docents guided us through the center, whose highlights include a short (and roughly cut) documentary about efforts to excavate the long-buried sets of director Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 version of "The Ten Commandments."

Environmentalists and off-roaders often clash over dune preservation and recreational use. So it was with some trepidation that I asked the docents about our morning romp on wavy hills that took nature 18,000 years to build. They didn't even wince. The Dunes Center is willing to live with careful joint use of the dunes. And while off-roading isn't their cup of tea, they likened the Humvee tours to a sort of dunes carpool.

Hungry and lacking a picnic lunch, we decided to return in the morning to hike out to nearby Oso Flaco, a wetlands lake wedged between the dunes and the ocean.

We drove back to downtown Pismo for lunch and a stroll. If ever you need a tattoo, body piercing or a T-shirt that says, "Hold my beer while I kiss your girlfriend," this is the place. You also can find plenty of old-fashioned saltwater taffy, caramel apples and great clam chowder. Nowadays, though, the clams are farmed: Pismo's once legendary clam-digging beaches are nearly fished out.

We filled up at the Splash Cafe, which took first place in the Pismo Beach Clam Festival chowder cook-off. The cafe serves its creamy soup in hollowed-out rounds of sourdough bread. Near the pier, we rented bright yellow banana bikes for the boys to pedal along the shore. No Humvee thrills, but fun nonetheless.

Sunday morning we awoke eager to see Oso Flaco, so we grabbed a quick breakfast of terrific homemade cinnamon rolls and coffee cake at Sea Side Cafe near our hotel. We reached the reserve along a narrow farm road surrounded by pungent broccoli fields and were greeted by a stately osprey sitting atop a pole in an irrigation ditch.

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As soon as we left the parking lot at the trail head, we stepped into another side of dune life. The Oso Flaco area is part of the Oceano Dunes recreation area, but off-road vehicles are prohibited here. The contrast is striking. The previous day we had gawked at the motor homes, dogs, tents, horses, trucks and ATVs. Here we were nearly alone. A trail lined with willow trees (and poison oak) led to a long boardwalk built across the lake, away from the sensitive dunes.

A lone couple in a kayak plied the water. California least terns, swallows and other shorebirds swooped overhead and darted under the bridge. At the other side of the lake, the path continued. Even deep into summer, the route was flanked by blooming silver lupine and bright yellow evening primrose. Never missing an opportunity to flog my children with history lessons, I suggested we pretend to be Chumash trudging to the shore for a little clam fest.

We reached a small rise that brought the steel-gray shoreline into view. The landscape was austere but stunning. A fisherman cast his line into the surf, and a pair of bird-watchers gazed at the dunes.

We peered into the fenced area too, hoping to glimpse a snowy plover, but our untrained eyes failed us. Oh, well. We had come looking for fun, and we all had found some--each in our own way.

Dawn Bonker is a freelance writer in Irvine.