Avila Beach, Calif. — Poor Avila Beach.
First, this tiny seaside town won a dubious distinction as the gateway to the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
Then most of its downtown was bulldozed and tons of contaminated dirt removed after one of California's worst underground oil leaks.
Now, just as the town has dusted itself off and refashioned the beginnings of an oceanfront tourist district, a great white shark shows up and bites a swimmer. The fatal attack Aug. 19 left in its wake weeks of "no swimming" signs in front of Avila Beach's gentle surf.
Yet there's more to Avila Beach than this. Tucked in a corner of the coast bypassed by U.S. 101, Avila Beach is a rare find. Compared with most of California's bustling, oversubscribed, traffic-choked beaches, it's a quiet, relaxing spot for a weekend getaway.
The pace is slower, the parking is ample, the people are friendly. The town is sheltered from the wind and fog that routinely pummel more popular Central Coast spots such as Pismo Beach, a 15-minute drive away. And, as local authorities point out, the ocean poses inherent dangers anywhere, to anyone. This place is just as safe as any other beach, they say, as long as visitors heed warnings about where and when to swim.
It's a bit of a haul to Avila Beach, 200 miles north of Los Angeles. But I felt the pressures of congested city life melt away as a friend and I headed up the coast one Friday in August and watched the San Fernando Valley, Ventura and Santa Barbara fade into the rearview mirror.
The turnoff for Avila Beach is easy to miss. It comes just as the 101 begins to turn inland, toward San Luis Obispo. For three miles, Avila Beach Road twists through hills, opening up to a quaint cove with three piers. A flotilla is anchored to moorings sheltered by this natural harbor, with one long finger of a breakwater to fend off northwestern swells.
We pulled up to the Inn at Avila Beach, one of the few buildings left unscathed during the oil cleanup. It's perched on a slope, across a sleepy street from a broad white-sand beach and the beckoning blue water.
The pink-colored inn is as funky as the town itself. Much of the property has been remodeled with a quasi-Mexican motif: terra-cotta tile floors, black wrought iron, colorful artwork on the walls. We had reserved a standard room, which seemed pricey at $189 a night, even for the high summer season, and disappointing in its motel-quality decor. The resident manager, a chatty fellow, recommended an upgrade. After comparing the options, there was no contest. For $20 more, we checked into a small but charming room stuffed with amenities: a fireplace, a daybed besides the king-size bed, an oversized whirlpool tub and an ocean view.
The manager also offered us access to the rooftop deck after 11 p.m., when the doors are locked to other guests. I wasn't sure what he had in mind until later, when I looked at the deck's wet bars, harem-style daybeds half-shrouded by billowy curtains and hammocks big enough for two.
A pier teeming with life
We declined, thanked him for the offer and headed out to the Olde Port Inn at the end of Harford Pier in neighboring Port San Luis, three minutes away by car.
The restaurant was started in 1970 by a fisherman who has since sold it to his vintner son. The food was surprisingly good. We feasted on rich, spicy cioppino and Greek-style sautéed calamari and scallops, all complemented with a $27 bottle of Pinot Blanc from the nearby Laetitia winery. Even without appetizers or dessert, the bill hit almost $100 with tip, another sign that this area is far from inexpensive.
The restaurant has a kitschy lure: a glass-top table that doubles as a window to the ocean below, allowing us to see an occasional fish and the seawater sloshing around the pier pilings.
Harford is a working pier, with recreational and commercial fishing boats coming and going, a classic open-air cafe and vendors selling raw and cooked seafood.
"You pick 'em. We cook 'em. You eat 'em," said John Edwards, the self-described "crab guy" who peddles the wriggling crustaceans out the back door of Pete's Pierside Cafe. A wooden tank of seawater held hundreds of red-orange crabs, pincers waving above their heads.
The ocean water outside the tank teemed with life too. A massive spawn of squid and the seasonal arrival of anchovies attracted fish and marine mammals to the harbor. A preposterously fat harbor seal swam lazily beneath the pier, chowing down on fish scraps thrown over the side by recreational fishermen as they fileted their day's catch. Whatever the seal left behind was quickly picked over by squabbling gulls.
Barking sea lions sunned themselves on a floating dock or in dories tethered nearby. During the day, the sea lions forfeited half of the dock to humans and their boats. The other half was so jammed with plump, furry bodies that the end of the dock was submerged under their collective bulk.
To get closer, we rented kayaks from a concession right on Avila Beach. In an hour's paddle around the harbor, we checked out the sunning sea lions and circumnavigated a rocky islet, a popular roost for pelicans, cormorants and great blue herons. Everywhere we paddled, we bumped into sea lions. Some were snoozing in the water, only their snouts poking above the surface. Others were feeding on schools of bait fish.
Allow time for exploration
Later on Saturday, the fog bank stayed mercifully offshore; the beach remained sunny, warm and still. Beachgoers lingered on the sand. We decided to take a 6 o'clock swim to the buoys that mark the near-shore waters for swimmers only, no motorboats.
Once past the breakers, we were encircled by feeding sea lions and dolphins. Fins surfaced and then disappeared around us, making us a bit uncomfortable. Areas inundated with sea lions and dolphins are not the best places to swim because these marine mammals are prey for larger, more dangerous animals. As soon as we reached the buoy, we hustled back to shore.
We finished the day with wine on the inn's rooftop deck, watching the sunset, and then dinner at the Custom House, an upscale bar and grill serving sandwiches, seafood and other entrees on Avila Beach's reemerging waterfront.
Sunday was a day of discoveries without enough time to do them justice. We didn't have a chance to soak in the redwood hot tub named Shangri-La at nearby Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, pedal around on the local bike trails or fully explore nearby Pirate's Cove, a nude beach popular with locals.
Though time ran short and despite the shark attack that followed two days later — an attack that experts say is rare and impossible to predict anywhere on California's coast — we still think fondly of our weekend in Avila Beach. The town's bad luck notwithstanding, we're eager to go back.
Inn at Avila Beach, 256 Front St., Avila Beach, CA 93424; (805) 595-2300, fax (805) 595-9560,