Avila Beach // © 2010 Janeen Christoff
Tours run year-round, weather permitting and leave from the Port San Luis Pier. A generously timed half-hour tour is $20 per person. The raft holds four people comfortably, and charters are available.
I love exploring all the beach towns that line the highway as you drive along California’s Central Coast. My favorites are Cambria, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo and, on a recent visit, I was happy to realize that there was one town I had missed — Avila Beach.
It makes sense that I had missed it during past road trips. The town was the victim of a disastrous oil spill in the late 1980s, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 2000, when Unocal finally agreed to a settlement and plans were put in place to begin construction. Sadly, the funky coastal community that had been growing since the 1950s was mostly destroyed, and residents were displaced as the 400,000 gallons of oil were discovered underneath the city, the result of a leak at a near by Unocal tank farm. The damage was so extensive that most of the town had to be razed and the beachfront was completely rebuilt — with new sand and a new beach to boot.
What has sprung up in the place of the old Avila Beach is a new town with a growing local community and the remnants of its eclectic past can be seen in its charming — although modern — storefronts. Joe Momma’s coffeehouse serves up tasty coffee. It’s hard not to interact with members of the local community there, enjoying a cup of java with their dogs at one of the many outdoor tables. Joe Momma is one of several coffeehouses that line the boardwalk. A sundries store harkens back to traditional general stores of the original city and serves homemade, delicious breakfast items such as muffins and pastries, but also has local organic groceries, T-shirts, souvenirs and beach items. The Lighthouse Suites is located on the boardwalk and is just across from the beach. Rooms are decorated with a classic beach-house style complete with round life preservers hanging on the wall as decoration, images of sail boats and a classic slate blue color splashed on the walls. Our two-bedroom suite, which offered ample room for a large, multigenerational family, featured a living room, kitchenette, two bathrooms, a refrigerator and one room with a queen-size bed and another room with a king-size bed as well as an en-suite bathroom.
The hotel has a mini golf course, a giant chess board, a heated swimming pool, a Jacuzzi and a spa that is open seven days a week. There is a cute gift shop in the lobby as well. Everything is within walking distance, including the shops, restaurants, bars and even the Sea Life Center, which was created by a fund provided by Unocal to study and preserve the local wildlife.
As far as activities, there is no shortage in the area. On the beach, children will love the swings in the sand. Visitors can walk out on the pier and get a view of local wildlife. To get up close and personal with the abundance of wildlife, guests can take a Wave Jammers Jet Ski ride. Tours start at $190, or Jet Skis can be rented by the hour.
Seaweed Express provides high-energy, adventure boat tours onboard Zodiac rafts, which gets guests up close and personal with the local wildlife population. During my recent tour, we saw dozens of sea lions and harbor seals, cormorants, jellyfish and more. My favorite sighting was a family of sea otters, who frolicked in front of us for several minutes while we took photos.
Half-hour tours leave from the Port San Luis pier and visit the local Pirate’s Cove, where visitors are driven into area coves and caves to see what wonders are hidden inside. The ride is fast-paced and adventurous but can also be tailored to each guest’s preference. Wildlife-lovers can spend more time hunting for whales on the heavily populated coastline or adventure-lovers can take a high-speed ride and jump the waves along the coastline.
If the sea air has built up the appetite, be sure to stop at Pete’s Pierside cafe for some fresh seafood. Everything on the menu is delicious and sourced locally. When I visited, Pete steamed some fresh shrimp for us, and the shrimp were so fresh it tasted like they had been dipped in butter. While summer offers ideal weather, Avila has the privilege of being located in a protected harbor, shielding the beach from the fog that is infamous in the area. The beach community also enjoys warm weather throughout the year, although swimmers might catch a chill in the 60ish-degree water. The surf is tame, however, so the beach is great for children. I visited in the fall, and it was in the 80s.
Whatever time of year you head to the Central Coast, there is always something to do in Avila.