Avila Beach Is Quintessential Cali Coast

Wildlife, sandy beaches, quaint accommodations, and upscale attractions are in store for visitors.


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Photo by Blue Monnbeam Studio/Flickr

Think you know your California beach towns?

OK, then. Name the one where sea otters bask picturesquely on their backs. It also has a lighthouse. Whale-watching. World-class golf links. A vintage trolley. Fishing for rock cod, halibut, and salmon.

Framed by a bay, it sports seafront restaurants with dog-friendly patios, artisanal ice creams, and house-made watermelon fudge. White-sand strands, including a clothing-optional one, are lapped by gentle surf shining like pale jade under an almost absurdly mild sky.

Peppered with tasting rooms, this sandy slice of pastel-storefronted paradise forms the coastal flank of a centuries-old, sun-baked, quietly booming wine country.

Also: Hot springs. Beachside bonfires.

Go on, guess. Now guess again.

Ten miles west of San Luis Obispo, whose 19th-century shipping port it was, Avila Beach is less familiar even to native Californians than most of its coastal cousins — partly because with a current population of under 2,000 residents, it’s always been tiny and partly because, for a while there, it virtually disappeared.

In 1998, after corroded pipes spurred a subterranean oil spill, the oil company Unocal Corp. evacuated residents, razed blocks, and replaced 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated material with clean sand and soil atop which today’s town was built. Stately palms now stand sentinel over quaint wooden balconies and a curvy-swervy esplanade where visitors and locals wander while savoring locally crafted Doc Burnstein’s ice cream and house-made fudge from the friendly Hula Hut, gazing mesmerized at waves that won’t let them look away.

A breezy 2-mile walk or drive northwest of downtown, past those uncrowded golden coves known as Fisherman’s Beach and Olde Port Beach, rustic 19th-century Port San Luis pier sports a lively fish market; sea lions and otters abound. Southward from downtown sprawl smoothly spectacular Shell Beach Bluff Trail, easy Bluff Trail with its sheer-cliff and mega-mansion vistas, and glute-crushingly steep Ontario Ridge Trail. Twice-weekly guided hikes are the only way to experience the dazzling Pecho Coast Trail and tour the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse.

Lodging options include the oceanfront Inn at Avila Beach with its rooftop sundeck and the artfully tiled, ebulliently cozy, plush-roomed Avila La Fonda, whose attentive staff and intense hospitality — complimentary hot morning croissants, noon nachos, evening wine-with-starters, nightly local-fruit pies, and all-day cookies, candies, Peet’s coffee, and fruit — might make you want to never leave this seductively serene, Mission-style sanctum.

A bracing cycle or sylvan stroll up the paved Bob Jones Trail, on which passersby actually smile and wave, brings you to the hundred-acre, century-old Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, whose every stylish guestroom boasts its own spring-fed hot tub. For a nominal fee, nonguests can soak in private outdoor tubs while watching butterflies and birds navigate a lush oak forest under a wide-open sky that sometimes, thanks to the springs, smells faintly of sulfur. At the resort’s airy Gardens of Avila restaurant, executive chef Tommy Noel sources ingredients from an on-site organic garden to create such seriously exquisite epicness as halibut Reubens and sprouted-walnut pâté.

Further proving that beachside dining needn’t be burgers-and-shakes basic in a town with more wineries — including Morovino, Silver Horse, Croma Vera, Alapay, and Sinor-LaValee — per capita than most, Custom House restaurant serves seafood-forward Mexican and American classics and towering, protein-rich salads. Equally panoramic with its popular bar and upturned-basket lamps, and also mere steps from the surf, Blue Moon Over Avila offers tapenade, croques monsieur, and other sumptuous suggestions that you’re on the French Riviera.

But you’re not. And you’ll actually be glad you’re not, because Avila Beach is Deep California, where the chaparral meets the shore, where laid-back luxury meets those wild, unfiltered fathoms and lets you remember exactly who you are.

If You Go

Avila La Fonda, 101 San Miguel St., 805-595-1700, AvilaLaFondaHotel.com

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, 1215 Avila Beach Drive, 805-595-7302, SycamoreSprings.com

Blue Moon Over Avila, 460 Front St., 805-595-2583, BlueMoonOverAvila.com

Hula Hut, 380 Front St., 805-627-0488, HulaHutFudge.com

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