On the coast of California lies a laid-back little beach town having a love affair with the dogs and children that live and visit. Everywhere you look in Pismo Beach, you’ll find pooches on leashes and kids running in circles around beaches and promenades. About a three-hour drive from both Los Angeles, where we had come from, and San Francisco, it was the idea of the beach dunes that drew us over part of our spring break. We’d seen pictures of all-terrain vehicles soaring over hills of sand, a complicated latticework of desert that dipped and rose across the horizon, spilling into the waves of the ocean.
We joined our friends, the Millers, at the Cliffs Hotel and Spa. The hotel was renovated in 2017 with upgrades to the spa that includes a couples massage room. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, our balcony opened to a view of the wide water, bordered on the right with a line of hills that drew away from land, across the water, and then suddenly dropped into the ocean. Inside, our room had a retro beach vibe decorated in earth tones. White Italian marble traced the bathroom walls and counter and a whirlpool bathtub had an unobstructed view of the ocean from which we appreciated the sprinkles of sun bouncing off the water. We had seen a few of the Millers as we were checking into our room in the lobby and my two boys didn’t stay to appreciate the views after putting on their bathing suits. Instead, they told us to meet them at the pool where the three Miller boys waited.
It was as we walked to the pool I realized how welcoming this area is to pets and kids. Dogs led their owners on walks around the hotel lawn, perched atop its namesake cliffs. Rooms manager Travis Domingues later told me the first floor of the hotel is open to guests with dogs, though after the Thomas fire, they allowed dogs to occupy all the rooms in the hotel while families evacuated. Domingues said it was chaotic but heartwarming. As we walked along the pathways, kids appeared everywhere, some with parents, some with their pack. Screams of happiness carried in the breeze as kids played games on the lawn wrapped around the hotel. We enjoyed poolside service of cocktails and snacks while our boys invented games by the hot tub and pool. Being in the central part of the state, I expected clouds and cool conditions but the sun shone bright and the blue skies hosted seagulls soaring in the salt-tinged air. I later learned there are 315 sunny days in Pismo Beach every year. Silly me.
The hotel provides an evening wine tasting and snack experience, free for guests, in the lobby. The night we attended, they poured a local favorite of ours, a cabernet sauvignon from Rabble Wines. We had the good fortune of discovering the Rabble Wines tasting room, called Tooth and Nail, the last time we visited the area.
We gathered our group to explore downtown Pismo Beach, a network of streets with aging, single-story buildings occupied by restaurants and specialty shops. At the crown of the town is the recently fortified and reconstructed pier and cobweb of boardwalks rising above the beach. We chose to eat dinner at Wooly’s which offered casual deck seating looking over the ocean, the slow-setting sun and the length of the pier. Dogs, kids and laid-back people shared the deck space, enjoying American fare, crafted in creative varieties with affordable price tags. We paid $60 for drinks and food for the four of us. We felt our city tension melting into the sea and our smiles relaxing into our faces.
The next morning, we set out early to find the mythical sand dunes of Pismo Beach. There are 23 miles of coastline in Pismo Beach, and, combined with the dunes, that’s 3,500 acres where off-road vehicles can cruise through powder-soft sand. It’s the only beach in California that allows people to drive on it. Our friends had made reservations at Steve’s ATV so we tagged along to the office, about a half block from the ocean. One thing we noticed immediately was the free beach parking. Coming from Los Angeles, we’d never heard of such a thing. It appeared as if our group arrived at Steve’s ATVs at the exact same time as everyone else, but Tammi, at the front counter, was talented and patient at juggling everyone and made sure all were in the right vehicles for their size and experience level. Everyone rented an ATV bike, or dune buggy, to ride the Sahara-like sand dunes of Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
Next, we took a short yellow school bus deeper into Oceano Dunes SVRA, where the staff at Steve’s ATV had a shop set up in a mobile unit and told us we must watch a video to warn us away from being foolhardy on our ATVs. That was when I realized I had forgotten my ID in my car, so I had to take the short school bus back and thought I had missed the screening. When I returned, my youngest son, who is 8, took my hand as we walked toward the prepared vehicles and told me it was a good thing I missed the video because it was “kinda scary.” However, I had no such luck and it turns out, it is a prerequisite to ride at Oceano Dunes SVRA to watch that video. So, I watched it by myself. And I totally understood why Knox had gotten spooked by it. They showed visitors who thought there was nothing to fear barreling over dunes, flying in a way that they lost control of their vehicles and suffered a number of broken body parts as a result. After the video, I wasn’t as keen to ride either but I told myself I was in complete control of how fast I was going and I had nothing to prove, something with which I sometimes grapple. However, the video did scare off the youngest member of our group, 7-year-old Camden decided the risks weren’t worth the rewards. The rest of the group set off.
The first part of our ride consisted of a brief lesson of how to use the bikes. Steve’s ATV designed a track to get new riders comfortable. This was welcome after the horror the video had put into our heads the possibility of getting hurt. The practice course made us all more comfortable to forge ahead.
I’m not going to lie. There were many stops for boys who hit their accelerators too slowly during take-off that embedded back tires into the sand. There were many times I had to get off my bike to execute the little lift the video also taught to extract those bikes from the clutches of the sand. Many, many stops. But honestly, after seeing an ambulance off in the distance rescuing another rider and later, a boy at the hotel wearing a new arm cast, I was glad they were being cautious. We rode along the various areas that seemed safe for our skill level, ascending onto tall dunes and riding along closed off hills.
At one point, I lost the group. For a few too brief moments, I sailed across the beach, ocean water dancing to my right. RVs and tents sat along the water in makeshift campsites. I felt the breeze grace my arms and my spirit. It’s nice to ride free on occasion. Later, the boys declared the ride was their favorite part of the trip.
Our last night, we decided to split up and have family dinners on our own. We chose ocean-front Ventana Grill, which had many personalities. The upscale oyster bar is a great option for date night or girl’s night but since we were doing neither, we enjoyed the perfectly crusted calamari and the clam chowder, so fresh we could taste the flavor of every individual ingredient. It wasn’t overcooked like many of these sea soups. The drinks were wonderfully mixed and festive. My garlic black tiger shrimp had the right blend of garlic and pepper, a savory dinner with a delightful crunch.
We couldn’t say goodbye to Pismo Beach the next day without spending more time in the town. After breakfast at Penny’s All-American Cafe, which had great service and is ideal for those wanting a traditional American breakfast (my husband walked down the street to find an organic smoothie place), we wandered toward the ocean. We passed a storefront called Mike’s Ideal Barber Shop and the boys decided they wanted haircuts. This wasn’t the strip mall, discount hair shop they were used to. Zack and Zeak styled them with a sharp flourish and left them feeling dapper. We continued our way toward the pier and, although it was a Thursday, it felt like a Sunday with so many meandering families exploring the shops, eating candied apples and lining up to sample the “Best Clam Chowder In the World.” Of course, there were happy dogs accompanying their owners, tongues hanging, tails wagging and plenty of kids being watched over as they explored this casual, cool beach town.