A weekend destination that has it all: Great food, wine, charm and adventure to spare.
By Cynthia Bournellis
Twenty minutes south of Santa Cruz lies a funky oceanside oasis right off the Pacific Coast Highway (aka Highway 1 and Cabrillo Highway). If you are driving too fast, you might miss it. But, if you slow down, hang a right just past the towering power plant smokestacks and head into town, you may just forget that you had someplace else to be.
My love affair with Moss Landing began years ago when I and a former beau spent my birthday weekend there. I was instantly seduced – from the colorful, eclectic, and somewhat kitschy main drag – Moss Landing Road – to the historic harbor, National Elkhorn Slough Reserve, scrumptious cuisine, art galleries, friendly locals, exceptional lodging and the moonlit beach.
Since then, I’ve been back a number of times. Each visit reveals something new. During my trek there last month, I (along with my friend Toni) discovered the PotStop at Little Baja, an eye-catching landmark that skirts the town’s North Harbor on Highway 1.
“Eye candy” describes the PotStop, which specializes in pottery, fountains, statues and yard art. From the highway, one sees mostly large garden pots. But, a closer look inside reveals an array of quirky collectibles – flying metal pigs, biker gnomes, ceramic pumpkins, calming Buddha statues, whimsical outdoor furniture and more. Good thing I left my wallet in the car. Toni, however, returned the following week to go whale watching and purchased a small Buddha statue.
The PotStop is next door to Monterey Bay Kayaks, my go-to-spot for kayak rentals. Kayaking the Elkhorn Slough is a popular activity year-round. The slough teems with sea life – from pelicans, hawks, kites, harriers and other birds; Southern sea otters, Pacific harbor seals, sea lions and jelly fish; to slender sea grasses that billow in soft breezes.
This past August, I kayaked the slough with some friends from Denver. Along our journey, we were treated to a dining extravaganza – pelican style. We had stopped to rest before reaching Kirby Park, one of three entrances to the slough and nearly five miles in. It was just the three of us; all was quiet, except for the pelicans. With a wing span of nearly 79 feet, a handful of California Brown Pelicans came gliding in, canvasing the water for fish. They were so close that we could hear their breath pumping and see their chests beating as they zeroed-in on their prey before diving beak first into the water. It was like watching a wildlife ballet.
With renewed energy, we paddled another half mile past Kirby Park – the slough is six miles total. At the five-mile mark, we stopped for a snack, kayaks bobbing mildly in rather shallow water among large algae blooms.
As we headed back toward the harbor, I took a route near the water’s edge, keeping a safe distance from a group of harbor seals sunning themselves on the banks of the slough. One noticed me and dove into the water. With the playful curiosity of a child, he followed me all the way to the Elkhorn Slough Highway 1 Bridge as if he were escorting me to my destination, or perhaps away from his “haul out” – typically a rocky area where seals rest after eating or for sunning themselves, socializing or giving birth. Periodically, he’d sink below the surface, only to pop up alongside or behind my kayak. The puffing sound he made upon emerging gave away his position each time. Had it not been late in the day, I would have sat a while watching my new friend, but the tide had come in, the wind had picked up and the rowing had become tougher.
To fully appreciate the slough, head out by 10 a.m., or earlier. Plan on spending at least five hours on the water, depending on the weather, the tides and your level of experience and/or adventurism. And, do not approach the animals or disturb the native plants and grasses. Many species, particularly seals, sea otters and sea lions are protected by law from harassment.
Kayaking is one way to experience the slough; the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is another. Five miles of trails meander through majestic oaks, beautiful woodlands, calm tidal creeks, mudflats and freshwater marshes. The main entrance is just six miles from downtown Moss Landing on Elkhorn Road. From town, make a left on Highway 1 and then a right on Dolan Road at the smokestacks. Continue onto Castroville Boulevard before making a left on Elkhorn.
A great way to relax after an energetic day of kayaking or hiking is with a glass of wine. Each Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., the Whole Enchilada Marketplace offers free tastings at its deli on Highway 1, just a stone’s throw from Moss Landing Road. During my visit with my Denver friends, owners Janice and Rey Retez joined us at the tasting bar. Along with a group of lively locals, the couple corralled guests to play a number-guessing game. The winner got a bottle of wine from the featured winery, Storrs Winery out of Santa Cruz.
The Retez’s also own the ever-popular The Whole Enchilada Restaurant, which offers locally caught seafood prepared in a coastal Mexican style; as well as Farm Fresh Produce, an outdoor produce stand that joins the marketplace and restaurant. Prepare to be dazzled by the cornucopia of local fruits and vegetables, nuts, gourmet spreads, candies and fresh flowers.
A cousin of The Whole Enchilada is The Haute Enchilada Café & Galerias, which serves an eclectic menu of sustainable seafood, local organic produce, and wine and beer. Two art galleries display works from local artists. A new experience for me, Toni and I lunched there during our visit last month. Given the gorgeous fall day, we chose patio seating.
The café is known for its Cava de Sangria, a specialty cocktail made from Spanish Cava, fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice. Toni braved the Sangria; I chose the 2010 Arroyo Seco Vermentino from Chesebro Wines in Carmel Valley. Fruit-forward and crisp, this Italian-style varietal paired nicely with the salmon fish tacos and Brussels sprout salad we shared.
My favorite restaurant on the main drag is Moss Landing Café, located at the southern end of the road, near the Castroville Moss Landing Cemetery (a quiet place for a stroll after dinner). In business there for 28 years, this four-star gem serves fine dining in an intimate setting. Fresh seasonal flowers grace the tables year-round. I and my then beau had the pleasure of meeting the owner and chef, Mark Couts, while dining there on my birthday three years ago. That night the tables were set with lovely, aromatic gardenias, which he let us have. Couts also treated us to his company. A friendly man with a knack for hospitality, Couts was not just our chef that night, but also our server and sommelier. Well versed in wines, we followed his suggestions on which wines to have with our entrees.
For a typical fish market experience there’s Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery. Off the beaten path in the South Harbor, Phil’s serves fresh fish in a no-fuss setting. Established in 1982 by owner Phil DiGirolamo, Phil’s has become a destination. The signature dish is the Cioppino, chock-full of fish, clams, mussels, shrimp and crab in a zesty red broth, complete with garlic bread for dipping and a large green salad. You can sit inside the market, in the solarium, at the bar or out back just steps from the beach.
There are many long-time, family owned businesses in Moss Landing, including the Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing. The Inn resides in the old Pacific Coast Steamship Company building built in 1906 following the San Francisco earthquake. The building was fully renovated and opened in 2003 as a bed and breakfast. The Captain’s Inn is a must-stay. I chose this place for my birthday weekend. During our stay, I couldn’t help but marvel at the architecture, with its Tuscan porch front, Queen Anne cottage-style front windows and fireplace built in part from bricks salvaged from buildings damaged in the 1906 earthquake. And then there’s the nautical décor with hardwood floors, antiques and original brass chandelier fixtures.
All guestrooms are decorated in their own theme. The main building has four guest rooms; a chart room, where one can find comfort with a good book; parlor and fireplace; and kitchen. We chose an upstairs room overlooking the picturesque backyard with partial views of the tidal channel. Called the Harbor Master, this is the smallest room in the house. The bathroom, although charming, is a converted closet that accommodates one person at a time.
If you don’t want to stay in the main house, you can choose a newer room in the boathouse out back. Each room has large plate-glass windows that overlook the tidal channel. All of the furniture in each of the rooms was handmade by Captain’s Inn owner Yohn Gideon from pieces of wooden boats. In the High Seas room, for example, the bed, beside table, closet and fixture above the bed are made from parts of the same boat, with the bedside table being constructed from the tip of the boat’s bow. Each boathouse room is complete with either a two-person bathtub or a double-head shower.
An outdoor deck next to the boathouse provides a quiet place where all guests can watch the sunset while enjoying a glass a wine.
Breakfast is prepared by skilled kitchen master Bob, who’s lovingly known by friends as “Sponge Bob.” The large country kitchen opens to the dining room, affording guests an opportunity to chat with the chef while he’s cooking.
Wherever I go, wine is always part of my journey. Fortunately, Moss Landing is nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey County appellations. So, you can map out a wine tasting trip in either direction on your way to or from Moss Landing. If you don’t have time to spend an entire day traveling to multiple wineries, you can do one-stop tasting at Santa Cruz Winemakers’ Studio, a wine cooperative just 11 minutes north of Moss Landing off Highway 1 at the Hangar Way exit. The studio is home to four boutique wineries – Armitage Wines, Myka Cellars, Roudon-Smith Winery and Wargin Wines – each with its own winemaking style that showcases local vineyards. For me and Toni, our visit to the tasting room was a great ending to our whirlwind day in Moss Landing.
Getting into the “groove” of Moss Landing is easy; leaving, however, can be bittersweet. During my trip there three years ago, my companion and I ended our last night strolling the beach. A short walk from the Captain’s Inn took us to tiny sand dunes that give way to a stretch of uninhabited turf. Well almost. We were joined by a seal, who had come ashore to rest. Perhaps like us, he too was there to enjoy the star-studded moonlit sky.
Moss Landing Businesses Featured in this Story
PotStop at Little Baja is at 2360 Highway 1, Moss Landing, CA, 95039, (831)768-7557. For more information visit, http://littlebajapotstop.com/index.html.
Monterey Bay Kayaks is at 2390 Highway, Moss Landing, CA, 95039; (800)649-5357. Open-deck (sit on top) and closed-deck (sit inside) kayaks are $30 per person. Rentals come with gear, life vests, wetsuits, outerwear and a brief safety/weather orientation. Bring your own water shoes, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, water and snacks. For year-round hours visit, www.montereybaykayaks.com.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is at 1700 Elkhorn Road, Watsonville, CA, 95076. The reserve provides a great way to hike in the watershed. There are 5 miles of trails, a visitor center with great exhibits, helpful staff, nature store and guided tours. Days of operation are Wednesday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. For more information, call (831)728-2822 or visit, www.elkhornslough.org.
For information on The Whole Enchilada Marketplace, The Whole Enchilada Restaurant and The Haute Enchilada Café and Galerias visit, http://wenchilada.com/family-of-businesses/.
Moss Landing Café is at 421 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, CA, 95039. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. For hours and further information, call (831)633-3355 or visit, www.mosslandingcafe.com.
Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery is at 7600 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, CA, 95039. The market and eatery are open seven days a week. For specific hours call (831)633-2152 or visit, http://www.philsfishmarket.com/general.html.
Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing is at 8122 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, CA, 95030. For reservations and rates call (831)633-5550 or visit, http://captainsinn.com/reservations.html.
Santa Cruz Winemakers’ Studio is at 18 Hangar Way, Watsonville, CA, 95076. The studio is open Saturday and Sunday, 12 – 5 p.m. or by appointment. Call (831)288-5921 or visit http://i5183.wix.com/scwinemakerstudio for further information.
For information on whale watching, read “Have a Whale of a Time on Monterey Bay,” WineFoodExplorer, October 24, 2013.