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The Five Cities
BOB HOWELLS from Auto Clubs' "Avenues" magazine 1997
Meet the part of San Luis Obispo County that is not Mission-beautiful San Luis Obispo nor artsy Cambria nor Hearst's San Simeon. The five cities of south San Luis Obispo County, clustered amid coastal mountains, farmland, and the Pacific ocean, are places of charm and beauty too often overlooked in the rush to more famous points north.
Of the five, none is a city in any metropolitan sense, and two aren't cities in any sense. The five are Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach (see Grover City; a recent name change reminds visitors that Pismo has no monopoly on sand), Oceano and Shell Beach. Oceano is unincorporated, and Shell Beach was long ago annexed by Pismo Beach; nonetheless, these are the five, and each has a distinctive character.
Shell Beach is all about cliffs- sheer bluffs that tumble to the cold Pacific at the northern end of Pismo Beach. Walk the precipice of cliffs at Margo Dodd Park (get there by heading west on Cliff Avenue from main drag Shell Beach Road) and you feel like a silent chorister amid a littoral din: gulls and other throngs of other shorebirds, the surge and break of gentle waves, and sometimes the hoarse arfing of harbor seals. Stairs take you closer to the action- when the tide's out, tide pooling is superb. Or rent a kayak and get a seals eye view of the cliffs caves and offshore boulders.
Pismo Beach is a time-warp shrine to days when our beach towns were unpretentious places meant for just goofing off. Gravity here pulls everyone down Pomeroy Avenue to the Pismo Pier, where you'll want to stroll out and see what they're catching or whether the surf's up. Rent a banana bike and you become a human-powered dune buggy. Pomeroy Avenue and its side streets are lined with snack bars and surf shops and plenty of opportunities to buy knickknacks and T-shirts. The Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce (805) 773-4382 can provide maps for the Five Cities area.
The chowder's good at Splash Cafe (the bivalves are imported though; the famous Pismo clams aren't sold commercially), and Pismo Fish and Chips on Cypress Street has the best of its ilk you'll find anywhere. On the south edge of Pismo Beach, the tall eucalyptus trees that surround Pismo State Beach's North Campground are known as butterfly trees from November to February, when hundreds of thousands of monarchs cluster in them; follow a marked path off Highway 1 to catch the action.
Poor Grover Beach. Its beach is really Pismo's, and its town is entirely inland. No matter. It has access to a state-operated ramp for driving on the hard-packed sand ($4 to drive, free to walk). It's also a good place to try clam digging, but you'll need a state fishing license. Next door to the ramp is a small but lovely oceanfront golf course, Pismo State Beach Golf Course, (805) 481-5215.
Drive south from Grover by sand or by Highway 1 and you'll reach Oceano and another beach ramp, plied by dune buggies headed into a long stretch of sandbox. Although RV sites outnumber residents here, Oceano has another claim to fame: the first-rate Great American Melodrama and Vaudville, (805) 489-2499, replete with good grub, villains to hiss at, and old-fashioned sing-alonging.
Arroyo Grande, my hometown, is the only landlocked member of the Five Cities, but its vintage downtown village outcharms the others. It's a place meant for walking: pursue the antique shops that line Branch Street, grab a homemade ice cream at Burnardo'z, and slurp it in the little city park that leads to the village's landmark swinging footbridge over Arroyo Grande Creek.
If it's Saturday, there's a farmers' market in the park and music in the town gazebo. Walk across the bridge and feel how its sway evokes a nostalgia for slower times and simple pleasures. The freeway can wait. Check out the size of those strawberries.