Magic in Moss Landing

humpbackA surprisingly perfect staycation spot

Viewers of Anthony Bourdain’s new show “The Layover,” which features the famed, foul-mouthed chef making the most of cities in just 24 hours, know it can be tough to get the true feel of a place in such a short time. But it’s not impossible … And it certainly helps when the locale in question is, say, the tiny fishing hamlet of Moss Landing instead of Rome or New York City.

GT’s Staycation blog has been spotlighting great getaways in the Central and Northern California region since late-2009, when the depressed economy birthed a need for cheaper, closer-to-home vacays. But, until now, we’ve overlooked our seaside neighbor directly to the south.  In true staycation fashion, my recent stay in Moss Landing was a mere 24 hours (a la “The Layover”), but the short jaunt was enough time for me to fall in love with the town that I’ve driven past for years without giving it a second thought. My guess is that this is the case for many Santa Cruzans, to whom I now say: give Moss Landing a shot.

captains2I was drawn to the Monterey County village by the nautical allure of Captain’s Inn, a small 10-guestroom establishment on the shores of the Elkhorn Slough. Upon arrival, proprietor Melanie Gideon, who opened the bed and breakfast with her husband, Yhon, in 2003, greeted me in what I soon realized was her naturally bubbly and witty demeanor. As she guided me around the property, I took in the endless supply of old boats and boat parts incorporated into the décor. “I’m married to a boat captain,” she explained. “Some women’s husbands have too many baseball caps, or too many cars. With mine, it’s boat. They pop up out of the ground like flower bulbs.”

The guestrooms ($160-$229 in the winter off-season) are in two buildings—the main house, a historical site built in 1906 and renovated to include four lovely rooms, and the Boathouse, a waterfront building with six rooms that overlook the slough and sea. My temporary home was in the latter, and was aptly named “High Seas.” It, like every room in the place, repurposed an old boat: the San Pedro, a white and teal salmon fishing craft, was used to build the bed, nightstand and a lighting fixture.

Angular, floor-to-ceiling windows provided a spectacular view of the Elkhorn Slough and the plethora of birds that inhabit it. (I watched a flock of American Avecots feed while I settled in.) Well over 100 bird species have been spotted from the Captain’s Inn property, and guests are encouraged to keep an eye out for these winged beauties during their stay and check sightings off on the Bird Check List handed to them upon arrival. The seashore theme of the room blended seamlessly with the beautiful natural view, creating a calming, pleasant atmosphere.

As the sun set, I indulged in one of the Inn’s massage treatments, a body- and stress-melting 60-minute Relaxing Massage with therapist Jane Anne Clemens (massage-santacruz.com/jane-clemens.php). Clemens’ light touch washed away any tension left behind from my busy workweek, and I left the session blissfully rejuvenated. The fact that I was a mere 20 minutes from home had officially slipped away at this point—the ultimate sign of a successful staycation.

I moseyed down Moss Landing Road to my dinner destination, Lemongrass Seafood Grill (413 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, 633-0700), with the now defunct smoke stacks looming behind me as I passed abandoned buildings, boat parts and an eerie cemetery that somehow all add to the place’s charm. The town was once a booming fishing hub, and although fishing is still its main forte, it has a quaint ghost town sort of feel. Once seated at the Thai restaurant, with an order of Pad Se Ew with Mock Duck on the way and surrounded by locals who all knew one another’s names, it hit me: the best part about Moss Landing was the gentle pace. Maybe it was residual Zen from my massage, but I was intoxicated with the fact that there was no place to be. No need to rush. Nothing to worry about. It’s a simple, happy place.

Aiding my already merry mood was the out-of-this-world food that Lemongrass served up. As a Thai food fanatic, I can safely say that this restaurant is perhaps the best of its type in the region. The menu boasts an impressive array of seafood, but I partook in vegetarian options—including the aforementioned Pad Se Ew—that were savory, filling, and flavored to perfection. For dessert, fried bananas and coconut milk ice cream with chocolate and strawberry sauce … need I say more? To boot, the atmosphere is cozy and the owners are kind and attentive. I’m already thinking up reasons to drive south just so that I can stop in at Lemongrass again.

Fitting to the (extremely) small and quiet town, there isn’t any nightlife to speak of in Moss Landing (unless the bar at Lemongrass counts). And that’s just as it should be. The Inn has in-room televisions and Internet, but it’s the sort of place that makes you want to ditch those daily conveniences and curl up in front of the parlor room fire with one of their many books or board games. I was content to sit at the window in my waterside room, lights dimmed, fire in the fireplace, glass of wine in hand, and gaze out over the dark and pristine slough. I finished off the lovely evening with a relaxing bath in my room’s large, luxurious soaking tub.

orcaThe following morning, after a delightful breakfast cooked by Melanie (she’s famous for her kitchen creations, and has even published a cookbook titled “Cooking for the Captain”), it was off to the Moss Landing Harbor for a whale-watching excursion with Sanctuary Cruises (sanctuarycruises.com). There are several qualities that make this company stand out: To start, it’s a smaller vessel than most whale watching boats, and the owners, Dorris Welch and Michael Sack, keep it at about 75 percent capacity, making for a more intimate, individualized experience. They set out daily, year-round, unlike any other local whale watching ventures. Welch is a marine biologist with expansive knowledge, and our trip was laced with fun facts and insights into the ocean wildlife we were seeking. Also a plus, a trip aboard Sanctuary Cruises lasts between four and five hours—significantly longer than other companies—which means better chances of spotting whales. (Although, it also means more time for seasickness, so those with uneasy stomachs should take advantage of the anti-seasickness bracelets they rent out for $7.) We found sea otters galore, sea lions, harbor seals, and two migrating grey whales on our outing. Apparently this was on the light side of what they usually see, which led Welch and Sack to offer everyone a complimentary second trip. But between the fresh air, knowledgeable guides, and marine mammals we did see, I was a happy sailor. Also note worthy: Sanctuary Cruises get eco-friendly points for running on biodiesel.

Once docked that afternoon, it was a quick goodbye to the adorable Inn and back to the daily grind in Santa Cruz. Moss Landing had hit all of the staycation marks and more: romance, charm and comfort at the Captain’s Inn; fantastic food and friendly people; abounding outdoor activities and wildlife watching; and—most importantly—the right ingredients for relaxation. It was an easy farewell, however, because I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was back again.

Also not to be missed:

captains1Valentine’s Day at Captain’s Inn—This bed and breakfast is already a perfect and cozy romantic getaway, but to top it off they have some specials in the works. The Romance & Sweetheart package ($59) includes a box of hand-dipped chocolate truffles, a fresh bouquet of flowers, lemonade, fresh fruit, and bath salts, all of which will be waiting in the room. They also offer relaxing massages for pampering your special someone and romantic horseback rides on the beach (discounted through the Inn). For the month of February, guests get 15 percent off a second night, and will receive a complimentary Mocha Kiss set—dark drinking chocolate and espresso. Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing, 8122 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, 633-5550, captainsinn.com.

The Elkhorn Slough Safari — Boat captain (and Captain’s Inn co-owner) Yohn Gideon leads these 1.5 to two hour voyages into the natural wonder that is the Elkhorn Slough. For $26 – $35 (depending on age), participants are guided from Moss Landing into the slough, where they will hit the wildlife-watching jackpot—birds aplenty, otters, seals, sea lions and more. The tour takes place in a stable pontoon boat and on calm slough waters, making it a good option for the easily seasick. It’s also an ideal opportunity for fantastic wildlife photography. Santa Cruzans who aren’t already familiar with the unique eco-system of our local slough shouldn book a safari ASAP. Call 633-5555 or visit elkhornslough.com to make a reservation or to learn more.

Blue Ocean Whale Watching—Another popular whale watching tour that departs from Moss Landing Harbor each weekend. Blueoceanwhalewatch.com.

Water Sports—Grab your board and wetsuit and shred at Moss Landing’s famous beach break, or rent kayaks for a good time in sea or slough.

The Antique Fair—There isn’t much in Moss Landing in general, but one thing the locale has plenty of is antiques. Check out the bounty at the 43rd Annual Moss Landing Antique Street Fair on July 29, 2012.

The Shakespeare Society Of America—Bard lovers shouldn’t miss this venue. 7981 Moss Landing Road, 
Moss Landing, 633-2989, shakespearesocietyofamerica.org.

PHOTOS: Humpback and orca whale photos by Michael Sack of Sanctuary Cruises. Inn photos courtesy of Captain’s Inn.

Contributor at Good Times |

Elizabeth Limbach is a writer and editor based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the former Managing Editor of Good Times Weekly. While at Good Times, she won six California Newspaper Publishers Association awards including First Place in the category of Best Writing for “Learning to Love Autism” (2011) and “Breaking the Silence” (2013). Her freelance work has been published by TheAtlantic.com, Parade.com, American Way, Ms., Sierra Magazine, E – The Environmental Magazine, Edible Monterey Bay and Edible Silicon Valley, among others. Find her online at elizabethlimbach.com.

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