Blink and you’ll miss Shell Beach


©Copyright 2001,2002, Debra Lo Guercio, all rights reserved

As you head south on Highway 101, just past San Luis Obispo, you’re traveling through rather generic looking hills and you go over that last hill. Suddenly, the wide, sparkling blue
Pacific Ocean spreads out in front of you. It’s a stunning sight that seems to materialize from out of nowhere and take your breath away, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

While you blink at the magnificence of that brilliant expanse of water, be sure to do so quickly. If the blink is one nanosecond too long, you’ll miss the exit to Shell Beach. (It’s called – surprise, surprise -- the Shell Beach Road exit.)

Although technically a suburb of Pismo Beach, Shell Beach really is a tiny community in its own right. It reminds me of Winters: a well-kept secret that seems only to be one of those highway exits you pass by on the way to somewhere else, unless you know better. A lot like Winters, in fact, except for the spectacular ocean view and the fact that a typical modest three bedroom Winters home would sell for about $600,000 in Shell Beach. Trust me, it’s cheaper to stay in a motel.

Luckily, despite its tiny size, there are plenty of motels to choose from in Shell Beach, ranging from tiny 1950s-style Mom and Pop motels with reasonable rates on up to posh resort hotels like The Cliffs (buckle up your Visa card, it’s going to be a bumpy ride).

The motel I picked was The Shell Beach Motel, more at the Mom and Pop end of the spectrum. Not a very fancy name, but I love those not-very-fancy prices. But only if the place is clean, safe and high-quality, and a heaping helping of charm won’t hurt either. I can do “inexpensive” just fine, but I don’t do “cheap.”

The Shell Beach Motel gets high marks on every count: Friendly, accommodating personnel, the most darling English country style rooms you could imagine, and a real bargain with rooms that range from $64-95 per night (slightly higher on holidays.) There’s even a swimming pool and lounge chairs if you’re in the mood for some sun.

The rooms feature cable TV, microwaves, mini-refrigerators and coffeemakers, and best of all is the location. Of all the hotels and motels in the area, the Shell Beach Motel is perfectly situated to walk everywhere. You could park your car and never drive again until it’s time to go home. And the area is so walkable! Joggable, even. Or bikeable. It feels slow and safe, even if you’re alone, even at night. That’s a huge plus.

What’s within walking distance? Plenty. Along Shell Beach Road is a tiny grocery store, liquor store and post office. You’ll never go hungry, with German food (Old Vienna), Italian fare (Del’s Pizza) and barbecue (Alex’s) all featured in nearby restaurants. In the mood for breakfast or some cappuccino? You’ll find a selection of cute little roadside cafes like Seasun’s Café and The Coffee Bean.

If you need to relax, acupuncture, day spas and massage therapy offices are ready and waiting to de-stress you. If you’re into “stuff,” Shell Beach has an antique shop full of Grandma’s hand-me-downs and a variety of darling little gift shops. My favorite has an indoor-outdoor setup. Inside are all sorts of delicate, intricate knick-knacks. But outside you’ll find the really interesting items: hundreds of pieces of Mexican pottery and sculpture, and decorative fence plaques shaped like sun faces. You can never have too many of those.

Just be sure that as you walk and explore Shell Beach to take a detour down one of the side streets nearby, such as Leeward or Palisade. Those streets lead straight to the oceanside, which you mustn’t miss.

The tiny beach at the end of these side streets rests at the base of steep, jagged cliffs. Compared to other California beaches, it’s a postage stamp. If not for the winding stairs that lead down the cliffsides, it’d be completely inaccessible. It likely was for many years, and that accounts for its natural beauty.

Huge boulders, smoothed by pounding surf and stormy winds, dot the shore, and you can wander through them at low tide and investigate whatever ocean treasures the waves toss onto the sand. There are alcoves of sand among the cliffs and boulders, just perfect for throwing down a blanket and reading, or just resting and relaxing.

Farther into the water, massive chunks of fallen cliffside jut out of the surf, many of them worn through in places like donuts. If kayaking is your thing, kayaks can be rented for exploring around the area and at low tide, the water is quite gentle. Another popular local activity (I’d rather just watch, thank you very much) is surfing. The waves in the Shell Beach area aren’t monsters, though, so you might only be able to hang five.

If you aren’t in the mood for brushing sand out of your jeans, you can still enjoy the ocean. The edge of the road lining the cliff is dotted with benches for just enjoying the spectacular view, particularly at sunset. If you choose one of the benches at the tiny park at the southernmost end of the beach, you’ll have a fantastic view of the scores of pelicans that nest on top of the cliff chunks. If you’ve never been up close and personal with pelicans, you’ll be amazed to discover how large they are, and even more amazed that a bird so large (with quite a bit of pointed front end to maneuver) could be so graceful in the air.

If you just can’t stay away from your car, head south down Shell Beach Road into Pismo Beach. When you get into town, the street name becomes Price Street, and you’ll find shops and restaurants in abundance. The beach itself, for which Pismo Beach is named, is the most famous attraction. Its hallmark is the bank of sweeping sandy dunes. Also of note for shoppers are the Pismo Beach outlets, rather small in number but interesting in diversity and selection.

But let’s get back to food. Always on the lookout for good Italian food as I am, a stop at either Rose’s or Guiseppe’s (both on Price Street) is advised. The one place you mustn’t miss if you’re in area, however, is McClintock’s, back up in Shell Beach. It’s on the east side of Highway 101, and is probably within walking distance of the motel, but take the car. The traffic gets busy over there.

If it can be barbecued or grilled, you’ll find it at McClintock’s. If you ever had thoughts of becoming a vegetarian, go have a steak at McClintock’s to be reminded of the fact that if God wanted us to be vegetarians, He wouldn’t have made animals taste so good. Breakfast is also a real delight at McClintock’s. Sunday brunch there is heavenly and more than ample. If you fill up there as you’re heading for home, you won’t get hungry again until you get there. Maybe not even until tomorrow.

Planning this little getaway is simple. You only have to remember “Shell Beach Times Three” to get it right: Shell Beach, Shell Beach Road, Shell Beach Motel. Remember that, and you’ll have one enjoyable weekend. Bring your walking shoes and a thick, warm sweatshirt.

One note: You may have noticed that I didn’t review a bed and breakfast this time. That’s because there are none in Shell Beach, and take note, potential innkeepers: the area is screaming for one. It’s the perfect location. All it needs is a proprietor. And don’t worry, once you’re in business, I can connect you with a travel writer who’d be more than happy to give you a great review.

How to get in touch: The Shell Beach Motel is located at 653 Shell Beach Road in Shell Beach. The phone number is (800) 549-4727, and the amiable manager’s name (to whom you should mention you read this review) is Tom Grant. The website is and their email address is Home Page