Avila Beach remakes itself, from disaster to destination

AVILA BEACH They arrived early and commandeered the best beachfront table outside Joe Momma’s Coffee. They are locals, so they know all the angles, including that this primo spot affords views of the sun rising over the bluffs, the morning beach-yoga session, women strutting by Front Street in little-left-to-the-imagination bikinis, and families lugging coolers, chairs, boogie boards and the dog to claim choice stretches of sand near the pier.

Yeah, these three Avila Beach men – Bobby Chow, Nick Nolte (not that Nick Nolte) and Albert (“Just Albert, please”) – sipping coffee and drinking in the atmosphere are the embodiment of the “Life’s a Beach” cliché in this tiny seaside burg in a cove between Pismo to the south and Morro Bay to the north.

Get them talking about the town’s old days, ask them about tales from the reconstruction, and that’s when they ignore the sights around them and start bantering and griping with caffeine-charged fervor.

“This used to be a trailer-park town, biker-bar type of town, no kidding, before the rebuild,” Chow says. “To be truthful, even before it got torn up, it was going through changes. But today’s town? Completely different.”

“It was like the last shakeout, man,” Nolte adds.

“Whether there was a spill or not, this place was set to boom,” Albert says, before adding, snarkily, “It’s nice now for visitors, but we still got the nuclear power plant. Tourists don’t know that.”

“I worked at Diablo Canyon 19 years,” Chow counters, “and I ain’t glowing. It’s safe.”

“Whoa, you know what I just put together?” Nolte says, taking off his shades to punctuate his insight. “That area back there is called Diablo Canyon. Diablo is devil, man. So they decided to put a freaking nuclear power plant in a place named after the devil! Can’t believe I never realized that before.”

Heavy, dude. Before putting his sunglasses back in place and resuming his Saturday morning ogling, Nolte made one last observation: “This whole place, this is oil money here.”

All over Avila Beach, whose population of 1,627 has increased 283 percent in the past decade, residents maintain an ardent ambivalence about the seminal event that forever changed the face of the town. For nearly 100 years, Unocal pumped gasoline, diesel fuel and crude oil from a “tank farm” on the bluffs through pipes to the docks on the bay, where tankers transported it near and far. What wasn’t known, until a resident digging in his basement struck oil in 1989, was that a huge toxic lake of crude had formed from leaks in the pipes, saturating the earth underneath the entire downtown business sector and the beaches.

Now, this is a resilient town that’s known its share of calamities over the years – from the shipwrecks in the late 1800s that led to the lighthouse construction, to the occasional “minor” radiation leaks from Diablo Canyon, to the fatal shark attack that freaked folks in 2003 – but the massive oil spill proved catastrophic.

Unocal agreed to pay $200 million in cleanup costs and damages. It’s believed to be among the largest environmental settlements in the state’s history. By the late 1990s, as the cleanup began, the damage was so extensive that much of the town was simply razed, bringing to mind that old Vietnam War trope of “we must destroy the village in order to save it.” Residents were displaced as heavy equipment dug as deep as 15 feet underground in places to remove more than 300,000 cubic yards of crude-soaked earth.

Gone were the dive bars, funky low-rise motels, beachfront snack shacks with huge signs like the giant yellow cup reading “Big Dip Shake,” and stucco-fronted eateries that were laminated-placemat joints. Gone, too, were some of the longtime residents, who took settlement checks and decamped for less-oily climes.

But for everyone who lamented the loss of the old Avila, many also looked forward to starting anew, so rare does a town get a chance to thoroughly remake itself. The three locals were enjoying life at Joe Momma’s, which didn’t open until 2007, part of the gritty-to-glitzy Avila Beach 2.0 upgrade.

Upscale hotels and resorts dominate Front Street skyline, with the Avila Lighthouse Suites’ swimming pool only a Frisbee throw away from the pier and the San Luis Bay Inn and Resort’s sprawling, rutilant buildings (attached to tennis courts and a golf course) dominating a northern bluff and the architecturally stunning La Fonda Hotel bringing a touch of 19th century Mexican haciendas to downtown.

Restaurants that, pre-spill, might have raised the eyebrows of health inspectors have been replaced by linen-tablecloth places where fishing line-to-fork, locally sourced seafood and inland San Luis Obispo County produce are lovingly plated by white-toqued chefs. The Old Custom House, a holdover in name only from the the BC (before crude) era, dropped the “Old” from its signage upon re-opening in 2001 and has garnered rave reviews from Yelp and Urban Spoon sophisticates. Even your standard beach fare, like taco stands and ice cream shops, are housed in pastel-shaded wooden structures that look more like nice condos than strip malls.

And while there remains a passel of touristy trinket and beach-provisions shops on Front Street, the business district also is sprinkled with wine-and-cheese bars, combined yoga and art studios, a champagne bar, higher-end clothing boutiques and a children’s store, “This Little Fishy,” where a toddler’s bandana two-piece swim suit sells for $58.

That is not to suggest Avila Beach has completely bulldozed its tradition and heritage. The Avila Grocery & Deli has been on Front Street since 1920 and, while the building itself is of the AD (after destruction) era, the place has managed to keep its homey feel – not to mention its killer breakfast burritos you order from the counter.

It is out in front of the Avila Grocery where you encounter the two views of the town’s crude evolution: the grateful tourists and the wistful locals.

Couple Neil and Debbie Sylvester, tucking into plates of scrambled eggs with bacon and biscuits and gravy, escaped the heat of a Fresno summer for a weekend in 65-degree and sunny Avila Beach. They say they’ve made this a “weekend getaway” for decades, so they remember the “before” in Avila’s extreme makeover.

“There were no upscale shops (before) and now you can get a nice hotel (room) that’s actually on the beach,” Neil says. “Oh, I like it a lot better.”

Debbie said she likes what hasn’t changed: “It’s still quiet and laid-back. And it’s never windy. When we’re in Pismo, the wind is gusting like crazy. Every time we come here, the weather is perfect. You can actually go lay on the beach.”

At least in the summer months, when it’s warm enough, that is. Edward Sweeny, the equipment rental vendor under the First Pier, says the main beach is unofficially divided in two – families to the right of the pier, Cal Poly students to the left. Longtime locals? They can go to either side, he says.

Across the way, locals Teresa Whitesel Navarro and Leanne Drummond, with her black Labrador, Boz, were sharing a breakfast burrito. They have mixed feelings about the Avila of today.

“First, it’s good they got the oil off the beach, Whitesel Navarro says. “It was kind of a moral imperative, in my opinion. Certain things have survived, like the Avila Beach Yacht Club over there (on the pier). Leanne is a member. That’s the original building, right, Leanne?”

“It was a lookout in World War II for subs,” Drummond says. “The Army rented it from the yacht club. They put a tower on it. Still, in the loft area, you can see fold-down Army bunks. They didn’t tear down the yacht club.”

“But the remediation was extensive,” Whitesel Navarro says. “Sure, you can say that (it’s great to start over), but it’s a little sad, too. It lost its funky feel. Kind of a bummer that it’s new and shiny. I like new and shiny like anyone else, but …”

“But if you go inland, to some of the houses, there’s still some funkiness,” Drummond says.

Whitsel Navarro: “Or go to Cayucos (a beach town south of Cambria and north of Morro Bay) for funkiness. That place is super fun. Great cinnamon rolls.”

The dripping-wet Boz, staring intently at the breakfast burritos on the women’s plates, is more of an Avila dog, because the beaches and surf are canine-friendly. Officially, dogs are allowed to frolic on the main beach only before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m., but a bit north is the Olde Port, which the locals call Dog Beach, meaning Fido can have free rein and even jump off the dock.

“You see a lot of regulars (dogs) in the morning,” Drummond says. “We know the names of all the dogs but none of the people’s names. This morning, dogs were out swimming with dolphins. There was a pod of five or six (dolphins), and they were no more than 20 feet out. There was a Newfie (Newfoundland) named Lila, out swimming with them. So I looked out, and I thought it was a seal, but then realized it’s Lila.”

Good thing Lila didn’t stray too close to the pier nearest to town (called, of course First Pier), because she might have become an angler’s catch. The fishing hasn’t changed over the years. It’s still a reliable spot to bring home dinner.

Junior Bungcayao, who comes from Visalia with his father and brother two weekends a month, lugged two buckets full of mackerel, smelt and kingfish.

“This is the pier to go to,” Bungcayao says. “The third pier isn’t as crowded with fishermen, but you’re not going to catch as much because of all the sea lions.”

(Quick aside: The “second” pier is not called that and is not open to the public; it’s called the “Cal Poly Pier,” because Cal Poly San Luis Obispo uses it for research as part of its Center for Coastal Marine Sciences. Tankers formerly used that pier to load up its gallons of crude, but a repentant Unocal donated the pier to the university in 2001. Postscript: Unocal sold its leaky holdings in 2005 to Chevron, which wants to turn the erstwhile 95-acre “tank farm” into a luxury resort. The oil giant has presented plans to the San Luis Obispo County supervisors.)

Tourists can learn factual nuggets, as well as the complete nautical history of the area, each Wednesday and Saturday on trolley tours given by encyclopedic guides Kristi Balzer and Deborah Foughty of the nonprofit Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. It’s a two-hour tour (four hours with the hiking option) in which you learn about the town from the Chumash Indians, through the Spanish conquerors, to the whalers, to Unocal’s “contributions” and to the town’s rebirth.

Balzer gets especially animated when she relates the (partial) sinking of the steamship Queen of the Pacific in 1888 off the bay’s rocky coast, how the vessel limped into port with no navigation because there was no lighthouse, how the 125 passengers were rescued in lifeboats, how the ship wound up half-submerged near the dock. “Within a year, they got the $50,000 needed to start building the lighthouse,” she says.

Funny, isn’t it, how a catastrophic event can bring changes for the good?