Forget about Fisherman's Wharf ― nowhere is the cadence of seaside life more fully celebrated than in this quiet beach town just north of Monterey.
The excellent seafood at local eateries is more than enough reason to make a detour, but the biggest draw in early winter is the surrounding wildlife.
Moss Landing is the gateway to the scenic tidal marshlands of the Elkhorn Slough, an important stop for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway and a sheltered harbor for seals and sea otters.
Moss Landing is on Monterey Bay, along State 1 two hours south of San Francisco and about 20 minutes north of the city of Monterey. From State 1, turn on Moss Landing Rd. to reach the main downtown strip and the harbor. The Elkhorn Slough Reserve's visitor center (closed Mon-Tue; 831/728-2822) is inland via Dolan Rd.
PotStop at Little Baja Good deals on garden urns. INFO: Closed Mon-Tue; 2360 State 1; 831/768-7557.Tina Louise Bring home fresh Dungeness crab, straight from the boat. INFO: Cash or check only; Dock A in Moss Landing Harbor, on Sandholdt Rd.; 831/229-7373 (call ahead).
Haute Enchilada Art Cafe Enjoy an espresso and a slice of banana bread in this cheerful, folk art-filled cafe. INFO: $; 7902-A Sandholdt Rd.; 831/633-5843.
Phil's Fish Market and Eatery The restaurant helped put Moss Landing on the map with some of the best cioppino around. INFO: $$; free live bluegrass Mon, Wed, and Thu nights; 7600 Sandholdt Rd.; 831/633-2152.
Sea Harvest Warm up with clam chowder and Dungeness crab while you watch otters tumble in the waters of the slough. INFO: $$; 2420 State 1; 831/633-8300.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve Our favorite route is the easy 2.2-mile South Marsh Loop. INFO: Closed Mon-Tue; $2.50 day-use fee; 1700 Elkhorn Rd.; 831/728-2822.
Elkhorn Slough Safari Get a close-up view of otters, pelicans, and seals on a two-hour pontoon-boat tour. Not to be missed. INFO: $28; reservations required; 831/633-5555.
Moss Landing State Beach Head to the right, and you'll likely find the sand all to yourself. INFO: On Jetty Rd. off State 1; 831/649-2836.
MAKE IT AN OVERNIGHT
Captain Yohn Gideon of the Elkhorn Slough Safari and his wife, Melanie, run the Captain's Inn at Moss Landing (from $135, including breakfast; 831/633-5550), a nautical B&B. It's worth the extra cost to book one of the six newer boathouse rooms, which overlook a gorgeous, reed-lined section of the slough. Spot wildlife from a cozy windowside armchair or your deep soaking tub. Each room comes with a wildlife journal, a bird guide, binoculars ― and a toy boat to float in your tub.