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Friday, Feb 22 2013 12:01 AM

Trip Planner: Central Coast kayaking

By Lois Henry

As our guide showed proper paddling techniques and how to avoid leaning over the sides of our kayaks, I couldn't stop myself from looking at the ocean.

There were waves. Big ones. Coming in one after the other.

Related Info

Kayak rentals

There are several kayak rental and tour businesses on the coast, so call around and pick the one you like best.

Central Coast Kayaks

1879 Shell Beach Road in Pismo Beach

Phone: 805-773-3500

Web: centralcoastkayaks.com

Pismo Beach Surf Shop

470 Price St. in Pismo Beach

Phone: 805-773-2089

Web: pismobeachsurfshop.com

SLO Coast Kayaks

3915 Avila Beach Drive in Avila Beach

Phone: 805-704-6902

Web: slocoastkayaks.com

Central Coast Outdoors

2189 10th St. in Los Osos

Phone: 805-528-1080

Web: centralcoastoutdoors.com

Related Photos

Central Coast Kayaks provides everything you need to manuever safely through the ocean rock formation including a wetsuit, windbreaker, helmet and life vest.

Guides at Central Coast Kayaks can show beginning kayakers how to paddle in and out of the many caves that pockmark the cliffs, like these, in Shell Beach south.

Beginning kayakers make their way through natural bridges and rock formations during a Central Coast Kayaks trip in Shell Beach.

A beginning kayakers goes through natural bridges during a Central Coast Kayaks trip in Shell Beach.

When I signed up for this ocean kayak cave tour through Central Coast Kayaks in Shell Beach, I somehow forgot about this whole "wave" part of it. In a few minutes, we were going to grab our boats, point our bows straight into those waves and launch.

I'm not kidding when I tell you these waves were crashing (OK, they wouldn't have made even the most timid surfer salivate, but I'm from Bakersfield so they were tsunami-like to me!). I foresaw imminent dunkage in my future.

Perhaps it was my constant head turning, or our guide Justin Jewell's keen safety instincts kicking in, but luckily, he decided to take us about 50 yards down the beach to launch into much gentler, lapping waves.

Shwew! Once I crossed through the waves, I was out into smooth water in no time with my fellow novice kayakers. We all grinned as we sat there in the placid water looking back at the picturesque California coastline on a picture-perfect California day.

I really can't rave about this trip enough. I had always wanted to try ocean kayaking and after such a great experience, this won't be my last trip.

It cost about $70 per person for a half day tour starting at 9 a.m. (hours change depending on season, so be sure and check).

Central Coast Kayaks provided everything: wetsuit, windbreaker helmet, life vest. And Jewell made sure none of us got in over our heads out on the water. On the walk down to the beach, he let us know he'd just given this tour a few days earlier for a woman celebrating her 80th birthday.

None of us could chicken out after that.

Out on the water, we glided along the coast just a few hundred yards out, paddling in between rock formations and, yes, in and out of the many caves that pockmark the cliffs from Shell Beach south.

True to the brochure's description, the animal life was all around us including seagulls, cormorants, pelicans and other birds I couldn't identify.

And there were plenty of seals sunning on rocks. Some pups even swam through our little flotilla, popping up around the kayaks to check us out. A few otters were out there as well, but apparently too busy rolling in kelp to bother with us. And I did spot some dolphins in the distance.

In some places the water was so still and clear, it seemed you could almost reach down and pluck up a starfish.

It wasn't just sightseeing either. Jewell gave us lots of tips on how to get through, by and around various obstacles.

We learned how to stay put in surging water, maneuver through tight rock caves with their own currents, and how to ram through waves at just the right moment. I really came away with a lot more confidence than I started with.

That doesn't mean I'll be renting a kayak and heading out solo anytime soon. Even on a nice calm day like the one we had, the ocean has a mind of its own that demands respect and requires a lot more experience than I have.

For now, I think I'll just stick with relying on someone else's experience. Where to eat

Where to eat

There are tons of great places to eat on the Central Coast, but I thought I'd mention the Cracked Crab, in case you haven't visited. After my kayak tour, I was famished and the Cracked Crab was the first spot I saw.

What a lucky stop it turned out to be. Everything is really fresh and made in-house.

I had the crab cakes, of course, and they were full of crab without all the bready filler some places include. The salad was crisp with locally grown tomatoes. And the crab melt was delish.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning the house specialty, which plenty of my fellow diners were enjoying -- the bucket.

You can choose from a variety of seafood -- lobster, shrimp, crab, mussels, crawdads and more -- which is then combined in a bucket with corn, potatoes and cajun sausage, and steamed to perfection.

The whole thing is then dumped into the middle of your table and you get to dig in. So good!

-- Cracked Crab; 751 Price St. in Pismo Beach; 805-773-2722; crackedcrab.com.

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