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the unbeaten path

California's Pier of the Day

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page P04

WHAT: Harford Pier, a classic working pier on California's central coast.

WHERE: Port San Luis, Avila Beach, Calif., about four miles off Highway 101, between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach.


For a pier from the past, Harford Pier in Port San Luis, Calif., is still teeming with dockworkers from Olde Port Fisheries and their fresh catches of the day. (Robin Schoettler Fox)

WHY GO: Because you can get lunch -- and a free peek at a non-touristy pier.

Excited gulls circle the sky above Harford Pier. Nearby, a crate filled with fish dangles by hoist cable. A worker flicks open the crate's latch, releasing scores of fish into a tank. Using a shovel, he stirs the fish toward a conveyer while bold gulls move closer, trying to steal breakfast. Most of the fish, though, complete the journey and join the piscine waterfall that flows off the end of the conveyer down to a scale. All the while, a red-haired fisherman stands guard, his gaze moving from fish to scale and back again.

In the nearby bay, sea lions lounge on a floating boat dock. They bark and cuddle, just like the sea lions do off Pier 39 in San Francisco. But Harford Pier is wooden and worn, and I see no trinket shops, no high-priced museums and no musicians performing for loose change.

The place is nearly deserted.

I didn't read about Harford Pier in a tourist book. I didn't find it on the Internet, either. I saw it when we arrived at our hotel, the San Luis Bay Inn, two miles down the coast. Some people like lighthouses. Me? I'm into piers. I like to walk them, particularly old ones, to look for clues about their history. But it's taken four days for me to get here.

I've spent much of that time driving up and down the coast road, touring better-known spots: Hearst Castle, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. Today, though, is my chance for a do-it-yourself tour of Harford Pier.

"For Pete's sake . . .," pleads the sign at Pete's Pierside Cafe, "listen for your name to be called . . . [and] breathe deep." On the pier, just behind Pete's, a man turns thick seafood chunks in a red pot-bellied cooker. Next to him, huge crabs crowd large bins. I'm about to ask the cook about a spidery-looking crab when the flutter of hundreds of wings fills the air.

I follow the sound and find the dangling fish crate, the conveyer and the fisherman. I peer into the belly of the Point Loma, a 65-foot boat docked on the pier's north side -- most of its bays are full. Crate to tank and tank to bins, I watch the bays empty as I make friends with the fisherman. He and his crew caught these fish in a single day some 40 miles offshore. Pay is by weight. His estimate? Close to 24,000 pounds.


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