So here we are, the final stop on our “12 Trips of Christmas” journey. And what’s Christmas Day without a feast? Boy do we have the place — not just one feast, but two, plus a bounty of golf to go with it. California’s Central Coast has an abundance of fairways and food, from Jocko’s Steak House and Monarch Dunes’ 30 holes in Nipomo to the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach, where we begin our celebration …
It’s all about The Bucket at Mike and Kathy Lee’s simple eatery in the heart of Pismo. And not just any bucket, this is the Big Bucket. Get your friends or family — or both — together and gather round a table, have a server strap on your crab bib and wait for them to dump a bucketful of the best steamed shellfish in the West right onto the table, mixed with spicy Cajun sausage, red skin potatoes and sweet corn on the cob. All the necessary tools are on hand — hammers, crackers, rippers, shellfish forks, scissors and rolls and rolls and rolls of paper towels — as you relish this primal ritual (one in which Team FG partakes every time we’re in town). As for the crab itself, we suggest the Opilio and Bairdi, but for a real treat, upgrade to Alaskan Red King, shipped in from the Hillstrand brothers, whose boat The Time Bandit is a regular feature of Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.”
And once they’ve cleared away the crunchy remains of your bucket bonanza, stick around for homemade desserts — apple cobbler, keylime or chocolate chip cookie pie, each best served with ice cream — to finish the meal off in style. Keep in mind that this kind of seafood isn’t cheap (on a recent visit, three hungry golfers racked up $80/person for apps, chowder, meal, drinks and tip), but bite for bite (and we didn’t even mention the warm sourdough rolls) it’s worth every penny, just like a memorable round of golf that might cost you a bit more than you’d usually pay.
Fortunately, you’ll be saving some of that money down at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo, just off Highway 101 north of Santa Maria. Rates are quite affordable at this facility — designed by Damian Pascuzzo and two-time Ryder Cupper Steve Pate — which is among the best the Golden State has to offer. The 18-hole Old Course is one of those tracks that keeps you on your toes with a variety of shots played to sneaky-tricky greens and framed by natives grasses and towering coastal trees. It’s a rare course where we like — and remember — every hole, some of which climb inside your mind and taunt you for weeks after they get the best of you.
But as much as we love the Old Course, Pascuzzo-Pate’s creativity comes out even more in the 12-hole (par-36) Challenge Course at Monarch, a collection of (hopefully) one-shotters that will hone any short game. In fact, the 242-yard No. 5, which plays to a partial island green, might be one of the best 3-pars in the country — on any course. And the 202-yard No. 12 is a tough finisher with a tiered green that’s loads of fun for players who enjoy bumps, runs and playing the angles.
Together, Monarch Dunes’ courses leave a mark — on your game and your heart.
And if you want to leave another mark on your stomach after a day of golf, head across the highway to Jocko’s Steak House. It’s one of those places to which red meat lovers pay pilgrimage from throughout the San Joaquin Valley for no-frills great food grilled over a wood fire — just make sure you call for reservations because the wait can be hours, even on weeknights, without them (and sometimes even with them). But there’s a reason it’s busy all the time — the steaks are big, bold and flavorful, and it seems everyone has their own Jocko’s gameplan, even Pascuzzo:
“Having been to Jocko’s a few times, we can never decide on steak or ribs, so we finally came up with the perfect solution,” he says. “We order a full rack of ribs (don’t ask for sauce or you’ll look like a tourist) and a large Spencer and share them. It seems obvious, but it took us a while to figure it out. Add some fries and a salad and you are good to go for a week.”
Although Monarch Dunes doesn’t offer on-site lodging yet, it’s tough to go wrong with the many hotel options along the Central Coast. Check out the Monarch Dunes website for Stay & Play options and hotel partners (such as The Cliffs or Sea Pines Golf Resort) with solid accommodations and beautiful ocean views. Plus, this stretch of California offers quite a few other fun places to play if you’re looking to build an ultimate golf trip. Cypress Ridge, just up the road from Nipomo, is a Peter Jacobsen-Jim Hardy design that’s long been an FG favorite. And heading south, there’s La Purisima near Lompoc, Rancho San Marcos’ near Lake Cachuma (and the Chumash Casino Resort) and the exquisite Sandpiper along the Santa Barbara coastline.
And just to make sure we weren’t leading you astray, we ventured out to Monarch and the Cracked Crab in mid-December, where sunshine and temperatures in the mid-60s greeted us with warm a welcome. But don’t tell Santa — a vacation spot like this could really derail his night job. Happy holidays.