By Patrick Pemberton
Take a stroll to Cayucos on New Year’s Day and you might think you’ve entered what Rod Serling used to describe as another dimension.
The annual Carlin Soule Memorial Polar Bear Dip is perhaps one of the wildest events you’ll come across in San Luis Obispo County — a holiday tailor-made for surrealists, oddballs and goofs. But it’s also an unforgettable taste of what we collectively call “the SLO Life.”
If you want to symbolically wash away any unpleasant memories of 2018 — or you simply can’t abandon the previous night’s New Year’s Eve celebrations — there are three (official) polar dip options for New Year’s Day.
The Avila Beach dip, which begins at 11:30 a.m., is relatively informal with few rules (One you might want to remember: “No birthday suits allowed”). Typically featuring gentle little waves, slightly warmer water and a smaller (though still robust) crowd, the Avila plunge is ideal for the beginning dipper.
In nearby Pismo Beach, the 3rd annual Pier to Plunge, beginning at 8:45 a.m., offers a healthy start to 2019, combining a 5K beach run with an ocean dip, as each runner heads straight to the water after crossing the finish line. The first 250 finishers will win a beanie, while the first place man and woman will win a training session with Nike-sponsored marathon runner Jordan Hasay.
But the grand poo-bah of all local polar dips is clearly in Cayucos, where more than 3,000 have been known to gather for this sobering (or not) Pacific plunge. While the climax of the event is the dash into the surf, the real highlight occurs pre-dip on the beach, when a bizarre cast of characters from around the county and beyond gather in a party that’s a mash of New Year’s Eve, Halloween and Mardi Gras.
The event began in 1981, when the late Carlin Soule — bored with the slow New Year’s days — invited a few friends and his employees at the Way Station to dive into the ocean. The next year, the event grew to 55 people. Sadly, Soule succumbed to cancer before the eighth annual dip. But his event continued to grow, and today it is a nippy must on any SLO
County bucket list.
Costumes are encouraged at all plunges, but the Cayucos dip, beginning at 10 a.m., features the most outrageous. Here you might find superheroes and aliens congregating with Elvis for a photo op that even the most sensational tabloids couldn’t have staged. Best of all, some of the best costume models sport four legs and a tail.
As the noon dip nears, spectators pack the pier and wait for a second New Year’s countdown. But while the first announces the arrival of the new year, this one reminds us to have fun with it.
Our New Year’s Eve Fun Guide
So technically speaking, New Year’s is just one of 365 days on the calendar. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a day like any other because, symbolically, New Year’s Eve offers both a chance to look back on the past year, and, ah —
OK, whatever. Really, it’s just an excuse to party like it’s 1999 all over again. And, frankly, there’s nothing illegal about a little legal fun, right? Luckily, there are several events planned county-wide to maximize your in-with-the-new celebrations. Here are a few recommendations:
On the Waterfront: There’s a lot to be said for staying close to home on New Year’s — especially if there are tacos involved. Beginning at 7 p.m., you can offer a toast of tacos at the Pavilion on the Lake in Atascadero.
Semi-formal attire is suggested for the event, which begins at 7 p.m. and features live music by SoundCake. Tickets, which cost $50 before December 30 ($65 after), buys access to the La Parrilla taco bar and two drink tickets. Dancing is encouraged but not required for this lakeside bash, which raises money for youth sports and scholarships, the Alisa Ann Rusch Burn Foundation and other local charities.
Think Pink: There’s a reason why celebrities such as Paul Newman, Dolly Parton and Graham Nash loved to visit the Madonna Inn — it’s a trippy place. And the holidays here have never disappointed. Perhaps the most ostentatious place in the county — aside from Hearst Castle — The New Year’s party ($75-125) features live music, dancing, a midnight balloon drop and, of course, those great desserts.
Ship Ahoy: What can be more cozy and romantic than a nighttime dinner cruise on a 72-foot yacht? The Papagallo will take off at 6 p.m. on December 31, headed for a 9 p.m. (a.k.a., midnight Eastern time) celebration. Enjoy the sights of Morro Bay from the water while also dining on amazing food. If this one sells out, look for other New Year’s cruises on the coast. (Tickets: $100)
Feel the Beat: The Fremont Theatre, the centerpiece of downtown SLO, has become a quaint, intimate place to see some of your favorite acts, including the English Beat (tickets $55), who will put on a New Year’s Eve show at the historic theater. Led by Dave Wakeling, the English Beat offers a mix of ska, reggae, pop and 80s nostalgia. Best known for songs such as “Save it for Later” and “I Confess,” the Beat have had a loyal following and are particularly fond of performing in San Luis Obispo.