Endless beaches and the ‘endless summer’ continues, from Santa Monica to San Clemente, California
We’ve been visiting Southern California every year for the past 20 years or so. From frequent forays with kids and grandkids, mixing in camping, bicycling and good food, we’ve located favorite spots for the beach scene, family activities and laid back days.
This stretch of the California coast offers 60 miles of sparkling beaches and coves, family activities, entertainment, hiking, bicycling and dining options extending north to south. Orange county, making up the bulk of this area, is famed as California’s Riviera, and is also home to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hockey team, LA Angels of Anaheim baseball team and many cultural attractions.
But it’s the beach scene that captures the attention of kids, grandkids and even older adults. With ocean views, lively activities and inexpensive to fine dining around every corner, here are our favorites, starting with Santa Monica and heading south.
Santa Monica and Venice Beach: With its famed pier, Santa Monica is also the westernmost end of the historic Route 66. Its wide beach has a paved hiking/biking trail that runs both north and south (to Venice Beach, home to the iconic Muscle Beach and some of Southern California’s most fit weight lifters). Take time to stroll the old pier and shop the vendors lining nearby Venice Beach’s bikepath.
Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, just a few blocks off the beach, has developed a huge following for trendy shops, boutiques, restaurants and street entertainment. For fine dining, you can’t go wrong at Ocean Avenue Seafood, just a few steps north of the pier.
Huntington Beach: With three famed beaches, Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach, the city is ‘Surf City USA’. You’ll find surfing, volleyball, fire rings for night-time campfires and a paved cycling/walking trail running the eight mile length of the city’s ocean-front.
The city’s Main Street also features the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum and Surfing Walk of Fame; with camping right on the beach in several locations this is a hard town to ignore for campers or surfers. At its border with Newport Beach, cyclists can turn east and pedal up the Santa Ana River Bike trail for more than 25 miles through a changing cityscape and deep into the coastal mountains.
Newport Beach Arguably the most upscale of these oceanfront cities, the town boasts two piers, Newport and Balboa Piers, along a wide, sandy beach front and a paved bike path. Check out Balboa Island by taking the cute three-car Balboa Island Ferry from the Balboa Peninsula and walk around the island amongst charming homes, cottages, restaurants and boutiques. Walk through the 1905 Balboa Pavilion, cupola-topped and gabled, offering harbor tours, whale watching and cruises to Santa Catalina – about 26 miles and 75 minutes via ferry. A great and funky family restaurant is the Crab Cooker, with good food and lower prices than many of its nearby neighbors.
The south end of Newport beach features the three-mile, oceanfront Crystal Cove State Park with rocky coves, pristine beaches and the former oceanfront town of Crystal Cove, site for several dozen movies and television shows. The old beachtown preserves the cottage used in the film ‘Beaches’ featuring Bette Midler, and a number of other films including Son of Tarzan, Treasure Island, Herbie the Love Bug and other epics. About half the old cabins have been renovated and can be rented per night in the $200-$300 range. Beachcomber’s Restaurant, right on the beach, is a favorite for quality food and spectacular sunsets. Two weeks ago, a school of dolphins frolicked just 100 feet off the beach
Laguna Beach is just south, offering more rugged coastline, sandy beaches and attractions like the Laguna Playhouse and Laguna Art Museum. The town’s Main Beach features volleyball and basketball courts, a grassy kid’s play area and borders a quaint downtown packed with shops and boutiques right across the street.
Dana Point: With a huge harbor offering more than 2500 slips, it’s home to the Ocean Institute, featuring a replica of the sailing brig the Pilgrim, on which Richard Henry Dana (author of Two Year’s Before the Mast) sailed and the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center with the Spirit of Dana Point, a replica of a 1770s privateer used during the American Revolution. On the south end is Doheney State Beach, offering camping, beachcombing and easy access to the nearby harbor.
San Clemente: once President Richard Nixon’s ‘Western White House’, the pretty town features a beachfront pier, anchored by our favorite Fisherman’s Restaurant, where one can dine and watch surfers on either side of the pier. With a meandering bike path and the tracks for the Amtrak Surfliner both paralleling the beach, there’s always activity going on.
What’s nearby: East of Newport Beach is the Upper Newport Beach Estuary with a huge variety of wildlife and birdwatching opportunities along miles of walking trails. Just east of Dana Point is San Juan Capistrano, built around the mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776. Walk through the old mission courtyard with plants dating back two hundred years and cross the rail tracks to the Los Rios Historic District with over 30 homes, some dating to 1794; It’s the oldest residential neighborhood in California.
For more insight: Santa Monica, santamonica.com; Orange County, visittheoc.com.