Los Angeles Times

Where shops close early when the surf kicks up

Special to The Times

People roam around downtown Encinitas barefoot or tuck their surfboards under their arms while they pedal their bikes to the beach. Spiritual centers and yoga studios add to the mellow vibe. But don't write this off as just another blissed-out beach town.

Beginnings Water from Cottonwood Creek was a key ingredient in the town's development. It led the California Southern railway to choose the town as a water stop in 1881. With railroad access and a steady water supply, the town of Encinitas was established in 1883.

Old Encinitas is one of five distinct communities that were incorporated as the city of Encinitas in 1986. The downtown Encinitas neighborhood, which straddles Highway 101 and is sandwiched between Leucadia to the north and Cardiff to the south in northern San Diego County, is part of Old Encinitas.

What it's about Some shops close early if the surf is good. Need we say more?

In 1936, a hermitage was built for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda on an ocean bluff; his spiritual teachings attracted a devoted following. It is now the site of the Self-Realization Fellowship — a beautiful sanctuary with lush meditation gardens and koi ponds.

Surfers discovered the world-class waves on the beach below in the 1950s and started calling it Swami's. The name stuck and it was immortalized by the Beach Boys in their 1963 hit "Surfin' USA."

A few blocks north of Swami's is Moonlight Beach. Named for residents who used to come for midnight picnics in the early 1900s, it's still a popular spot to picnic as well as play volleyball and swim.

The aging downtown area was recently treated to a streetscape makeover. Upgrades include landscaping, antique light posts and decorative benches as well as brickwork and mosaic tile accents around the new wider, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. Quirky cafes and shops (try on a hemp shirt at Environgentle) reflect the area's bohemian flavor.

The revitalization, part of a long-range plan to attract small businesses while preserving downtown's historic character, shows the community's dedication to its history. The effort has paid dividends: A recent city report showed a $29-million increase in downtown sales in the last four years.

Insider's view Eve Stall, who lives in a two-story condo with white-water views, moved to Encinitas from Manhattan six years ago.

"I followed my dream of living right smack dab on the ocean," Stall said. "I especially love looking at the sea at night to see the moon and stars reflecting off the water. I sometimes sleep outside on my balcony; I never tire of the sound of the ocean, it's so peaceful and soothing."

Report card Students in the downtown area attend Ecke Central Elementary, which had a 2004 API score of 770 out of 1,000, then move on to middle schools Diegueño (852) and Oak Crest (826), and La Costa Canyon High (801).

Stock report Homes here are eclectic — like the boat homes along 3rd Street. The housing stock includes many charming small cottages and beach bungalows — often remodeled — as well as large custom homes, some with white-water views.

As of late August, there were just five single-family homes listed for sale in the downtown neighborhood out of about 900. The least expensive was a three-bedroom, two-bath 1,650-square-foot house seeking offers from $989,000 to $1,029,000. At the top end, $9 million gets you a four-bedroom, six-bathroom estate on 1 1/2 acres with 300 feet of ocean frontage and views from La Jolla to Catalina.

Because of its high bluffs, the downtown neighborhood is free of the beach-access battles that plague other parts of California where there's no way down to the sand. But there are good public stairs that lead from the bluffs to Swami's on the south, and Moonlight Beach on the north is easily accessible.

Good news, bad news Scenic Encinitas boasts a great variety of architecture, and beautiful flowers are everywhere. On weekend mornings, neighbors bump into each other having breakfast at the local cafes. Plenty of dogs lie at their human companions' feet and all residents — canines and people — seem to get along just fine.

But paradise has its price.

Entry-level homes start around $1 million for what Coldwell Banker Realtor Samantha Feldman calls a "beach bungalow." Homes overlooking the Pacific can top several million dollars, which, Feldman said, "is still a steal compared to Solana Beach and La Jolla."

Sources: City of Encinitas, ci.encinitas.ca.us; California Department of Education, cde.ca.gov; Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Assn., encinitas101.com; Encinitas Historical Society.

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