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San Diego: It's Pacific Beach, sans alcohol

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San Diego

THE SUN is shining, surfers are waxing their sticks and I'm realizing how thirsty I get when I'm staring at the ocean on a warm weekend. Fortunately, as I lean against the sea wall along the Mission Beach boardwalk, I have a sandwich in one hand and a frosty beverage in the other.

I tap the top of the cold aluminum can and pull the tab to produce a crisp, loud and satisfying "clpsshhk!" as the metal gives way. This is a familiar sound on this strand linking Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, the summertime party epicenter of San Diego.

But unlike the thousands of cans of beer that have been cracked open near this spot over the years, mine is just a can of soda. Had it been a beer or anything stronger, I might have received a ticket under a new alcohol ban imposed on San Diego's city beaches and bay-side parks.

The law, which began in January, is a yearlong test to evaluate booze-free beaches here. The controversial measure was passed after a drunken Labor Day melee on this stretch of sand that forced police to drag out riot gear.

San Diego officials are declaring the ban a success.

"I've been down there a lot, talking to locals and tourists alike. Even though we are still in a trial period, so many people have commented on how the vibe is much nicer and more relaxed," says San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who led the efforts to pass the alcohol ban. "The beach is cleaner, people feel safer and it is particularly great to see more families out there."

Darrell Esparza, sergeant with the San Diego Lifeguard Service, agrees. "Alcohol-related injuries have gone way down, and people aren't afraid to walk down the boardwalk anymore. It is a safer environment for my lifeguards and the public."

But "the number of rescues we've had to do has gone up," Esparza says. "We have had a lot more families coming out to the beach, so there are more kids in the water."

While folks are spreading their towels, I'm getting a clearer picture of the new San Diego beach scene sans cocktails and kegs. But how new is it really? Children still bury their younger siblings up to their necks in sand, dog walkers scurry up the beach in the evening, kite surfers wrangle their sails on windy days and people still picnic out of their coolers.

Something's missing, though: Where are the ultra-laid-back characters just hanging out? Where are the frat and tatt groups whooping and hollering? They are absent this day, but the appearance of an old character the locals call "Slomo" reassures me that the best of the old carefree guard still lingers.

He's gliding on his rollerblades in his trademark fashion, with arms spread-eagle and one leg in the air like a wheeled "Swan Lake" dancer. Classical music plays from the portable speakers attached to his hips.

Now that my attention is on the boardwalk I notice some wetsuit-clad German tourists talking while they wait to get their hands on a few rented "foamies," beginner's foam-top surfboards. They're being helped by Danny Cole, a free-spirited man with a grizzled mustache and a leather newsboy cap. He cheerily offers to snap their pictures before sending them off to the waves.

Cole has been minding the boardwalk rental and surf lessons kiosk for Pacific Beach Surf Shop for many moons. When he heard the ban was going through, he was unfazed. "Really, truly, honestly?" Cole says. "I personally didn't care either way. The beach is still here whether we bring booze or not."

The crowd has definitely thinned a bit as the partyers choose to get their drink on elsewhere, he says. "It is kind of nice for parents to feel comfortable taking their whole family here without worry," he says.

David Nisleit, lieutenant for the San Diego Police Department, echoes Cole's sentiment.

"I'm down there at the beach on a weekly basis, and I've had hundreds of people tell me that it is more family-friendly, there's less trash and there's a more easygoing attitude out there," he said.

Yes, there seem to be more families digging sand castles and munching on bag lunches. But Pacific Beach has always lured lots of parents toting their broods, with water-wings, umbrellas and drugstore bodyboards, and sharing the sunshine with the partyers.

Besides, the party scene hasn't disappeared. It may have just shifted.

Next door to Cole's kiosk is Lahaina's Beach Club, whose deck is pickled by Stella Artois and vodka tonics. On sunny weekends, the singles and not-so-singles pack in shoulder to shoulder.

People are still partying in P.B. It's evident when I walk into the Longs drugstore on nearby Mission Boulevard for suntan lotion. At the entrance there's a pyramid of beer cases ready for the buying. I ask the cashier for the booze ban scuttlebutt.

"Keg sales are down; cans and bottles are up," he says. "People are still having house parties, and there's probably lots of them trying to sneak on the beach."

I see how right he is when I head down the cliffs of the shoreline near Crystal Pier with a few girlfriends that day.

As we sit and ogle some surfers, a group of college-age guys catches my eye. They're dressed in their standard uniform -- board shorts, bare chests, flip-flops and backward caps -- but they're missing a key accessory. The cases of cheap beer have been replaced by convenience store fountain-drink cups.

One of them puts his jumbo cup and a backpack on the side farthest from the lifeguard shack. He looks around furtively, grabs a can of Bud Light from the bag and pours it into his cup, using his body as a shield from prying eyes.

"Oh, yeah, that's going to fool the cops when they come by," my friend Laura McBain says, snorting and rolling her eyes

The guys are lucky this time. No police come by, neither before nor after the college guys' game of touch football. Still, I do notice that they're on their best behavior despite their scofflaw attitude.

It goes to show that even when the ban isn't working in practice, it's still accomplishing its goal of mellowing things out along San Diego's beaches.

travel@latimes.com

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