The Return of Summer


Now that El Nino has officially left the building, we can all return to the beaches as nature intended. Problem is, with more than 70 miles of beaches in Los Angeles County alone, and scores more if you include Orange County, it's sometimes hard to know where to go.

Depending on what you're looking for, here are a few tips for the Best Beaches where you can . . .

* Swim: In this category, you can't pick a loser. Even better news is, despite the storms, beach waters are generally cleaner than they've been in years. So, by a flip of the coin, Santa Monica beaches get the nod since they have extra-wide beaches and fairly extensive parking. Also, when you're dry, there's the pier, where you can hop on the carousel or take off on the Ferris wheel for a terrific view of Santa Monica Bay.

* Surf: Hotly contested, but a few spots emerge as winners. Malibu Surfrider Beach, just north of the Malibu Pier.

"It's internationally known as the best waves," said Lt. Mike Cunningham, a Los Angeles County lifeguard spokesman. This beach, however, can get crowded. Good beginners' beaches include Orange County's Seal Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington State Beach. To O.C. surfers, and many around the country, there is no substitute for Lower Trestles in San Clemente. It's a point break and considered some of the best waves in California. Top pros surf there daily, and it gets very crowded.

* People Watch: The obligatory "wacky L.A." shot in any movie is at Venice Beach--and with good reason. It's wacky! Talk about eclectic. You've got everything from appallingly dressed European tourists to lean, mean roller-blading machines whizzing down Ocean Front Walk. No voyeur outing is complete without a jaw-dropping stop at Muscle Beach, where you can marvel at the daily pump-a-thon by the sea.

* Watch a TV Series Filming: If you believe that "Baywatch" characters are the result of sophisticated computer animation, you can see for yourself with a visit to the set of the international hit series, with location shooting between the Fourth of July and about mid-August, although the schedule may vary slightly at Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades.

"It draws a lot of tourists, but people don't stay very long. I think they're more interested in going to Venice Beach," said Cunningham.

* Avoid a Crowd: Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, particularly the northern end near the terminus of Culver Boulevard. Of course, you're close to the jets at LAX, but because volleyball nuts are usually the only other habitues, it's a surprisingly roomy place to unfurl the beach blanket. As a bonus, there's nearby Del Rey Lagoon Park, which features a baseball field, basketball court and a sizable lagoon with ducks. Try to get there early, as there's relatively little parking. Another quiet beach is Nicholas Canyon, about six or seven miles north of Zuma Beach in Malibu. Nice surf, good parking lot, but it doesn't have the easy access other beaches have, so the crowds stay away.

* Play Volleyball: No shortage of beach volleyball sites, but the edge must go to Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach. Leagues and tournaments of all skill levels abound. Call the local chambers of commerce for more information or visit the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors Web site at

* Have a Barbecue or Bonfire: It's not so much a question of the best spot in L.A. County as it is finding a spot. There are only two--Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey and Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, which are both equipped with fire rings. There are two sites in Orange County: Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington State Beach both have fire pits for bonfires and barbecues.

* Bike: With a 20-mile bike path stretching from Will Rogers State Beach in Malibu to Torrance Beach Park in south Redondo Beach, it's more of a matter of where to avoid. Because of pedestrians, bikers usually get slowed down around Venice Beach and Hermosa Beach. Otherwise, pedal your legs off. There are plenty of bike rental places near the Redondo Beach Pier and Venice Beach; rentals are available by the hour in many cases. Lifeguards caution cyclists to watch out for pedestrians and vice versa. Every year, there are hundreds of collisions resulting in serious injuries, such as broken bones and head fractures.

* Bodyboard: The hottest spots are all in Orange County. Beach breaks at Bolsa Chica State, Huntington State and in Newport Beach supply terrific bodysurf action. The most challenging is T-Street in San Clemente. Named for nearby Trafalgar Lane, it's about half a mile south of the pier.

* Dive: Santa Catalina Island offers excellent diving opportunities for a variety of skill levels. At Lover's Cove, snorkelers can see at least 20 to 30 species of fish, including garibaldi (the bright orange state fish), sheephead, bass, calico bass and oblai. At Casino Point, scuba divers can see more of the same, plus lots of kelp.

* Take Your Dog: No dogs are allowed unleashed anywhere in the state, and dogs are not allowed on L.A. County beaches at all. Orange County beaches are more of a dog's world than L.A. Laguna Beach allows leashed dogs any time from Sept. 16 through June 1. During the summer months, leashed dogs are permitted on beaches but not between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. In Huntington Beach, there's a quarter-mile stretch of sand known as Dog Beach between Golden West and Seapoint streets where leashed dogs can tramp around.

* Watch Ocean Wildlife: Pacific bottlenose dolphins have made the shore off L.A. County beaches their home, lifeguards say. Usually they swim near the surf line anywhere from Topanga to Palos Verdes.

"They are extremely outgoing and friendly," said Cunningham. "They'll swim very close to surfers."

* Staff reports contributed to this article.

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