ON FIRST APPROACH, Surf City USA seems an awful lot like Anytown, USA.
Drive down Huntington Beach's main thoroughfare, Beach Boulevard, and you'll encounter a Wal-Mart and Big Lots, McDonald's and Burger King, Bally's Total Fitness and one car dealership after another. But once you reach Pacific Coast Highway, it hits you like a wave -- a neck-straining, peripheral-vision-challenging Pacific Ocean panorama, lined by an eight-mile expanse of raw-sugar sand -- said to be the longest stretch of uninterrupted beachfront on the entire West Coast.
That's the real lure of this quintessential beach town, which last year drew more than 15 million visitors, according to local officials. This year's onslaught unofficially began last weekend when the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Crocs Tour made its annual stop, before traveling to Hermosa Beach, Long Beach and Manhattan Beach.
Although millions are now beginning to answer the call of sand, sun, sports and suds at beach cities up and down the Southern California coast, Huntington Beach stands a little bit apart -- if for no other reason than the city actually trademarked the name "Surf City USA" in 2006, despite the protests of its northern rival Santa Cruz. (The dispute was put to rest earlier this year.)
Its Hang 10 pedigree is evident in that it has hosted the U.S. Open of Surfing every summer since 1982 (coming up in mid-July this year); is home to the quaint International Surfing Museum (surfingmuseum.org); and features a string of board-friendly spots between the Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa to the south and the protected wetlands of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy to the north.
As with most beach towns, it's also a party-hopping playground. Dozens of restaurants, bars and clubs, including the new Black Bull Chop House and Savannah at the Beach, are packed sardine-style along the end of Main Street, which connects Beach Boulevard to the municipal pier.
But the booming night life and tourism industry have also created friction between residents and visitors.
"One time we're sitting inside watching TV," says Tonya Moore, a nurse who shares a modest, two-bedroom house with her twin sister, Tammy, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood two blocks off Main Street. "And this [drunk] guy comes flying in the front door. He just sat down on the couch like he owned the place, and was like, 'Hey! [slurring speech] Where's so-and-so?' "
"About 1:20, 1:45," she says, "it starts."
Working behind the bar at the nearby surfer hangout Crabby's Boat House, local surfing legend Johnny Kissel admits that the Main Street bar scene is a zoo, but also sees trouble coming from the other side of the equation -- law enforcement.
"These cops," he says, "they're actually my bros; they're good friends of mine. But a couple of guys, you know, the rookies who want to get crazy -- boom! They'll hit a Taser on you for nothing!"
Of course, the police don't quite see it that way. Stating that officers use Tasers only occasionally and to avoid more serious injury, Huntington Beach Police Department spokesman Lt. Dave Bunetta stresses that the area is no rowdier than other night-life hubs.
He also hails the city's efforts to curtail trouble by employing a visible force as a deterrent, and to reduce drunk driving by providing free taxi coupons and subsidizing tips-only bicycle taxis.
"We have a foot-beat detail," Bunetta continues, "that's solely assigned to work in that downtown area. . . . Because you have families and tourists and locals and some of the other people that want to come down to drink, and they all have to get along together. It's kind of a balancing act."
And then there are those who choose to stay out of the fray. As Mike Mannino, 37, reels in a beach volleyball net on a early Saturday evening, he describes his hometown as simply "a laid-back beach city" full of easygoing folks.
He recently organized the Huntington Beach Midsingles Conference, which recently drew about 1,200 single Mormons from all over the country for a long weekend of volleyball, surfing, kayaking, hiking and biking.
"We don't drink," he says, shading his eyes from a gorgeous sunset. "We find fun things to do in other ways."