When I lived in the heart of Los Angeles, I liked to zip out to Malibu to escape the hustle and bustle. "Zip out," of course, is a relative term in L.A.; the drive could take an hour and a half, and parking was always a hassle.
So the irony was not lost on me on a recent beach getaway to Oceanside, where I ran smack-dab into a Malibu icon: Gidget. And I had an easy time parking to boot.
People from L.A. bypass Oceanside as they head to San Diego County's flashier resorts: La Jolla, Del Mar and the like. Yet this city is closer, has terrific wide, sandy beaches and a fun, retro downtown.
In Hollywood terms, the script for the rebirth of downtown Oceanside has been in turnaround for years. The city's redevelopment efforts have been hit or miss (it's still slightly seedy); the recession has taken its toll as well.
For travelers, the sporadic redevelopment is good news: There are still mom-and-pop eateries and funky dive bars to enjoy and, at the same time, recent gentrification has brought new fine dining, drinking and entertainment options to savor. It makes for a good mix.
I made reservations for my husband, Lou, and me at the crown jewel of its redevelopment, the Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort, which opened in 2008 at the foot of the municipal pier. Oceanside can be a car-free getaway; everything is in walking distance, including the train depot for Amtrak and Metrolink trains from L.A. It's also a great home base for day trips; take the Coaster into San Diego or the Sprinter to Escondido.
Check-in wasn't until 4 p.m., so we headed to the Longboarder Cafe for breakfast. The cafe, a mini shrine to surf culture with murals and surfboards, serves great food. The Longboarder scramble was fine, but the hit was Lou's almond-studded French toast. I couldn't pull my fork away, much to his annoyance.
Our waitress was owner Gina Leiss, who was fighting her own redevelopment battle. Her landlord had told her to vacate to make room for a convenience store. "I've been at this location for 11 years," Leiss said. "We've got a lot of regulars who have become friends." (Leiss lost the battle but won the war; she recently moved the Longboarder to a better location a block west.)
We walked to the Oceanside Museum of Art. The small but ambitious museum started in a historic Irving Gill building and expanded into new digs next door in 2008.
There were four exhibitions, but we arrived during an award ceremony for "Painting the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars," an exhibit of works by children from nearby Camp Pendleton whose parents are on active duty.
Kate McCavitt, a base teacher, noted that "These children have given up so much for all of us. Their sacrifices have been immense." Each child received a certificate and had his or her picture taken. The paintings were raw and heartbreaking.
We headed to the hotel. The seven-story, two-tower Mediterranean-style building dominates the waterfront and offers time-share condos as well as hotel rooms. The ocean-view condos have kitchens and are set up for four or more people; because it was just the two of us, we booked a hotel room with a king-size bed. (Hotel rooms face the city.)
Our sixth-floor, 350-square-foot room was spacious and colorful. The bathroom was large, with a deep whirlpool tub and a glassed-in shower stall. Windows framed views of downtown, the railroad tracks and an empty lot below.
Ocean views are icing on the cake at the second-floor pool, spa, sun deck and exercise room. Best of all are the seventh-floor "sky lounges" with comfy sofas and chairs from which to admire the spectacular water and pier vistas.
I set out to shop. This isn't Laguna Beach; you have to hunt for cute boutiques among the Marine uniform shops. My first find was Ensemble Boutique, a 2-year-old upscale resort-wear store. Owner Sharon Olloqui features local designers and natural fabrics.
Up on Coast Highway, I dipped into the Closet. The inexpensive local chain is great if you're a size 0.
I continued past empty storefronts to Skirt Boutique. Owner Ana Butler said, "Lots of stores went under from the recession." Butler buys her clothes in L.A. and said her busy time is "the summer, when tourists are in town." Prices are moderate, so I picked up a cute dress.
Dinner was at 333 Pacific, a new ocean-view seafood and steak restaurant in the Wyndham. It was jammed and, too hungry to wait for a table, we grabbed a cozy booth in the vodka lounge. The drink list had more than 100 vodkas. My ear was itching so I had a strong Vincent Van Gogh acai blueberry martini; Lou wimped out with an Island Tea, made with Sweet Carolina Sweet Tea vodka We shared calamari, chicken lollipops with Thai satay sauce and flavorful poke tuna tacos.
Totally relaxed, we hit the sheets. About 3 a.m., we were jolted awake by the World's Loudest Air Horn. This marked the start of a stream of locomotives — all blaring — that didn't abate until three hours later.
At 6 a.m., my bleary-eyed husband called the front desk to complain. The clerk was shocked — shocked! — that we were miffed. "Every hotel on the coast has trains.... Everybody knows that."
Lou pointed out that this was not the pleasant rumble of passing trains, but more like aural shockwaves. The clerk said that we were informed of the noise when we made our reservation (we weren't) and that a notice regarding same was on our confirmation e-mail (it wasn't).
He asked for a room away from the tracks; she sweetly offered us earplugs. Clearly, any hotel that stocks earplugs is aware it has a Big Problem. (Downstairs later, we asked for the earplugs. Another clerk pointed to a large bowl; what we had assumed were mints turned out to be earplugs.)
We got up at around 9 a.m., exhausted from the train wreck of an evening. Lou downed some coffee; I took a therapeutic soak in the spa tub to soothe my frazzled nerves.
We hoped a bike ride would revive us and joined other bikers cruising the beachfront. It was a breezy short ride to Oceanside Harbor and its faux Cape Cod village.
Lunch was at Harbor Fish & Chips, where the clam chowder was a standout. We ate outside, entertained by a little girl feeding fries to a grateful seagull. Afterward, we pedaled around the marina, past yachts and sailboats, to the end of the jetty. Folks were out in rented paddleboats and jet skis.
Biking back, we were jazzed to run into a free concert from Radio Latina San Diego (104.5 FM) in the beach's outdoor amphitheater. We joined the crowd hanging over the pier railing to watch the bands below.
We walked to the end of the 1,942-foot-long pier. Gangly pelicans rule the roost, calmly posing for pictures next to bemused tourists. Nearby fishermen groused; the catch of the day was playing coy.
We met friends for dinner at Harney Sushi, one of the newer, upscale restaurants. Japanese-inspired murals over the sushi bar added a hipster vibe, which was going full tilt with a DJ blasting music. It was hard to talk, but the food provided entertainment. Spring rolls had queso and a caviar egg; Monkey Brains were mushrooms, spicy tuna and eel sauce; fish and chips was a fish-yam fusion served with a spray bottle of lime juice.
We got some shut-eye that night — we were too exhausted to hear the trains — and got up early to hit the beach. People were wading; surfers were shooting the pier. Lou plunged in, and plunged right back out: The water was too cold.
After checking out of the hotel, we went to the California Surf Museum, which moved to its current location in 2009. You can't miss it: It has surfer cutouts on the front wall and the ceiling is shaped like a wave.
"Surfing is a huge part of California culture," said Julie Cox, a pro surfer who is museum operations manager. "The museum brings surfing to anyone's reach."
Its "Women on Waves" exhibit (through February) ranges from ancient Hawaiian princesses to today's pro surfers and includes antique surfboards, videos and memorabilia. Fashionistas will enjoy seeing the evolution of the swimsuit.
For me, the showstopper was Gidget. I didn't know that the movies and TV show were based on a real person. The exhibit credits Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman — whose father wrote the books about his teen daughter trying to break into the boys-only sport — with taking surfing from obscurity to sensation in the 1960s.
In rowdier days, the museum building housed the Play Girl, a nude bar. Now, Gidget rules the roost. That's progress, Oceanside-style.