Just about all of Southern California's sleepy little beach towns have been built up, priced up and, by many measures, messed up. But San Clemente's pier, beaches and red-tile roofs endure, and they're worth a look. The waves here offer some of North America's best surfing, including the spot known as Trestles (just south of town within San Onofre State Beach), which some people call "the Yosemite of surfing." San Clemente also has an Amtrak stop right by the pier -- which raises the tempting idea of a carless beach weekend -- and don't forget the beachside pedestrian path that leads north from the pier to a great playground at Linda Lane Park.
Don't bother looking for Richard Nixon's old Western White House; he sold it in 1980, and it's a private home now. The town is tucked in among hills and canyons -- no tidy street grid here -- and on the main drag, El Camino Real, many locals get their family-friendly Italian food at Sonny's Pizza & Pasta (429 N. El Camino Real; www.sonnys.com) and their burgers, beer and “slow fast food” at the Riders Club (1701 N. El Camino Real; www.ridersclubcafe.com). But you're starting with the pier.
At the Fisherman's Restaurant (611 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; www.thefishermansrestaurant.com) on the pier, the waves crash just below, and the sunset washes over everyone on the patio. And you're bound to notice the Beachcomber Motel (533 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; www.beachcombermotel.com) a block south. With its pseudo-Spanish cottage style, its 12 rooms (all with kitchens) and its perch on a grassy knoll by the train tracks and beach, the Beachcomber is what you'd dream about if you fell asleep reading a 1955 issue of Sunset magazine. Priceless views. Alas, the interiors are as tired as the exterior is classic, and the prices hit a hefty $375 on summer weekends.
So, on those nights, you might consider the nearby Casa Tropicana (610 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente; www.casatropicana.com), where your $350 or so will get you more space and some jazzy furniture. Ah, but in the off-season, you can get into the Beachcomber for as little as $125 a night. Take that deal, kick back on the porch and start pretending Nixon is still vice president, surfboards are still 7 feet long and your state government is still solvent.
2. Fickle birds and fresh brunch
The Mission San Juan Capistrano (26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano; www.missionsjc.com), which dates to 1776, is famous for the swallows that return every spring. Unfortunately, most of those swallows have ditched the mission in favor of a country club in Chino Hills, San Bernardino County. Bummer. But you'll want to stop in SJC all the same because the mission grounds are still atmospheric (and less spattered), and Los Rios Street, which runs alongside the tracks near the town's Amtrak/Metrolink station, might be the oldest surviving residential street in the state, with adobes and Victorians, a nursery and a teahouse.
Come on a weekend and line up for the $35 brunch on the patio at the Ramos House Café (31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano; www.ritzcarlton.com/laguna), which opened in 1984 next to Salt Creek Beach Park in Dana Point; and the Montage Laguna Beach (30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.montagelagunabeach.com), which opened in 2003 next to Treasure Island Beach at the southern end of Laguna Beach. They're both fit for plutocrats, set on cliff tops, each with acres of immaculately landscaped grounds, kids' programs, grand pools and walkways leading to sandy beaches. But they're not twins.
The 396-room Ritz, built as a fairly formal palace, has made itself more playful and casual; in 2010, the hotel reopened its one full-fledged restaurant as Raya, specializing in pan-Latino beach cuisine.
Up the coast, the 250-room Montage pays homage to Craftsman style, with California landscapes on the walls and two full-fledged restaurants. The Ritz rooms begin at about 400 square feet with varying views. The Montage's rooms begin at about 500 square feet, and all have ocean views. If money is no object, the Montage is the clear winner -- but its rates start about $500. The Ritz's? About $400.
5. Echoes at the cove
Down along the shore between Laguna Beach and Newport, local activists and state officials are rehabilitating a beloved old beach-cottage community called Crystal Cove. "It's just a rustic walk back in time," says cottages manager Lindsay Lane. More than a dozen films have been shot at the site, including "To Have and Have Not," "Herbie Rides Again" and "Beaches."
The good news is that there are 24 vintage beach-facing units (five are for handicapped [with placard] visitors), priced at $200 nightly or less, at Crystal Cove State Park (35 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast; www.crystalcovebeachcottages.com). The bad news is that everybody wants one. Occupancy is about 98%, and cottages are typically snapped up seven months ahead, within minutes of becoming available. (On March 1, October reservations open up, and so on.) So maybe you’ll just drop by for the day. Take the shuttle down from the parking lot of the Crystal Cove State Park, walk the beach, dine on the patio of the Beachcomber Cafe (15 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast; www.thebeachcombercafe.com) and climb the steps that lead north to the park's modest cultural center.
That last stop is an important one that many visitors miss. It will give you a chance to read about the Japanese American families that arrived in 1927, leased cottages from the Irvine family, farmed hundreds of acres, built a schoolhouse and other buildings, then were shipped off to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. By the time they were released after the end of World War II, Crystal Cove was otherwise occupied, and those families had to start over elsewhere. The cove is a scene of many happy memories, but its human history is not all sweetness and light.
6. The goods
You love shopping. You like the idea of a getting a $35 blow-dry, buying a $4,500 desk that folds up like a steamer trunk, along with a few hours of quality time at Neiman Marcus. In other words, you need Fashion Island (Fashion Island, 401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; www.shopfashionisland.com), home to Drybar (for that blow-dry; Atrium Court; www.thedrybar.com), Restoration Hardware (for that desk; Suite 201A; www.restorationhardware.com), Nordstrom (901 Newport Center Drive), Macy’s (101 Newport Center Drive) and dozens more high-rent retailers.
If a wave of thrift overwhelms you, you can sit by the koi pond and wait for it to pass, or get a $6 bowl of tasty miso soup at the True Food Kitchen (451 Newport Center Drive, Fashion Island, Newport Beach; www.truefoodkitchen.com), which opened in 2010. (Don’t be surprised if your meal comes with a written briefing on Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory food pyramid.) Then wrap up your afternoon by diving into the world of modern art (another realm where explanations can be handy) at the nearby Orange County Museum of Art (850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach; www.ocma.net).
7. The beaches of Laguna
If fate placed you in beachy, artsy Laguna Beach this afternoon, would you jump in the ocean first or start prowling galleries? If you choose No. 1, begin by taking the measure of Main Beach at Pacific Coast Highway and Broadway. Besides lots of body-surfing, skim-boarding, volleyball on the sand and half-court hoops on two of the best-sited courts in California, it's a scene of romantic strolls and playing children, all at the foot of a blue and white lifeguard tower that dates to the '20s.
There are tide pools at the northern end of the beach. And if you've forgotten little Jasper's beach toys, you can grab a plastic pail and shovel for about $4 at Main Beach Toys & Games (150 Laguna Ave.) near the beach's southern end. Then you'll be ready to start plotting time at some of Laguna's 20 or so other beaches. Surfers like Thousand Steps Beach (between 9th and 10th streets); families like Picnic Beach (which neighbors grassy Heisler Park); scuba divers favor Boat Canyon Beach; and about 200 yards off Cleo Street Beach, there's an old shipwreck. (More beach details at www.lagunabeachinfo.com.)
8. You're sleeping where in Laguna?
You could sleep at La Casa del Camino (1289 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.lacasadelcamino.com), where surf designers have jazzed up 10 rooms in an otherwise old-school '20s building. Or maybe the Inn at Laguna Beach (211 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.innatlagunabeach.com), a more contemporary building with 70 rooms just north of Main Beach. Maybe Pacific Edge (647 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.pacificedgehotel.com), an oceanfront Midcentury motor lodge now boldly decorated and run by the trendy Joie de Vivre chain, which describes the hotel as a "boutique surfer-vibe hotel.” Or maybe you'll lay out bigger money for a room in the beachfront Surf & Sand Resort (1555 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.surfandsandresort.com), where guests routinely pay $400 and more for 165 rooms that are rich in views and amenities but tightly wedged into a tall collection of buildings.
Too rich for your blood? Then turn your back on the beach and retreat to the frill-free, semi-isolated quiet and affordability of the Aliso Creek Inn (60 studios, one bedrooms and two bedrooms, all with kitchens; in August 2011, a standalone two-bedroom vacation home called the “Hive” was added for weekly rentals starting at $2,500 per week. The inn is tucked into a canyon with a nine-hole golf course and pool (but no proper restaurant) at the southern end of town. On slow dates, you can get into a studio for less than $130 a night.
9. Plein air paintings aplenty
Laguna Beach has been an art colony for a century or so. Though rising prices have worn thin the town's hippie veneer, you'll find galleries and festivals all over, especially in summer. Start with breakfast in north Laguna amid the decorative gnomes and greenery of Madison Square & Garden Cafe (320 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.madisonsquare.com). Hop across the street to check the smallish but smart Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach; www.lagunaartmuseum.org) and maybe have a look at blankets and beadwork at Len Wood’s Indian Territory Gallery (305 N. Coast Highway, Unit D, Laguna Beach; www.indianterritory.com), just a few steps away.
From here, you might need to drive a bit. Dozens of galleries, scattered north to south along Pacific Coast Highway, concentrate on classic California plein-air landscapes, including the Redfern Gallery (1540 S. Coast Highway, Suite 103, Laguna Beach; www.redferngallery.com). And there's plenty else too, such as Todd Kenyon's minimalist modern seascapes at the Pure Laguna Beach gallery (1590 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.purelagunabeach.com) or the cool old movie and travel images at the Vintage Poster (1492 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; www.thevintageposter.com).
More than 40 galleries stay open for art walks on the first Thursday of every month (www.firstthursdaysartwalk.com). There's also a great selection at Laguna Beach Books (1200 S. Coast Highway, Laguna; www.lagunabeachbooks.com).
As for the art festivals, the weirdest (and one of the oldest) is the Pageant of the Masters (650 Laguna Canyon Road; www.foapom.com), in which volunteers don costumes and makeup and strike poses to mimic old-master paintings (usually early July-late August; √$15-$100 per adult). Other summer stalwarts (with varying individual dates) include the Sawdust Art Festival (www.sawdustartfestival.org), the Festival of Arts (www.foapom.com) and Art-a-Fair (www.art-a-fair.com); the Plein Air Painting Invitational (www.lpapa.org) usually follows in October.
Because you're saving your pennies for art, sidestep the fancy restaurants and grab a tasty Mexican lunch or dinner, prepared with an emphasis on sustainability, at La Sirena Grill, either downtown (347 Mermaid St., Laguna Beach; www.lasirenagrill.com) or at the small chain’s south Laguna location (30862 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach).
10. The Balboas, Part 1
Some of the best fun and most difficult parking in Newport Beach are found on Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula. The island and peninsula are connected by an old-school ferry that carries just three cars ($2 a car; 410 S. Bayfront, Newport Beach; www.balboaislandferry.com), which is fun, but otherwise you'll be happier traveling by foot, bike or watercraft. The highlight of moneyed and mostly residential Balboa Island -- which is also connected to the mainland by bridge -- is the commercial strip of Marine Avenue, where you can buy boutique clothes for yourself and your kids, maybe have lunch at Wilma's Patio (203 Marine Ave., Balboa Island, Newport Beach; www.wilmaspatio.com) and perhaps buy a frozen banana, although that will mean choosing between Sugar 'n' Spice ("the original frozen banana" at 310 Marine Ave.) and Dad's Original (at 318 Marine Ave.).
11. The Balboas, Part 2
The Balboa Peninsula includes a lot: the Newport and Balboa piers, several small hotels, a bunch of restaurants, a 1.7-mile bike trail that connects the piers, watercraft rentals, harbor cruises, the historic Balboa Pavilion building and a neighboring Fun Zone (600 East Bay Ave., Balboa Peninsula, Newport Beach, www.thebalboafunzone.com) with rides and games. If you watched"The O.C." on television (2003-07), many of these spots will look familiar.
At the peninsula's southern tip is the Wedge, a prime body-surfing spot that Esquire magazine once put on a list of "60 things worth shortening your life for." Partake if you dare, then rent a bike ($8-$10 an hour from various storefronts), pedal pier to pier, and stop near the Newport Pier at Jane's Corndogs (106 McFadden Place, Newport Beach).
Later you can choose between the unpretentious 25-room Bay Shores Peninsula Hotel, (1800 W. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach; www.thebestinn.com) or the 15-room Newport Beach Hotel (formerly Newport Beachwalk Hotel, 2306 W. Oceanfront Blvd., Newport Beach; www.thenewportbeachhotel.com), which is snazzier but plopped down on the semi-scruffy boardwalk. But for now, get in line behind those tourists from North Dakota, fork over about $3 and taste that savory corn-dog goodness.
12. And now the scruffy cousin
If Newport and Laguna are the rich distant relations who might not remember you in their wills, Huntington Beach is the wild cousin who owes you money. Its downtown is all about scruffy surf culture, and the Main Street bars and restaurants stay lively late, with the usual attendant troubles.
No troubles for you, though, because you’re sleeping at the stylish shorebreak Hotel (500 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach; www.shorebreakhotel.com), which opened in 2009, a short stroll from the pier.
For a historical look at surf culture, spend a few minutes in the free International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Ave., Huntington Beach; www.surfingmuseum.org). From the pier, you get a great view of surfers at play, and you may bump into Lucky John, a street performer whose act relies heavily on (spoiler alert!) a hammer, a long nail and his own nose.
For a healthy helping of surf style and commerce, browse Jack's Surfboards (101 Main St., Huntington Beach; www.jackssurfboards.com), which goes back to 1957; and its competitor across Main, Huntington Surf & Sport (300 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach; www.hsssurf.com), where many a casual fashion trend has been incubated. Then grab a rental bike and take to the 12-mile Ocean Strand path, which begins down south in Newport Beach and ends near the county line at Sunset Beach.
On your right as you head north, you'll see the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. To your left, you'll have Bolsa Chica State Beach, which has camping, fishing and, unlike many beaches these days, dozens of fire rings.
Come back at sunset, pay the $15-a-car fee, and you can watch the flames dance, warm your sandy feet, roast marshmallows and howl like an unhinged extra on the set of "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Note, though, that booze is banned and you have to go home by 10 p.m. You can imagine how the Huntington Beach party people feel about that.