From Del Mar to Oceanside, the Best of North County
In my dreams Gidget never grew up, The Beach Boys are still on the AM dial, woodies and hot rods cruise the strip and everyday starts with a surf report. Well, dreams do come true when you visit the real beach towns of Southern California, the stretch of coast from Del Mar to Oceanside. Let's go explore the beach towns of San Diego and see how the locals live!
LOCAL WALLY'S SONG OF THE DAY: Let's get in the mood with a song I wrote and recorded called Cruisin' Highway 101!
Take off Highway 5 at Carmel Valley Road (map) and go towards the ocean. Once you reach Highway 101 go south (turn left) and enter the Torrey Pines State Park (map) and head to the top of the hill where you'll find the trailheads for some of the coolest hikes in San Diego. You'll start in a foresty looking area, turn the corner and BAM, you're right on the top of the bluff overlooking the ocean! These are short hikes, the longest loop only slightly longer than a mile. Down below is the nude Blacks Beach (forgetabout it, it's too hard to get down there) and don't miss stopping in at the Ranger Station which was once the original lodge. It's hard to imagine that cars coming down from LA would have to stop here to avoid overheating after climbing the hill. I mean, even you can climb that hill, right?
Back on Highway 101 and heading north, you'll pass through Del Mar's Dog Beach on the left, adjacent to the Del Mar Horseracing Track. Back in the day Del Mar was a hideaway for movie stars like Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Desi "Ricky Ricardo" Arnaz and Lucille Ball, among others. Heck, even Seabiscuit loved Del Mar.
Downtown Del Mar doesn't have much to offer so resist the temptation to stop unless you really like to shop. If that's the case, head to The Del Mar Plaza for oceanview shopping. If you're hungry, Pacifica Del Mar, located right in the plaza, is a good pick for fresh seafood. Or head back to the beach to The Poseidon, a restaurant that's literally right on the beach, or Jakes, the same guys who own Hula Grill in Maui and other restaurants on Hawaii.
Go past Dog Beach (map) and you'll see The Brigantine Restaurant, home to the best fish tacos in San Diego, available only in the bar. If you have the time, stop in for a snack of tacos and fresh oysters. Skip the valet because there's free parking once you pass The Brig - turn right on Via de la Valle and park anywhere you can and walk back to the beach. Dog Beach isn't exactly the place I go to lay out in the sand because, you know, but it is a cool place to see the mutts and pedigrees frolicking in the surf and swimming in the channel.
Del Mar is also home to the San Diego County Fair (mid-June to July 5th) and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, aka the Del Mar Horse Racing (late July through the first week of September). If you want to frolic with the rich and famous then set your calendar to Opening Day at the races where tradition has women wearing outlandish hats. Come on, I know you saw this on the Real Housewives' of the OC!
LOCAL WALLY'S "IN SEARCH FOR MEXICAN FOOD" TIP: The Eden Garden neighborhood is a modest (well, less than modest) neighborhood that was originally established for the Mexicans who worked the fields at ritzy Rancho Santa Fe. If you want authentic Mex, look no further than Don Chuy's (good), Tony's Jacal (better), or Fidel's Little Mexico (best). And if you love chile rellenos, no one makes them better than Fidels - no one!
Sorry guys, but Local Wally would be in big trouble with the wives if I didn't tell them that Solana Beach has some great, one of a kind shopping at the Cedros Design District. The quonset huts, prefab semi-circular metal buildings, hearken back to the time when this was an industrial area. But the woodshops moved out and the trendy shops moved in, along with great restaurants and The Belly Up Tavern, a terrific small music venue that's popular with the alternative music crowd.
On Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5 there's a Farmer's Market where you can sample some of the local fresh fruit and local foods. Don't leave without a cup of fresh ceviche and some fresh local strawberries!
Back on the highway and heading North the road opens up to a sweeping view of the ocean, a breathtaking view that even locals never tire of. You're approaching Cardiff by the Sea, a prime surfing spot. Pull in that parking lot if you want to watch the waves and check out the kite surfers! Holy cow, how come their arms don't get pulled out of their sockets? You're also close to the few restaurants located right on the beach, the best being the aptly named Beach House. The food is pretty good but the main attraction is the full ocean view, best seen from the upstairs patio where there's a casual bar menu. Across the street is a local's favorite, La Olas Mexican Restaurant. Shrimp tacos on the patio with a side of ocean breeze while sipping a cool margarita, what's wrong with that? The Chart House is also popular, though the lack of outdoor dining knocks it down a few notches in my book.
As you arrive at Cardiff by the Sea you'll see an odd sort of landmark, a statue of a definitely not macho surfer. The statue created a lot of controversy when it was unveiled in 2007 with many surfers suggesting this looked more like Brokeback Mountain than Endless Summer. Gay or straight, you be the judge. I'll stay out of the controversy and head instead over to V.G.'s Donuts, the best donuts in San Diego. Forget about Crispy Creme, Dunkin' Donuts or even Portland's Voodoo Donuts, VG's slays them all.
Sometimes you find great food in the most unexpected places. Bull Taco is located in the, believe it or not, San Elijo State Campgrounds right behind the controversial surfer statue. It's the actual concession stand located next to the tiny market, but don't let those credentials fool you. This is foodie paradise with such oddities as duck burritos or foie gras tacos. Feast on unusual fillings or go traditional with fish or carne asada, it's all good. Seating is on weather worn picnic tables overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it doesn't get much better than this. Let the other tourists fork out big bucks for ocean view dining - you stick with Local Wally for a better view and better food for a fraction of the cost. Say it, Local Wally is da man!
If all of this food has you feeling a bit guilty, take a walk along the sand going north until you get to Swami's Beach. You'll know you're there by the stairs that lead you back to the road. Then walk back to your car along the top of the bluffs along the highway and keep an eye out for dolphins which are often spotted in this area.
Here's a stop that doesn't show up in your standard tour guide. The Bombay looking building is the Self Realization Fellowship Temple, once the hangout for ex-Beatle George Harrison and his sitar buddy Ravi Shankar. Behind the temple are gardens that are open to the public that will instantly remind you of the best parts of Hawaii, from the cascading waterfalls that connect the crystal clear koi ponds to the lush tropical landscaping. Up on top you'll find breathtaking views of the Pacific and plenty of places to sit and, well, meditate! This really is a religious experience so try your best to be serene and respectful. Damn, is that a whale out there?!!
Down the street is the church's book and gift shop, which is not to be missed. No, Wally is not trying to convert you but you have to believe me that this place is insanely nuts! I mean, where else can you find exotic trinkets along with sitars, harmoniums and Hare Krishna finger cymbals for sale? Start your own band!
What in the world? On 3rd Street in Encinitas you'll find one of the oddest of all oddities, the infamous Encinitas Boat Houses. Built in the 1920's by who was possibly the craziest guy in town, these "boats" were never meant to be at sea. They were the product of the keen imagination of Miles Minor Kellogg who had a knack for taking old building materials and creating something new and unique. With a sea captain for a father, Kellogg's fascination with the sea combined with his skills as a builder was the impetus for creating what has certainly become one of the strangest buildings in America. Man, I bet his neighbors were mad!
The Boat Houses are currently apartments with the city hoping to someday turn them into a museum. Until then they are off limits to visitors but feel free to snap a few shots outside. Don't worry, the residents are used to it.
down the strip and the downtown area is vibrant and alive with local shops and restaurants - check out the old La Paloma movie theater, one of the first theaters to show "talkies" and still showing movies today. Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight? Every Friday with the second Friday of each month being Lingerie Night... oh my!
During the Summer on the third Thursday night of each month is Rods and Woodies featuring classic cars, from deuce coupes to '66 Sting Rays to crazy street legal bumper cars. And if you're in town the third Saturday of September, don't miss the Wavecrest Woodie Meet, the highlight of the Summer season with live surf music and rows and rows of pristine woodies.
Of course, Encinitas is a beach town and Moonlight Beach is one of the best local beaches in all of San Diego. Lately tourists have discovered this secret gem but parking is still not bad, not nearly as scarce as La Jolla or Pacific Beach. The concession stand sells snacks and rents beach gear like boogie boards, chairs and umbrellas. They even offers private surfing lessons for $50 per person with a discount for 3 or more. Come on, can you leave San Diego without at least trying to surf? Of course not!
It's good to be hungry in Encinitas and there's no shortage of great dining options. Trattoria I Trulli is a small bistro setting with rustic Italian. It's noisy and cramped but locals line up for their consistently delicious pastas. Another top pick for Italian is Vigilucci's, a bit fancier and a tad pricier. They have a number of restaurants in the area, including a steakhouse right on 101 a few miles north.
My new local favorite is The 3rd Corner, part wine shop, part bistro. Pick a bottle you like and they'll open it for a $5 fee, then enjoy a meal that would feel right at home in Paris. Duck Confit, mussels with frites, it's all delicious and surprisingly affordable. A seat at the bar or the living room sofa setting, this is ultra casual yet coastally sophisticated.
Looking for a bowl of Pho? Kim's Restaurant is the place for this Vietnamese specialty of rice noodle soup with enough hot spices and condiments on the side to blow your head off. Really, watch out, this stuff is hot!
Kealani's and their authentic Hawaiian plate lunch might make low carb dieters rethink their strategy. Plate lunches have their roots in the Hawaiian plantation days where hungry field workers needed lots of carbs to keep them going. Two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and an big helping of tender Kalua Pork did the trick. Kealani's continues this tradition by feeding the surfers after a long day on the waves. Incredibly delicious and ultra casual, there's often local ukulele players gathering outside on weekends to complete the setting.
For breakfast the best spot has to be The Original 101 Diner with their sidewalk seating and terrific eggs benedict or omelettes stuffed with everything from chili and cheese to Louisiana sausage and jalapeno peppers. They also serve great burgers and sandwiches for lunch - but closed for dinner.
Downtown Encinitas also has a couple of good taco shops, Raul's and Filiberto's, as well as one of the better Mexican restaurants, El Callejon. If you like tequilla and want to taste some high end stuff, this is the place with one selection costing $135. Better sip that one slow! The food is a bit more expensive than you normally pay for Mex, but it's also a bit more authentic. Look for coupons in the local "free" newspapers around the area.
On the road again going north you'll pass the funky town of Leucadia. The townspeople have been fighting off progress since the start of time. They like their beach town just fine, thank you, and aren't willing to compromise their lifestyle to attract tourists, which is why this is such a great tourist destination. Ahh, irony strikes again!
Women will want to stop in at The Gold Coast, a small assortment of shops offering up jewelry, clothing, and eclectic gifts. But men, don't fret because next door is Lou's Records, an old time record store with a large assortment of CD's, from bootlegs to indy to mainstream, both new and used. Grab a few old discs for the car - Pet Sounds is a good one.
For a cup of joe and a piece of homemade pie, stop in at The Pannikin, the bright yellow building built in 1888 that used to be the Santa Fe train station. Stepping inside is a delightful nostalgic trip with the "penny" candy in jars, oddball collectable's, and homemade desserts. Breakfast and bakery items too, but the real attraction is the cool 60's vibe that runs through this place. Starbucks? You kidding me?
Locals can't go very long without some authentic Mexican food and Leucadia has a couple of secret gems you're going to want to try. The first is El Torito Market, not to be confused with the horrible El Torrito restaurant. El Torito Market is a small Mexican market with fresh fruits, still warm tortillas and a fresh meat counter. It also has a take out menu for prepared foods, from tacos to tamales with rice and beans. Tacos al pastor cooked to order right from the parking lot on a Summer day, this is taco heaven! Portions are huge and recipes authentic, grab some combo's and head to the beach for an unforgettable meal.
Juanitas is a taco shop the way they used to be, before the corporate fakes came along. A real taco shop should have some element of fear in it. Is it safe? Is it clean? Should I care about rumors of "B" (or worse) health ratings? Juanitas fits that description with the bars on the windows, the surf stickers all over the sign, and the ridiculously long lines of surfers and touristas all craning their necks to see how much longer they have to wait. The draw here is the carnitas, tender and succulent pork stuffed into a football size burrito with no Chipotle "fill em up with rice and beans" strategy. Rumors of the occasional robbery or fist fights are greatly exaggerated and who cares when the food is this good?
Encinitas and the surrounding area used to be "the flower capitol of the world", as the town's logo says. There was a time when nearly all of the Christmas poinsettias were from here and strawberry fields went on for miles. Million dollar tract homes lately have taken over the flower and strawberry fields, but luckily there are still enough left to supply the various local strawberry stands in the area.
Supermarket strawberries are often as hard as a Top Flight golf ball because they're picked too soon, but local strawberries are picked the day they should be eaten. Juicy and sweet, one of the best places to get a basket or two is La Costa Farms, located a bit east off of La Costa Blvd. Worth a stop, get some fresh fruit and some chips and salsa to snack on in the car. Messy? Sure, but who cares, it's a rental!
Back on Highway 101 going north of La Costa Blvd you'll pass Ponto Beach. You'll know you're there when you get to the wide expanse of beach on one side and the wide open space on the other. Ponto as we know it will soon be gone with plans to build a super resort in the open area. So sad, but for now it's a great local beach with virtually no crowds even on the hottest of Summer days. When Moonlight is packed to the gills, Ponto is still wide open. No alcohol allowed but the lifeguards leave when the main crowds do making it my favorite beach to sneak in a bottle of wine to enjoy as the sun sets.
If you have kids you have to go to Legoland and trust me, I feel sorry for you. But Carlsbad existed long before the blockheads came to town and is a terrific ending for a terrific day. From great ocean view gof at The Crossings to local shops and dining, there's plenty to see and do.
LOCAL WALLY'S BREAKFAST BEFORE LEGOLAND TIP: The best breakfast in Carlsbad has to be Tip Top Meats where $6.98 gets you the Big John Breakfast with all you can eat ham, bacon, pork link sausage, bratwurst, and polish sausage.
If you happen to be in town around Spring you'll want to visit The Flower Fields. The 50 acres of blooming flowers look like the scene from the Wizard of Oz where everything turns to color. It's so bright and colorful you'll think you're on LSD, it's that good! During the Summer you'll find the Carlsbad U-Pick-Em Strawberry Farm right next door, a lot of fun for the kids and an experience that will make you glad you work in a cube instead of the fields. Experience the strawberry farm now before the fields become government office buildings, which unfortunately is in the city plans. And yes, this is also where you'll find the Carlsbad Premium Outlets, aka "the factory outlet stores", an outdoor mall with an ocean view.
Music lovers will love a quick stop at the nearby Museum of Making Music, part of the NAMM organization. Lots of hands on exhibits to keep the kids happy and plenty of special events and concerts to delight the music fan. And guitarists will want to make a side trip to Buffalo Bros Guitars, one of the best independent guitar shops in the country.
LOCAL WALLY'S HOT LOCAL SEAFOOD TIP: It's not fancy but if you want some great fish sandwiches to bring to the beach, stop in at Pelly's Fish Market for fresh catches of the day, just a few blocks away from the beach.
If you want to see Old California then head off the coast a bit to the historic Leo Carrillo Ranch. Surrounded by tract houses now, the ranch nonetheless is a fascinating peek into the past when huge ranchos were a part of the culture. The story of Leo Carrillo is a fascinating one with ties to Old Town, Coronado, and Hollywood. The restored rancho with its free range peacocks is a great side trip and a fun one at that. Check out the tour schedule or just pop in and wander, it's free.
Now head back to Highway 101. The road runs right alongside the ocean, what a view! You'll pass the power plant, built when this was not considered prime property. As you enter the village of Carlsbad you'll pass the Harbor Fish Cafe. It looks a tourist trap but it actually has some seriously good seafood, from the gigantic fish tacos to clam chowder that rivals the east coast. Casual outdoor dining, great fish and chips, too.
Once you're in downtown (map) go ahead and park to explore this coastal village. Now to be honest, the shopping isn't particularly exciting here but there are a few notable exceptions. The Carlsbad Village Art and Antique Mall has everything from surf art to stuff that Grandma threw out and music lovers will want to stop in at Spin Records to check out their eclectic collection of both indy and mainstream CD's and vinyl. If you've been dieing to get a ukulele after seeing the locals outside Encinitas' Keilani's, check out Giacoletti's collection of nice Lanikai's, a serious uke for an affordable price.
LOCAL WALLY'S FLIPSIDE SONG OF THE DAY: Can you hear the Summer's Calling you? Time for a break to listen to another hit song with my band, FiBERGLASS.
Beer lovers will want to check out the microbrews at Pizza Port Brewing Company, who also make one of the best gooey "not ruined by gourmet" pizzas. You might be tempted to stop in at the Carlsbad Las Olas or Norte (formerly known as Fidel's Norte) Mexican restaurants since their original locations get such good reviews, but each time I've dined there I haven't been blown away. They're not bad, just not as good as the originals.
Keep driving north until you get to Oceanside. Now to be honest, once you pass Carlsbad the drive along 101 isn't very scenic. Oceanside is a military town and the quaint shops quickly turn into automotive repair shops and the like. But don't turn around or you'll miss the California Surf Museum. Surfers and hodads alike will love checking out the huge collection of surfboards, some dating back 100 years, as well as the ongoing exhibits.
Oceanside also has one of the largest wooden piers on the West Coast. The ocean breeze, the salty air, watching the waves as the sun sets from the pier is the perfect way to cap off a day in paradise. You can either grab a bite at Ruby's Diner, a 1940's theme restaurant at the end of the pier, or more upscale at 333 Pacific, a contemporary steak and seafood place owned by local Cohn Restaurant Group (C-Level, The Prado, Corvette Diner, etc) that just opened in 2009 and has been getting rave reviews.
Alternatively, you could skip Oceanside and head back to Ponto or Moonlight Beach to watch the sunset. Moonlight is an especially nice choice because by then the locals will be lighting up the bonfires for that quintessential Southern California experience, the beach party! Your chances of getting a firepit are about as good as scoring with that hot chick in a bikini but if you ask nicely I'm sure no local will turn you down if you want to toss a couple of dogs on the BBQ. Here's where that "extra" blanket you asked for at the hotel comes in real handy! Lay it out on the sand and sit back to watch the show.
Man, I sure hope you had a fun day. The North County Experience is a part of San Diego that most tourists miss. This is my San Diego and now it's yours, too. Life in San Diego is all about attitude, about kicking back and enjoying each moment of sunshine and if we get a bit more sunshine than the rest, we're more than happy to share.
GO TO MEXICO? ARE YOU CRAZY?
MAYBE, MAYBE NOT!
COMING IN 2014: A new version of Local Wally's Guide to San Diego is on its way with more coupons, better discounts, updated reviews and the same great advice you can only get from a local. I'm also changing out the localwally.com url to SanDiegoTouristGuide.com soon but both will work.
Until then, it's not too early to start planning your trip to San Diego paradise. Stick with me and you'll not only get real advice from a real local but find cheap hotel and discount tickets as well. Local Wally is the oldest local website on San Diego and the only one left still run by a local guy.
And if you like beer, check out my newest site DrinkUpSanDiego.com, the complete guide to San Diego's breweries.
See You Soon,