Local Wally's North County Experience
Visit the Beach Towns of San Diego
Whatever your age, the image of Southern California is burned into our consciousness by The Beach boys, Endless Summer, and beach movies. In this image there are woodies cruising the highway, long stretches of sandy beach with clear blue water, girls in bikinis and guys with surfboards, both waiting for the perfect wave.
Does it exist, or is this just a myth, a song lyric as bogus as two girls for every boy? Happy to say that Southern California does exist and everything you dreamed about is the lifestyle of the San Diego North County. From Del Mar to Oceanside, the beach communities are towns that time forgot, a time capsule that takes you back to simpler time in technicolor and full dimension stereo.
Don't get lost! Look for (map) by each location for a googlemap link.
NOrth County Starts in Del Mar, CA
Where The Surf Meets the Turf
Take Highway 5 North and exit at Del Mar Heights Road (map), going west towards the ocean. Hold you breath because as you crest the hill the view of the ocean is incredible, looking like a roller coaster dive right into the sea.
At the bottom of the hill go left (south) and enter the Torrey Pines State Park (map) and you'll find some of the coolest hikes in San Diego. The hikes are short but with big payoff of ocean views. I know, you could have just gotten off at Via de la Valle exit but they you would have missed that great drive down Del Mar Heights. I know what I'm doing!
Down below is Blacks Beach, a nude beach that's hard to get to. Just to be clear, you're more likely to see men who love Bravo TV than topless models from Cinemax so decide if this is your scene before taking the treacherous trail down.
Get back on Historic Highway 101 and head north. On your left is Del Mar's North Beach (map), aka Dog Beach, where canines are allowed to run off leash during the non-summer months. To your right is the Brigantine (map), the place for the best fish tacos in all of San Diego. Continue on and you'll drive through the old town with stop and go traffic all the way until you get to The Del Mar Plaza (map), an upscale shopping center with lots of great restaurants. If you want to walk around the town and check out the ocean, park at the Plaza where there's an underground parking lot. Terrific beach here and the famous racetrack, you can see why old Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Desi Arnez used to hang out here.
Pizza, Beer and Shopping at Solana Beach
A Brewery and Shopping Stop
Sorry guys, but I would be in big trouble with the wives if I didn't tell them about the eclectic one of a kind shopping at the Cedros Design District (map) The Quonset huts hearken back to the time when this was an industrial area. But the woodshops moved out and the trendy shops moved in, along with restaurants, a top music venue, and both a winery and a brewery. See, it's not going to be that bad!
The main shopping draw is Leaping Lotus and Solo, two shops filled with unique home decor and gift items. For non-shoppers there's Carruth Cellars (map) right next door, an urban winery, and down the street is Culture Brewing (map), an exceptional brewery where you can taste why San Diego has become so popular with beer lovers.
On Sunday afternoons there's a Farmer's Market (map) where you can sample our local fresh fruit and foods. Don't leave without some fresh ceviche and fresh local strawberries. That's right, we grow a lot of strawberries around here.
Back towards the coast is Fletcher Cove (map), a great locals beach, and back on the highway is Pizza Port (map) a brewery and a pizza joint that's picnic table casual inside. The prime seats are the ones lining the sidewalk - get a cold beer and a slice of pepperoni and watch the world go by. If Mexican food is what you are after you are very close to Fidels Little Mexico (map) and Tony's Jacal (map) two of the best Mexican restaurants in San Diego. If it's a nice day you should head up the hill and go straight to one of their patios and repeat after me - "I would like a perfect margarita, on the rocks, salt, with an extra lime."
The Cardiff Kook, Donuts, and Sauerkraut Pizza
Why We Love Our Cardiff Kook
Kook /ko͞ok/ : Someone who poses as a surfer but isn't.
A bit of back story is needed here. Cardiff (map) is a big surf town, a town where surfing is a way of life and everyone surfs, from moms and dads to kids and even dogs. So when the city wanted to put up a statue of a surfer it seemed like a good idea - what could go wrong?
When the statue was unveiled there was a bit of uneasiness, some laughter, and even some anger. Why does the surfer look so, hmmm, non-masculine? And why is he holding out his arms like Peter Pan does just before he says "I can fly!"? And so the Magic Carpet Ride, as the statue was originally named, became the Cardiff Kook and on any given weekend locals will dress him up in costumes and crazy outfits.
Take a brief stop here to check out the Kook but make sure you head up to VG's Donuts (map) San Diego's best donut shop (get the cinnamon crusted donut), or over to Cardiff Seaside Market (map) where there is typically live jazz on the weekend and a BBQ stand serving up the famous Cardiff "Crack" in a sandwich, a marinated trip-tip that's insanely addicting. And if you want to really go local, walk over to Best Wan Pizza (map), a pizza joint that thinks it's still the 60's, and get the Krautza Pizza, a wonderfully tasty pepperoni pizza topped with thick gooey cheese and a layer of, yes, sauerkraut.
Of course, a surfing town has to have a great surfing beach so head to the sand to check out the action. The beach (map) south of the campgrounds is dog friendly, though they need to remain on leash.
Swami's, Self Realization, and Encinitas
The Perfect San Diego Beach Town
Back on Highway 101, the drive from Cardiff to San Diego with the full ocean view is breathtaking. Your next destination is Encinitas where on any given weekend you'll see woodies in the parking lot and hear surf music in the distance. Encinitas hasn't changed much since the 60's, a time when if you were lucky enough to be a kid growing up here your lifestyle was straight out of a Beach Blanket Bingo movie.
The old historic highway runs right through the downtown. Next stop, the Self Realization Fellowship (map). No, I'm not trying to convert you, this place is just plain awesome, once the hangout of ex-Beatle George Harrison and his sitar buddy Ravi Shankar. Located next to Swami's Beach, a world famous surf spot, this is a stop that you won't see in your typical tour book.
The gardens behind the temple are open to the public and feature cascading waterfalls and crystal clear koi ponds surrounded by lush tropical landscaping that will remind you of the best parts of Hawaii. Take the short walk up the stairs and 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. Don't miss the gift shop (map) down the street. Where else can you find exotic trinkets along with sitars, harmoniums and Hare Krishna finger cymbals for sale? Start your own band!
The beach below is a famous surf spot called Swami's (map). At low tide there are some nice tide pools to explore but stay up top and watch the surfers catch some waves.
Hot Rods and Woodies
Try to plan your trip to Encinitas on the 3rd Thursday of the summer months for the Rods and Woodies night where the collectibles come out to cruise the old highway. And if you are lucky enough to be here the third Saturday in September there's the Wavecrest Woodie Fest, the largest collection of woodies in the world with great surf bands playing all day to set the mood.
On 3rd Street you'll find one of the oddest of all oddities, the Encinitas Boat Houses (map), two full sized boats on dry land. Built in the 1920's, 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.
Take your photo in front and tag your instagram with #localwally and @localwally.
Now head to the Encinitas School House (map), a restored school house stocked with old photos and old timers who are more than happy to tell you about growing up on the coast back in a time when Encinitas really was a small town and flower fields were everywhere. Open Fridays and Saturdays, 1 - 4.
Back on the highway are shops and restaurants, a pleasant stroll up and down. Check out La Paloma Theater (map), one of the very first movie houses to have "talkies" and still showing movies nightly. You might also notice a surprising number of yoga studios. Locals here love their yoga nearly as much as they love surfing, which they love nearly as much as beer. Wait, beer? Yes, downtown Encinitas has plenty of places to pick up an ale or local brew, including the ultra popular Union Kitchen and Tap (map) and the Encinitas Ale House (map). Encinitas Fish Shop (map) has the best grilled fish tacos in all of San Diego and local beer, winner winner fish taco dinner. If you need surf gear or just want to get a cool local t-shirt head over to Hansen's (map), a local surf shop with lots of cool surf clothing and flip flop options.
Of course, Encinitas has a great beach, perhaps my favorite beach in all of San Diego County, and that's Moonlight Beach (map). The main section of the beach can be crowded but walk past the volleyball players towards the surf and walk north and the beach instantly becomes deserted and quiet. Don't bug that guy taking a nap - that's probably me.
It's Funky Here because We Like That in Leucadia
Keep Leucadia Funky
You have to drive through the beaches of Orange County to see what locals here are trying to avoid. Founded in the 1870's reputedly by English spiritualists who danced in white robes in the park that is now at Leucadia Blvd. and 101 (map), the locals today continue in the same spirit of individuality, spirituality and, well, funkiness. OK, I'll say it, they're modern day hippies living on the coast.
Their goal is to stop or slow progress, a battle we all hope they win because there is something charming about mom and pop stores lining the eucalyptus lined streets, trees that were planted in the 1880's.
Start your trip back to the past at Lou's Records (map), an old school record store that's possibly on its last gasp. Go ahead, grab some old free cassette tapes from the bins in front or buy that used 80's CD you secretly love (it's Paula Adbul, admit it). Next door is the Pannikin (map), once the old train station but converted into a charming little restaurant with great food, homemade pies, coffees and teas and a nostalgic gift shop, too. Locals love Pannikin!
On Sundays there's the Leucadia Farmer's Market (map) at the elementary school with more great food, local produce and fruits. My friend owns Belgium Delights which has the best french fries I have ever tasted - and I am a huge fry fan. Make sure you get some of our fresh locally grown strawberries that have absolutely nothing to do with the flavorless ones you get at the supermarket that crunch harder than a Fuji apple.
Up the road a bit is Solterra (map), an urban winery with a cool setting and tasting room that's open to the highway. Walking distance from there is Surfy Surfy and Coffee Coffee (map), two local shops selling surf gear and, yes, coffee.
Need a Mexican food fix? Juanita's Taco Shop (map) - yes, the one with bars on the windows and stickers covering the sign - is the place to go for carnitas, slow cooked pork. For a sit down meal go to La Especial Norte (map), an ultra funky place with authentic food and a long list of house margaritas that range from gringo sweet to potent, all at the same price. More dining options in Leucadia in my North County restaurant guide.
On To Carlsbad and Oceanside
Things to Do That Don't Involve Legos
Back on the old highway going north, take a detour up to the La Costa Farms Fruit Stand (map) where you'll find fresh local fruit, ripe strawberries, local breads, and bags of fresh tortilla chips with homemade salsa. Go ahead, eat in the car and don't worry if you spill, it's a rental!
Now continue to a secret destination that many locals don't even know about, Leo Carrillo Historic Ranch (map). Once the getaway ranch for actor Leo Carrillo, perhaps best known for his role as Pancho on The Cisco Kid movies, the ranch was a haven for Hollywood stars wanting to get away from madness of LA and to the serene setting of an old California rancho in the rolling hills of Carlsbad. Today it's a well maintained park with both self guided tours and docents and lots of peacocks strutting their stuff.
Carlsbad is also close to many of our local breweries, most housed in unassuming business parks and serving brews you can only get at the brewery or with limited distribution. Iron fist Brewing (map) is a great place to start. Get 4 or 5 small taster glasses, a buck each, get some food off the food truck outside, it's a great way to spend the afternoon. Go to my sister site DrinkUpSanDiego.com for a complete list of all of the breweries in San Diego and North County.
Head now to quaint Carlsbad Village (map) where you'll find plenty of antique stores, a vinyl record store, shops and restaurants, a nice place to take a stroll through the shops, or continue to the Oceanside Pier (map) where you'll find plenty of local character(s) and a cool ocean breeze, a nice way to end your trip to San Diego's Beach Towns in North County.