The Hidden Coast: The Sunny South


So here on a misty bend of Highway 1 we shift gears—slowing long enough to pass the baton—before continuing on, to the bottom half of the state, to a shoreline more familiar and yet, to a remarkable degree, still authentic and untrammeled. Although this might be called the southern leg, I start on the Central Coast, in an area that owes its virtue to the fact that central, in California, is not central at all. To come this way is to choose a geographic no-man’s-land, the distant, indistinct middle, outside the orbit of the great decadent cities to the north and south. It is nobody’s playground (except maybe Fresno’s), nobody’s suburb (except maybe San Luis Obispo’s), which means the freckle of a beach town in the center of the Central Coast, the one named after the ancient kayaks of the Chumash, has managed to go about its business without a whole lot of intrusions from the outside world. Cayucos, 224 miles above L.A. and 232 miles below San Francisco, has a long, gnarled pier, a leftover from its seafaring and rum-running days, but you are struck by what it does not have: traffic lights, parking meters, luxury condos, security guards, fast-food franchises, or chain anything.

Despite several ye olde courtyard motels lining the main drag, true oceanfront lodging is scarce, the top choice being On the Beach Bed & Breakfast, at the foot of the pier. While a bit frilly—my bed was a four-post canopy job with gauzy panels—the room had a balcony with wicker chairs that looked straight out to sea, and there was nothing, no street noise or hotel buzz, to detract from the whooshes and crashes that lulled me to sleep. After a morning jog on the city’s short but uncluttered crescent of sand, with views of Morro Rock and the Santa Lucia Mountains, I walked the dozen or so blocks of Ocean Avenue. The street is anchored by sprawling antiques emporiums, including Rich Man Poor Man, full of Elvis LPs and Charlie Brown lunch boxes. At one corner fluttered a banner congratulating “our son Rocky, Cayucos born and raised,” on his signing with the Chicago Cubs. Lunchtime has to mean Ruddell’s Smokehouse, which serves tacos made with its own smoked albacore and also sells the fillets to go in vacuum-sealed pouches. The finest dining in Cayucos, finer than you would expect in a town of 3,100 people, is at Hoppe’s Garden Bistro, where I had a comforting lobster bisque and grilled quail with roasted pears on the shaded brick patio.

A century ago gamblers and bootleggers would gather at the Old Cayucos Tavern, and they still do: The cash-only, cowboy-themed saloon stays open late, and in the back room you can join a no-limit game of Texas Hold ’Em three nights a week. It is hard to beat a beer and a shot in a time-warp honky-tonk, followed by a stroll across the street to the beach, where you can stand alone, under the moonlight, as hundreds of nocturnal shorebirds swarm and swirl at the edge of the surf.

Heading down the 101 the next day, toward people and commerce, I knew that the closer I got to L.A., the less chance I would have of finding another place so remote, so unvarnished. I breezed past the familiar vistas of Santa Barbara and took the Carpinteria Avenue exit. I had read somewhere that Carpinteria had the best beaches in Southern California, the cleanest or the safest, and I hoped that its relative anonymity, in the shadow of its ritzier neighbor, would afford me access without hassles or pretense. The heart of town, palm-lined Linden Avenue, has an appealingly modest, workaday flavor, even vaguely blue collar. Amtrak slices the city, the tracks running a couple of blocks from the water and right past the Spot, a weathered burger shack where I filled up on essential fats and salts. To wash it down, I hit the Island Brewing Company, a functional, family-run brewpub with half a dozen taps in its industrial tasting room.


The beaches of Carpinteria (another town named after those Chumash canoe builders) are impressive, solitary and hushed, with surf gentle enough for toddlers to romp in or for old-timers, with rod and reel, to navigate in hip waders. The Channel Islands—the ones lesser known than Catalina—loom out there like some prehistoric fantasyland. So do a slew of drilling platforms: You sort of have to squint and tell yourself they are fishing vessels. From the sand you can wander into Salt Marsh Nature Park, the public gateway to a 230-acre sanctuary that has shielded much of Carpinteria’s northwestern coastline. A web of trails leads through pristine wetlands, bustling with sparrows and rabbits, while the condos that most visitors rent for days at a time dead-end at the marsh’s perimeter. On the southeastern shore are the Carpinteria Bluffs, 52 acres of dramatic cliff-top trails, which plunge down to tide pools and a rare harbor seal rookery. Because of those preserves—and the Carpinteria State Beach campground between them—the water’s edge has remained largely free of development. I settled on Prufrock’s Garden Inn, another B&B with lots of needlepoint and pillow shams, about three blocks from the ocean. It is a 1904 cottage with just seven rooms, but mine had a private entrance, through ferns, and in the morning when I was greeted with flapjacks and warm syrup, I decided I was starting to get used to these places.

A new day and I was trading the 101 for the 405. Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice—the towns that define L.A.’s proximity to the beach—were right there, full of glamour and mischief, and yet for the purposes of this trip, a bit too trodden. Hermosa Beach was just out-of-the-way enough to provide an alternative, a corner of the South Bay that, as an inlander, a San Gabriel Valleyite, I had never visited. The nicest digs belong to the Beach House, a cozy Cape Cod-ish boutique hotel on the boardwalk. The ocean required some neck craning to view from my “ocean-view” suite, but at least the room had a fireplace, with a Duraflame log at the ready.

Once a favorite of poets and jazzmen, Hermosa these days falls somewhere between Bourbon Street and a Summer Olympics village, a cluster of boozy sports bars to go with elite volleyball on the sand. Barely more than one square mile, the town hugs densely built Hermosa Avenue, home to the Comedy & Magic Club, Jay Leno’s long-standing Sunday-night gig. Away from the hubbub of Pier Plaza, I discovered Chef Melba’s Bistro, where I polished off a shiitake-glazed pork chop and a warm berry cobbler while Chef Melba herself chatted up customers from the open kitchen.

With practically everyone in the neighborhood riding a bike, I rented a beach cruiser from Hermosa Cyclery the next morning and wheeled up the Strand, the 22-mile path that runs from Palos Verdes to Pacific Palisades. There were surfers and fishermen and even hang gliders to the west, and to the east, wall-to-wall oceanfront pads that ranged from homespun to extraterrestrial. Seeing so much of my city from the outside, the lip of the coast, was liberating, a vantage that made L.A. seem both more distant and more comprehendible. It was not quite real, but as long as I kept pedaling, the illusion was easy to sustain.

Back on the freeway, bumper-to-bumper through the OC, my beach trip was fast going nowhere, a grim commute. I could have bailed out in Newport or Laguna, the celebrities of the Orange Coast, but I powered through to San Clemente, the quaint, frumpy village-by-the-sea that once provided refuge to a lonely Richard Nixon. On a knoll overlooking the water, I found the Beachcomber Motel, the most perfect little stucco, red-tiled row of throwback cottages you could imagine, not deluxe or dainty, just honest, affordable oceanfront lodging. A few teenage boys were strumming guitars around a stone fire pit in the front yard, under a half moon, and down below, jutting 1,296 feet out into the Pacific, the San Clemente Pier shimmered over the inky waves. When the Surfliner rumbled in—the train stops at the pier—rather than breaking the spell, it was almost romantic.


The town’s favorite breakfast spot is Antoine’s Café, which brews a daily selection of good coffees and spins classic jazz. I had biscuits and gravy, then wandered over to the Spanish-themed shopping district, along Avenida Del Mar, full of matronly bath and kitchen stores, with their scented candles and papier-mâché artichokes. It was just unhip enough to be charming. The obvious choice for a sunset cocktail is Fisherman’s, on a glassed-in deck at the pier, which can be reached by walking through a tunnel under the tracks. BeachFire Bar & Grill, which serves souped-up comfort food amid driftwood and gemstones, provides a touch more San Clemente flavor. Hundreds of paintings by local artists cover the walls, and the floor is decorated with mosaic tiles, inlaid by art students from San Clemente High School.

South of town, surfers from around the world flock to Trestles, which lies on one of Southern California’s most primitive, windswept stretches of coastline, even with the twin domes of the San Onofre nuclear power plant standing sentry. Hiking down the eroded sandstone bluffs off Basilone Road, at the San Diego County line, I explored the crags and coves, marveling at how I could be so far from civilization and only a few hundred yards from Interstate 5. From a smooth patch of sand, I was rewarded with a private dolphin show, maybe a dozen of them spinning in the wave-battered reefs, close enough that I was certain they knew I was there.

At the southern tip of California, about 20 miles shy of the Mexican border, I pulled off the freeway and turned west, toward the coast, finishing my journey at the polar opposite of where I had begun. To anyone who knows San Diego only through its family-friendly attractions, Pacific Beach can seem like the city’s frat-house cousin, a seaside neighborhood that is young and exuberant and eager to blow off steam. As one of the last urban beaches to permit alcohol—that is, until voters in 2008 approved a ban—it has a libertine air, with tattoo parlors and head shops aplenty on rollicking Garnet Avenue, even a nail salon that advertises free beer with each pedicure. Have your ID ready: Everyone gets carded at the high-octane nightspots, including Moondoggies, a fixture of MTV’s Real World: San Diego. If “shawty” is not in your vocabulary, try the Tap Room, which devotes more than 40 kegs to San Diego’s legion of microbreweries. Nothing wrong with a pint of cask-conditioned Green Flash Imperial IPA and a basket of calamari.

For all its indulgences, Pacific Beach is still the beach, an oceanfront town where you can step from your room onto the sand. The newish Tower23 provides Pacific Beach’s sleekest, most stylish accommodations. Three minimalist stories of glass and steel directly on the boardwalk, it features Xboxes in every room and minibars stocked with $82 bottles of Patrón. I ate a lobster BLT in the hotel’s JRDN dining room, the sandwich an uncomplicated tribute to first-rate ingredients. I suspect that Tower23, which takes its name from the adjacent lifeguard station, is what Pacific Beach hopes to be when it grows up: swank, modern, chill. Sort of like the door to the ice machine, which was labeled, simply, Cubes. On my final morning it stormed. I took a long walk on the flat, smooth beach, the ocean black, churning with kelp and foam. After five nights and 350 miles—more than double that if you add my colleague’s Northern California leg—I was at the end of a long road, the end of the state, of the country, of our quest. When I got back to the car, I was sandy and soaked, my shoes caked, my glasses blurred, and I swear I could smell that briny dankness all the way back to my landlocked home.        




On the Beach Bed & Breakfast
181 N. Ocean Ave. 
Rates: $275-$350 

Prufrock’s Garden Inn
600 Linden Ave.
Rates: $99-$399 

Beach House
1300 The Strand 
Rates: $229-$499 

Beachcomber Motel
533 Avenida Victoria 
Rates: $125-$375 

Tower23 Hotel
723 Felspar St. 
Rates: $229-$489 


Hoppe’s Garden Bistro
78 N. Ocean Ave.

Old Cayucos Tavern
130 N. Ocean Ave. 

Ruddell’s Smokehouse
101 D St.

Island Brewing Company
5049 6th St. 

The Spot
389 Linden Ave. 

Chef Melba’s Bistro
1501 Hermosa Ave. 

Antoine’s Café
218 S. El Camino Real 

BeachFire Bar & Grill
204 Avenida Del Mar 

Fisherman’s Restaurant & Bar
611 Avenida Victoria

Tower23 Hotel 
723 Felspar St. 

Tap Room
1269 Garnet Ave. 


Rich Man Poor Man
146 N. Ocean Ave. 

Carpinteria Bluffs

Salt Marsh Nature Park

Hermosa Cyclery
20 13th St. 

San Onofre State Beach


Photographs by Manuello Paganelli