USA Today: The SoCal beach towns you shouldn't miss between Los Angeles and San Diego
Aug 29 2019
With 42 miles of shoreline and roughly 300 days of sunshine per year, the beaches of Orange County — sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego — offer pristine stretches of golden sand, brisk waves and a collection of coastal communities, each with its own personality and style.
Whether you’re day tripping from one of the big cities or taking a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, these beach towns, from Seal Beach to San Clemente, offer a taste of beach living and culture that’s distinctly SoCal.
Here’s how to have a remarkable Southern California trip in these coastal enclaves.
Less than 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, Seal Beach is a quiet, come-as-you-are beach town that feels worlds away from the big city hustle. Wide, sandy beaches welcome rows of sunbathers, while surfers are lured by the Pacific’s powerful pull.
The town’s compact but bustling historic district, lined with mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, and indie boutiques has a charming laid-back vibe that evokes the spirit of Old California.
Sweet Jill’s Bakery, in the center of it all, is the perfect place to start your day, with everything from old-fashioned cinnamon rolls to coffee cake and croissants. Walk off your sweet treats with a stroll to the edge of the 1,835 foot-long Seal Beach Municipal Pier for sweeping views of the sea; it also offers a solid vantage point for watching surfers and seals catch the waves.
Midday, tuck into The Abbey for a wood-fired pizza and an icy cold draft, then grab a pole and cast your line off the pier, where, along with fish, you’re likely to catch some tips from the locals who’ve been gracing this spot for years.
As night falls, Walt’s Wharf is where you’ll want to be for fresh-from-the-boat seafood complemented by a glass of wine from the family’s neighboring Babcock Winery. Check out the Ayres Hotel Seal Beach for affordable, spacious, well-kept rooms plus an outdoor pool, located just minutes away from the beach and downtown.
While you won’t find anything brighter than a gas lamp in Seal Beach’s downtown district, Newport Beach shimmers and shines with yachts, luxury properties, museums, galleries and shopping centers as far as the eye can see.
Fuel the morning with a freshly baked doughnut or a chocolate-dipped banana from Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop, then find your way to the Duffy Electric Boats rental and cruise the harbor. These electric-powered, canopied boats were invented right in Newport and don’t require a special license to operate.
Hike at Crystal Cove State Park and enjoy the water views, explore tide pools at Little Corona del Mar Beach or walk through the gardens and browse the historical library at Sherman Library & Gardens. For dinner, slip into A Restaurant. Originally built as a restaurant and service station the same year the Pacific Coast Highway opened up from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach, this New American restaurant showcases seasonally inspired dishes like spicy yellowfin tuna with crispy eggplant, chili aioli and sweet soy, and organic chicken with baby turnips, roasted romesco and caper berries.
With 7 miles of beaches punctuated by secluded coves and cliffs, it’s easy to spend every minute soaking up the sand and surf in Laguna Beach. But the town is also home to a thriving arts scene, miles of outdoor trails and plenty of places to sip and savor the flavors of the region.
Kitchen in the Canyon feels just like a California restaurant should. Smoothies, yogurt bowls and a variety of toasts topped with everything from avocado to almond butter makes for a healthy morning start.
As a town that was discovered by artists, the area stays true to its roots with more than 100 galleries and studios worthy of a visit. When you’re ready to take a break from the art life, grab a scenic, seafood lunch at Nick’s Laguna Beach, where fresh catch and creative cocktails dominate the menu. Post lunch, hike the trails in the hills high above the shoreline. Laguna has the added bonus of being surrounded by a greenbelt, so there are a variety of trails for outdoor enthusiasts of all levels.
Carmelita’s is a festive stop for dinner; the Mexico City corn, ceviche and hand-crafted margaritas are not to be missed. For lodging, the 5-star Montage at Laguna Beach is the place to settle down and submit to seaside luxury. Perched on a cliff high about the Pacific, the 30 acre property is a destination in its own right. Or check out the decidedly more earthy The Ranch at Laguna Beach, designated as California’s only National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World and located on 87 acres of grounds.
San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano
Built in the 1920s as a “Spanish Village by the Sea” and beloved for its surf breaks and sandstone bluffs, San Clemente’s Spanish-style architecture and winding, hilly streets make you feel like you’ve landed in the Mediterranean. For breakfast, Café Rae, with its bright batik decor and wide range of breakfast options, is a solid choice with everything from omelettes and pancakes to huevos rancheros. After breakfast, walk to Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. The bluff-top campus is the former home of Ole Hanson, who founded San Clemente. Tours of the home, permanent exhibits and 2.5 acres of lush gardens are open to the public daily.
From the gardens, hop in your car and drive inland to San Juan Capistrano for lunch at The Ramos House Café. Here, the owners honor the traditions of the past by living and working in the restaurant. The lunch menu spans from light to decadent, with a focus on high-quality ingredients, where everything is made from scratch. Ramos House has an enviable location within the Los Rios Historic District, dubbed the oldest neighborhood in California.
Ambling along the picturesque streets, you’re transported in time, passing by old adobe homes and the magnificent Mission San Juan Capistrano, which dates back to 1776.
Back in San Clemente, catch a glimpse of the surfers from the end of the pier before heading to dinner at The Fisherman’s Restaurant & Bar, where you’ll enjoy casual fare like raw oysters and buckets of clams while taking in a spectacular sunset. You won’t find large hotel properties or towering high rises in San Clemente, but The Volare, in the center of town overlooking the Pacific, provides a charming place to stay within walking distance of all this quaint gem has to offer.