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Beaches of Southern California

By CARY ORDWAY

The beaches of Southern California are probably one of the reasons you live in the state. Maybe it was the Beach Boys that got you hooked, or Frankie Avalon and Annette Funacello — or maybe the later generations got the bug from MTV when the network was televising beach parties that looked oh-so-much fun.

The point is, California residents are blessed to be anywhere near these long stretches of perfect sand with endless sunny summer skies, an always fascinating beach crowd and at least bearable water temperatures. Here are three places you can go to experience what Southern California beaches are all about:

Huntington Beach

If you grew up in the '60's, the term "Surf City" has the power to tap into memories that bring back a flood of emotions ranging from your first encounters with the opposite sex to your earliest addiction to rock and roll. No matter where you were in the USA, you knew that Surf City was on some California beach where there were "two girls for every boy."

In truth, the male/female ratio was a bit more even than that, but Jan and Dean's teen anthem called "Surf City" put themselves and Huntington Beach on the map. In those days it was hard to distinguish musically between Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys — but there was no mistaking the message both groups were sending: California in general — and Surf City in particular — were the places to be.

No place comes closer to the real "Surf City" than Huntington Beach, the undisputed surfing capital of the world. You'll, of course, get an argument from Santa Cruz, which lays claim to bigger waves and more surfing history than its friendly rival to the south. Santa Cruz also likes to promote itself as Surf City but that city has one significant disadvantage: Dean Torrence — yes, THAT Dean — is still hanging 10 musically around Huntington Beach.

With 8.5 miles of uninterrupted, incredibly wide beaches, it's not hard to see why Huntington Beach has attracted L.A. beach-goers for decades. We don't surf, but our trip to Huntington Beach offered us a chance to walk right into a three-dimensional model of Jan and Dean's song, right down to what seemed like "two girls for every boy." While the beaches just south of the pier were populated on this particular weekend with families and lots of young people, the surfers were congregated just north of the pier where we could get a bird's-eye view as dozens of them tackled the modest but apparently exhilarating waves.

The downtown area of Huntington Beach — just a few blocks of stores altogether — is a definite blast from the past. Surf shops abound — indeed, there is an International Surfing Museum to peruse -- while several restaurants and outdoor cafes add to the festive feeling. Shoppers are most often clad in bathing suits — or maybe cover-ups for the more modest — and the feeling is pure California beach town. The boutiques here tend to feature simple, youth-oriented fashions. Rock music blares from one or two of the stores, while the occasional surfer pedals through town with a board three times as long as his bike.

Down by the pier, row after row of volleyball nets are in place and young guys and gals are usually out there taking full advantage of them — even on weekdays. Restaurants and surf shops are also located right out by the beach where you can rent a variety of beach toys including surf boards, boogie boards, and a side selection of bicycles and other vehicles to pedal up and down the beach walk.

For more information about Huntington Beach, visit the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau website at www.surfcityusa.com or phone 800-729-6232.

Ventura

Ventura is one of those places that we always wondered about as we drove through this area on our way up to other scenic destinations on the Central California Coast. For us, this was drive-by country — scenic, yes, but always someplace we just passed on the way to someplace else.

Ventura's location is really quite an advantage for travelers. For Southern California residents, it's an easy drive that takes you just beyond the megalopolis where back-to-back cities finally give way to a coastline that is less overwhelmed by development.

For Northern Californians, Ventura is a just close enough to the "Big City" to be a reasonable base of operations for visits to many L.A. tourist attractions, most within an hour's drive. Yet, you're staying in the quintessential California beach community that is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Within minutes of arrival we were walking the beach promenade that stretches far from the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach in both directions along the shore. A more-than-adequate beach, complete with childrens' play equipment, is just footsteps from the hotel, as is the Ventura Pier with its seafood restaurants, strolling visitors and die-hard anglers just hoping to reel in some dinner. Bikes and other contraptions are available for rent and, on this Sunday, vendors offered a variety of wares in the plaza just between the beach and our hotel.

Just up California Street was a colorful small-town shopping district with shops of all kinds, restaurants and a high concentration of antique stores that are fun to browse. Several surf shops are nearby and, like other California beach towns, the feel is more retro than trendy. The historic City Hall sits majestically on a slight hill at the edge of the downtown district, serving to remind us that Ventura really is a town and not just a stretch of uncoordinated beach development.

Intersecting with California Street is Main Street and, if you walk just a few blocks, you come upon the Mission San Buenaventura. This mission was established on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1782 and became the ninth California mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. Just across the street from the mission is the Museum of History and Art.

For more information on Ventura, contact the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau at 800-483-6214 or visit www.ventura-usa.com.

Laguna Beach

If you're looking for a combination of Southern California beach culture and a one-of-a-kind place to stay overnight, it's hard to beat the Pacific Edge house in Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach is an upscale artists' enclave and haven for the Orange County professionals who can afford to live there. The beach is gorgeous but it's also fun just to browse the galleries, visit the shops, grab a latte and observe the trendy young people who are so hip there is a television show named after the city. There are few authentic surf bums here in this playground for the rich and famous.

Luckily you don't have to buy a zillion-dollar house here to experience Laguna Beach luxury. If you have a large group — or two or three families — Pacific Edge is a three-story house that is really like a private inn with its sleeping accommodations for 12 and no fewer than five fireplaces. The views from all three floors are breathtaking, especially as the sun sets on a part of the California coast where there almost always are clear blue skies.

Operated by Vacation Village — which also has several regular hotel-style rooms in the same vicinity — the Pacific Edge is so big it's easy to get lost in. Our family of three had the extraordinary experience of sampling the house all by ourselves, but we were swimming in space and realized this would be perfect for a family reunion. The four bedrooms are all private, most with their own bathroom. Still, there will be more interaction in this house than in most types of lodgings because everyone will be sharing the same spacious, modern kitchen.

This Cape Cod styled home is quite different from the average hotel accommodation. The French country interior is distinctive, with furnishings that look like they were chosen by well-to-do family designing their own beach house. There are nooks and crannies everywhere you look with the tiled hallways leading you to such discoveries as a full size walk-in closet with a crib, or an elaborate, romantic Jacuzzi tub, or a wine cellar, or an outside deck where all 12 guests can relax on beach chairs and watch the beach-goers and sunset without ever setting foot in the sand.

For more information on Pacific Edge, contact Vacation Village at 800-843-6895 or visit www.vacationvillage.com.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If the beaches of Southern California are your idea of a California vacation, also check out our articles on San Luis Obispo County, a romantic Central Coast getaway, Dana Point and Napa Valley.


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