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.
The surfing culture that launched this musical phenomenon still exists to various degrees up and down the California coastline. But no one place comes closer to the real thing than Huntington Beach, the undisputed surfing capital of the world and the place many think best epitomizes the mythical beach paradise described in "Surf City."
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 and is, in fact, on the Executive Committee of the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau. So take that, Santa Cruz!
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. This band of sparkling sand stretches so far that it's hard to imagine it's located in Orange County and is actually part of the Los Angeles basin megalopolis. Even more interesting is how the Main Street and pier areas have retained their charm even though they are just blocks from the endless subdivisions and freeways of Orange County.
We don't surf, but our trip toHuntington 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.
For us, creature comforts were important - we weren't exactly looking to camp on the beach - so the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort proved the perfect choice for accommodations. (Another great accommodation option is finding a cheap but comfortable Huntington Beach hotel during your stay.) Reminiscent of the fine beach resorts you find in Hawaii, the Hilton is the only high-rise hotel in Huntington Beach and our sixth-floor room offered a commanding view of the beach. Sitting out on our lanai we could see far to both the north and south, and it was interesting to observe the rhythms of beach life.
During the day, families would stake out their parcels, many of them erecting partial tents, others content to enjoy the sun full-on. As sunset approached, fires could be seen up and down the coast as visitors took advantage of the city's 600 fire rings for cooking or just a beach campfire. Then by morning it was all gone, and out came the city crews to spruce up the beach for another day and another 30,000 visitors - the average for Huntington Beach.
The Hilton's luxurious rooms are spacious with unusually comfortable beds, but the hotel also offers many diversions to keep you out of your room. We enjoyed spending time poolside where the palm trees and gardens created just the right beach resort atmosphere. Instead of opaque walls, the resort courtyard has a plexi-glass wall on the beach side, allowing full view of the beach while you enjoy the pool. The sound system helps set the mood with, you guessed it, Jan and Dean belting out the hits. On this particular weekend the resort seemed fairly family-friendly - a lot of guests had brought their kids.
This resort would be especially good for teaching the kids how to surf. There seemed to be several classes offered, along with equipment rentals and we overheard one family discussing how that was one of their priorities while visiting "Surf City."
Of course, there is also a lot to see and do once you leave the grounds of the hotel. The beach is just across the Pacific Coast Highway and running along the beach is a pathway that offers an ongoing parade of visitors - not just surfers, but youngsters, oldsters, families, couples and a cross-section of anybody and everybody. On this weekend there was a steady stream of 60's muscle cars cruising the Pacific Coast Highway. The latest and most expensive sports cars were in abundance as well.
A short walk north from the hotel is the pier and the downtown area of Huntington Beach - just a few blocks of stores altogether, but 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.
For such a small downtown area, the restaurant selection is wide and varied. Beer pubs, sushi bars, fish tacos, Asian, Thai, Italian, Hawaiian - it's all represented within just a couple of blocks. On this weekend the most popular place in town seemed to be the Sugar Shack Cafe, reputed to have breakfasts that are well worth a significant wait to get in the door.
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.
With just a little investigation, visitors will find that Huntington Beach features more than just beaches and surfing. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, for example, is a bird-lover's paradise comprising 330 acres of coastal wetlands. Nearly 200 bird species are documented here each year, and the reserve is open to foot traffic with parking just off the Pacific Coast Highway.
If you're planning a family vacation that is to include many of the Southern California theme parks, most are within easy driving distance of Huntington Beach. Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure are 16 miles away, Knotts Berry Farm is 14 miles and Knott's Soak City is just 14 miles from Huntington Beach. Shopping is close by, too - both South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island are within easy driving distance.
But a trip to Huntington Beach is really all about the beach and one of the best California beach vacations you can imagine This beach is an average of 100 yards wide and that seems to be endless. Whether you stay at the Hilton or drop in just for a day of beach fun, this part of Southern California still delivers on the legacy created by Jan and Dean -- even if you're now married, have teenagers of your own, and no longer care if there are "two girls for every boy."
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Huntington Beach is located in Orange County, about an hour's drive south from Los Angeles.
WHAT: Huntington Beach is one of the most popular surfing spots in California and now is home to the US Open Surfing Championships. The town and area retain the flavor of the 60's when surfing was hot in music and movies.
WHEN: Any time of year. The climate is sunny and comfortable year-round.
WHY: A chance to enjoy one of California's best beaches and soak up a completely different culture while also enjoying a stay at a luxury resort.
HOW: For more information about Huntington Beach, visit the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau website at www.surfcityusa.com or phone 800-729-6232. For more information about the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, visit www.waterfrontbeachresort.hilton.com or phone 714-845-8000.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)