Oceanside
San Diego suburb now destination all its own

If you're going to name a town for its greatest asset, the town fathers of Oceanside seem to have got that one right. Today more city than town, Oceanside is dressing up the city's three and a half miles of wide, sandy beaches by bringing in new waterfront hotels, trendy restaurants and expensive homes and condos that all combine to beckon tourists from literally around the world.

The city also is proud of nearby Camp Pendleton, the massive Marine Corps training center and the only thing that keeps the Southern California coastline from being one big city. Without the 20 miles of shoreline set aside for Pendleton, the city no doubt would begin in Santa Monica and end in San Diego.

The old rap on Oceanside was that it was a military town and not the place to invest millions in your new beachfront home. All of that has changed as the tiny beach bungalows have given way to lavish new homes while the city has attracted businesses and resort infrastructure so inviting that 17 percent of visitors come from Europe. Visitors have long enjoyed the robust selection of vacation rentals in Oceanside, but now hotel and resort-goers are finding many more hotel options with a good selection of restaurants and tourist attractions sprinkled into the mix.

And, while you're sure to see young members of the military enjoying those incredible beaches and Oceanside's many other attributes, this is not your Grandpa's 'military town.' Today's military is made up of bright, hard-working 20- and 30-somethings who chose to join up for all sorts of good reasons. Having these people around is a big plus, not a negative.

Oceanside also is close enough to San Diego — about 38 miles — to make it a viable base of operations for visitors who want to be a little ways out of the city congestion, but close enough to get in and visit SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and other San Diego attractions.

On our most recent visit to Oceanside, we stayed at the Wyndham Ocean Pier Resort, which opened in early 2008. With arguably the best location in the city — right across from the popular Oceanside Pier — the resort both sells and rents its units, although generally it's easier to get waterfront units as an owner. If you can imagine a hotel next to the Santa Monica Pier, that's what the Wyndham is like — gorgeous views of the ocean and pier and lots of beach activity from strollers to bicyclists to power walkers to picnickers. From our sixth-floor unit, the views of the beach and nearby Oceanside neighborhoods were spectacular.

Our two-bedroom unit at the Wyndham was decorated in cheerful vacation colors like aqua and lime green and beige and included three flat-screen televisions as well as a complete kitchen. Furniture was fun, easy-going and fit in with the holiday motif that was so apparent as soon as we walked in the door. But best of all were those views, and we enjoyed spending time at the table on our lanai reading the paper, sipping coffee and savoring a commanding view of all the activities surrounding California's longest recreational pier.

On the weekend we visited, Oceanside made good on its reputation as a legendary surf town. A competition was under way where surfers were doing some amazing maneuvers right next to the pier. From the beach, atop a platform, several judges were studying every move and awarding points. Beach-goers and sun-worshippers watched the surfers attentively. Surfing's in the DNA around here — for example, while most cities have summer baseball or soccer camps, Oceanside also has a Surf Camp offered by Oceanside Parks and Recreation.

Just a short jog up the beach is another popular recreation area — Oceanside Harbor. This is where local boaters keep their private craft and where the public can get out on the water in any of several different ways. Fishing charters are available — we noticed a sign for a shark fishing trip priced at $70 per person. Or you can paddle a kayak around the harbor on tours offered by OEX Kayak. The colorful lighthouse at the harbor now houses Old Skull Rentals, where you can rent a surf board, body board, wet suit or anything else you need to take advantage of the Pacific Ocean. When, you've worked up an appetite, there are several harbor-front restaurants that are ideal for fish and chips with an ocean view.

For history buffs, it's just a short drive to the Mission San Luis Rey, which has been undergoing millions of dollars in improvements. The 'King of the Missions' is a National Historic Landmark and was founded in 1798. It's the largest of 21 California missions. Located on 56 acres, the mission is adding walking trails and interpretive gardens to display plant life that was common during the early life at the mission. The mission offers an extensive collection of artifacts.

If you're curious about Camp Pendleton, it's possible to tour the base at times when the threat level is not heightened. For more information, call 760-725-5569.

New to Oceanside is the Oceanside Museum of Art, with a two-story 16,000-square-foot central pavilion that hosts art exhibitions and special events. The museum was designed by modern architect Frederick Fisher, known for his fresh and spectacular designs.

For some local color, be sure to visit the Highway 101 Café, which is the oldest continuously-operating restaurant on Historic Highway 101. If you enjoy 50's-style diners, the food and vintage photos on the walls are sure to take you back to yesteryear. Or, check out the Sunset Market which sets aside four city blocks every Thursday night for live music, fresh produce vendors and local artisans. This is held downtown year-round.

If you like wildlife, stop by the Rancho Buena Vista Lagoon where you'll find the Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center and Museum. This is San Diego's only Audubon nature center and the only fresh-water lagoon in the state of California. Visitors can stroll scenic paths along the lagoon where they will see dozens of varieties of waterfowl.

If you have kids, Legoland is just south of the Oceanside city limits. This major theme park'all designed around the lego theme'includes dozens of rides and is a proven hit with its target audience of 2-to-12 year-olds. On any given summer weekend day, you're likely to see as many as 10,000 people enjoying the 128-acre park. The park has caught on with local residents as well, with more than 70,000 people buying annual passes to the park.

Legoland has found a way to involve parents, grandparents, teenagers and people of any age. The whole idea is to provide as much interactivity as possible. People don't just go on rides — they'll actually do things like build model racing cars or participate in pirate ship water fights. They'll also marvel at the number of creations that can be made from the lego, the basic building block invented 50 years ago that has come a long way from the simple four-walled structures we oldsters built when we were kids. Legoland features more than 15,000 detailed lego creations throughout the park, ranging from animals to model cities to a life-size replica of a 2006 Volvo SUV.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Oceanside is a half-hour drive north of San Diego on Interstate 5 and is one of several beach communities in North San Diego County. Many San Diego vacations are based in North County using daytrips to visit San Diego.

WHAT: Oceanside is a San Diego "bedroom community" that has grown up to be a tourist destination in its own right. It has several attractions including great beaches, shopping, and restaurants.

WHEN: Any time of the year. There are fewer visitors in the fall and spring shoulder seasons.

WHY: The downtown and beach areas have a character and flavor all their own, and generally it's not quite as busy as some more well-known beach areas in San Diego. Yet Oceanside still is close enough to San Diego to be a convenient base of operations to see all the San Diego sights.

HOW: For more information on Oceanside, call the Oceanside Visitor Center at 800-350-7873 or visit the California Welcome Center. For more information on the Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort, call 800-347-8182 or visit www.extraholidays.com. Opening soon at the Wyndham will be a major new restaurant called 333 Pacific, operated by the Cohn Restaurant Group, well-known for quality restaurants in the San Diego area.

Photos, from top: Wyndham Pier Resort has ideal location by pier; restaurants and shops attract tourists to Oceanside Harbor; watching the boats in Oceanside Harbor; walking the strand along Oceanside's beaches.

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway

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