Time for the Sunshine State to shine.
We’re in that part of the year that makes every Utahn think of the same restorative option: let’s go to the beach. A quick flight via SLC to SAN is the ticket. But don’t stop there. Take the train one hour north to Oceanside, a once-great, becoming-great-again beach town that still maintains an off-the-radar charm that its over-polished cousins—like Carlsbad, Malibu, Newport or Laguna—nostalgically wish they had. In addition, three luxury beachfront hotels, long longed for by town planners, now welcome guests with high-end amenities and ocean views. And you don’t even need to rent a car. How’s that for California Dreamin?
GET YOUR ART, HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURE ON
In the days before Southern California was connected with its vast network of four-lane concrete arteries (now clogged), there was one road—Highway One. Early car travelers ventured south from Los Angeles, often headed to Mexico for liquor during Prohibition. To make the trip, they would cross the large un-serviced Rancho Santa Margarita before arriving in Oceanside. The little town became an ideal spot to stop and stay in one of the nation’s first “travelers hotels,” aka motels. When WWII broke out, the U.S. Department of the Navy commandeered the rancho to build Camp Pendleton. Thousands of raw Marine recruits arrived in town along with builders and their families who followed the work to carve out Pendleton. Oceanside boomed. It had schools and hospitals, churches, movie palaces and department stores. The post-war ascendance of the automobile made Oceanside a destination for car buyers and the town’s new car dealerships became the place for Greatest Generation to buy its shiny Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Fords.
But then, bust. California sprawl and cheaper land elsewhere saw the big dealers move closer to the metro areas, leaving the husks of giant showrooms behind. These shells were occupied by down-market used car dealers. Meanwhile, the rise of malls and megaplexes in the ’60s and ’70s gutted Oceanside’s once-bustling town center. It also didn’t help that one of the state’s largest railroad switchyards, built during the war, was a giant eyesore in the middle of town, impeding beach access. (The switchyard was moved in the ’90s onto Camp Pendleton, much to town boosters’ relief.)
But these downsides would ultimately be upsides, says Oceanside historian Kristi Hawthorne. “We were largely overlooked, and while everyone else was tearing down old buildings, neighborhoods and architectural treasures, we were left alone.”
Hawthorne and her colleagues at the Oceanside Historical Society lead free two-hour walking tours (305 N. Nevada St., 760-722-4786) that highlight this “lucky” preservation. She points to neighborhoods filled with charming, stick-built bungalows including, famously, the “Top Gun House,” where Tom Cruise’s Maverick famously bedded Kelly McGillis’ Charlie Blackwood in the 1986 film. So too preserved were palatial movie theaters featuring beautifully garish neon signs in the Googie style. For example, the Star Theatre (402 N. Coast Hwy., 760-721-9983) with its space-age-fab marquee, now bills musical theater performances from the local company. Even some of the unwieldy old car showrooms are gutted out and finding new life as restaurants and craft breweries, like the Bagby Beer Company (601 S. Coast Hwy., 760-270-9075). The works of architect Irving Gill are also a point of town pride. The minimalist modern architect who designed with subtle North African flair built four edifices in Oceanside—The Americanization School (1210 Division St.), the still operational Fire Station No. 1 (714 Pier View Way), The Blade Tribune Building (401 Seagaze Dr.) and the original City Hall (300 N. Coast Hwy.). In 1990, when the City Hall was expanded and renovated into a Civic Center and Public Library, the effort preserved Gill’s original structures and project architect Charles Moore matched Gill’s signature simple, unadorned style. At its heart, though, Oceanside is a beach town and thus is home of the California Surf Museum (312 Pier View Way, 760-721-6876) perfect for any ponytailed surfer dad. The highlight is the shark-bit surfboard and the accompanying story of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm but ultimately survived an encounter with a tiger shark off the coast of Kauai.
Oceanside’s beachfront is a wide, perfectly sandy stretch, marked midway by the state’s longest wooden pier (home of an irascible pelican named Charlie). On either side of the pier, the reliable break brings a daily lineup of surfers waiting for sets. It’s a pretty serious surfing crowd, so before you paddle out on your own, consider a lesson. The family-owned shop Surf Ride (1909 S. Coast Hwy., 760-433-4020) offers lessons three times a week as well as gear rental. If you want to stay dry, rent a rod and reel from the pier’s bait shop and cast a line or rent a bike or four-person surrey contraption and cruise the strand. The northern end of the beachfront connects to the 10-mile (one way) San Luis Rey River Trail inland that passes by the Mission San Luis Rey (4050 Mission Ave., 760-757-3651). Known as the “King of the Missions,” the site is a prime example of Spanish Colonial architecture with Moorish influences. The Mission offers a glimpse into California’s Spanish past through its interpretive museum, self-guided tours, educational lectures and retreat stays.
BRING IT HOME
Located between Pier View Way and Mission Ave., Artist Alley is a collection of independent galleries and shops anchored on either end by two of the town’s 30 murals. The Alley’s top shop is Gypsy Den Boutique (1931 S. Coast Hwy., 760-512-1205), a flowy-fabrics-“One-Winged-Girl” type of spot. The Alley also features an escape room and a virtual reality activity center, if that’s your bag.
Surf towns require breakfast and Oceanside’s go-to is Petite Madeline (223 N. Coast Hwy., 760-231-7300), with house-made pastries and hearty options for the most important meal of the day. But then there is toast. How good can toast be? Find out at Camp Coffee (101 N. Cleveland St., 442-266-2504) where cutesy coffee drinks (think s’mores mocha) are served with hearty slices of “camp toast,” a panini-style hunk of wonder.
Start a night out with a flight of wine from Coomber Craft Wines (611 Mission Ave., 760-231-8022) with a selection of wines from the Santa Barbara winemakers. Up the block is Mission Ave Bar and Grill (711 Mission Ave., 760-637-2222), a whiskey-forward joint (more than 200 tipples in the library) with a meticulously blended Eternal Pour bottle behind the bar.
The “phrase let’s go out for Balinese” is not a thing yet. But Dija Mara (232 S. Coast Hwy., 760-231-5376) is well on its way to making it so. This popping joint on the Coast Highway feels like a town center cum happy hour. California servers, presciently aware of every food preference, expertly work the tables passing out small plates of delightfully fresh Balinese cuisine. For the big meal of your trip, try Masters Kitchen & Cocktail (208 S. Coast Hwy., 760-231-6278) where 28-year-old wunderkind Chef Andre Clark has unstuffified the menu. Clark got his start here working on the line, left for apprenticeships in some of San Diego’s finest kitchens and has returned with whiz-bang energy. For starters, he’s got a thing for albacore. Yes, Ahi’s canned cousin, which Clark points out is caught locally.
While Oceanside’s old traveler hotels were cutting edge when they opened in the 1920s, they were still bathroom-down-the-hall situations. Part of the town’s rejuvenation has been the renovation of these hotels, which always had good bones. The latest example is The Fin Boutique Hotel (133 S. Coast Hwy., 760-231-1897). Originally opened as the Keisker Hotel in 1927, The Fin preserves the meticulous mosaic tile flooring in the lobby, the original grand wooden-rail staircase and the Tiffany windows. The Oceanside Springhill Suites (110 N. Myers St., 760-722-1003) boasts a rooftop pool with ocean views and is steps from the waterfront. Slated to open in early 2022, The Brick Hotel (408 Pier View Way, 760-519-7163) has reimagined a historic 1888 downtown building into a modern boutique hotel with peak ocean views that is located near museums, theaters, restaurants and the popular Thursday night Sunset Market. Mission Pacific Hotel, (201 N. Myers St., 855-365-5078) is the first of two hotels that complete Oceanside’s long-awaited beach resort development fronting the picturesque historic pier and beach. Mission Pacific offers guests a laid-back and bohemian-chic vibe with 161 guest rooms, a rooftop pool and bar, and a permanent art collection sourced by the Oceanside Museum of Art. (The project preserved the “Top Gun House” and is restoring the famous spot where a young Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis “took our breath away.” ) Near the Mission Pacific, The Seabird Resort (101 Mission Ave., 855-413-7573) boasts a relaxed, estate-by-the-beach vibe with 226 guest rooms—many with balconies and ocean views—an expansive pool with an indoor/outdoor living room, and a rejuvenating spa.
The Palm Springs area also offers a great escape from the snow. Although there are no beaches, the austere desert landscape invites serene reflection. Tahquitz Canyon (500 W. Mesquite Ave., Palm Springs, 760-416-7044) features beautiful views and perfect for families with a sense of adventure. The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve (29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Rd., Thousand Palms, 760-343-1234) is a true desert Oasis experience. Find yourself in a wonderland of towering palms and bubbling creeks. In the heart of downtown Palm Springs, the Palm Springs Art Museum (101 N. Museum Dr, Palm Springs, 760-322-4800) tops our list of must-try arts experiences with its permanent collection of more than 12,000 objects.
ROAD TRIP 1: RIDING THE ONE
Start: San Diego // End: Monterey
The spectacular coastal Highway One is perhaps the most famous road in the country. With stunning views and plenty of incredible stops to enjoy along the way, the drive alone is better than most destinations.
- San Diego
Where better to start than the amazing sunny paradise of San Diego? On top of checking out famed beaches with tasty waves like Mission and Ocean, visitors can enjoy a booming craft beer and culinary culture. Make sure to try the carne asada fries at Lolita’s.
- Huntington Beach
With a classic beach town surf vibe highlighted by the landmark Huntington Pier, Huntington Beach is a must-see for any waterman. Those who aren’t surfers can head to Pacific City for boutique shops and restaurants and explore the outdoors by horseback riding in Huntington Central Park or bird-watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
- Santa Barbara
Next stop, the “American Riviera,” with a mellow Mediterranean climate perfect for outdoor fun and numerous wine vintages. Mix the old by visiting the Old Mission Santa Barbara and the new by seeing the Funk Zone with its urban wine tasting rooms and artist studios.
- Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country
Heading north, wine lovers will find remarkably diverse grapes. Coastal fog and cool air are perfect for chardonnay and pinot noir, while the sunny, warm inland temps are ideal for Bordeaux, cab franc and merlot. No wonder this place was made famous in the 2004 film Sideways.
- San Luis Obispo
Come to this central coast college town for all the bars, art and music you can handle. Stay for art after dark, when the SLO galleries open their doors in the evenings for wine tastings from numerous local winemakers.
- Hearst Castle in San Simeon
Tour a grand European-style castle on the Pacific coastline. Designed by Julia Morgan, the 80,000 square foot Hearst Castle has 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens and innumerable pieces of priceless art and antiques. It’s one-of-a-kind.
- Big Sur
Take a trip to an incredible 90-mile expanse of redwood and fog-lined waterfront. Visit McWay Falls, plummeting 70 feet to the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Then check out Overlook Trail, where you can see endangered California condors, ocean swells and migrating whales.
- Monterey Bay
Set along its picturesque namesake bay, Monterey is home to a gorgeous historic district where the remnants of old cannery buildings mingle with luxury hotels near Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The famous aquarium is one of the world’s best, getting visitors up close and personal with the marine wildlife. Oh, and golf fans can check out a little place called Pebble Beach.
ROAD TRIP 2: Movie Magic
Start: Griffith Observatory // End: Mammoth Mountain
California is synonymous with film. Take a tour through these famous locations and see for yourself why they graced the big screen.
- Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles
High atop Mount Hollywood, the world-class facility and surrounding green space are not only a great place to take in the stars, but they’ve also graced the silver screen. An appearance in Terminator featured a certain future governor, and the site hosted an iconic knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause.
- Angels Flight in Los Angeles
The 117-year-old railway up Bunker Hill between Hill and Olive Streets holds the odd distinction of being the world’s shortest, but it doesn’t lack in stature. The funicular was the setting for a famous smooch between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
- Palm Springs
Palm Springs is a Hollywood favorite filming location. Tom Cruise dodged wind turbine blades in San Gorgonio Mountain Pass as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible III. Bradley Cooper played to a packed house in A Star is Born at the Palm Springs Convention Center, and the famed Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was prominently featured in the unfortunately named Skyway to Death.
Just 20 minutes from Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown is populated with structures that appear to be from the 1800s but were actually built in as a film set in 1946. They now serve as a tourist attraction and even funky western-style lodges.
- Museum of Western Film History
Sandwiched between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley, Lone Pine has been a backdrop to more than 400 films. The Museum of Western Film History features memorabilia from movies shot there, including Samson and Delilah, Gunga Din and Django Unchained.
- Lone Ranger Canyon
The geologically impressive landmark on Movie Road brought together Tonto and Ranger Reid and has since been featured in Iron Man as Afghanistan and in Gladiator when Russell Crowe rode through the Spanish countryside.
- Mammoth Mountain
The laid-back ski town below the namesake peak gets around 30 feet of snow each winter. It’s a great place to ski powder or to stage a Himalayan adventure, as was done in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
ROAD TRIP 3: Hidden Wine Country
Start: Escondido // End: Plymouth
Golden State wines are so revered that France outlawed bringing those California grapes overseas. While Napa soaks up the headlines, there are troves of undiscovered vines throughout the region.
The state’s oldest wine making tradition reaches down near the Mexican border in Escondido. Grapes grown in scenic boulder-strewn valleys make for wonderful vintages at places like Hungry Hawk Vineyards and Winery.
- Temecula Valley
Hop on the De Portola Wine Trail. The flavors of Italy thrive here with more than 30 wineries, such as the Robert Renzoni Vineyards. Scores of cozy bed and breakfasts make Temecula Valley an ideal place to spend the night.
- Cucamonga Valley
Since the early 1900s, this hot spot has been known for Zinfandel and warm weather varietals. The wine is so good at Joseph Filippi Winery and Vineyards it inspired the Grateful Dead song “Pride of Cucamonga.”
At an elevation of over 4,000 feet, the area is best known for apple orchards between Antelope Valley and Bakersfield. But it’s also celebrated for Zinfandel and Syrah from winemakers including Triassic Vineyards. Seeing the poppies bloom in the spring tops it all off.
The Madera Wine Trail travels from the Central Valley into the Sierra Nevada foothills. The rich wine making heritage in the area traces back to Armenian, French and Italian settlers in the late 1800s, who brought Old World traditions to modern winemakers like Ficklin Vineyards and Idle Hour Winery.
ROAD TRIP 4: Wilds and Views
Start: Leggett // End: Malibu
With gorgeous sandy beaches, redwood-covered landscapes and high alpine mountains in the Sierras, California’s natural scenery is every bit as star-studded as the neighborhoods of the Hollywood Hills.
- Chandelier Tree in Leggett
The famed, 315-foot-tall, 2,400-year-old tree had a six-foot-wide tunnel carved through it way back in 1937. Cars have been driving through it ever since. Sure, it’s kitschy, but it’s fun and a great gateway to seeing the famous California Redwoods.
- Russian Gulch Bridge in Mendocino
The dramatic ocean bluff overlooking the Pacific from Mendocino is home to saltbox cottages straight out of New England. The 527-foot-long Russian Gulch Bridge was a New Deal project that now serves as the perfect vantage point to see it all.
- Bodega Bay
The Sonoma Coast State Park is a 17-mile string of rocky beaches and grassy headlands running north to the Russian River. Take in the Pacific scenery and try the area’s renowned seafood at stops like The Birds Café, the Fishetarian Fish Market or the Spud Point Crab Company.
- Shaver Lake
Head inland to Shaver Lake. With sapphire water surrounded by towering sequoias, Jeffrey pines and the granite spires of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, calling it scenic is an understatement.
- Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes
This geothermal hot spot (pun intended) is a place full of natural marvels. Water heated by magma three miles below the surface tops 200 degrees, making for boiling geysers, fumaroles and natural hot springs all within a rock-strewn gorge.
- Red Rock Canyon State Park in Cantil
Eroded badlands east of Bakersfield rise out of the earth forming intricately sculpted shapes of multi-hued sandstone. See the petroglyphs carved by the Kawaiisu Indians who called the area home, and stay for the night at the Ricardo Campground to enjoy dark sky stargazing.
Wrap up with a visit to a 30-mile stretch of picture-perfect Southern California coast in Malibu. Walk along Surfrider Beach and the famous Malibu Pier, enjoy the sand at Zuma Beach and tour ancient Greek and Roman art at Getty Villa. It’s no wonder Hollywood stars and famous athletes populate the oceanside homes here.