If you want a taste of quintessential California beach culture, complete with a heaping dose of surf, sand and tacos, head north of San Diego to North County. When I’m in Southern California, I don’t mind soaking up the cliché tourist experience: I want to be on the beach, gazing out at the limitless Pacific Ocean, watching the surfers, preferably with a taco or three in hand. Here’s an idea for how to spend a totally epic day in North County and La Jolla, dude.
Start the day at Pipes Café, a killer breakfast spot very close to the beach in Cardiff by the Sea. Step up the counter and order the #1 breakfast burrito ($5.95), which comes with sausage, avocado, cheese and, get this, five eggs. Five eggs for God’s sakes! When my bad boy arrived, the beast took up the entire basket (see photo) and I practically needed a forklift to get the damn thing up and into my mouth.
“Well, North County is really expensive,” said the guy who would have looked right at home in a J Crew catalog. “Basically, the closer you get to San Diego the more expensive it gets. Oceanside isn’t too bad, then Carlsbad, Encinitas and Solana Beach will be more expensive than that and things really get crazy in Del Mar and La Jolla.”
My hopes of moving to North County dashed, I knew we’d have to make the most of our visit, so we drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, taking in peeks of the Pacific when it wasn’t hidden by large homes, shopping and hotels along the way.
I worked off about 5% of my ridiculous breakfast burrito with a short walk in Encinitas’s attractive little town center followed by a longer walk on the beach in Del Mar, a pristine beach community if ever there was one. I watched the surfers, who were out in force on a day when the waves were up to a gnarly 8 feet, and fantasized about winning the next Powerball drawing and moving to this fine place of soaring palm trees, trendy restaurants and stunning Pacific vistas.
Before I knew it, it was lunchtime and since I tend to follow an all taco & burrito diet when I’m in California, we backtracked north a couple miles to Rudy’s Taco Shop, a hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall in Solana Beach that specializes in carne asada. I was ready for a siesta after scarfing down two of their salty, melt-in-your mouth carne asada tacos, but summoned the energy to press on south to La Jolla, which means “The Jewel” in Spanish.
La Jolla is filled with pricey shops, but we were in town to soak up the natural splendor of the place so we headed straight for the waterfront. I don’t think there are many more scenic places for a stroll anywhere in the country than the area around Scripps Park in La Jolla. There’s a long walkway set up high above the crashing waves of the Pacific below, flanked by neat rows of soaring palm trees.
We walked down to Seal Beach and my sons, ages 3 and 5, got a huge kick out of seeing dozens of seals lying comatose on the beach as though they were sleeping off hangovers. Every few minutes one of them would decide they wanted to change their spot and would hop around awkwardly as the assembled paparazzi fired off shots of them.
A local, who told me I was standing too close to the seals, also mentioned that the seals give birth right on this beach each year from January through March. After my kids had their fill of the seals, we walked a half-mile north to gawk at a colony of sea lions that were all huddled up on top of each other on a huge rock.
There’s been a huge controversy over the supposedly foul smell of bird crap in La Jolla, with many merchants claiming that the smell is scaring away customers, but I didn’t even really notice it other than for a brief moment when we pulled into town. Anyone who dwells on bird crap in a place this beautiful is a little jaded, if you ask me.
After a few hours wandering in La Jolla, we repaired to Bull Taco, a taco stand located up on a bluff above the Cardiff State Park beach that advertises itself as “inauthentic Mexican.” It only seemed fitting to wind down my culinary day the way I started it – with a tortilla in hand. This time, I had three tacos – shrimp curry, sea bass and a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Inauthentic? Maybe, but damn good as well.
We drove further north and enjoyed an extravagant sunset at South Carlsbad State Park beach. On a late Saturday afternoon in December, the beach scene in North County was magical for a cold weather family like us.
Families were taking their Christmas card photos on the beach, no doubt to taunt their cold weather friends, surfers of all ages were emerging from the crashing surf, raving about the “epic” waves and people who drive posh sports cars happily mingled with surf bums living in beat up old camper vans with rusted old California plates. In the fading light, we beat a retreat, intoxicated from a day of Pacific delights, not ready to go home but determined to return one day to this idyllic little corner of America.
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]