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An argument for programming some unprogrammed beach time in California

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California has it all: vibrant cities, breathtaking geography, award-winning wineries, evocative museums, and state-of-the-art performance facilities. So when your hard-earned vacation days are at stake, why should you spend precious time at the Golden State’s beaches?

I’ll admit it – I’d never been particularly fond of the beach until I moved to San Diego in my mid-twenties. I grew up a bespectacled, gangly child in Oregon (think: water too cold for swimming, beaches too rocky to enjoy, and weather so rainy you risked getting wetter outside the ocean than inside it). It took me about 0.0078 seconds after moving to California to realize why the state’s beaches get such rad recognition. So I invite you to read on for a list of key reasons why I urge you to program some unprogrammed beach time into your next California escape.

We’ve all heard about the restorative properties of being near the ocean, smelling the breeze, and watching the waves tattoo their constant rhythm on the shore. It’s unnecessary to wax poetic about the power the ocean yields, but perhaps you’ve yet to experience the unique sound vacuum that occurs in between the crash of the most recent wave and the break of the next one rolling in. That moment when it dawns on you that you’ve been inhaling and exhaling with the tide, and that when the breath catches in your throat it’s a reflection of the ocean catching its breath, too.

So, why visit the beach in California? Why not go to the beach somewhere else, perhaps closer to home or on a remote, exotic island?

Surf's up! (Photo: Corey Jay)

The carefree, hang loose, “no bad days” permeating surf culture

The modern sport of surfing was born in Hawaii in the early 20th century, inspired by centuries-old Polynesian traditions. Surfers covet countless international destinations: Tahiti, South Africa, Australia and Indonesia, to name a few. But there’s no denying that California is a surfer’s paradise and its fabled surf culture is a beacon even for those of us who prefer to stay on dry land.

The Beach Boys immortalized a carefree California beach vibe in the 1960s, using catchy harmonies and a laidback style to make the entire country yearn for the salt-bleached-tresses life. For a taste of the vintage Beach Boys lifestyle that’s still very much alive today, your Destination Expert can coordinate your expedition to coincide with the annual Woodies on the Wharf celebration in Santa Cruz, which features hundreds of original wood-sided surf-mobiles, longboards strapped to roof racks, and groovy tunes bumping from old-school radios.

Thrill seekers may opt to gawk at Mavericks beach, one of the last stops on the Pacific Coast Highway before reaching San Francisco, and one of the world’s premier locations for big-wave surfers (kids, PLEASE don’t try this at home). This spot just north of Half Moon Bay belches out waves averaging 25 feet high … And if you catch the swell after a winter storm, you might even see behemoth squalls clocking in at over 60 feet high.

As you drive south from Los Angeles to San Diego on our Six-Day Southern California Beaches expedition, we recommend a stop at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside for an air-conditioned peek at epic relics of surfing legends, and exhibits on how surfing has made waves (forgive the pun) across all echelons of California society.

For those of you itching to try your hand at hanging ten (a surprisingly tricky maneuver involving standing at the very tip of a longboard so all ten toes hang over the edge), never fear – we’ll be able to get a board in your hands and a leash on your ankle in record time, to help you make the best of the swells at some of San Diego’s hidden gems like Black’s Beach or Windansea Beach.


The Golden State's beaches are chock-full of activities. (Photo: Corey Jay)

Sun-kissed activities to get your lungs pumping

Whether you’re looking to relive Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glory days at Muscle Beach, his old bodybuilding haunt in funky Venice, or simply marvel at the athleticism of SoCal locals playing a pick-up game of Brazilian Foot Volley on the sand, there’s no shortage of activities to get your heart rate up. Muscle Beach gained fame in the 1950s as a gymnastics training ground, and has since evolved into an outdoor exercise haven featuring jungle gyms, community equipment, and any number of glistening bodybuilders trying to outdo one another.

If pumping iron isn’t your thing, roller skating on the Santa Monica boardwalk in Los Angeles or the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego is an idyllic way to take in the beachside sights and blend in with the quirky boardwalk characters. Keep an eye peeled for Pacific Beach legend John Kitchin known locally as “Slomo,” as he blends tai chi movement with roller skating on one leg to find his own boardwalk Zen. In wintertime, lace up skates of a different kind at the Hotel Del Coronado, our 5-star pick in San Diego, for the only ice skating experience you’re ever likely to have on a sunny beach – complete with palm trees and holiday tunes.

Water babies will find fantastic snorkeling and kayaking opportunities up and down the coast, and stand up paddle boarding is a newly popular hobby. For something a bit different, yoga sessions on a stand up paddle board are a fantastic and serene way to rest, relax, and rejuvenate.

Alternately, dust off your hiking shoes with a walk through one of two groves of Torrey pines on the planet (you can visit both with SA Expeditions on a California tour). Choose between a multi-day cruise though the Channel Islands off the southwest coast of Los Angeles to visit one of the groves, or go on a guided walk through the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve in San Diego, just up the road from the eponymous golfing haven. If talk of pine trees and golfing leads to the kiddoes exclaiming, “Boooooring,” remind them that Theodor Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, lived in San Diego and took inspiration from the region’s quirky and sometimes comical landscapes for his drawings – including Torrey pines.

Sand, surf, sun, and ice skates. (Photo: Del Coronado)

Gnarly nosh and grog

A day well-spent on a California beach can sap the energy out of you, but there’s nothing an exquisite fish taco from Pacific Fresh Grill in San Diego can’t cure. Or how about a French-fry-laden California burrito from a food truck in Los Angeles? Those looking for more refined cuisine will enjoy Aubergine in Carmel, and Dialogue right off the promenade in Santa Monica, both awarded much sought-after Michelin accolades in 2019. To add some “wow” factor to your Michelin-starred beachside dining experience, why not take in some high tide cocktails at The Marine Room in La Jolla just north of San Diego, which boasts spectacular westward-facing windows that get bombarded nightly by the waves?

While just about everywhere nowadays claims to be the craft beer capital of the US, breweries in Southern California – and those of San Diego in particular – really do give everywhere else a run for their money. After soaking up the sun on a California beach, you’ll just have to try out a few brews to see for yourself. Personal favorites include the Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA, and the Green Flash Blonde (the name alludes to the fabled emerald-hued flash of light that only true believers can glimpse in the final millisecond before the sun disappears over the Pacific Ocean).

Sunset over Pacific Beach, California. (Photo: Corey Jay)

Out-of-this-world, take-your-breath-away kind of sunsets

Speaking of green flashes, I firmly believe that Southern California beaches have the best sunsets – anywhere! Whether or not you’re able to see the green flash (or even believe it exists), there’s no denying the neon-flanked end-of-the-day show over the Pacific Ocean is purely rapturous. I invite you to pause for a minute and notice how the surfers in the water turn around, resting astraddle their boards, facing the day’s last rays for their own private sun salutation. It’s not just the surfers, either: everyone else around you, be it on the boardwalk or in the restaurant or sitting on the beach, will look up from their phones and their busy lives to take a collective deep breath as the sun dissolves into the horizon. Sure, we’ve all seen sunsets before, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never experienced anything quite like this.

Whether you’re a surf bum, a fitness buff, a people-watcher, or a craft beer aficionado, our Destination Experts can help you make the most out of your California visit. To program some unprogrammed beach time into your expedition, check out our Six-Day Southern California Beaches Expedition.

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