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Source: Local Wally’s Guide to San Diego
SAN DIEGO If you’ve been to Maui, then you know about the famous “Road to Hana”.
It’s an all day road trip adventure that takes you to places far away from your resort and leaves you with the feeling that you’ve done something unusual, perhaps more local than your fellow traveler.
Cruising Old Highway 101
San Diego has it’s own version of this day trip, though typical for us, it’s easier, it’s faster, but it’s no less rewarding. You want something different to do on your vacation, then you need to cruise Old Highway 101 and visit North San Diego’s beach towns and sites.
North San Diego, or “North County” as locals call it, is the stretch of coast from Del Mar to Oceanside. It’s filled with charming little beach towns, secret beaches, flower fields and lots of locals. You’ll exit the busy freeway and go on the road less traveled (well, kind of) when you start cruising on Old Highway 101, once the only way to get from Los Angeles to San Diego. You’ll almost step back in time to when The Beach Boys harmonies were in the air, Gidget was on the beach, and the only thing that mattered was how much fun you could cram into one day.
Expect your trip to North County to take you approximately 4 – 5 hours, maybe more if you really want to explore. Try to work your timetable so you can have lunch, or dinner, or both, while you doing your tour so you can get the full flavor (sorry, bad pun) of the area. To get to North County, get on Highway 5 and head North. You’ll pass the dreaded 5 / 805 merge (the place where those two major freeways join as one) and will want to EXIT ON DEL MAR HEIGHTS ROAD and go towards the ocean. You’re sure to smile as you hit the top of Del Mar Heights and the ocean fills the panorama as wide as you can see. Keep on going to the bottom of the hill and turn RIGHT on the main road, Highway 101.
First Stop: Del Mar, where the Surf meets the Turf
Del Mar. Just the sound of the name conjurs up images of old Hollywood, of Bing Crosby crooning at the mic, Jimmy Durante drunk at a local bar, Micky Roony picking up on local chicks, and Desi fighting with Lucy. Ahhh, the good old days! Del Mar was once the place to be if you were a Hollywood star trying to getaway from it all! Make Del Mar your first stop and you’ll discover for yourself why the stars of yesterday considered Del Mar to be their ultimate playground.
Though locals shun it, your first stop should be The Del Mar Plaza, an upscale shopping center filled with boutiques and restaurants. Park in their underground lot and head up to the top level. You’ll find plenty of sunshine and a view of the ocean that should knock your socks off! If you’ve planned this right and it’s time for a cocktail (and really, isn’t anytime the right time for a cocktail when you are on vacation), then grab a drink and bask in the sun and you’re living the good life! Ahhh, nothing better than this!
Even though it’s a bit of a tourist stop, The Del Mar Plaza has a number of great restaurants (notably Pacifica Del Mar), but if you can wait, I got an even better spot for later. Just wait!
Once you are done browsing the overpriced boutiques, take a walk towards the ocean. Here you will find a great park where there’s lawn and benches next to the sand – the real “surf meets the turf” spot. Take a short stroll on the beach and for a while, you’re a local! Nice.
LOCAL WALLY HOT GAMBLING TIP: Del Mar is also home to the Del Mar Racetrack. If you like to bet on the ponies, it’s pretty hard to beat a racetrack that’s next to the ocean. Racing season runs from around mid-July to early September.
LOCAL WALLY “CARNIE” ALERT: From mid-June to the Fourth of July is the San Diego County Fair. It’s typical of most fairs – corndogs and carnies – but notable because it really messes up traffic. Just be patient if you get caught in traffic.
If you fought the urge to eat while at the Plaza, you will be justly rewarded. As you exit the Plaza parking lot, take the road that winds down towards the ocean and follow it as it curves around the coast line. You’ll see the old train station and the power station as you approach your destination. On your left is LOCAL WALLY’S TOP PICK FOR OUTSIDE DINING, The Poseidon. For lunch, there is no better place in San Diego. It features a moderately priced lunch menu (fish tacos and calamari sandwich are standouts) that are expertly prepared. But the real catch is THE VIEW! The outdoor patio sits right on the beach! You get any closer and you’ll be in the waves. It’s an awesome setting, one that you should not miss. Even if you are not hungry, stop in at the bar and try to get a table close to the open windows and have an appetizer. Don’t doubt Wally – this is a MUST DO lunch spot!
Now that you’re done eating, let’s get moving. Get back on the same road and keep heading NORTH on Highway 101, renamed CAMINO DEL MAR in this area. You’ll pass by some great homes – and no, you can’t afford them. The first open clearing on your left is Del Mar’s Dog Beach If you love dogs, park your car and take a stroll. You won’t find many mongruls on this fancy beach! Parking can be tough, and don’t forget that you must buy a parking voucher from one of the machines along the road or you will end up with a very unpleasant parking ticket. By the way, you’ll pass Del Mar Brigantine, home of the BEST FISH TACOS in the bar area. I know, you just ate but keep this one in mind for later. Seriously, the best Fish Taco anywhere on the planet.
Second Stop: Solana Beach, Cedros Design District
Hey Wally, what’s with all these Quonset huts? Yes, it’s a darn thing all these Quonset huts. Built in 1949 when this was an industrial area, the huts have since become an odd sort of landmark. Strange. Even the train station is a giant hut. Hey, Egypt has pyramids. We have Quonset huts. And shopping. Lots of shopping.
To get to Cedros (“see-drose”), exit Highway 101 at Lomas Santa Fe and go up a block. Turn right on Cedros Avenue and park anywhere. What you will find here will be an eclectic collection of small shops, from women shoe boutiques to odd, one of a kind trinket stores, to an antique warehouse. One of the most popular places to shop and browse is Leaping Lotus, a modern two story building filled with a diverse collection of clothing, jewelry, gifts, and “stuff”. And don’t miss stopping in at Cut and Dried Hardwood to browse their showroom and smell the exotic woods. This isn’t the Home Depot lumber yard!
LOCAL WALLY MUSIC ALERT: The Belly Up Tavern is a local favorite for seeing great bands up close. Worth a trip back to the area is you like seeing live music in a small setting.
OK, get back in your car and head back to Highway 101. As you get back on the highway and keep driving north, you’ll sweep around a curve and the full ocean will come into view. Wow! It’s breathtaking even to locals. You’re in the Cardiff By the Sea area, a great surfing spot. The beach there has a big parking lot if you want to stop and marvel at how locals spend their free time. Check out the kite surfers! Being pulled around on the waves while holding on to a giant kite looks like fun, doesn’t it?
As you drive that long stretch of highway that follows the ocean, you might see something quite strange. Rocks, polished by the ocean, are stacked on top of each other. It defies logic. Big rocks balanced on little ones. Little rocks balanced on driftwood. Strangely artistic, it sparks ones imagination and should send a smile to your face. Who took the time to balance the rocks? And why? Stop your car and check out this natural art if you are lucky enough to visit at a time when the rocks are on display. And if not, try your hand at a bit of rock balancing. It’s a weird way to spend your vacation time, but just wait until you try to explain this to your friends back home! This is uniquely San Diego!
The rock area is across from Las Olas Mexican Restaurant, one of the best Mexican restaurants in San Diego and a local hangout. If it’s not busy, stop in for some chips and salsa and a margarita on the outside patio.
LOCAL WALLY HOT PARKING TIP: If you cannot get a spot along the road, then pull into the valet parking at The Beach House restaurant. The upstairs patio overlooks the ocean, making it a great spot for a cocktail (Oh No, not another cocktail!) Have a drink, look at the view, then walk to the rocks before getting back into your car.
Third Stop: Self Realization Fellowship Temple
This just might be one of the weirdest – and most delightful – stops on your trip. As you pass Swami’s Beach (which has a great lookout area in the parking lot), you’ll notice an odd, Bombay looking sort of building. “What the Hell is that?” might run through your mind. Well guess what? It’s your next stop! And it’s a good one.
Turn left as soon as you pass the temple and park a block or so up the street. The temple has grounds that are open to the public, and these grounds will blow your mind! A walk through those gates will transport you to another world. The landscaping is more Hawaiianish than Hawaii, with tropical plants, waterfalls, and world class koi ponds. In fact, I doubt you will ever see a better koi pond anywhere on the planet.
Am I hallucinating again, or do I hear a sitar?
George Harrison of the Beatles used to visit this temple, along with Encinitas local Ravi Shankar, the famous sitar player. This place is mystical, transcendental, and meditational. As you walk up the stairs, you’ll notice aging flower children types sitting on the various benches with their eyes closed. Don’t worry, they’re not dead… They’re meditating! Hey, you can’t blame them for believing they found Nirvana (the state of mind, not the rock band) in a place like this. Try to be quiet as you pass them (you DO NOT want to see an angry mediator!) and make your way to the top of the stairs for a stunning view of the ocean. This place is insanely beautiful. Stop for a moment and look for dolphins or whales, then circle back to check out the ponds filled with large, colorful koi. Admission is free, though a donation appreciatated. As you leave, you’ll want to thank Local Wally for turning you on to his secret spot!
Fourth Stop: Encinitas
Encinitas, one of the last real beach towns in Soutnern California
And it keeps on getting weirder! As you leave the Self Realization Temple, cruise through the neighborhoods by getting on 3rd Street, which runs parallel to Highway 101. Pay attention as you pass G street and you’ll see something that will make you slam on your brakes faster than a drunk in a speed trap. What is this? A house that looks like a boat? That’s right, these are the infamous Encinitas Boat Houses, two giant boats that are built on dry land. Built back in the ’20′s before there were homeowner associations and CC&R’s (that’s a joke, by the way), the Boat Houses continue to be an oddity and no less mind boggling than the day they were built. Go ahead and take your picture in front of them – but no, you cannot go inside as these are actually rental units.
Once you’ve seen the Boat House, keep on driving on 3rd street and park your car anywhere around by D Street. You should be near Keilani’s (137 West D Street), an authentic Hawaiian plate lunch restaurant. A plate lunch consists of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and an entree, such as shredded boneless pork spareribs, teriyaki chicken, or kalua pork. These high carb lunches were popular with the sugar plantation workers in Hawaii, and they’re popular with the surfers and locals here. Not hungry enough to eat again? Then get an authentic shaved ice or a can of POG (Passion fruit, Orange juice, and Guava juice) to go.
Walk back to 101 and head towards the La Paloma Theater for a good starting place. There’s a funky open market to the left of the old theatre with lots of little trinkets. Start there, then head on down the highway (going south). You’ll find lots of independent little stores selling everything from high end clothing to funky beachware. You’ll also find great food and drink as you head down towards The Lumberyard, a great shopping center that has some fantastic pastries at St. Tropez Bakery and Bistro. The Lumber yard is a great place to grab a snack or and ice cream and sit back in a chair to enjoy the sunshine.
Down the street a bit is Hansen Surfboards, a local surf shop that not only sells boards but local surf clothing as well. You want an Encinitas t-shirt? Go to Hansens.
Once common with surfers back in the 60′s, Woodies have become huge collectables.
LOCAL WALLY HOT WOODIE TIP: If you love looking at beautifully restored cars of yesteryear, you won’t want to miss the Wavecrest Woodie Meet, the largest collection of classic Woodies usually held the third weekend of September. During the summer, Encinitas also holds a Rods and Woodies Classic Car Show every Thursday from June to September from 5:30 to 7:30, usually with live surf music.
Now that you’ve seen Hansens and most likely bought yourself a cool t-shirt to impress your friends back home, turn around and walk back down the other side of the street. There’s plenty more shops to visit, and some excellent restaurants as well. Just in case you decide to come back to Encinitas later in your visit and are looking for the best places to eat, here they are:
BREAKFAST: Potato Shack Cafe serves up plates of potatoes prepared with various toppings, along with “manhole cover sized” pancakes and traditional egg dishes. Another local favorite is 101 Diner (552 S. Coast Hwy 101), home to perhaps the best Eggs Benedict ever (served only on weekends).
LUNCH AND DINNER: One of my favorite Northern Italian restaurants is Trattoria I Trulli (830 South Coast Highway 101, 760-943-6800). It’s small, it’s noisy and the tables are so close that you might think they made a mistake and seated you at an occupied table, but the food is always exceptionally good and the atmosphere is celebration happy. There’s always a wait, so call ahead. Outside tables for lunch are wonderful. If you can’t get into I Trulli, then cross the street and dine at Vigilucci’s. It’s fancier than I Trulli, quieter, and a bit more expensive – but it’s very, very good. There are plenty of other places in Encinitas to dine at, and nearly all of them are excellent in this little surf town.
Before you leave Encinitas, you have to stop and see Moonlight Beach, the beach that made this place famous. Go west at Encinitas Blvd. and you’ll find a beach that’s nearly all locals, and one that hasn’t changed in the past 40 years. There’s a snack bar just like the old days selling hot dogs, corn dogs, and popcycles. Volleyball courts in the sand, palapas for shade, BBQs and firerings for nighttime bonfires, man, this is some great beach! But wait – Walk past the main beach area and the beach will get surprisingly uncrowded. Even on the hottest day of summer you will find a quiet and private spot at Moonlight Beach.
LOCAL WALLY HOT BOTANICAL TIP: If you’re a plant lover, then take a side trip to Quail Botanical Gardens, 35 acres of rare and lush gardens, including a rainforest area. It’s around the Encinitas Blvd area – call (760) 436-3036 for directions.
Now it’s time to get back to your car and keep on cruisin’! You’ll be driving though an area called Leucadia, a funky downscale beach town that refuses to change – and that’s good. Unlike other beach towns that have “La Jolla envy” for all the tourist dollars, Leucadia just doesn’t care. It’s a town for locals, a place to surf, a place to kick back and do nothing. And that suits Local Wally just fine.
Time stands still in Leucadia
The number one attraction in Leucadia, besides the awesome surfing, is Lou’s Records, a real record shop that caters to music lovers. You’ll find just about any artist you can think of at Lou’s, from oldies to new obscure. DO NOT FEAR THE TATOOO’D AND PIERCED EMPLOYEES! They’re harmless, and actually quite helpful. Try to fit in by saying things like “dude, cool nosering” or “man, great Satan tatoo on your forehead”. Lou’s is a “must stop” for music lovers, and keep an eye out for live shows in the parking lot from artists such as Jack Johnson. Lots or hard to find discs at Lou’s, and a great video store next door.
Fifth Stop: Road Trip to Get Fresh Strawberries
What most tourists don’t know is that North County, and Encinitas especially, was once famous for the miles and miles of flower fields and local crops like strawberries. A lot of the fields have been covered with multi-million dollar tract houses, and, yes, a Factory Outlet Mall in Carlsbad covers old flower fields. That’s the sad side of progress, but fortunately there are still enough strawberry fields left to keep the locals happy. If the strawberry you know is from the supermarket, you’re in for a treat. Supermarket strawberries are picked unripe so they can travel without bruising. This makes for a crunchy and flavorless berry. Real strawberries are plump, bright red, juicy, and just the right amount of softness. They last about a day after you pick them, so they are only available in local stands. And Local Wally is going to show you the best strawberry stand in North County.
We grow ‘em locally here. Get them the day they’re picked.
Exit Highway 101 at LA COSTA BLVD and go east 1.3 miles. You’ll pass over the congested Highway 5 freeway. Keep going until you see a fruit stand on the corner of La Costa Blvd. and Saxony Drive. This is where you will find local strawberries nearly all year, and during the summer they just cannot be beat. Sample the other local fruit, and grab a bag of tortilla chips and salsa to go as well. I know, your car’s going to be a mess, but who cares? It’s a rental!
Locally grown fresh flowers, fresh tamales and breads, this is the place to stock up on great food to snack on once you are back in your hotel room. And yes, the tamales are quite good and they usually have warm ones that you eat right then and there. Don’t worry about that diet until you get home! Head back to Highway 101 and let’s keep going!
Sixth Stop: Carlsbad
As you get back on Highway 101 from La Costa Blvd., you’ll be driving along stretches of unspoiled local beaches. You might be tempted to stop, but keep going – it gets better! Keep driving until you get to the Hilton Garden Inn (6450 Carlsbad Blvd.) and you’ll see another “only in San Diego” sights. If it’s a nice day, across the street you’ll find people flying radio controlled model gliders (meaning no gas engine) over the ocean cliffs, picking up the updrafts as they loop the loop and race back and forth. It’s an incredible sight and worth a short stop. The view of the ocean from here is awesome, by the way!
Carlsbad is poised to be the “next big thing”. See it now before it’s spoiled.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the Spring, then exit on Palomar Airport Road and take a detour to see The Flower Fields. You’ll think you just got dropped off in the final scene of the Wizard of Oz as you walk through the acres of blooming flowers. It’s an incredible sight to see – fantastic, really. Incredibly beautiful. If it’s not Spring, you can still exit on Palomar Airport Road if you want to visit the upscale factory outlet mall called Carlsbad Premium Outlet, aka Carlsbad Company Stores. It’s fairly predictable shopping, but the setting is great with the ocean views.
Back on Highway 101, keep driving until you reach your final destination, Carlsbad. You are in what is called Carlsbad Village, where you’ll find the old downtown area, great restaurants, and uncrowded beaches. The main downtown shops are on State Street, a block east of the highway. To be honest, it’s not particularly exciting shopping and browsing, so don’t set your expectations too high. You’ll find antique stores and beachwear, women’s boutiques and bars. One notable stop is Spin Records (370 Grand Ave.), only second to Lou’s for carrying tough to find CD’s. (Pssst…..There’s even a bootleg DVD section in the back for collectors).
LOCAL WALLY HOT GUITAR TIP: If you play guitar, you need to make sure you stop by Buffalo Bros Guitars (4901 El Camino Real, 760-434-4567). Buffalo Brothers is one of the premier guitar shops in the country, featuring Taylors and other high end guitars. It’s about 10 to 15 minutes from Carlsbad Village.
LOCAL WALLY HOT UKULELE TIP: If ukes are your passion, Giacoletti’s has plenty of Lanikai’s and Lehua’s for you to strum. Located right in the village.
Carlsbad train station
Wally, I’m tired of all this walking! I need to relax! I need a drink!
OK, OK, Wally hears you! It’s time to drop now that you’ve shopped and get a good strong margarita in your hand. Thank goodness (and Wally) that you are near Fidels Norte (3003 Carlsbad Blvd., (760) 729-0903), one of the best Mexican restaurant in all of San Diego County and Local Wally’s favorite. Sitting on their sunny outside patio just feels like vacation. Add that their food is top notch and you got yorself a destination restaurant.
LOCAL WALLY HOT MEXICAN FOOD TIP: While nearly everything at Fidels is great, the one thing they do better than anyone are their Chile Relleno’s. If you’re a fan of fluffy egg dipped chiles floating in a spicy red sauce, you can’t pass this by. House margaritas are only so-so, so upgrade minimally to the “Original” recipe if you like a little more punch to your drink. If Fidels is too crowded, right down the street is Las Olas (that’s right, it’s owned by the same folks as the Las Olas in Cardiff area). Las Olas has a great carnitas platter (shredded pork , rice and beans, tortillas) for around ten bucks that’s big enough to share.
If Mexican isn’t your thing (come on, you’re in San Diego for God’s sake!), then walk down the way south until you get to Harbor Fish Cafe (3179 Carlsbad Boulevard, (760)729-4161) for an ultra casual (talking picnic benches here) dining experience. They’re famous for their giant fish taco (you just can’t get away from Mexican food!) and fish and chips, but also have fresh catches broiled to perfection. Ocean view casual dining with beer and wine.
Don’t forget to take a walk on the beach when you are done eating, or to just grab a nearby bench and watch the ocean. Ahhhh, what a great day! Go ahead – make a toast to Local Wally for showing you a side of San Diego that most tourists don’t experience!
Final Stop: Oceanside
Let’s make our final stop at lovely Oceanside. Another one of San Diego’s many gems. Oceanside is a key transit point in North County and is famous for its long wooden pier which I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts.
The town is close to both Carlsbad and Encinitas, two other incredibly charming and beautiful beach communities. Oceanside is a coastal resort city located on California’s South Coast. It is the third-largest city in San Diego County and 15th-largest city in Southern California. The city had a population of about 183,095 as of January 2010. Together with Carlsbad and Vista, it forms a tri-city area. Oceanside is located just south of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the busiest military base in the United States.
Oceanside is a thriving beach community and is is home to various tributes to the Pacific Ocean like the Oceanside Municipal Pier (the longest all wood pier on the west coast), the Oceanside Harbor and Marina (offering a variety of water sports like jet skiing, scuba diving, boat rentals, and whale watching excursions), and the California Surf Museum (surfing-related memorabilia and exhibitions).
Away from the beach Oceanside is rich in great site-seeing and family activities like the historic Mission at San Luis Rey and Heritage Park (featuring guided tours and a gift shop), the weekly farmer’s market (with fresh produce, flowers, and local art), and numerous golf courses and parks, even a dog park.
Oceanside is one of the few towns that have accommodations right AT the beach (on or across the street). The atmosphere of the town is affected by the large marine presence so, although it is beginning to gentrify, it is not the most upscale town in the county.
San Diego‘s coastline is roughly 113 km in length with numerous large and small beaches. The top 15 beaches are listed below:
La Jolla Shores
Mission Bay Park
Black’s Beach (largest nude beach in the U.S)
La Jolla Cove
You can now jump on the main Highway 5 South if you want the fastest way back to your hotel. If it’s rush hour time, consider just taking Highway 101 back instead as it’s sometimes faster, and certainly more scenic than the main highway. If you’re lucky enough to be driving home as the sun sets, make sure you stop to watch the sun’s sweet goodbye to a fantastic day.