Cruising down the California coast may well inspire a lifestyle change.
When people talk about Southern California, they’re usually referring to the idyllic, 130-mile strip of coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. The “California Riviera,” as it’s often called, is as much a lifestyle as a location. People here live outdoors—even, it seems, when they’re indoors. To see California beach culture at its best, start your drive 40 miles south of L.A., among the surfers and volleyball gods of Orange County’s Newport Beach. Then cruise down toward San Diego, about 90 miles farther.
Stop in Newport Beach for a bike ride along the 3-mile-long Balboa Peninsula. The flat cycling path cuts between the sand and a row of whimsical beach houses—a simple sea cottage is next to a palazzo, which is next to a tiki hut. Rent beach cruisers for $10 an hour from Easy Ride Bicycle Rentals. The beach is improbably wide and full of dunes; at its south end is the Wedge, a scenic inlet where sailboats and Duffy electric touring boats glide by.
Move slightly inland to sample Newport’s upscale diversions. Key among them is the nearly 400-acre Pelican Hill Golf Club. The Tom Fazio-designed 36-hole course is open to the public. A longtime Newport Coast institution, the club is now surrounded by the palatial, Mediterranean-style Resort at Pelican Hill. Soak up the ambience over an early dinner at Andrea, one of Pelican Hill’s dining rooms. It’s easily one of the state’s finest Northern Italian restaurants.
Leaving Newport Beach, Highway 1 dips and winds along cliffs and past sandy coves. Rather than blasting by all this beauty, set aside an afternoon for Crystal Cove State Park, a protected 3-mile sandy strand backed by 2,400 acres of seaside cliffs and forests of eucalyptus, pine and Canary Island palms. Before you head out on the 17 miles of hiking trails, fuel up at the 3-year-old Beachcomber Café, reportedly the first restaurant in 40 years to open right on the SoCal sand.
The affluent and arty city of Laguna Beach is home to fewer than 25,000 people. With its curving bay and bungalow- and mansion-dotted hillside, it’s like an American version of Italy’s Positano—but with surfers. At Laguna’s center is Main Beach, with its tidal pools and boardwalk; across from the beach are the galleries of Forest Avenue—Laguna Beach has lured artists for more than a century. The town’s Heisler Park has walking paths that drop down to golden sands where you can swim, surf, dive or just explore the tide pools. It’s a great vantage point for views of the rugged coast, human-scaled town and palm-silhouetted sunsets.
Treasure Island Park also has Pacific views to spare. Here, locals work their way through morning yoga routines on the lawns while bunnies can be heard hopping about in the underbrush. After your visit, stop at the adjacent Montage, a Craftsman-style resort that has been wowing travelers and celeb weekenders from L.A. since it opened in 2003. If you book a treatment you can spend some time at the spa, with its open-air relaxation areas, pool deck and oceanfront gym. Or just relax over drinks by the fire in the plush lobby. Views of the Pacific included, naturally.
NORTH COUNTY, SAN DIEGO
The next stop is North San Diego County—known as North County. An easy coastal drive south on Interstate 5 leads to the pretty community of Del Mar, anchored by the Auberge Del Mar resort. The lobby lounge and the tiered decks that hold the Waterfall Terrace and Bleu Bar are social magnets, and the restaurant, Kitchen 1540, is well worth a visit.
End your SoCal road trip in La Jolla, a walkable, Mediterranean-style village with a strong sense of community. The town’s ocean swimmers like to drop their towels on the emerald green lawn above La Jolla Cove and swim out—beyond snorkelers ogling Garibaldi fish—to the half-mile buoy in the bay. Paddlers can rent kayaks and tour the coast’s seven sea caves, while the more daring might sign up at Torrey Pines Gliderport for a 20-minute tandem flight above the sands of Black’s Beach.
When you’re in La Jolla’s oceanfront park, wander south along the coastal path to a tiny cove populated by sea lions basking in the sun. Humans must stay behind the rope: There’s no touching allowed. But from here you can admire (and photograph) the sea lions enjoying their version of the SoCal lifestyle.