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San Clemente, CA Destination Review

A Review of  San Clemente, California
A day-trip to the Spanish Village by the Sea

by Kelly Bowlin

Nestled on the coast at the southern tip of Orange County, lies the historic, unique, and picturesque city of San Clemente. Once called the Spanish Village by the Sea by its founder, Ole Hanson, “SC” (as it’s now referred to by locals), might be considered the board-shorts, sandal-wearing, conservation-minded, step-child to its wealthy, sister-cities to the north like Irvine and Newport Beach. There’s nothing corporate about SC, in fact it feels more like a village than a city with its original old buildings, family owned restaurants and one of a kind specialty shops. San Clemente also is also a stop for the coast-liner metro-link that arrives from both the north and south at regular intervals.

Surf Culture Personified

San Clemente is a surf town. Much of its culture revolves around surfing. At last count, there were over thirty surf shops within its boundaries. No wonder, because it features some of the best, most consistent breaks on the west coast, from Old Mans to Trestles, to T-Street. Practically every other lo cal car in SC has surf-racks and it’s not just young surfers (grommet’s) who hit the waves. In SC, seemingly everyone surfs from young and old to male and female, from amateurs to touring professionals. Most surfers simply walk, skateboard or peddle their beach-cruisers adapted with side racks. Leave the blazer and dress slacks at home. In San Clemente you’re at the beach. If you want to fit in here, wear board-shorts, bikinis, sandals and a hoody if it’s cool.

Unlike other surf spots along the coast, San Clemente has an almost neighborly feel. I’m a gravitationally challenged writer in his fifties who needs a surfboard big enough to float four people and yet in the water at T-Street, several locals almost went out of their way to give me advice in the water, “wait…wait…start paddling now! Owww, bro… that’s why you need a leash. Are you okay? That gash above your eye looks pretty nasty.”

The Western White House and Soviet Surf Lessons

Richard Nixon’s Western White House still sits at the south end of town on a bluff overlooking the surf. Casa Pacifica as it’s called, was built in 1929 and is now privately owned, but was the visiting spot of many world leaders included Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger who was rumored to have offered Soviet Prime Minister Andrei Kosygin surf lessons during one of his visits. Many images of a sullen President strolling the deserted beach below the mansion were common during Watergate. As little as fifteen years ago the helicopter pad that was used by the presidential helicopter and visiting heads of state was still accessible, through an open gate and brief walk. “Hello Mr. Brezhnev, did you bring your wetsuit?” Today the mansion can only be viewed from the beach looking up the bluff. To get there, you’ll need to park near the Christianitos off ramp at the southern end of town and simply follow the steady stream of surfers as they head to the beach. Your destination is the world famous Trestles point break. From the un-crowded beach you can gaze up the bluff and view the old mansion or watch a large group of surfers competing for consistently great waves.

Del Mar Avenue to the Pier

The heart and soul of San Clemente is charming Del Mar Avenue (main street) with its quaint, restored whitewashed Spanish architecture and abundant bougainvillea and flowers. Where one-of-a kind shops from specialty chocolates to Irish goods to antiques to gourmet kitchen supplies and the ubiquitous surf apparel shops remind us of a time when family owned stores were the norm, not the exception. Turning west off El Camino Real to Del Mar Avenue, from the very eastern tip of the street to the pier, the ocean view is fabulous. Near the top of the street lies Carbonara Trattoria Italiano with great Northern Italian food. Do yourself a favor, try to get a window booth, and make the experience a simple one, order wine with a side of hot foccacia and butter. Everything else is superb, but be patient there’s more to come.

A little further down the block you’ll find Captain Mauris Counterculture Natural Foods. This sandwich shack is always crowded, seating… fohgetaboutit! However once you brave the lines (a good opportunity to browse the shops nearby) you’ll have a wonderful bagged lunch for your trip to the pier or Casa Romantica. My personal favorite is the Bombay Melt which is curried, all-white meat chicken sandwich served on an English muffin, and don’t forget the homemade soup like Lobster Bisque or Butternut Squash in cream.

The pier and Casa Romantica are just a quarter mile downhill and both make magnificent spots for a casual lunch. Casa Romantica lies just east of the pier on a side street (Avenida Granada) and is the restored Spanish mansion of the founder of San Clemente Ole Hanson. Admission to walk the grounds is $5.00 per person but it’s worth it. Not only is the home with its large, rectangular interior courtyard gorgeous, but the view to the beach and pier are breathtaking. Have your lunch on benches on the back patio. From there, continue down to the pier. If surfs-up the best surfers in the world will be there, just one photo away, particularly if you’re standing on the pier. There’s a respectable seafood restaurant on the pier, but an even better bar across from it. If you can time it right, snag a table overlooking the ocean and watch the sun with a couple tropical drinks and a shrimp cocktail.

So now it’s dinner time. There’s a lot of great spots in the area and they’re all good but since you’re in San Clemente, the occasion calls for great Mexican so its back up Del Mar Avenue to Avila’s at the corner of Del Mar and Ola Vista. My favorite is the marinated Carnitas but the Chicken Mole or the Asada al Mojo de Ajo (Steak and Shrimp cooked in Garlic Butter) are also great. Entrées will run between $12.00 and $20.00

The Beachcomber

Here’s my inside tip to anyone visiting San Clemente and spending the night. Do it with another couple, and make advance reservations at the one story Spanish designed Beachcomber Motel. It literally overlooks the beach and pier. A one bedroom costs $200 through June 9th  and $250 on weekdays through August 20th. This a great bargain considering it sleeps 7 and has its own kitchen. It’s quaint, well groomed and private…”No honey, that’s not freeway noise, it seals and ocean waves and I think that’s a Gray Whale breaching just offshore!”  For reservations go to the beachcombermotel.com.

One of the Best Small Towns in America

Several years ago a prominent Men’s Journal called San Clemente one of the top two small towns in America. In 2009 Surfer Magazine called it one of the top ten surf towns in the US. To be sure, this quaint, Spanish Village by the Sea has delighted and charmed visitors from heads of state to surfers to tourists like you and me for decades.

* Kelly Bowlin is a freelance writer based in Southern California

IF YOU GO...
Visit San Clemente Visitor's Center or call 949-361-8200
or
       Casa Romantica Cultural Center or call 949-498-2139 
C A L I F O R N I A   T R A V E L   P L A N N E R