Best of the Beaches

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The best summer hot spots in California

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San Diego Summer

Just a short drive south, San Diego plays host to island adventures, sun, surf and fresh cuisine. 

By Linda Domingo

Coronado Bridge Aerial -Courtesy SanDiego.org

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Located about 4.5 miles from Coronado Village, you could say Loews Coronado Bay is on an island of its own. Set on the water, the resort provides a paradisiacal vantage point from which to experience San Diego’s beach-centric culture (loewshotels.com). The hotel’s 439 rooms, including 37 suites, feature elegant designs inspired by the sea and amenities inspired by the comforts of home. Ideal for family vacations, romantic getaways or business travel, the resort offers plenty of features and activities that take full advantage of its island-like setting, including three pools, sailing, bike rentals, outdoor tennis courts and gondola rides in the bay. Enjoy cuisine at one of the hotel’s eateries, including the dockside Market Cafe, the quick and casual Market To Go or the sophisticated Mistral restaurant, which offers seafood, farm-fresh produce, Mediterranean flavors and an extensive wine list. Or for a sunset cocktail, have a seat in Cays Lounge or poolside at La Cantina. Loews Coronado Bay recently completed new redesigns of the resort’s lobby, Bay Terrace and some restaurants, adding contemporary touches, outdoor seating and more, all while showcasing the resort’s breathtaking panoramic views of the bay and the San Diego skyline.

Just across the towering Coronado Bridge is a different setting entirely: San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter is a hub for shopping, entertainment and nightlife in the city. The Omni San Diego Hotel puts guests right in the heart of the action, directly across from the convention center and connected to the famed Petco Park, with 511 guest rooms and suites, and an outdoor terrace with fireplace, heated pool and Jacuzzi (omnihotels.com). North of downtown is the affluent beachside neighborhood of La Jolla, where the intimate, three-story Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa combines the charm of a Spanish hacienda with the luxury of a AAA four-diamond hotel (estancialajolla.com).

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Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge’s Brandt Beef burger

Dine

Set on Coronado’s main thoroughfare, Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge brings urban cool and modern cuisine to the island’s village (leroyskitchenandlounge.com). The restaurant is appointed with rustic decor and a long bar with chalkboards featuring what’s on tap and flat-screens playing the game. The eclectic, rotating menu offers small plates to enjoy with a local craft brew or inventive cocktail. The bleu pepper chips, a playful and refined take on nachos, are a nice way to prime your palate for more fresh, farm-to-table ingredients that populate the menu. As with many coastal kitchens, seafood has its place in the entrees, but meat lovers will enjoy the Brandt Beef burger, adorned with house pickles and bacon jam, served with truffle fries, housemade pomegranate ketchup and scallion aioli. Leave room for the famous Naughty Ding Dong (you just have to try it to understand).

Head to George’s for the scene and to be seen. The stylish restaurant on the main level showcases ocean views through large windows, but grab a coveted seat upstairs on the terrace (heated on cooler evenings) to enjoy expansive views, a seafood-centric menu and tropical cocktails (georgesatthecove.com). The lower level at George’s is another dining experience completely, offering a chef’s tasting menu, seasonal a la carte menu and the exclusive Table Three experience, available by reservation. Reservations at any part of the restaurant are highly recommended, with some guests booking as far as a month prior during the summer months.

With the proximity of the border, it’s tough to avoid (or resist) the famous Mexican restaurants of San Diego. A local favorite with multiple locations, including one downtown, is Lolita’s, serving up all the staples, including tacos, chimichangas, tortas and more (lolitasmexicanfood.com). If you happen to be in the Mission Bay area and hunger strikes, try Taco Surf near the beach, where you’ll find flavorful Mexican dishes highlighting a San Diego classic: the fish taco (tacosurftacoshop.com).

Pacific Beach Boardwalk Cyclists -Courtesy Brett Shoaf
Cycling in Pacific Beach

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Not only does San Diego boast a spectrum of backdrops—from the urban downtown district to the culturally rich neighborhood of Little Italy to the hipster hot spots of North Park—but with 70 miles of coastline and year-round temperate weather, possibilities for play are endless.

Prime surfing for all levels can be found in this wavy haven. If you’re just getting your sea legs, Coronado’s mellow waters offer the perfect classroom for novices. Gnarly Neal and Stingray Steve lead lessons and camps at Executive Surfing Club, where individuals and groups venture to the beach to learn the basics, and then head out on the water to shred—or at least have some fun (executivesurfingclub.com). Advanced surfers can scope out spots in Pacific Beach or La Jolla; just be mindful of the locals.

Although kayaking and snorkeling are common on the coast, La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve’s sea caves and a marine protected area are rich with sea life. Hike Bike Kayak rents out kayaks, bikes, snorkel gear, surfboards and stand-up paddleboards, in addition to providing small group kayak tours that take people alongside the sea caves, or even inside the caves when the tide is high enough (hikebikekayak.com). Kayakers will see kelp forests, and sea lions and seals sunbathing or often swimming alongside them while tour guides spout off interesting information about the environment and inhabitants—just be prepared with a swimsuit and change of clothes, or take advantage of loaner wetsuits.

Back on land, don’t miss the opportunity to explore San Diego by bicycle. Mission Bay provides 20 miles of paved paths near the shoreline, and rental shops such as Ray’s Rentals offers the perfect vehicles to soak in the sunshine and ocean breeze (rays-rentals.com). Cruise the parks or traverse the boardwalk, adjacent to the beach and a colorful collection of beach homes, bars and restaurants. La Jolla is just a six-mile ride away, where you’ll find one of the two Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego locations (mcasd.org). The bike rack out front provides premier parking while visitors peruse the Edwards Sculpture Garden or a rotating exhibit (catch the science fiction-inspired “Approximately Infinite Universe” through Sept. 1).

A Santa Barbara Love Affair

With intimate restaurants, cozy bungalows nestled among ancient oak groves and romantic sunsets fading into the sea, it’s easy to fall in love with the American Riviera.

By Alli Tong

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Perched on a hillside overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean, El Encanto (elencanto.com) is not only one of the city’s most romantic getaways but also one of its most storied. The historic hotel, which sprawls over seven lush acres, opened in 1918 and became a desired hideaway for Hollywood’s elite, hosting guests from Clark Gable to Leonardo DiCaprio. In 2004, Orient-Express purchased the hotel, and after a seven-year renovation, totaling $134 million (including purchase price), the resort reopened March 18, 2013.

Now boasting 92 craftsman-style and Spanish-colonial bungalows and suites, a signature restaurant with 180-degree views of the ocean, boutique spa, outdoor pool and bespoke touches, such as an aeroponic garden (which the executive chef uses for the restaurant) and a wishing well, El Encanto is even more whimsical and enchanting.

Perfect for a couple’s retreat or honeymoon, each private bungalow is luxuriously appointed with its own terrace, fireplace, custom furniture, marble bathroom with a rainfall shower and heated stone floor, and mini bar, among other first-class amenities.

Additionally, guests need not look further—or walk farther—to dine on an exquisite meal. El Encanto’s restaurant, featuring California coastal cuisine with a Japanese and French flair (due to Executive Chef Patrice Martineau’s rich culinary background), is perfect for those who don’t want to make the trek to downtown. For dinner, try the garlic butter Alaskan halibut with mushroom risotto and asparagus, and pair with a signature cocktail, such as the Charmer, made with house-infused grapefruit vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and fresh lime juice. For dessert, guests can’t leave without tasting the Enchanted Oeuf a la Neige, a “floating island” of poached meringue and creme anglaise.

Diners should also take note of the restaurant’s cheeses—most of which are made by the hotel’s very own dairy cow, Ellie. “I think that my most recent years of international experiences have added a fresh dimension to the classic French cuisine that I was originally taught,” Patrice says. “I believe that our guests will find my cooking to be quite personal and new.”

While this tucked-away refuge is ideal for total relaxation, those who prefer the feel of a boutique hotel in a downtown locale may want to look into the Simpson House Inn (simpsonhouseinn.com), an AAA Five Diamond hotel. Located in a historic neighborhood of Santa Barbara, this upscale bed-and-breakfast with only 15 guest rooms, suites and cottages is a hidden sanctuary within walking distance from State Street.

For travelers that can’t seem to stray from the alluring sea, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara (fourseasons.com/santabarbara) is an oasis on the oceanfront, boasting 207 guest rooms and suites with stunning views of the Pacific and a collection of 12 single-story cottages amid verdant gardens.

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Located off the busy streets of downtown, Scarlett Begonia (scarlettbegonia.net) is a quaint eatery serving up organic and local food (it’s a safe bet that nearly everything on each plate was sourced locally). For breakfast, sit outside on the dog-friendly outdoor patio and try the house-made granola or the shrimp and grits, made with two Rosemary Farm soft poached eggs, paprika sausage and roasted red pepper.

For lunch, head to the historic arts district, where tucked away inside an art gallery is one of the city’s best gastronomic gems, Arts & Letters Café (artsletterscafe.shutterfly.com). Serving classic California cuisine with an emphasis on local seafood, the cafe creates all its dishes with local ingredients and sustainable meats.

While Santa Barbara is host to an array of worthwhile restaurants, Olio e Limone (olioelimone.com) offers homemade cuisine in a romantic, cozy setting. Meaning “oil and lemon” in Italian, Olio e Limone is the creation of husband-wife team Alberto and Elaine Morello, who dish up sophisticated yet familiar Italian cuisine. A must-try is one of their handmade pastas, such as the spinach and ricotta-filled tortellini with tomato sauce and sage butter. For meat lovers, the grilled veal chop served with roasted potatoes is a savory choice. Pair your meal with a wine from the restaurant’s list of more than 100 selections.

For a taste of local culture, head to Wildcat Lounge (wildcatlounge.com), a kitschy bar where local bartender Patrick Reynolds of Anchor Woodfire Kitchen opens what he calls a “farm-to-bar pop-up.” A locals-only secret, every Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. Patrick mixes innovative cocktails based on what he finds at the local farmers markets—such as a concoction made up of vodka and freshly muddled cucumber and mint.

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Santa Barbara Zoo

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While Napa and Sonoma resonate more with oenophiles, Santa Barbara is home to some of California’s most sought-after wines. Due to the area’s variety of climates and soils, Santa Barbara County is one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the country.

First-time visitors to can get a taste of the Central Coast’s wines via the Urban Wine Trail (urbanwinetrailsb.com), where they can sip their way through more than 16 wineries in downtown, all located within blocks from the beach. A must-stop is the newly opened Anacapa Vintners (anacapavintners.com), where small batches of varietals, from chardonnay to cabernet, are produced from Santa Barbara’s five distinct wine-growing regions. Wine lovers should also visit Santa Barbara Winery (sbwinery.com), the oldest winery in the county founded in 1962, where they can sample the best riesling the county offers.

Visiting a zoo may seem like an ordinary, forgettable activity, however, the Santa Barbara Zoo (sbzoo.org) sets itself apart. Visitors of all ages will delight in getting up close and personal (well, as up close and personal as possible) with more than 180 species housed on 16 acres. The intimate design of the zoo lets visitors feel like they’re standing right next to African elephants and gorillas. A must-see is the young giraffe calf named Sunshine, who was born April 28.

For an evening filled with entertainment, check out what’s happening at Santa Barbara’s many performing arts and music venues, from the historic Lobero Theatre (lobero.com) to the legendary Santa Barbara Bowl (sbbowl.com).

Sun, Sand and Santa Monica

Best explored by bike, this resort town offers a lavish lifestyle perfect for a weekend beach escape. 

By Allison Hata

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Stay 

With a Cape Cod-style exterior and up-close ocean views, Shutters on the Beach is the definition of Santa Monica sophistication (shuttersonthebeach.com). The hotel, celebrating its 20th year in 2013, offers all the charm of a bed and breakfast with the elegance of a luxury resort. The 186 guest rooms and 12 suites come equipped with an array of extras, including sliding shuttered doors opening up to balconies, a curated selection of books and publications for leisure reading, and a deluxe bathroom with oversized whirlpool tubs. On the third floor, a terrace pool offers ocean views with plenty of lounge chairs and private cabana spaces for relaxing away from the busy beach scene. Other on-site indulgences include One the Spa, where guests can escape with organic body treatments and facials in one of six treatment rooms. Two restaurants provide diners with coastal views: One Pico (a fine dining experience) and Coast Beach Café and Bar (relaxed comfort food). For guests ready to venture out of the hotel, a concierge is stationed at the lobby to assist with restaurant reservations, entertainment, transportation and more.

Because Santa Monica has an ever-growing coastal appeal, however, the accommodation options are seemingly endless. If Shutters on the Beach isn’t your cup of tea, book a stay with the ultra-glamorous Viceroy Santa Monica, located on the other side of Pico Boulevard, where you’ll enjoy ocean views and an old-Hollywood vibe (viceroyhotelsandresorts.com). For those who thrive being close to the downtown scene, try The Huntley Hotel, a trendy-chic property located just blocks from Third Street Promenade where you’ll find lively entertainment on the street amidst a cluster of fun and eclectic shops (thehuntleyhotel.com).

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Surf and turf from Boa Steakhouse

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Sunday brunch is a staple in Santa Monica, and no brunch is complete without free-flowing mimosas. Sonoma Wine Garden’s outdoor patio tops the list of the best brunch spots in town—nothing beats sipping glass after glass of Champagne flavored with fresh orange juice, peach puree, elderflower syrup or pomegranate juice (sonomawinegarden.com). On the menu, classic favorites like salmon Benedict and garden frittatas please traditionalists, while blueberry blintzes and candy striped beets tickle the taste buds of other diners.

The libations continue to flow at bars and restaurants during the city’s “happiest hour.” Discounted happy hour menus draw visitors into establishments like Sushi Roku on Ocean Avenue, where Japanese favorites like California rolls and spicy tuna can be washed down with a hot sake and cold Sapporo beer, all under $5 each (sushiroku.com). Closer to the ocean, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel offers a happy hour menu at its Papillon Bar, where everything from house-blended cocktails and sangria to duck taquitos and firecracker shrimp are only $6.60 each (loewshotels.com).

To finish off a day’s dining adventures, sit down for an elegant pairing of surf and turf at Boa Steakhouse. On a warm night, request a table on the patio and dive into a generous portion of steak, like a 40-day dry-aged New York Strip or the tender filet mignon topped with savory herbed butter over a bed of Brussels sprout hash. As the menu suggests, “any turf can surf” with an accompaniment of lobster, crab legs, sea scallops or prawns (boasteak.com).

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Bicycles provide the perfect transportation in Santa Monica.

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Any local will tell you that the best—and only—way to explore Santa Monica is by bike. Along Ocean Front Walk, bike rental shops abound and it’s difficult to narrow down the choices. For convenience and peace of mind, multiple Perry’s (perryscafe.com) locations along the beach provide an easy grab-and-go solution, offering a selection of cruisers, mountain bikes and tandems as well as the option to service your bike at any of the four shops. Rent a bike for the day (or the hour) and set off to explore the town. If you’re feeling bold, brave the LA traffic and venture up to Montana Avenue, a picturesque street full of women’s boutiques, cafes and spas where you may find yourself window shopping next to your favorite celebrity.

Beginning cyclists, fear not—the famed South Bay Bicycle Trail is an easy ride for the less experienced. The path stretches for 22 miles along the LA coast (south to Torrance and north to Malibu), with the 8.5 miles in Santa Monica taking you past sights like the Annenberg Beach Community House, a restored landmark that features a public pool facility, an enclosed picnic area and a special water playground for kids. The path also winds underneath the iconic Santa Monica Pier, home to the kid-friendly Paradise Park. A trip to Santa Monica isn’t complete without a ride on the Ferris wheel, which sweeps you up into the sky for a breathtaking view of ocean, mountains and sand. LBM

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