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Courtesy of Jeanette Shambaugh


Imperial Beach Sun & Sea Festival

Built to last, most of the world’s great castles have stood for hundreds of years. But the ones crafted every July at the annual Imperial Beach Sun & Sea Festival, 22 kilometres south of central San Diego, may only last as long as the next high tide. While they’re around, though, these castles are nothing short of magnificent.

In a six-hour building period, top sandcastle artists race to sculpt structures that you absolutely need to see to believe, complete with staircases, ramparts and flying buttresses. The planning and design required for these ephemeral palaces and other eye-popping creations can take months. But competitors have noted that plenty also depends on conditions on the day of the event. 'Everything makes a difference,' explained competitor Leonard Gonzales Jr in one interview. 'The different kinds of sand, the sun conditions—there are just so many variables.'

The mostly free festivities officially start on the Friday before the competition, with an early-morning Imperial Beach Swim & Paddle and a 3k beach walk/run, followed by the Mayor’s Breakfast. For the rest of the day, an exhibition sandcastle is on display, and you can spend some time surveying the scene and plotting your building strategy.

The next day, if you plan on participating or want to see the works take shape from start to finish, you’ll have to get up on the early side: the official building period is from 8 am to 2 pm on the Saturday of the event. Other activities have an early start as well: the charity ($5) pancake breakfast begins at 7 am, and the Sun & Sea Parade kicks off at 9 am and ends with the Parade Competition Awards ceremony two hours later. All day long the Kids' Zone will have activities taking place, including the Kids ‘n Kastles sandcastle building competition for junior sand sculptors aged 5 to 12. There's live music on the main stage at Portwood Pier Plaza to add to the fun. Past performers have got the crowds moving with Cajun and zydeco music, rock, blues and reggae.

While the professional builders receive the majority of the limelight during the competition, families and business teams also compete, often planning and honing their technique together in advance of the big day. But all you really need is sand, water and a few hours to create your own castle straight out of the furthest reaches of your imagination.