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Santa Cruz by Tai Power Seeff

10 Perfect Beach Towns

Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of California’s most appealing destinations. The Golden State’s beach towns stand out for their relaxed, inviting spirit, their beauty, and their boundless ways to play. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination, or a romantic escape where the toughest thing to do all day is deciding what sunscreen to use, you’ll find the ocean-hugging town that matches your mood.

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Dana Point

Dana Point
Begin your Highway One odyssey in this scenic town with views over the ocean bluffs

The southern origin of California’s Highway One offers some gorgeous drama, like beach town Dana PointIt was named after Richard Henry Dana, who first arrived there on a trading ship circa 1835 and was entranced by the romantic cliff-lined area.

The town has been wooing whale-watchers and water lovers ever since. In the 1950s and 60s, the right-breaking waves that tended to form here could produce 12-foot surf breaks known as Killer Dana and Doheny. A few blocks away, California’s first surf shop was opened in 1954 by Orange County local Hobie Alter

Today, you’ll still find a Hobie Surf Shop, boutiques, and eateries along this stretch of Highway 1, as well as nearby Salt Creek Beach, Baby Beach, and Doheny State Beach. Otherwise, the town very much revolves around the harbor, which, when it opened in 1971, tamed Killer Dana. The quieter waters, though, created abundant options for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, sports fishing, and a lot of whale-watching.

Indeed, you can spot giant mammals breaching and frolicking in the waves nearly year-round. “We see the migrating grey whale from November through April,” says Kim Tilly, a spokesperson for Dana Point Harbor. “Then we start to see the blue whales from April through October, along with sightings of humpbacks, orcas, fin whales, and minke whales.” Take a paddleboard ride—the harbor’s waveless anchorage is especially kind to first-timers—and you might also spot pods of dolphins, sea lions, and seals. Come during the holiday season to double the viewings out on the water: One of the town’s biggest events of the year is December’s Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights.

Many of Dana Point’s hotels and eateries sit on cliffs above the harbour (like the Monarch Beach Resort and the Blue Lantern Inn) or on the water itself, such as the sustainable and locally sourced seafood offered at Waterman’s Harbour, or the mesquite-grilled fresh catches at The Harbour Grill. For a classic view, stroll along the Bluff Top Trail and, while looking out over the water for whales, check out the statue honouring 19th-century hide droghers—tradesmen who literally tossed hides over the cliffs to merchant ships anchored below. 

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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Spotlight: Santa Barbara

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Mediterranean style magic and a perfect ocean breeze

Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—...

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Thomas H. Story/ Sunset Publishing

Malibu

Malibu
Explore a fabled seafront town with real star power

Stretching for more than 50 kilometres along the Pacific and Highway One, Malibu has achieved almost mythological status among Californian beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here, under an elegant veil of privacy on long stretches of beach, and enjoy front-row seats for surfing and unforgettable sunsets.

While it may sound exclusive, there is plenty of Malibu magic for visitors to access too. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating grey whales.

The perfect aesthetics stretch beyond the beach, too. The Getty Villa—the original home of the Getty Museum, which opened in 1974—focuses on Ancient Greek and Roman Art (admission is free, but you need to make a reservation). For more contemporary, beachy masterpieces, check out the 30 historic surfboards on display, some dating back to the 1910s, at the Surf Museum at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library. And for wearable art—and perhaps to spot one of the local celebs—browse the shops at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two upmarket shopping centres, located next to one another.

Afterwards, grab a bite at Malibu Farm, the organic café and restaurant that sits on the pier. Or browse the fresh catches—and try one of the famed ahi tuna burgers—at Malibu Seafood, opposite Dan Blocker Beach. To spend the night like an insider, get a room at the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn, a former motel located on the so-called Billionaire’s Beach, which was given its original makeover by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.

Tough as it is to drag yourself away from the ocean, head inland a short distance and you can also walk through hills and canyons, filled with spring wildflowers and even waterfalls, on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For a cool guided experience, take one of the two-hour Malibu Wine Hikes on the rolling terrain of Saddlerock Ranch vineyard; walks include stops to see Chumash cave drawings, a meet-and-greet with a film-star giraffe (he was inHangover 3) and, of course, a wine tasting.

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Golden State of Mind: Pioneer of Fashion - Jennifer Meyer
See how designer Jennifer Meyer uses her California surroundings as inspiration for her whimsical line of fine jewellery.
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Venice by Jen Judge

Venice Beach

Venice Beach
Edgy, artsy, and sometimes odd—welcome to L.A.’s out-there beach town

Abutting Santa Monica’s south side (and back in L.A. proper) is Venice Beach—simply Venice to locals. This region, a blend of hip new condos and funky beach cottages, is famous for the quirky goings-on along its iconic beachfront boardwalk, where street entertainers and vendors create an unforgettable scene of local characters and goings-on. Watch it all stream by from the loud and lively waterfront skate park, or sit near the daily drum circle on the beach (you can even grab a can and a stick—or anything that makes noise—and join in).

For edgy boutiques focusing on furnishings and fashions, explore boho-chic Abbot-Kinney Boulevard, one of L.A.’s best shopping districts. Food trucks often pull up here, and there are plenty of places to grab a bite or a treat (consider N’ice Cream for decadent salted caramel gelato). Stop by Strange to blend your own perfume, buy a comfy-soft top at All Things Fabulous, or browse artsy jewellery at Altered Space Gallery.

A Surfer Heads for the Water at Huntington Beach, California
Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach
Catch a wave in Surf City, USA

The endless summer lives on in Huntington Beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf.

Go to the International Surfing Museum, and you’ll see up close how this Orange County town, with 16 kilometres of beaches and consistent swells, got its nickname of Surf City, USA (don’t miss the World’s Largest Surfboard on display). Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both surfed here in the early part of the 20th century, and the U.S Surfing Championship—now summer’s Vans U.S. Open of Surfing—was first held here in the late 1950s.

Surfing is so big here, even the dogs are into hanging ten! The annual Surf City Surf Dog event at Huntington Dog Beach features a multi-heat dog surfing competition. Dog owners and their pooches hail from as far as Florida, Australia and Brazil! Surf dog competitors have twelve minutes to catch their top five waves and be judged by local celebrities and surf judges on confidence level, length of ride and overall ability to ride the wave. 

If you'd rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.

Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Beach Pier.

From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s surf shops and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, is where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view.

You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach's luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (known for its kid-magnet pool playground), Waterfront Beach Resort, and Paséa Hotel & Spa, opened in 2016. Check out Paséa’s Treehouse Bar for a rooftop cocktail at sunset. Or discover the more natural parts of town by trying horseback riding in the 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or by hiking and bird-watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.

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La Jolla

La Jolla

La Jolla
Find something for everyone in this multi-faceted seaside jewel

Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: You could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.

For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkeling, and made-for-sunset firepits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak or San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colourful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs. 

The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colourful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.

Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San DiegoWarwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the longtime La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss. (Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).

Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, in La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines.

Or, go see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse, located on the University of California San Diego campus. Co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the theater has been the birthplace of a long list of crowd-pleasing and Tony Award-winning hits, from The Who’s Tommy and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Come for one of its Page-to-Stage performances to watch (and offer feedback on) works still in progress. You can even bundle in a dinner of fresh seafood or a Kobe burger at the theater’s on-site James’ Place, helmed by acclaimed sushi chef James Holder.

Another great option: Hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.

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Dave Lauridsen

Coronado

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Coronado
Explore the Del and get a dose of small-town charm

Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific.

The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.

Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.

A Surfer Heads for the Water at Huntington Beach, California
Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach
Catch a wave in Surf City, USA

The endless summer lives on in Huntington Beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf.

Go to the International Surfing Museum, and you’ll see up close how this Orange County town, with 16 kilometres of beaches and consistent swells, got its nickname of Surf City, USA (don’t miss the World’s Largest Surfboard on display). Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both surfed here in the early part of the 20th century, and the U.S Surfing Championship—now summer’s Vans U.S. Open of Surfing—was first held here in the late 1950s.

Surfing is so big here, even the dogs are into hanging ten! The annual Surf City Surf Dog event at Huntington Dog Beach features a multi-heat dog surfing competition. Dog owners and their pooches hail from as far as Florida, Australia and Brazil! Surf dog competitors have twelve minutes to catch their top five waves and be judged by local celebrities and surf judges on confidence level, length of ride and overall ability to ride the wave. 

If you'd rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.

Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Beach Pier.

From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s surf shops and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, is where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view.

You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach's luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (known for its kid-magnet pool playground), Waterfront Beach Resort, and Paséa Hotel & Spa, opened in 2016. Check out Paséa’s Treehouse Bar for a rooftop cocktail at sunset. Or discover the more natural parts of town by trying horseback riding in the 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or by hiking and bird-watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.