Catch a wave in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California

More about whales than Wales, it's a beach town for surfers and nature lovers
Matthew Jaffe

It's named for the capital of Wales, but Cardiff-by-the-Sea is pure California in spirit. In fact, this easily overlooked Encinitas community is all about the beach.

A long stretch of sand, including prime surf spots and dramatic coastal bluffs, fronts Cardiff. To the south is San Elijo Lagoon, a wetland area where serpentine channels wind through some of San Diego County's best wildlife habitat, especially during the autumn bird migration.

Whether you come to catch the surf scene or to retreat into nature along the lagoon's trails, Cardiff is a perfect place to visit as the area's lingering summer finally begins to surrender to fall.

GETTING THERE

Cardiff is about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego. From I-5, exit at Birmingham Dr. and go west.

EAT

Ki's Healthy and flavorful dishes with an ocean view. INFO: $$; 2591 S. Coast Hwy. 101; 760/436-5236.

Las Olas Fish tacos are a favorite at this festive beach mainstay. INFO: $; 2655 S. Coast Hwy. 101; 760/942-1860.

Pipes Cafe Fuel up with a breakfast burrito at a local surfers' hangout. INFO: $; 121 Liverpool Dr.; 760/632-0056.

VG Donut & Bakery When you're in the mood for a real breakfast of champions, come here for the chocolate old-fashioneds. INFO: 106 Aberdeen Dr.; 760/753-2400.

DO

San Elijo State Beach Great walking beach at low tide. It's home to a blufftop campground and Pipes, one of the county's best surf breaks. INFO: $8 parking, from $25 camping; north of Chesterfield Dr. along S. Coast Hwy. 101; 760/753-5091.

San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve Boardwalks on the north side take you along the estuary, while the south side has a more extensive trail system. Free guided walks are offered the second Saturday of every month. INFO: Nature center at 2710 Manchester Ave.; 760/436-3944.

SHOP

Patagonia Cardiff The company's first surf-specific shop is in one of Cardiff's oldest buildings. INFO: 2185 San Elijo Ave.; 760/634-9886.

A NEARBY ATTRACTION

Just north of Cardiff, lotus-shaped domes and towering palm trees mark the site of one of San Diego County's most distinctive sanctuaries: the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat Hermitage and Meditation Gardens (closed Mon; free; 215 K St., Encinitas; 760/753-2888).

Here you can escape into gorgeous blufftop gardens laced with a waterfall and a koi pond. An overlook offers a commanding coastal view, and beneath the gardens is Swami's, the legendary surf site. If Eden had a sweet point break, it might look something like this.