Lost in time at Sunset Beach

Orange County's bohemian beach town is anything but trendy
David Lansing
Sunset Beach travel planner


There isn't anything spit-and-polished about Sunset Beach. Not the tattoo parlors nor the rusted old beaters, loaded down with quivers of surfboards and parked in front of sun-bleached bungalows with pirate flags. And not the broken chairs turned into flowerpots that function as public art.

A mile-long strip of unincorporated waterfront, Sunset Beach has no churches, no schools, and no police department (service is provided by the Orange County sheriff's office). Due to something else it's lacking ― parking spaces ― it does have beaches that are uncrowded by Orange County standards.

Like a dog sleeping in the middle of a busy road, Sunset Beach seems oblivious to the hustle and bustle that has transformed its neighbors, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, into booming tourist towns. Locals patronize old-timey joints like Captain Jack's, which regularly garners praise from Zagat for its "archetypal menu of old-school fare." Diners crowd in at Harpoon Harry's, where the Statue of Liberty watches over the traffic streaming along the coast highway from her perch above the restaurant's entrance.

Just a block from downtown on the beach, a turreted Sleeping Beauty residence stands as a prime example of Sunset's kitschy individuality. Steve Kent, who moved here from Balboa four years ago and now owns a kite shop catercorner to Harpoon Harry's, says: "It's a lot more relaxed. You can kind of do your own thing here." In his case, doing your own thing means keeping limited hours to allow time for surfing, swimming, and kayaking, all of which are great around here.

Kent points out two kayak shops down the street where visitors can rent sit-on-tops for exploring the islands and inlets of surrounding Huntington Harbour, then adds: "Most people passing through Sunset Beach are in a hurry to get to or from someplace else. But if you're not in a rush, it's a fun place to spend the day."