Southern California

Body surf, sun with the soccer moms, from Avila Beach to San Diego
David Lansing

• Average July sunny or partly cloudy days, San Diego: 25.9

• Average July water temperature, Santa Barbara: 63°F

• Peak wave at Newport Beach's Wedge, July 1996: 20+ feet

Let other beaches brood as solemn as Heathcliff. Southern California beaches are the most extroverted coasts on earth. From the body-bruising surf at Newport Beach to La Jolla's decorous coves, these are beaches made for a towel, high-octane sunscreen, and repeated plunges in the Pacific.

BEST BEACH EATS
Olde Port Inn, Avila Beach

When this San Luis Obispo County restaurant says fresh halibut, it means fresh. Olde Port Inn, at the end of Port San Luis Pier, sits next door to a wholesale fish market. And the cioppino is the best south of San Francisco.

Port San Luis Pier. (805) 595-2515.

LEAST CROWDED BEACH
Jalama Beach

Yeah, it's a long drive on a winding road. But this Santa Barbara County beach is great for surfing, surf-fishing, and swimming (though water temperatures rise only to the upper 60s, and there are rip-currents but no lifeguards), and blissfully uncrowded. All this, and burgers at the Jalama Beach Store and Grill.

20 miles southwest of Lompoc via State 1 and Jalama Rd. (805) 736-6316; www.santabarbaraparks.org.

BEST BEACH CAMPSITE
El Capitan State Beach

Under the train trestle, through an oak woodland, and there you are--El Capitan State Beach. Cool, shady, and right on the beach, site 75 is so quiet that all you hear is the ocean roar. A bike path leads to an oak and sycamore glade; the wide beach spills onto a blue nirvana with an unusually gentle surf.

15 miles west of Santa Barbara off U.S. 101; take the El Capitan State Beach exit. $12 Sun-Thu, $18 Fri-Sat. (805) 968-1033; www.cal-parks.ca.gov. Camping reservations: (800) 444-7275.

BEST CIRQUE DE LA PLAGE
Venice

Rastafarians on skates, truant teens sunning in jeans, and Pamela Anderson Lee clones everywhere - most out-of-towners could spend two hours at Venice City Beach and truly say they'd "seen" L.A. Strap on some skates and join the show: this is Cirque du Soleil without the big top.

Ocean Front Walk, Venice.

BEST KIDS' BEACH
Marina del Rey

Officially tagged the Marina del Rey Public Swimming Beach, this quiet cove is known as Mother's Beach to the soccer moms who find it a safe haven for their preschoolers. No waves; just sheltered picnic tables, outdoor showers, and diligent lifeguards.

End of Basin D, Panay Way, Marina del Rey. (310) 305-9545.

BEST TIDEPOOLS & GRUNION RUNS
Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro

The crabs scoot, the anemones wave. And hit Cabrillo Beach on the second, third, or fourth night after peak tide through August and you can scamper after grunion, those bizarre little silvery fish that spawn along the sand from Morro Bay to Mexico. The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium sponsors a Grunion Run program, but they'd prefer that you leave your bucket home and just enjoy Mother Nature's show.

Cabrillo Beach, 40th St. and Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, 3720 Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro; (310) 548-7562; www.cabrilloaq.org.

BEST BODYSURFING BEACH
Newport Beach

Newport Beach's Wedge is a haven to wave-loving purists. No boards allowed. Just expert bodysurfers and a killer break ricocheting off the harbor breakwater, pinging the waves back with explosive force. Our advice: applaud from shore.

At the end of Balboa Blvd., after it turns into Channel Rd., adjacent to West Jetty View Park, Newport Beach.

BEST SNORKELING BEACH
La Jolla Cove

A sheltered cove, typically free from breakers, provides the perfect habitat for spiny lobsters and orange garibaldis in this refuge on the edge of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. Explore but take nothing home; all marine and plant life is protected.

Off Coast Blvd., just east of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, La Jolla.

BEST WATER BEDS
Crystal Pier Hotel, Pacific Beach, San Diego

A little funky but lively, the Crystal Pier Hotel is the only place in California we know of where you can sleep over the ocean sans a boat. The hotel's mascot, Sinjin, a mellow blond lab, will escort you to one of the 25 blue-trimmed white cottages, all with picket-fenced decks leaning over the Pacific. Why this hasn't been a setting for a Generation X movie starring Keanu Reeves, we'll never know.

4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego. $170-$350, three-day minimum in summer. (800) 748-5894; www.crystalpier.com.

BEST BEACH READING
California Coastal Access Guide

The newest, fifth edition of this incomparable guide will steer you to 850 accessible stretches of California coastline.

University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997; $19.95 paperback.