30 iconic beach experiences

Ignite your love for the shore with these classic beach icons. From boardwalks to bonfires, here are our favorite ways to dive in

Mastering the sandcastle

Thomas J. Story

Mastering the sandcastle

The king of the castle—Todd Vander Pluym, winner of nearly 200 sand-sculpting competitions—shares his trade secrets.

Test the sand. Squeeze wet sand and roll it back and forth in your hand. If it stays together, it’s good sand. If it falls apart, “you’re in the wrong spot—or on the wrong beach,” says Vander Pluym.

Build a base. Make a circular wall out of dry sand, 6 inches high and 3 feet wide. Add 2 inches of water to circle, then 2 inches of sand. Tamp until water drains. Add dry sand to wall and repeat layering, angling inward to form 18-inch mound.

Construct towers. Place a bucket, with the bottom cut out, handle side down on the mound. Alternate layers of sand and water in the bucket, 2 inches at a time, tamping as you go, finishing with water.

Perform lift-off. Have one person tap the bucket to release sand right before another one lifts it straight up. Repeat process for more towers, and remove loose sand from around the mound.

Add details. Use an offset spatula to square off towers and make stairs; a funnel for roofs; a melon baller for corbels; and a disposable knife for arrow slits—“a neat little detail that makes a castle look like a castle.”

Vander Pluym’s Redondo Beach–based company, Sand Sculptors International, offers lessons and a how-to DVD, Sandcastles for Everyone; sandsculptors.com

Finding your inner surfer

Thomas J. Story

Finding your inner surfer

Surf Academy instructor and co-owner Marion Clark offers a pep talk for beginners.

What should someone know before surfing for the first time? “Surfing is about riding a wave, whether you’re on your stomach or your knees or your feet. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. You could be one of the best athletes on the planet and a wave will still get you.”

Do you need to rent special gear? “A class will provide you with everything. Beginners usually go on foam boards—basically a bumper car for surfers. It’s wider and if you wipe out, it won’t hurt much if it hits you.”

What’s the best time of year for taking lessons? “California waves are mellow in the summer. Wave size and currents can be scary for beginners in December, January, and February.”

How old are most of your students? “We start kids at age 5. And I love the students who call and say, ‘I’m turning 60 and today is the day I want to ride a wave.’ Older students seem to internalize the philosophical side of surfing in a way that younger ones don’t—it’s about finding a rhythm with the sea, not necessarily ‘popping up.’ “

Surf Academy offers lessons in Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Santa Monica; from $85/1 1⁄4 hours; surfacademy.com

The mai tai

Thomas J. Story

The mai tai

6 best spots for the classic beach cocktail:

Old-school tiki. At Huntington Beach's Don the Beachcomber (pictured)—complete with palm trees, torches, and a high-pitched thatched roof—the mai tais come from a 1933 recipe. donthebeachcomber.com

Quintessential Waikiki. The orchid-garnished mai tai at House Without a Key, Halekulani Resort, Oahu. halekulani.com/dining

Nautical in the city. The all-natural Homemade Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco. smugglerscovesf.com

Ground-zero Mai Tai. The original, in guava, pineapple, or mango at Trader Vic’s, Emeryville, California. tradervicsemeryville.com

Surf style at the harbor. The Marina Mai Tai at the Endless Summer bar, Santa Barbara. chuckswaterfrontgrill.com

Open-air in SoCal. Beachfront Mai Tai with a pineapple garnish at Duke’s, Malibu. dukesmalibu.com

Soaking it all up

Thomas J. Story

Soaking it all up

SoCal beach regulars pick the best gear for a place in the sun.

Pop-up shade. “This tent-umbrella combo gives you a big spot to duck under; it’s perfect for families.” —Kyle Daniels, L.A. County lifeguard captain. Sport-Brella: $60; sportbrella.com

Haul-it-all cart. “A cart or wagon with huge tires helps you get through the sand. The guys who really know what they are doing can get a boogie board and a cooler on one.” —David LeFevre, chef-owner, Manhattan Beach Post. Beach Cart Folding—Mini: $140; wheeleez.com

Portable speaker. “A lightweight music player is key. It should be loud enough that you can hear it, but not louder than the waves.” —Lizzie Garrett Mettler, culture blogger, Tomboy Style. UE Boom wireless speaker: $200; ultimateears.com

Duffel bag. “I can fit everything I need—towel, sunscreen, books—into this roomy tote. Plus, the pop of color pretty much screams summer.” —Joy Cho, design blogger, Oh Joy. Albright duffel: $90; www.fleetobjects.com

Backpack chair. “Once you have one of these, you wonder how you ever lugged other beach chairs around.” —David LeFevre. Wearever Backpack Chair: $30; shadeusa.com

Turkish towel. “If it gets cool at the end of the day, I can use it as a sarong. Always good to have an extra layer.” —Kalani Miller, designer-owner, Mikoh Swimwear. Seersucker Striped Towel (on arm of chair): $49; lekkerhome.com. Tunisian towels (in back): $72 each; lostandfoundshop.com.

The boardwalk

Kevin Berne

The boardwalk

Choose your own adventure at our 4 favorite coastal playgrounds.

Most throwback charm. From the tip-top of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, you can hear the rickety rumbles of the 1920s wooden Giant Dipper and see the sand below quilted with bright beach towels. The hand-carved carousel is over 100 years old. beachboardwalk.com  

The mother of them all. Hail the grande dame of piers: Santa Monica (pictured). This SoCal icon stretches 1,600 feet into the Pacific and has the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel, trapeze lessons, bumper cars, funnel cakes, and a Twilight Dance Series (free; Sep). santamonicapier.org  

Best for nature-philes. Seaside’s 1920s promenade—“the Prom”—extends 11/2 miles north-south, so you get to see a lot of northern Oregon coast. Bike it, skate it, stroll it, or just gaze at gorgeously green Tillamook Head and sea grass blowing in the white sand. seasideor.com

A seafood-lover’s pier. There’s something nautically old-fashioned about Avila Beach, California’s Harford Pier. And we love Pete’s Pierside Cafe, the sea-directly-to-your-taco-shell operation. Best ever. avilabeachpier.com

Elevated picnic

Thomas J. Story

Elevated picnic

The light, seasonal food from Bread & Water—a Venice Beach catering company run by sisters Meave and Faye McAuliffe—inspired this feast.

Recipes:

  • Cucumber Mint Spritzer. “This is the kind of cool drink you want when you’re out in the sun,” says Meave. Make the cucumber mixture ahead of time and top it off with ice and club soda (or even Champagne).
  • Zaatar Yogurt Dip and Vegetables. We translated the flavors of one of Bread & Water’s popular salads into a no-utensils-required dish. A Middle Eastern spice blend, “zaatar has a slight citrus note that goes well with vegetables,” says Meave.
  • Charmoula Grilled Chicken Sandwiches. The chicken gets a flavor boost from charmoula, a versatile marinade. “I make extra to use as a dip,” says Meave.

The beach cottage

Loren Mooney

The beach cottage

Retro cabins. Near Newport, Oregon, Alpine Chalets’ 9 old-school A-frames (each with 2 bedrooms) line a bluff near Beverly Beach—a 5-mile stretch just right for strolling, surfing, and romp­ing with the dog. From $135 (pets $10/night); 2-night min.; oregonalpinechalets.com

5-star camping. The 7 new pine cabins (pictured) at popular Jalama Beach near Santa Barbara have ocean views that would cost 3 times more at a resort. They sleep 4 to 6, with kitchens and baths. Walk 15 minutes either way and the beach is all yours. From $100, plus $20 reservation fee; 2-night min.; countyofsb.org/parks

New England style. Cozy 2-unit Fitzgerald’s Cottages in Gearhart, Oregon, have kitchens, cruiser bikes, clamming tools, a firepit, and an uncrowded beach 5 minutes away. Unit #14 sleeps 6, and #15 is a studio with a kitchenette. From $140; 2-night min.; fitzgeraldscottages.com

Cliff-hangers. Nine weathered cabins cling to the edge of the world at Steep Ravine Campground in the Bay Area’s Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Each sleeps 5, with platforms for sleeping bags, picnic tables, woodstoves, and Bolinas Bay views. $100, plus $8 reservation fee; reserveamerica.com

The bonfire

Kevin J. MiyazakI

The bonfire

Stick around after sunset—here’s where to light a fire on the sand.

Most artistic firepits. Eight fanciful fire rings dot the quarter-mile of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach where bonfires are still legal. First come, first served; nps.gov/goga   

Best views of tall rocks. Build your pit on northern Oregon’s Cannon Beach (pictured) and your backdrop is Haystack Rock, a 235-foot basalt sea stack. cannonbeach.org 

200+ fire rings to choose from. Chances are good you’ll score a fireside spot at Bolsa Chica State Beach, halfway between L.A. and San Diego. Bonus: Numbered lifeguard stations make for good GPS, so friends can locate you. First come, first served; parks.ca.gov

The lifeguard

J.P. Greenwood

The lifeguard

You might call it a day at the beach, but Alex Messina calls it a day at the office: Lathered up in SPF 35, he patrols SoCal’s Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beaches, where a busy year can have 9,000 rescues. Biggest mistake he sees? People swim out too far, or end up in rip currents—river-like channels rushing back out to sea. Brown choppy water with whitecaps is a telltale sign, so if you think you’re in one, he says, “swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of it before attempting to swim back.” As for Jaws: “I’ve been a lifeguard for 10 years and never seen a shark, but I’ve been stung by stingrays twice.” How to avoid them? Shuffle your feet while wading. When he’s not in the water, Alex uses the beach as his gym to stay in shape: “Running in the sand is a great leg strengthener.”

Top-down drives

Thomas J. Story

Top-down drives

Our 4 favorites:

Santa Barbara to San Simeon, CA. Carmel and Big Sur get all the ink, but this stretch of rugged coast on Highway 1 (pictured) is every bit as epic. Stop for the Lawrence of Arabia–size dunes at Montaña de Oro State Park.

Florence to Lincoln City, OR. This 74-mile stretch of U.S. 101 on the central Oregon coast weaves among rocky cliffs, empty beaches, and dense woods. Pull over at Cape Perpetua for miles of views.

Southeast Oahu. Turquoise surf and black lava await on the drive from Koko Head to Kailua via Kalaniana‘ole Highway. Stop at Waima-nalo Beach County Park for a swim.

Redwood Coast, CA. Between redwood forests and crashing waves, the 110-mile stretch of U.S. 101 is Redwood Coast territory. Orick to Trinidad is the most scenic, with must-stops at Patricks Point State Park and Seascape Restaurant for old-school seafood. 

Seafood with a view

Chris Leschinsky

Seafood with a view

The freshest catch is even better on the water.

Olympic Peninsula seascape. Washington’s knockout Sequim Bay scenery is secondary at Dockside Grill on Sequim Bay  once your cedar-planked salmon topped with Dungeness crab (often straight from the bay next door) and citrus beurre blanc arrives. $$$; 2577 W. Sequim Bay Rd.; 360/683-7510.

Fireside ceviche. Gaze at the ocean, sip sangria, and sail through the greatest hits of Peruvian cooking at La Costanera in Montara, California. Try the tender, tangy ceviche and quinoa-crusted prawns on the patio by the flickering firepits. $$$; 8150 Cabrillo Hwy.; 650/728-1600.

Fresh from the boat. At Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant (pictured) in Morro Bay, California, most of the seafood comes from the owner’s own boat and makes its way into super-fresh fish tacos, fried fish, and chowder. Bonus: barbecued oysters, a Morro Rock view, and live music. $; 1235 & 1245 Embarcadero; 805/772-8100.

Seafood in the city. Chef Robert Clark does thrilling things with sustainable seafood at C Restaurant in Vancouver, like B.C. albacore with short-rib ragout and sablefish with lobster gnocchi. Huge windows overlook False Creek. $$$$ U.S.; 2-1600 Howe St.; 604/681-1164.

Former shack turned glam. The patio at Gladstones in Pacific Palisades, California, is the spot for a seafood tower overflowing with oysters, scallops, and jumbo shrimp. Throw in tempura-fried macadamia rock shrimp for the ultimate seaside spread. $$$; 17300 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310/454-3474.

The beach walk

José Mandojana

The beach walk

A good beach walk is a course in mindfulness, like this trek along Washington’s Dungeness Spit, the longest sand spit in the U.S. and one of the longest in the world. Near its end is New Dungeness Light Station—an attainable goal you admire before you turn around and walk the 5.5 miles back to your normal life, renewed. $3/group of 4; fws.gov/washingtonmaritime

A rainbow of sand

Christopher Morrison

A rainbow of sand

Here in the West, sand comes in every color …

Green. Green Sand Beach, aka Papakolea Beach, Big Island, HI. One of just two this shade in the U.S. gohawaii.com/big-island

Rainbow. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, CA. Waves have polished the glass at this former dump into a sea of colored pebbles. visitmendocino.com

Black. Black Sands Beach, Shelter Cove, CA. Dark as night, on the longest undeveloped stretch in the lower 48. redwoods.info

Pink. Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, WA. Pink tiger streaks at low tide—like the northern lights of sand. nps.gov/olym

Rooftop drinks

Thomas J. Story

Rooftop drinks

The views of Venice Beach—and Malibu, L.A., and Catalina—from Hotel Erwin Lounge go on and on. Regulars know to reserve a booth in advance. hotelerwin.com

The wave

Frans Lanting / Corbis

The wave

The baddest waves in the world? Get to know Mavericks.

What Mavericks is: The most perfect (and feared) surf break on Earth, and the namesake of the famous surf competition

Where it hits: Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco in Northern California

Where its waves originate: Near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, 3,000+ miles away

Why it’s so terrifying: Shallow reefs and jagged rocks, sharks, absurdly strong currents, and cold, cold water

How cold? 48°–55°

Height of the vertical wave face: More than 40 feet on average—that’s 4 stories

Competition season: November–March, but not every year—if nature cooperates and a big-wave system is approaching, top surfers get 24 hours of notice to show up and hit the water

Worth the risk? Surf like a champ and you’ll be $150,000 richer. maverickssurf.com

Beachside biking

John Clark

Beachside biking

4 can’t-miss coastal bike paths:

For the naturalist. Beach Loop Road in Southern Oregon’s Bandon has 5 miles of beaches, haystacks, nesting puffins, and cranberry bogs. Rent wheels from the Best Western Inn at Face Rock. Rentals $5/hour; innatfacerock.com

For off-the-beaten-trackers. An old logging road turned easy bike path, “Ten-Mile” Haul Road in Fort Bragg traces 4.3 miles of untouched California shoreline. Rentals from $32/day; fortbraggcyclery.com

For people-watching. The 22-mile Strand runs from Will Rogers State Beach to Torrance Beach and attracts L.A.’s tanned and toned. Jump on in Manhattan Beach, where you can rent a bike at Funbunns. Rentals $21/day; 310/372-8500.

For history buffs. The Long Beach Peninsula’s 8.2-mile Discovery Trail (pictured) in southern Washington skirts Cape Disappointment and gives a Lewis and Clark 101 on the way. Rentals from $15/day in Seaview; skookumsurf.com

The island inn

Barry Hill

The island inn

3 seaside escapes that put us in the mood for romance:

The 1920s mansion. For grand panoramas of Catalina Island’s Avalon harbor, stay where William Wrigley, the chewing-gum magnate, chose to live—the Inn on Mt. Ada (top right). The 6 rooms in this 1920s-era mansion all have jaw-dropping views. Prices, no surprise, are steep, but they include breakfast, lunch, beer and wine, pick-up and drop-off at the dock, and the use of a golf cart to zip into town. September has the advantage of summer sun without its crowds. From $415; 2-night min.; innonmtada.com

A front-row seat to whales. It’s all about the water at Rosario Resort, a 1905 estate turned restful retreat on the San Juans’ Orcas Island. The 22 rooms—including 6 suites—have private balconies, and almost all overlook placid Cascade Bay. It’s easy enough to stare at the water from your room, or you can head down to the beach for a picnic, read on the new beachside deck, or nap in an Adirondack chair to the sound of gently rocking boats. From $129; 2-night min.; rosarioresort.com

Paradise in the tropics. Surrounded by swaying palms, lush mountains, and verdant valley views, it’s not hard to fall into the Zen of the islands at the Palmwood Inn (pictured). At this 3-room gem on Kauai’s North Shore, the West Room is our fave. While it’s small, you can’t beat the private deck and garden with hillside vistas and an outdoor lava-rock shower and pond with fish and blooming orchids. The crescent-shaped Moloa‘a Bay is a short walk away, where a crowd-free white-sand beach awaits. From $295; 3-night min.; thepalmwood.com  

Lighthouses

Harvey Humchitt

Lighthouses

Lighthouse keepers aren’t easy to track down these days with machines taking over, but Harvey Humchitt is keeping the light on for us on B.C.’s Vancouver Island at Cape Scott Lighthouse. It’s remote—the only way there is a 10-hour hike along the Cape Scott Trail, or by aircraft or boat—but Harvey keeps busy doing weather reports every 3 hours for the Coast Guard, surfing the Web (it’s how he orders groceries), and exploring Guise, Experiment, and Nels beaches, all off the Cape Scott Trail. What has he learned about the sea? “Respect. One minute it’s calm, the next a raging torrent.” Best storm watching? “October, November, and sometimes February—we get hurricane-force winds.” env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks

Sea kayaking

Steve MacAulay

Sea kayaking

No phones. No Wi-Fi. Consider these epic trips your QT with the ocean.

Island hop. Explore the San Juans, a 500-island archipelago north of Seattle, by island hopping the little guys on an Outdoor Odysseys tour (pictured) with pit stops for beaching and lunch. Trip routes vary, but uninhabited Jones Island is state park as private kingdom. From $95; trips depart from San Juan Island; outdoorodysseys.com  

Scope out a sea cave. Two-hour trips with San Diego’s OEX Dive & Kayak will take you inside the Clam—a La Jolla cave you can enter (at high tide, you can go all the way through). See if you can spot any leopard shark silhouettes below. From $50; oeexpress.com  

Paddle through wine country. Glide along the famed Russian River where it meets the ocean at Jenner, California. On this lesser-visited sliver of the Sonoma Coast, the biggest crowd might very well be a gaggle of harbor seals right near the mouth. Rent kayaks from Lotus. $20/day; 707/865-9604. 

Family beach day

João Canziani / Getty

Family beach day

“Tucked up against the bluffs, El Matador is great for kids.” —Gabrielle Reece, author of My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper

Malibu-ites know to skip the Zuma tourist zoo and come to El Matador. Officially one of three beaches that make up Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach—likely to provoke a “Huh?” even from locals—it’s a gem tucked from sight at the foot of sandstone cliffs (and accessed by a dirt trail and stairway).

10 miles up the coast from Malibu on Pacific Coast Hwy. between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads; $8 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov

 

 

The "everyone's welcome" surf shop

J.P. Greenwood / Getty Images

The "everyone's welcome" surf shop

The veteran surfers behind the counter at The Frog House—a fixture in Newport Beach for more than 50 years—help beginners and experienced shredders with gear and tips on local surf breaks. Rentals from $3/hour; froghouse.com

R&R at an oceanfront resort

Thomas J. Story

R&R at an oceanfront resort

Modern pool cabanas bring a touch of the tropics to Long Beach at the affordable ocean­front Hotel Maya. Rooms from $164; cabanas from $25/hour; hotelmayalongbeach.com

 

 

Bodyboarding

Michael Melford

Bodyboarding 

Sunset editor-at-large Peter Fish praises the sport that "gave me back my dignity."

Growing up in a surf town, my inability to stand upright on a surfboard for more than 5 seconds was a mark of shame: a D for Dork tattooed on my forehead. No more. With a bodyboard, I rule the waves.

Just as often termed the Boogie board, the bodyboard could be likened to a sawed-off surfboard. But that description doesn’t do justice to its essence, which is: It is not scary. The surfboard says, “I represent the ancient sport of Hawaiian kings and I will probably not let you stand up on me.” The bodyboard laughs, “Let’s have some fun.”

If you go to a bodyboard shop, like the one I went to one summer day to learn, you’ll hear other reasons it rules over surfing. “Bodyboards can catch waves that are too fast for surfboards,” notes Justin Faulconer, who runs Falcon’s Bodyboard Shop in Encinitas, California. At his shop, you can salivate over rows of neon-bright boards and dream of doing stunts experts do: 360° turns, ARS (that’s a combined “air,” “roll,” and “spin”).

But that’s for later. Right now, you carry your board to the beach. You ease it past the breakers and slide your torso onto its smooth, shiny deck. You point toward shore. A wave rises beneath you, you kick, and wave and board lift you up then shoot you back down in an avalanche of foaming surf, faster than you’ve ever gone in your life, happier than you’ve ever been, while on the beach crowds applaud your graduation from dorkdom. Or so you imagine.

A briny bite

Thomas J. Story

A briny bite

The oyster cart at The Strand House’s bar in Manhattan Beach stars Western bivalves like Fanny Bays from B.C. and Kumamotos from Humboldt Bay, California. $$$$; thestrandhousemb.com

 

 

Volleying with the pros

Thomas J. Story

Volleying with the pros

“Manhattan Beach is hands-down my favorite beach to play on,” says Kerri Walsh Jennings, beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist. “The sand is nice and deep, and the setting is beautiful.” Find her and other professional players in action at the courts near Fourth Street early in the morning. (Many people set up chairs to watch.) There’s space up for grabs for beginners too, says local volleyball coach Cindy Grebliunas; public courts have nets emblazoned with “Department of Beaches and Harbor.” Grebliunas offers 1 1⁄2-hour private classes ($50/2 people; KCBVolleyball@hotmail.com).

 

A beachfront bargain

Thomas J. Story

A beachfront bargain

Many rooms at the Pacific Edge Hotel look onto the prettiest stretch of beach in Laguna; surf art and turquoise walls give the hotel a distinctly SoCal flavor. From $249; pacificedgehotel.com

 

 

Zero-plastic beach day

Thomas J. Story

Zero-plastic beach day

Anna Cummins, environmentalist and cofounder of L.A.’s The 5 Gyres Institute, gives her green gear picks.

Sunscreen. “I just found a plastic-free sunscreen! It’s packaged in a cardboard tube—and is organic too.” Surfer’s Barrier Stick (SPF 30): $15; avasol.com

Sandwich bags. “I encourage people to ditch the Ziploc and go with reusable cotton bags.” LunchSkins: 3 sizes; from $7.85 each; lunchskins.com

Toys. “I love these marine-degradable bioplastic ones—if they accidentally get washed out to sea, they’ll break down in two to three years.” Beach toys: 2 color combos; $22/5-piece set; zoeborganic.com

Bottle. “Bring drinks in reusable stainless steel bottles.” Reflect Kanteen (with bamboo lid), $33/27 oz.; kleankanteen.com

Indulging in an icy treat

Thomas J. Story

Indulging in an icy treat

For generations it was the Date Shack. Then it became Crystal Cove Ruby’s Shake Shack. But the Newport Coast institution Ruby’s Shake Shack is as good as ever, with 20-plus shakes and malts. 7703 E. Coast Hwy.; rubys.com

Underwater beauty

Andrea M. Gómez

Underwater beauty

Instead of aimless snorkeling, get smart as you swim. Reef expert and dive master Suzzy Robinson works with small groups (of six or fewer) for Maui Snorkel Tours; she picks that day's best shoreline site and then provides plenty of unhurried instruction. Robinson is great with insecure or rookie snorkelers. And she knows absolutely everything about every fish you'll mee--tsuch as the cleaner wrasse, which serves as a personal groomer to other fish, sort of like a piscine day spa. $95 for half-day; www.mauisnorkeltours.com

More: Insider's guide to Maui

Escaping the crowds

John Clark

Escaping the crowds

The real coast lies in quintessential beach towns like Bandon, OR and Cambria, CA, to name a couple of the West's hidden gems. Plot your escape to one of our favorite seaside sanctuaries.

More: Top 14 unsung beach towns

 

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