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. SouthernCalifornia beaches are the most extroverted coasts on earth. Fromthe body-bruising surf at Newport Beach to La Jolla's decorouscoves, 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 thebest 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 SantaBarbara County beach is great for surfing, surf-fishing, andswimming (though water temperatures rise only to the upper 60s, andthere are rip-currents but no lifeguards), and blissfullyuncrowded. All this, and burgers at the Jalama Beach Store andGrill.

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 youare--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 bikepath leads to an oak and sycamore glade; the wide beach spills ontoa blue nirvana with an unusually gentle surf.

15 miles west of Santa Barbara off U.S. 101; take the El CapitanState 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, andPamela Anderson Lee clones everywhere - most out-of-towners couldspend 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 duSoleil without the big top.

Ocean Front Walk, Venice.

BEST KIDS' BEACH
Marina del Rey

Officially tagged the Marina del Rey Public Swimming Beach, thisquiet cove is known as Mother's Beach to the soccer moms who findit a safe haven for their preschoolers. No waves; just shelteredpicnic 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 onthe second, third, or fourth night after peak tide through Augustand you can scamper after grunion, those bizarre little silveryfish that spawn along the sand from Morro Bay to Mexico. TheCabrillo Marine Aquarium sponsors a Grunion Run program, but they'dprefer that you leave your bucket home and just enjoy MotherNature'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. Noboards allowed. Just expert bodysurfers and a killer breakricocheting off the harbor breakwater, pinging the waves back withexplosive 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 theperfect habitat for spiny lobsters and orange garibaldis in thisrefuge on the edge of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.Explore but take nothing home; all marine and plant life isprotected.

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

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

A little funky but lively, the Crystal Pier Hotel is the onlyplace in California we know of where you can sleep over the oceansans a boat. The hotel's mascot, Sinjin, a mellow blond lab, willescort you to one of the 25 blue-trimmed white cottages, all withpicket-fenced decks leaning over the Pacific. Why this hasn't beena setting for a Generation X movie starring Keanu Reeves, we'llnever know.

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

BEST BEACH READING
California Coastal Access Guide

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

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

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