Get Your Feet Wet

"If everybody had an ocean

Across the USA

Then everybody’d be surfing

Like Californi-a."

— The Beach Boys

Although Nevada satisfies most of my outdoor yearnings, there are a couple of things you just can’t do without an ocean. Last time the sea summoned, I headed to Oceanside, Calif.

Located in northern San Diego County, Oceanside is a classic Southern California beach town, offering the quintessential beach experience. In three days there my daughter Charlotte and I tried surfing, kayaked around Oceanside Harbor, walked the beach looking for sand dollars and ended each day visually absorbing a sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Since California and surfing go hand and hand, it was only fitting we give it a try. On our first morning, Charlotte and I headed to Tyson’s Beach for a lesson. Brooke Swayne from So Cal Surf School met us on the beach and, because it was a cold day, had us don wetsuits. After detailed safety instruction on safety and surfing basics — all conducted on the beach — we headed to the water. From the beach the waves had looked pretty tame, but once we were in the water, the four-to-five-foot surf seemed twice that size.

Charlotte took to it fast and was up and surfing in no time at all. But I struggled despite years of skiing, which I had expected would prepare me for this new sport. On each wave I would barely be up and the next thing I knew I was down and churning, upside down in the water. After a half-hour or so repeating this tiresome routine, I called it quits and let Swayne concentrate on teaching Charlotte.

"Kids just naturally take to it faster," Swayne said gently.

And there are few places so good for them to do it, she added. "We have waves year-round and not the crowds you find in San Diego… There are lots of places to get your little spot in the sand."

There are lots of places indeed to enjoy, but two are especially not to be missed: Oceanside Harbor, and, just a couple of miles south, the Oceanside Pier area and the shops nearby on Historic Highway 101. Our first night we stayed at the Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort, just feet from the ocean and the 1,942-foot pier — the longest over-water wooden pier on the West Coast.

Although the Wyndham is chiefly a time-share, it also has 32 hotel units, including the one-bedroom suite we used, and the location can’t be beat. Besides one of the best ocean views in the city, its amenities include private patios, a large heated pool and spa, exercise room, tanning salon and a place for children to take an arts and craft class. The resort had its grand opening in February.

As a proven nonsurfer, I can say definitively that even nonsurfers will love the California Surf Museum, just a few blocks’ walk from the beach. But Jane Schmauss, its co-founder and acting director, said "For true surf fans from around the world, we are an international destination."

Charlotte and I were both surprised at the museum’s small size, but its rotating exhibits not only maximize its space, they give visitors a reason to come back. The newest exhibit is loosely described as "100 years of how surfing has influenced the pop culture."

Of course, we also saw plenty of surfboards. As Schmauss said in surfing lingo, "We have everything from ancient planks to modern day tri-fins." One they display is almost 100 years old, and Schmauss said she thinks it looks like a coffin lid. The original owner crafted the surfboard around 1910 and told his family about his adventures with it up and down the California coast from about 1910 to 1914.

The museum fits into a long-established local culture.

"Oceanside has unrivaled beaches and a long history of surfing," Schmauss said. She personally knows a handful of very dedicated Nevada surfers. "We have people from Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City who just get in their car, come out to Oceanside to surf and go home," she said.

That afternoon we headed a couple of miles north to Oceanside Harbor, where for the next two nights we would be staying at the Oceanside Marina Suites. The hotel is located on a private peninsula at the edge of the harbor, affording not only great ocean views but front-row seats to watch boats entering and leaving the harbor. Each room here has a fully equipped kitchen, a fireplace and a private patio.

The harbor consists of 75 acres of water, including 900 permanent boat slips. A quaint harbor-side village, suggesting those of New England and complete with a lighthouse, is the place to grab a bite to eat, shop or to embark on trips out on the water. The excursion choices come in luxurious variety, ranging from hourly rentals of electric boats, through half-day sailing trips to full days on deep-sea sport fishing boats.

Our second morning we were back on the water, but this time in a kayak. We met Nathan Clookie, co-owner of OEX kayaks, at the public launch in Oceanside Harbor. Although we are old hands at kayaking, this would be a novel experience because we wouldn’t be paddling at all, but pedaling, having our legs do the work. The pedals connect to two flippers underneath, which work like a penguin’s fins. The steering control is at arm’s length and controls the kick-up rudder, handy because it pushes up out of the way when beaching the craft or negotiating very shallow water. These kayaks are made by Hobie, an Oceanside company internationally known for its Hobie Cat sailboats, the simple catamarans that have made sailors of so many landlubbers.

As we cruised the inner harbor, Charlotte pointed out something large, dark and odd-shaped, floating in the water. As we got closer, perhaps 20 feet from the mysterious object, we realized it was a sea lion. He was just floating around sunning himself, totally oblivious to us. He was lying on his side as if doing a sidestroke, except he did not move a muscle.

Touring the harbor, we pedaled by two tall ships that were docked end to end. Although they were only temporarily in Oceanside, it isn’t uncommon to find them in different marinas up and down the coast. The first one we came to was the Spirit of Dana Point, a 118-foot accurate replica of a 1770s privateer used during the American Revolution. Next we were looking up at the Lynx, a 78-foot privateer modeled on a schooner of the same name built in 1812. This ship has only been on the seas for 11 years and is used mainly for educational purposes and sailing tours. The Lynx was involved in the film, "Pirates of the Caribbean," where it was used to train cast and crew on the complicated ways of sailing a period fighting ship.

"My boat’s bigger than your boat," yelled one of the Lynx’s crew as we paddled past.

Kayaking isn’t limited to calm waters in the harbor; a growing number of anglers, including Clookie, use kayaks to fish the open seas.

"It’s a new experience for a lot of people and they are always amazed how big a fish they can catch," he said, adding that the little craft actually have a couple of advantages that bigger boats don’t. "The kayaks don’t scare the fish away and fish are often attracted to the swirl the paddle makes."

Yellowtail, halibut and white sea bass are some of the fish of choice in these waters. Clookie said he recently caught a 45-pound yellowtail from his kayak.

It’s not all about the fishing, though; many are content just to enjoy the open ocean, and the experience is enhanced by the absence of a noisy engine that might scare away marine life.

"We see gray whales, common Pacific dolphin, California sea lions and harbor seals," Clookie said.

That afternoon we headed inland a few miles to the Mission San Luis Rey, a National Historic Landmark. Mostly built in the late 18th century, missions were religious outposts set up by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order to spread their faith among the indigenous people of California — in this case, the Luiseno Indians. Known as the "King of the Missions" because of its size, productivity and architectural beauty, this one was built in 1798, the 18th and largest of the 21 California missions. It once housed more than 2,000 Indians.

We started our tour in the museum, which gave us a look at the history and lifestyle of the mission’s early years. Inside we found quite a good collection of Indian artifacts, a friar’s sparsely furnished bedroom, candle-making tools, a large loom for weaving and the United States’ largest collection of 18th- and 19th-century Spanish vestments — special garments worn by those conducting church services and rituals. From the museum we entered a courtyard and then took a quick peek inside the church, which was added in 1815. From there we headed out the back door to the cemetery. This is the oldest community burial ground in North San Diego County, dating back to 1798. We found old grave markers, mausoleums and the imposing 1830 marker that honors the Luiseno Indians who were instrumental in helping build and maintain the mission.

Long gone from many coastal towns is the experience of driving directly along the beach. In Oceanside you can still do this on what’s called The Strand, a one-mile paved road that parallels the beach near the pier area. If you didn’t spend enough of your youth cruising, here’s a chance to make up for it.

Another good cruise is along Highway 101, from Oceanside south to La Jolla. One highlight of the Oceanside stretch is Café 101, which first opened in 1928 and is the oldest continuously operating restaurant on the famous road. It’s a favorite among locals and any tourists fortunate enough to get the word. It is said to offer the area’s best home-style cooking.

The café is owned by John Daley, whose family originally came to Oceanside in the early 1900s. Daley fished from the Oceanside Pier as a child, albeit with a drop line, and admits his pride in being associated with it.

About 10 years ago he noticed an article in the Los Angeles Times that contained a boast that the Seal Beach Pier was the longest on the West Coast.

Knowing that the Oceanside Pier holds that distinction, he wrote a letter to the editor setting the issue straight. He was pleased to see his letter published, but not so much with the bold headline: "Pier Envy."

In fact, we discussed how to deal with any peer envy that might lead to a classmate complaint about Charlotte’s unscheduled extra school day in Oceanside. One so rarely gets an opportunity to quote poetry that I took it, and told Charlotte:

"Tell the teacher we’re surfing — surfing USA."

Contact writer Deborah Wall at

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