California Travel Articles
Those driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego will know exactly what we mean when we say there just is no more spectacular ocean view than the one you encounter while making your way through San Clemente. On a clear, sunny day – and most of them are – it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road as you take in a landscape that includes San Clemente’s neatly terraced, palm tree-studded hills and the vast blue ocean with its distant horizon.
These very same views no doubt influenced Richard Nixon in his decision to buy an estate in San Clemente that would become the Western White House during the early 1970’s. The president would have Air Force One land at El Toro and then take a Marine helicopter to a San Clemente beach area where he would ride a golf cart the final few yards to his prized estate, La Casa Pacifica.
Today the estate still is there on a bluff overlooking one of California’s most pristine beaches, but it’s really only possible to get a glimpse of parts of it from the beach below. Just to get in position to view La Casa Pacifica, it’s a mile-and-a-half walk from the nearest beach access point at San Clemente State Beach. But what a great mile and a half it is.
The beach, to us, is one of the main attractions of San Clemente – it’s possible to walk five miles altogether on a beach that is wide, scenic and – best of all – hardly used. There is no stumbling over other beach-goers as you search for some solitude among the masses. At this beach, there is nothing but solitude along great stretches of sparkling sand where you can plop down anywhere you like, set up your blanket, chairs and cooler and pretend that you’re Robinson Crusoe for at least the afternoon.
There of course is a good representation of surfers on any given day along this beach – this is prime territory for those in search of consistent waves. Boogie-boarders too are drawn to the beach to ride a curling surf that, in some places, offers a thrill a minute. But most of the people you see here are simply beach-walkers, enjoying a gentle stroll on wide sand that seems to go on forever.
A few miles north from San Clemente State Beach is the pier area, a part of San Clemente that attracts visitors and locals alike. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, this may well be the spot with its charming village-like atmosphere where you can dine in sidewalk cafes, visit the local market or walk out on the pier for some great views of the surfers and the entire coast. A number of lodgings are available in this area, many with spectacular views of the ocean and pier area.
One of our favorite things to do is to stop at the pier on our way through San Clemente. It’s just a little over a mile from the freeway and it’s a rewarding mini-getaway just to drop in at Fisherman’s Restaurant on the pier and enjoy fresh fish and a microbrew while basking in the sun and soaking up the seaside atmosphere. On a recent weekend, the restaurant’s considerable outdoor seating was fully occupied through most of the afternoon – a sign that we’re not the only ones who have discovered this delightful seaside respite.
Whether overnighting or daytripping in San Clemente, one of the first things you notice is the Spanish street names. Not uncommon in California, the San Clemente city fathers have taken it one step further with a kind of prohibition against any street name that does not look or sound Spanish. But all of that just adds to the charm and blends well with the Spanish architecture that is so dominant along the gently sloping hillsides of San Clemente.
Come to find out, the Spanish feel of San Clemente is quite intentional and was brought to the city not by some Spanish conquistador, but rather by the former mayor of Seattle. Ole Hanson founded the "Spanish Village by the Sea" way back in 1925 with strict guidelines that called for Spanish colonial architecture with red tile roofs and white plaster. In other words, Hanson proposed a theme town before theme towns were cool.
The town retains a historical flavor and visitors are encouraged to see remnants of the original "Spanish Village by the Sea." The former City Hall is now an antique gallery. Casa Romantica is Hanson’s own Spanish compound – which he lost in the stock market crash of 1929 and is now owned by the city. A San Clemente visitor center and museum offers visitors a quick overview of the attractions they’ll find in San Clemente.
Another thing that becomes obvious is that there are few streets in San Clemente that are straight. Because of the hilly and sloping topography, most roads weave through and around the hills, again adding a special kind of Mediterranean flavor to the town. It may be a little harder to find your way from Point A to Point B, but you will enjoy the figuring out how to get there. And of course it’s difficult to get truly lost when the ocean is visible from just about anyplace in town.
While in San Clemente, you’ll want to stroll down Avenida Del Mar where you’ll find a wide assortment of shops in a lushly landscaped setting. This is not some famous shopping district with designer stores and celebrities; rather it’s Main Street USA with the kind of shopping you might find in your hometown – a varied collection of shops, boutiques, antique stores, galleries and sidewalk cafes. It’s a fun place to spend a little bit of your San Clemente getaway.
San Clemente is an ideal day trip for Southern California residents, but it’s also an excellent base of operations for those coming from farther away. There are close to 20 different lodgings to choose from ranging from bed-and-breakfast inns to motor inns to seaside condos. If you base in San Clemente, you’ll find many attractions are located within a short drive from the city. For example, Dana Point – once the only major harbor between San Diego and Santa Barbara -- is just north of the city.
The same harbor that attracted those earlier mariners is still very much a port of call, but leaning more toward pleasure craft with its 2,500 slips that are usually occupied with a wide selection of expensive yachts and small boats that would make any boat show proud. The Dana Point Marina, of course, becomes the centerpiece to the area and the focus of pictures and paintings that are readily available in local gift shops.
The Dana Point Marina is not just a bunch of boats – a whole village has grown up dockside to offer tourist shopping and places to enjoy lunch or dinner. Some 25 shops and 20 restaurants are open in Dana Wharf, Mariners Village and Mariners Alley. But the boats are a big part of it – it’s fun strolling along the docks, daydreaming about owning one of these beautiful craft.
San Juan Capistrano is close by as well and it’s easy to drive from San Clemente to the famous Mission at San Juan Capistrano where you can tour the picturesque grounds. Just a bit farther up the coast is Laguna, where you’ll find great shopping, a vibrant arts community and Orange County chic.
Nixon did indeed know what he was doing when he set up his Western White House in San Clemente – it’s about as far away from the pressures of Washington politics as a president can get.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: San Clemente is located south of Los Angeles and about 50 miles north of San Diego.
WHAT: San Clemente is called the "Historical Spanish Village by the Sea" and is known for its scenic ocean-front setting, terraced hills and predominately Spanish architecture.
WHEN: The weather in San Clemente is some of the best in the country and even winter escapes will be warm and sunny.
WHY: San Clemente offers a special combination of village charm, picturesque beaches and nearby visitor attractions.
HOW: For more information on San Clemente, contact the San Clemente Chamber of commerce at (949) 492-1131 or visit www.scchamber.com.
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