Oceanside, California

One hour by train from San Diego, discover a cure for mud season.

By Jeremy Pugh / Photography Courtesy of Visit Oceanside

When it’s that time of year—too soon to switch out the ski mounts for the bikes; slushy snow; moody weather—every Jacksonite thinks of the same restorative option: beach. A quick flight via Salt Lake City to San Diego is the ticket. But don’t stop there. Take the train one hour north to Oceanside, a once-great, becoming-great-again beach town that maintains a little grit and still-off-the-radar charm that its over-polished cousins—Carlsbad, Malibu, Newport, Laguna—nostalgically wish they had. And you don’t even need to rent a car. How’s that for “California Dreamin’”?   

Get Your Art, History & architecture On

California Surf Museum

Bagby Beer Company

In the days before Southern California was connected with its vast network of four-lane concrete arteries (now clogged), there was one road: Highway 1. Early car travelers ventured south from Los Angeles, often headed to Mexico for liquor during Prohibition. To make the trip, they would cross the largely unserviced Rancho Santa Margarita before arriving in Oceanside. The little town became an ideal spot to stop and stay in one of the nation’s first “travelers hotels,” or motels. When WWII broke out, the U.S. Department of the Navy commandeered Rancho Margarita to build Camp Pendleton. Thousands of raw Marine recruits arrived in town along with builders and their families who followed the work to carve out Pendleton. Oceanside boomed. It got schools and hospitals, churches, movie palaces, and department stores. The post-war ascendance of the automobile made Oceanside a destination for car buyers, and the town’s new car dealerships became the place for the Greatest Generation to buy its shiny Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Fords. 

But then, bust. California sprawl and cheaper land elsewhere saw the big dealers move closer to metro areas, leaving the husks of giant showrooms behind. These shells were occupied by down-market used-car dealers. Meanwhile, the rise of malls and megaplexes in the ’60s and ’70s gutted Oceanside’s once bustling town center. It also didn’t help that one of the state’s largest railroad switchyards, built during the war, was a giant eyesore in the middle of town and impeded beach access. (The switchyard was moved in the ’90s onto Camp Pendleton, much to town boosters’ relief.)

But these downsides would ultimately become upsides, says Oceanside historian Kristi Hawthorne: “We were largely overlooked, and while everyone else was tearing down old buildings, neighborhoods, and architectural treasures, we were left alone.” 

Hawthorne and her colleagues at the Oceanside Historical Society lead free two-hour walking tours (visitoceanside.org, 760/722-4786) that highlight this “lucky” preservation. She points to neighborhoods filled with charming, stick-built bungalows including, famously, the “Top Gun House,” where Tom Cruise’s Maverick bedded Kelly McGillis’ Charlie Blackwood in the 1986 film. Also preserved were palatial movie theaters featuring beautifully garish neon signs in the futurist Googie style. For example, the Star Theater (402 N. Coast Hwy., startheatreco.com), with its space-age-fab marquee, now bills musical theater performances produced by the local company. Even some of the unwieldy old car showrooms are finding new life, gutted to become restaurants and craft breweries, like the Bagby Beer Company (601 S. Coast Highway, bagbybeer.com). 

The work of architect Irving Gill is also a point of town pride. The minimalist modern architect, who designed with subtle North African flair, built four edifices in Oceanside: The Americanization School (1210 Division St.), the still operational Fire Station No. 1 (714 Pier View Way), The Blade Tribune Building (401 Seagaze Dr.) and the original City Hall (300 N. Coast Hwy.). In 1990, when the City Hall was expanded and renovated into a civic center and public library, the effort preserved Gill’s original structures, and project architect Charles Moore matched Gill’s signature simple, unadorned style. 

At its heart, though, Oceanside is a beach town: It’s home to the California Surf Museum (312 Pier View Way, 760/721-6876), perfect for any pony-tailed surfer dad. Highlights are the shark-bit surfboard and the accompanying story of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm but ultimately survived an encounter with a tiger shark off the coast of Kauai. 

bring it home

On Mission Avenue, between Coast Highway and Pier View Way, Artist’s Alley is a collection of independent galleries and shops that is anchored on either end by two of the town’s 30 murals. The alley’s top shop is Gypsy Den Boutique (1931 S. Coast Hwy., 760/512-1205, gypsy-den boutique.myshopify.com), a flowy-fabrics, “One-Winged-Girl”-type of spot. The alley also features an escape room and a virtual reality activity center, if that’s your bag. 

Play

Mission Luis Del Ray

Oceanside’s beachfront is a wide, perfectly sandy stretch, marked midway by the state’s longest wooden pier (home to an irascible pelican named Charlie). On either side of the pier, the reliable break brings a daily lineup of surfers waiting for sets. It’s a pretty serious surfing crowd, so before you paddle out on your own consider a lesson. The family-owned shop Surf Ride (1909 S. Coast Hwy., 760/433-4020, surfride.com) offers lessons three times a week as well as gear rental. If you want to stay dry, rent a rod and reel from the pier’s bait shop and cast a line, or rent a bike or four-person, team-pedaled surrey contraption and cruise the strand. The northern end of the beachfront connects to the 19.2-mile San Luis Rey River Trail, which heads inland and passes by the Mission Luis Del Ray (4050 Mission Ave., 760/757-3651, sanluisrey.org). Known as the “King of the Missions,” the site a prime example of Spanish Colonial architecture with Moorish influences. The Mission offers a glimpse into California’s Spanish past through its interpretive museum, self-guided tours, educational lectures, and retreat stays.  

Stay

Part of Oceanside’s rejuvenation has been the renovation of the older traveler hotels that, while cutting-edge in the 1920s, were still bathroom-down-the-hall situations. But they had good bones. The latest example is The Fin Boutique Hotel (133 S. Coast Hwy., 760/279-6300, thefinhotel.com). Originally opened as the Keisker Hotel in 1927, The Fin preserves the meticulous mosaic tile flooring in the lobby, the original grand wooden-rail staircase, and the Tiffany windows while updating everything else (read: en suite water closets). The Oceanside Springhill Suites is a chain, but it boasts a rooftop pool with ocean views and is steps from the waterfront. Beachfront Only (beachfrontonly.com) is a vacation rental service offering, as the name says, a selection of on-the-beach properties, from cozy cottages to 10-bedroom redoubts for the big reunion.  

Dine

Coomber Craft Wines

Coomber Craft Wines

Surf towns require breakfast, and Oceanside’s go-to is Petite Madeline (223 N. Coast Hwy., 760/231-7300, petitemadelinebakery.com) with house-made pastries and hearty options for the most important meal of the day. And then there is toast. How good can toast be? Find out at Camp Coffee (101 N. Cleveland St., 442/266-2504, campcoffeecompany.com) where cutsey coffee drinks (think S’mores) are served with hearty slices of “camp toast”—a panini-style hunk of wonder. 

Start a night out with a flight of wine from Coomber Craft Wines (611 Mission Ave., 760/231-8022, coomberwines.com). You’ll find a selection of wines from Santa Barbara winemakers and a fantastically chill patio. Up the block is Mission Ave Bar and Grill (711 Mission Ave., 760/637-2222, missionavebarandgrill.com), a whiskey-forward joint (more than 200 tipples in the library) with a meticulously blended Eternal Pour bottle behind the bar.  

The phrase “let’s go out for Balinese” is not a thing, yet. But Dija Mara (232 S. Coast Hwy., 760/231-5376, dijamara.com) is well on its way to making it one. This popping joint on the Coast Highway feels like a town center-cum-happy hour. California servers, presciently aware of every food preference, expertly work the tables, passing out small plates of delightfully fresh Balinese cuisine. For the big meal of your trip, try Master’s Kitchen & Cocktail (208 S. Coast Hwy., 760/231-6278, mastersoceanside.com) where 28-year-old wunderkind chef Andre Clark has unstuffified the menu. Clark got his start here, working on the line. He left for apprenticeships in some of San Diego’s finest kitchens and has returned with whiz-bang energy. For starters, he’s got a thing for albacore. Ahi’s canned cousin, Clark points out, is caught locally. “Why am I serving tuna from Hawaii when I am a chef in California?” Why indeed?  

| Posted in Departments