“LEUCADIA is the last hippie town in Southern California,” declared Carolyn Jopes, sitting across from me at the Pannikin Cafe on a sunny summer afternoon. Perched on the edge of Highway 101, the cafe is housed in the former Encinitas station of the Santa Fe Railroad, built in 1888. Its lofty, mellow-yellow facade calls to passers-by: “What’s the hurry? Stop driving and hang out.”
From the NY Times American Journeys
Ms. Jopes, 63, was telling me about her escape from Washington some 20 years ago. “When I heard the word Leucadia,” she said, “it sounded so dreamlike, I said, ‘I want to live there.’ ” Fit and with flowing gray hair, she surfs nearly every day.
Visitors slightly buzzing from a revitalizing iced coffee at Pannikin, part of a low-key local chain, can make their way down streets named after Greek and Roman gods and experience firsthand the dreaminess of this beach enclave. On Neptune Avenue at West Leucadia Boulevard is the entrance to the trail to Beacon’s Beach, where locals come to surf, soak up the sun or simply stare trancelike from atop the bluffs at waves crashing 60 feet below. Some don’t even bother to get out of their cars for their quick ocean fix.
Leucadia is but one jewel in a string of communities along a 20-mile stretch of historic Highway 101 in northern San Diego County (North County to locals), where life feels a bit more relaxed and where, with the right combination of sun and surf, the fabled California dream feels almost within reach.
From Del Mar north to Oceanside, sandstone cliffs rise and fall, giving way to bays, lagoons and sweeping beaches. Civilization comes in the form of bohemian stores, art galleries, casual cafes and decades-old surf shops — all the makings for a glorious getaway of three or four days.
A block from Highway 101 in Solana Beach is the Cedros Avenue Design District, with dozens of stores on a three-block stretch. At Cedros Gardens an explosion of colorful, flowering plants awaits. Down the street at Solo, a sprawling space is packed with home furnishings, design books, jewelry and rows of attractive stationery. Happily, even if you’re not a paying customer, most shop owners are more than happy to shoot the breeze and dole out helpful tips, like where to watch the sunset.
Mike Zambetti, 28, who comes from Carlsbad nearby, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Stock, recently opened a menswear store on Cedros Avenue succinctly named His. The latest sneakers, jeans, T-shirts and San Diego Padres apparel fill the shop. His end-of-the-day tip: “Most evenings, after we lock up, we’ll just walk over to Fletcher Cove for a nice beach stroll and watch the sunset.”
Taking his advice I made my way over to the cove, just a few blocks away. Just beyond the baby-blue lifeguard stand clutches of people walked barefoot along the beach. Steep cliff walls radiated the warm, golden sunlight.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea is north of San Elijo Lagoon, one of the few remaining coastal wetlands in the county. If you’re looking for sustenance, the colorfully decorated (and moderately priced) Las Olas has delicious Mexican fare and refreshing margaritas.
It’s no surprise that all along this gorgeous coast magnificent private homes sit on some of the best spots. But at San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff, campers can enjoy prime real estate too. Tents, vans and recreational vehicles sit just a few feet away from the edge of the coastal bluffs. A snack bar that opens at 8 a.m. serves coffee and a mean breakfast burrito.
Cruising north into Encinitas it’s hard to miss the gleaming golden lotus tower that fronts the grounds of the Self-Realization Fellowship, an ashram founded by Paramahansa Yogananda in the 1930s. The lush meditation gardens, free to the public, offer a peaceful retreat: the shady, narrow pathways, a small cascading stream, and a koi pond — not to mention stellar views of the sea — are blissful.
Next to the ashram is Sea Cliff Roadside Park. The spot offers a tranquil, even meditative, escape of its own: watching surfers ride the waves that tumble onto Swami’s Beach. I decided to chill out on a bench for a while, but anyone wanting a closer look can take the wooden steps down to the sand.
If the sky turns cloudy or the charms of the beach somehow fade, Quail Botanical Gardens features hundreds of plants from around the world on 35 acres. In mid-June the park opened a whimsical yet educational children’s garden. An enormous treehouse atop a fabricated banyan tree, with tufts of real dangling greenery, makes an irresistible centerpiece.
North of Encinitas is Carlsbad, where in the 1880s, John Frazier discovered mineral-water springs and later built a hotel and spa, named after the old European resort in Bohemia. Today a coin-operated dispenser offers a taste of the waters outside the chalet-style Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa on Highway 101.
In Carlsbad I stayed at the no-frills Surf Motel, which was within easy walking distance of the beach and entertaining nightlife. Locals packed the Pizza Port Brewing Company for slices and to taste beers like Wipeout I.P.A. and Sharkbite Red. A few blocks away, on the patio of the Coyote Bar and Grill, nighttime’s damp chill can be kept at bay by cozying up to one of the many brick fire pits. Grooving with a dance partner at the live music here will also do the trick.
On Thursday nights some 60 members of the Ukulele Society of America gather at Ocean House, a restaurant and bar in Carlsbad. Anyone can come and enjoy the lilting tunes, but the friendly crowd encourages newcomers to pick up a spare instrument and learn a few chords.
Before you bid North County good bye, pay a visit to the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. Founded in 1986, the museum moved to bigger, better digs earlier this year. This seaside gem recounts surfing’s glorious rise in California with boards on display that date to the early 1900s.
Nearby, at Hill Street Cafe, a fittingly vegan-, vegetarian– and environment-friendly spot, I found a quotation scrawled on a chalkboard that captures the spirit of this Highway 101 journey: “Happiness is found along the way, not at the end of the road.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO DO
The meditation gardens of the Self-Realization Fellowship (760-436-7220; yogananda-srf.org/temples/encinitas/hermitage.html) are at 215 K Street in Encinitas.
WHERE TO EAT
The Beach House (2530 South Coast Highway 101, Cardiff-by-the-Sea; 760-753-1321; thebeachhouse.com) is on the water.
WHERE TO STAY
The Surf Motel (3136 Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad; 800-308-5457; rooms start at $139) is near the beach.