Huntington Beach: A Surfer's City
Small circular barbecue pits dot the beach for miles and the locals love to sit beside them, casting an eery glow on their faces as you drive by on the seaside Pacific Coast Highway.
The waves are steady, and just about perfect for riding. And the surf breaks pretty far out, so when you catch a wave, you're in for a long ride to shore.
I paid a visit to this Southern California city in February, en route to Australia, and did what many people do when they come here. I donned a wetsuit, got on a surfboard and tried to stand up.
My luck wasn't as good as I had hoped, and the waves were tough, crashing down on me and rolling me over.
My instructor was a beefy twenty-something named Charlos Bentley. He surfs every day, and he told me that he wants to be a firefighter someday.
He's got a leg up, since he was raised in the Dominican Republic and speaks Spanish, a new requirement for those who aspire to fight flames in California.
Charlos warned me as we sat by the roiling sea that morning that I would be taking some lumps. He demonstrated on the beach where to position myself and how to stand, not too far back, and not too far up. He warned me, though, this ain't easy... and boy was he right!
Waves of Waves
The waves come in sets of three or four, he said, so just when you think you've recovered from the first one, you're hit by another. And another. The toughest part for me was trying to paddle out to where the waves are.
It's much farther than I am used to swimming when I've bodysurfed, and it takes strong biceps to propel that board all the way past the leaping waves to the safe zone where we wait for the right waves.
"Paddle, paddle, come on, paddle," exhorted Charlos, oblivious of my untoned arm muscles.
"I've got to get to the gym," I kept telling myself as I huffed and puffed on the board. I watched him effortlessly glide through the choppy water. It was a tough slog, and after being pounded by the surf, and managing just one ride, I called it quits. Exhausted!
While my experience learning to surf in Surf City proved that it takes a lot more than a few hours to learn this ancient art, there is much to explore and a wonderfully laid back atmosphere here that I discovered later that day.
My accommodations were somewhat spartan, as I had asked my hosts to find me something that was not a chain, and had some character. The Sun 'n Sands Motel on the Pacific Coast Highway fit the bill.
Once this property was twice as big with a large pool area, but sadly, this prime real estate is now a towering 'bowling alley' house that sold for about $4 million. So it's a bit smaller but still has the gorgeous oceanfront view.
Out past the break oil derricks stood silently, and on the Pacific Coast highway, smaller oil rigs bobbed silently up and down, sucking whatever is left of California's oil up from the ground.
Walking down toward the center of town, I came upon a little bakery cafe that appeared to be the center of the neighborhood. It was operated by a Chinese couple, who bake their own donuts and other sweets.
Duke Kahanamoku, Surfing Legend
I walked up to the Main crossroads, the corner of Main Street and the Pacific Coast Highway, to where a bronze surfer statue gazed out to sea. It was Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian who is said to have invented the sport back in 1914, when he was the swimming champion of the world.
Another famous Huntington Beach figure is Dean Torrance, 67, who in the early 1960s rode to fame with the hit song "Surf City," with his partner, Jan Berry.
The two were the world-famous Jan & Dean, and hung around with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and sold more than 20 million records during their heydey between 1960-1967. While Berry is gone, Dean still cranks up his fuzz box and surf guitar and plays gigs.
He met me at Sharkeez Baja style bar, where we sat outside on the patio and enjoyed fish burritos and lobster tacos. Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruised slowly by, their owners proudly chatting on cellphones knowing all eyes were upon them.
His real avocation is graphic designer, he created the early Beach Boys logo and is passionate about the importance of design in products, branding and even how the city markets itself.
"Don't get me going on that!" he said, referencing the memos and ideas he's pestered the city fathers with about different ways they could screen, or at least do something pretty to change the look of the plant's massive smokestacks and pipes.
The Surfing Museum
Dean is proud of his role in another tourist attraction in Huntington Beach -- the Surfing Museum, tucked back on Olive Avenue just off the main drag. Here he has curated an exhibit of memorabilia from the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, with artifacts that would thrill any surf music fan.
One that I liked was a blow up of the lyrics from the hit song "Surf City," showing how he had changed Brian Wilson's lyrics to make them make more sense and illustrating their long collaboration that made them both superstars in their day.
Biking by the Beach
The city is undergoing a resurgence in 2008, with a long strip of new building taking place along a wide stretch of undeveloped land between Main Street. and the Hyatt. Many new shops, restaurants and the vaunted 'high end retail' will be completed here on the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean.
In GoNOMAD's directory you can find budget hotels in California.
It's a Dog's City
There is a park called 'Best Friend Dog Park' where dogs can roam off the leash. They even have separate areas for small and large dogs. To seal the city's doggie reputation, there is an outdoor restaurant called Park Bench Cafe where you can order from a canine cuisine menu while owners enjoy breakfast on outdoor tables.
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