(My original story on this subject appeared in The New York Times Travel section on November 18, 2005. The Times has since updated it, on July 19, 2009, with new hotels, and some different suggestions. Here is my original, with updates to businesses that have since opened or closed, plus even more to see, do & buy.)
By JERRY GARRETT
HUNTINGTON BEACH was not specifically on Dean Torrence‘s mind when he and the late Jan Berry recorded their 1963 hit “Surf City.” But Mr. Torrence, the Dean of the pop music duo Jan & Dean, is among those who help promote the city as “Surf City USA”.
Huntington’s wide, white beaches, with a series of shallow sandbars that gradually drop off into the blue Pacific, help shape ocean swells into some of the most consistently surfable sets of waves anywhere in the world. Combine that with a practically ideal year-round climate, eight and a half miles of uninterrupted public coastline and 67 parks, all in a city of about 200,000, and you’ve got a recipe for the proverbial “Endless Summer”.
1) Twilight Tour
Watch the sun plunk into the Pacific as you orient yourself to the coastline on the eight-and-a-half-mile beachside path (comprising most of Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach). Start and stop anywhere along it, but Surf City’s epicenter is probably where the Pacific Coast Highway (just call it PCH) intersects with Main Street and the city’s historic pier. The path is paved concrete and plenty wide enough for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and in-line skaters all to share. Blades and bikes, including locally made fat-tire beach cruisers, are widely available for rent. Friday afternoons also feature a pierside crafts and farmers’ market. Dine or drink pierside at Duke’s (714-374-6446; try huli huli chicken, $16.95 – yeah this is the same Duke’s as in Hawaii), but Pacific panoramas are better across the highway at Spark Woodfire Grill (300 PCH; 714-960-0996; fall-off-the-bones baby back ribs, $18 – half rack).
2) Dessert in the Dunes
Roast marshmallows and ‘smores at one of the city’s more than 600 beachside fire pits. Most are clustered south of the pier, or north at Bolsa Chica beach. Guess how many campfires you’ll see along PCH; on a recent Indian summer night, 36 was the winning answer. The beaches close at 10 p.m.
3) Hot Rod Dawn
From about 6 to 9 every Saturday morning, hundreds of street rods, beach cruisers, woodies and surf wagons gather at the corner of Magnolia Street and Adams Avenue for the free Donut Derelicts Car Show. Among the tire-kickers, a sharp-eyed car nut might spot a real designer for Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai or Kia, all with American headquarters nearby. (In the 2005 story, I recommended Zubie’s Dry Dock for breakfast, but they are only open for that on Sunday now; Zubie’s is still a good bet for lunch and dinner, and for staggering portions at ridiculously cheap prices. Check out Zubie’s cool aquariums and the 100-foot-long mural depicting five decades of local history.
4) Boogie Call
Surf’s up! It’s the prime time to hit the beach, before the prevailing afternoon winds turn surf to chop. The most fitting spot is adjacent to the pier, where, in the 1920′s, the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, is said to have introduced the sport to the mainland. In 1959, it was the site of the first national surfing championships, now known as the U.S. Open of Surfing (still held here each summer). His statue stands amidst the Surfers’ Hall of Fame
Bring your own board or rent a longboard, shorty or boogie or skim board at one of many surf shops for around $25 or less a day. Wetsuits can be rented, and swimsuits are sold at dozens of shops nearby. Surf lessons are easily available. For those who merely like to watch, the pier provides a magnificent vantage point. As heavily surfed as this section of coastline is, there is always world-class board work to watch.
5) Shutting Down the Oil
Just across PCH from popular Bolsa Chica beach is a 1,200-acre wetlands containing an ecological preserve where $120 million is being spent on one of the state’s largest environmental restoration projects. Several miles of trails and displays show how Huntington Beach is still trying to repair the ecological damage left by its 20th century oil boom. More than 100 years ago, tidal wetlands were closed off from the sea and roads were built across them for a duck-hunting club. In the 1920′s, oil companies installed hundreds of bobbing grasshopperlike wells, which are now being capped and the equipment and pipelines removed. Much of the area now has been restored to something resembling its original state.
6) Kalifornia Kitsch
Retail therapy can be had on the four-block gantlet of stores on Main Street at PCH, where shops sell surf boards and more. Load up on souvenirs and beach kitsch at the California Greetings store (301 Main Street, 714-960-1688): hula girl lamps, strings of flamingo lights, and signed Dean Torrence prints.(Editor’s Note: CG closed 5/2010, R.I.P.) Look for monkey-themed items similar to those by Paul Frank, another favorite son. Huntington Beach is also corporate headquarters to Quiksilver, HSS and other beach apparel companies. Hey, dude, remember: H.B. is in the O.C.
7) Dinner at the Diners
The O.C.’s best burger? It’s said to be at T.K. (The Kind) Burger
- an eclectic dive (110 PCH, 714-960-3238; burger basket under $5, with a mountain of fries). (This place has the best collection of original surf band 33-rpm LP covers, stapled to its walls, doors and ceiling.)
Not adventurous enough? Try the danger diner: Ruby’s Diner (1 Main Street, 714-969-7829), at the end of the 1,850-foot pier, where four previous restaurants fell into the sea. Calm your nerves with plateloads of comfort food. Then toast the night away at one of the many beach bars hanging over or spilling out onto madcap Main Street.
8) Hangover Heaven
Michele’s Sugar Shack (213½ Main Street, 714-536-0355) is a popular sidewalk cafe known for not only its hearty breakfasts but also its extensive display of surfing memorabilia, photographs of events in local surfing history and inspirational messages selected by its inspired owners, Tim and Michele Turner. More than 50 choices under $10.
9) Culture Schlock
Just out Michele’s back patio door is a tiny Art Deco treat, the International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Avenue, 714-960-3483). There is also a permanent collection of “historic” ukeleles, such as above.
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through March, noon to 5 other days (closed Tuesday and Wednesday in the winter months).
10) Last Call
One parting stop at the ocean for surfing, swimming or just strolling the beachfront. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there at low tide, when the surf is glassy, the sets endless and the breaks long and slow. If you’re still not loaded up with enough souvenirs, try Golden West College Swap Meet (714-898-7927), at Golden West Street and Edinger Avenue, for acres of local and ethnic goodies at near-giveaway prices. It’s your last chance to go home with proof that when it comes to Surf City USA, you’ve been there, done that and bought the T-shirt.
Huntington Beach is within 30 minutes of both Long Beach Airport and John Wayne Airport, and just 45 minutes from Los Angeles International. You will probably want a rental car, though you can reach Huntington Beach on the Super Shuttle van (800-258-3826; about $20 to $40 a person depending on airport).
There are no beachfront hotels in Huntington Beach, no matter what their names imply. They are all across the Pacific Coast Highway, albeit with unobstructed ocean views. The choices are more limited than you might imagine, though, considering the eight-mile shoreline.
The largest is the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa (21500 Pacific Coast Highway, 714-698-1234), which has its own bridge to the beach. Its 460 rooms are $285 to $360; 57 suites go to $3,500. Almost next door is the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort (21100 Pacific Coast Highway, 714-845-8000), with 290 rooms and suites at $179 to $374.
The Best Western Huntington Beach Inn (800 Pacific Coast Highway, 714-536-7500) has 50 rooms at $139 to $289, and the Sun ‘n Sands (1102 Pacific Coast Highway, 714-536-2543) has 17 rooms at $69 to $269.
The newest accommodation in town is the Shorebreak Hotel (500 Pacific Coast Highway; 714-861-4470). Rates start around $200; ask for specials.