It's a summer ritual—swimsuit shopping. Nobody wants to strip down before a summer tan sets in, or a bikini workout has begun, but if you want to get a good suit, you must shop early. I headed west to the beach communities to find the elusive but perfect bathing suit, while keeping an eye out for a pair of board shorts or flip-flops to suit my companion.
The best price I found for a bikini was in a teacup-size shop in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Sunny Skys Bikinis (2101 San Elijo Ave) had mix-and-match bottoms and tops starting at $39.95. They custom-make their suits, and each style comes in variety of colors and patterns. The crisscross-back top is perfect for an afternoon of volleyball or surfing; the halter top seemed the most flattering overall. Bikini bottoms come in several cuts, from Brazilian to fuller coverage.
Style-wise, I found the best options at SunSplash in Pacific Beach (979 Garnet Ave.). Pieces—from lines like Water Glamour, with major bling, to local designer Savage—start at $44, but most single bottoms or tops are in the $70 range. SunSplash also has four large racks of beach cover-ups, and a kick-ass $25 sale rack in the back.
I wanted to stop by two stores that had been my mainstays in the past, so I headed south to Mission Beach. Gone Bananas (3785 Mission Blvd.) and Pilar's (3790 Mission Blvd.) are face-to-face competition on this busy coastal stretch. Gone Bananas is full of bikinis organized by color or design—perfect if you're looking to try on, say, 15 red bikinis to find the right one. Pilar's takes a different tack, focusing on suits for different body types, and has an enticing $14.95 sale rack.
If you find yourself in Ocean Beach, stop by South Coast Wahines (5037 Newport Ave.) for a bikini from Roxy, Rip Curl or Billabong; you might find yourself walking away with some great VonZipper sunglasses and an RVCA striped tank dress for $39.50.
Guys have an easier time finding a good fit, but originality always poses a challenge. In Ocean Beach, I found a great new shop called The Humble Hippie (4896 Newport Ave.) filled with T-shirt designs I haven't seen elsewhere. Dusty Ray, one of the owners, told me that they usually don't buy more than two of the same T-shirt, keeping their selection fresh. The store also stocks a good selection of Lobos del Mar hoodies, a 100-percent cotton hand-loomed jacket that looks sharp but casual.
Surf Club Surf Shop (952 Garnet Ave.) has a big selection of board shorts packed into a small location. It carries all the staples—Quicksilver, Volcom, O'Neill—and is currently featuring the Hurley Phantom and Billabong Platinum shorts that are meant to go from surf to work in styles that look like Bermudas but are waterproof.
For an original men's look, head to Iron Cross Surfboards in Cardiff (2101 San Elijo Ave.) and consider the $39 basic board shorts that the shop custom-makes in feather-light, four-way stretch fabric. The shorts are sold with or without pockets and have the Iron Cross logo on the thigh. Logo-emblazoned T-shirts are reasonably priced from $15 to $25, and rash guards run $26 to $32. There's also a nice selection of Ocean Minded sandals for men and women.
If it's a basic flip-flop you seek, I haven't seen a better selection than Hansen's Surf Shop in Encinitas (1105 S. Coast Hwy 101). Racks and racks of basic styles by Sanuk and Reef give way to exotic selections by Olukai with full-grain leather and contoured foot beds for $110. In the women's section, I found Scott's Hawaii wedge heel with leather straps and a delicate flower design for $48, along with rows and rows of choices by Reef and Rainbow. In the end, I chose a pair of Cobain sandals that will get me to yoga, beach and beyond all summer.