North County offers a coastline abundant with opportunities for delicious meals, discount shopping and breathtaking ocean views. For those of us not lucky enough to live along this affluent stretch of coast, the drive up Highway 101 is an enjoyable one, speckled with unique places to shop or explore. From Monday to Friday, the Coaster runs nine times daily from Downtown San Diego to Oceanside (as well as four times a day on Saturdays), offering an affordable and relaxing alternative to traffic congestion.
Where to clear your lungs
North County beaches are often quieter than their southern counterparts, with fewer festering mounds of seaweed, beer cans and unruly college kids. Each area has its highlights, but there are some beaches you should be sure not to miss.
Beacon's Beach in Leucadia is a short hike down from a quiet residential neighborhood. Popular with the locals, it's not a spot you might find easily on your own. Try your skills surfing the beach's south break, or simply enjoy that rare feeling of seclusion the surrounding cliffs provide.
Del Mar Dog Beach, located on Coast Highway 101 in Del Mar, has a substantial area of sand that provides plenty of room for your dog to let loose.
For volleyball aficionados, Moonlight Beach in Encinitas has numerous beach-volleyball courts as well as picnic tables, snack bars and fire rings. Enjoy a variety of entertainment at Oceanside Beach and Pier or watch the sun set above the mellow waves at Swami's in Encinitas. For a longer excursion, pack your bags and pick out a campsite at South Carlsbad State Beach in Carlsbad. Those who revel in the outdoors will enjoy the scenic bluffs and playful waves, not to mention the short drive home.
Nature at its best
Bird lovers will appreciate the consequences of a manmade disaster-Whelan Lake was once a polluted dairy-farm pond. Now, more than a decade later, it's been cleaned up and has become the center of Whelan Lake Bird Sanctuary near North River Road in Oceanside. Visitors must be part of an organized wildlife group and obtain advance permission to visit the sanctuary, which is home to more than 490 species of birds.
For the botanist in all of us, the Quail Botanical Gardens (230 Quail Gardens Drive) in Encinitas provide scenic walks and trails through more than 30 acres of rare bamboo groves, desert gardens, tropical rainforests and more for only $3 to $8. Also, the Self Realization Fellowship Gardens (215 K St. in Encinitas) offer a quiet respite from the outside world with calm ponds, soothing scenery and free admission (no conversion required).
If your outdoor outings become a little too wholesome, taint them with some of man's most reliable vices. The Del Mar Fairgrounds (2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd.) offers the opportunity to gamble or simply cavort with the corrupted when the horse races commence. Or, raise that pinky finger proudly as you sample some high-quality dry and sweet wines at the Witch Creek Winery (2906 Carlsbad Ave. in Carlsbad).
Remedies for the ravenous
After a day in the good ol' outdoors, it'll be time to head inside for a satisfying meal and a carefully brewed beer. What better place than Pizza Port, with locations both in Carlsbad (571 Carlsbad Village Drive) and Solana Beach (135 N. Coast Highway 101). Some of the best pizza in town ranges from $6.75 to $9.25 for a small, $13.75 to $16.25 for a medium or $17.25 to $20.25 for a large-try the signature wholegrain beer crust. Microbrews (and the house root beer) are brewed on the premises, and a stout or porter float is only $3.75 for a pint.
If you're looking for something a little more chic, your options are anything but limited. Calypso Café (576 N. Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia) is a hip café encased in an old house that serves specialty cocktails and fresh seafood, including a variety of mussels. Another upscale bistro is Sbicca (215 15th St. in Del Mar), which offers fine wines and modern American cuisine, including a variety of delicately crafted salads, sandwiches, steaks and pastas ranging from $7 to $23. Finally, Pacifica Del Mar (1555 Camino Del Mar in Del Mar) is an ideal place to stop in for dessert, wine and a tantalizing ocean view.
For some authentic Italian, sample the excellent pasta dishes or the veal chop at When in Rome (1108 S. Coast Highway in Encinitas), an elegantly understated gem with outside tables perfect for people watching. Or enjoy some fresh sushi at Sushi Taisho (300 Carlsbad Village Drive), a reasonably priced restaurant in Carlsbad that also serves teriyaki and tempura.
Choose your style of Mexican at places ranging from Filibertos (476 First St. in Encinitas), an all-night taco shop featuring great burritos, a drive thru and breakfast at all hours, to Karina's Mexican Seafood Cuisine (916 N. Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia), a healthy take on the genre, with such delicacies as turtle stew, ceviche and seven seas soup, in addition to the regular Mexican fare. Other great joints include Raul's Shack (490 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) and Rico's Taco Shop (165 S. El Camino Real in Encinitas).
Breakfast is a highly valued staple in surfer communities, evident by the number of locations serving substantial morning meals. Make sure to check out the Longboarder Café (228 N. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside), which boasts healthy omelets filled with veggies galore, egg scrambles, fish tacos and wraps-the basic surfer diet. The Beach Break Café (1902 S. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside) serves tasty and inexpensive breakfasts and lunches against the backdrop of surfboards, photos and videos. Pipes Café (121 Liverpool Drive in Cardiff)-home of the humongous breakfast burrito-serves hefty portions that rival the manhole-sized pancakes at the Potato Shack Café (120 W. I St. in Encinitas). Make sure to save some room for lunch at Swami's Café (1163 S. Coast Highway 101 in Cardiff). Aside from breakfast specials ranging from $3 to $7, the sandwiches are a bargain at $5 to $6, served with a side of salad, potato chips and salsa.
Perfect for breakfast, dessert or an afternoon snack, VG Donuts and Bakery (106 Aberdeen Drive in Cardiff) specializes in the old fashion style of baking. Get a fresh cup of coffee and a bakery item for breakfast, or a donut (all of which are baked twice daily), muffin, cookie or cake after dinner to satisfy that sweet tooth.
Where to empty your wallet
North County is flooded with boutiques, markets and other shopping outlets guaranteed to turn your wallet inside out. For a unique food shopping experience, sample the gourmet selection at Seaside Market (2087 San Elijo Ave. in Cardiff). The store offers locally grown organic produce, fresh fish, meats and cheeses and fine wine, brandy and cigars. For the lazy, a daily variety of prepared entrees, side dishes, salads and desserts are also available.
Accessories, clothing, antiques and more are plentiful at the Seaside Bazaar (459 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas). The outdoor market is a pleasure to explore, and offers its many temptations every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A fair abundance of resale shops includes Old Blue Jeans (630 Grand Ave. in Carlsbad) that sells-you guessed it-old blue jeans. Double Take (594 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas; 2931 Roosevelt St. in Carlsbad; and 731 South Coast Highway 101 in Solana Beach) offers a selection of vintage, brand-name jewelry, shoes and accessories, while Flashbacks (628 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) regurgitates carefully chosen second-hand apparel.
Don't miss some of the area's most notable independent boutiques, such as Lacy's Boutique (642 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) and Home (629 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas). Bella Boutique (967 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) is bursting with hip, urban fashion, and Pink (282 N. El Camino Real #A in Encinitas) offers some distinctive, if expensive, possibilities.
If you go to only one store in the area, make sure it's Detour Salon (594 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas). The adjoining store is a cross between Claire's, the book counter at Urban Outfitters and a discount beauty supply store-in other words, a woman's version of heaven. Load up on cheap, one-of-a-kind accessories, and if you're feeling daring, get a dramatic cut or dye job at the eclectic salon (prices range from $46 to $60 for a haircut).
For a great novelty shop devoid of grandma-style knickknacks, Ducky Waddle's Emporium (414 N. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) sells art books, vintage poster art, bizarre magnets and used books ranging from Noam Chomsky to Andy Warhol.
Independent record stores abound amid the entrepreneurial spirit of North County. Lou's Records (434 N. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas), highly regarded for its vast array of independent and small-label releases, is a great spot to find used CDs, tapes and vinyl. Some other places to browse are: Vintage Sanctuary (625 S. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside); Spin Records (370 Grand Ave. in Carlsbad); Inner World (211 S. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside); and Yard Records (111 S. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside).
Where to let loose
After a rough day of shopping, relax at Robbie's Roadhouse Grill (530 N. Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia). From 3 to 6 p.m., happy-hour specials include select drafts for $2 and fish tacos, hot wings or garlic cheese bread for the bargain price of $1.95. Squid Joe's (850 Tamarack Ave. in Carlsbad) also has a good happy hour, plus pool tables and video games.
Other spots to play pool include a back patio (where you can smoke) at The Kraken (2531 S. Coast Highway 101 in Cardiff) and The Leucadian (1542 N. Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia), which has a dark, cozy lounge in addition to a well-lit area for young hustlers.
For those looking for more than booze and billiards, North County bars have something for everyone. For sports, Yogi's (2005 San Elijo Ave. in Cardiff) is hard to beat, with 42 TVs and a clientele of young, casual beach-goers. Mingle with college kids in the dive-bar atmosphere of Surf and Saddle (123 W, Plaza St. in Solana Beach). Looking for an older crowd? The Alley (421 Grand Ave. in Carlsbad), known among locals as "the Wrinkle Lounge," promises to be a prime spot to see grandma gettin' it on. Or, for the Irish in all of us, sample a range of Scottish and Irish whiskeys at Tom Giblin's Irish Pub (640 Grand Ave. in Carlsbad).
Active drinkers can swing dance every Monday night at Neiman's American Bar and Café (300 Carlsbad Village Drive in Carlsbad), while those who prefer to sit back and watch others perform will enjoy the Belly Up Tavern (143 S. Cedros Ave. Solana Beach), one of the best live venues in the whole dang county, with bands playing every night of the week.
Looking for a little culture? On the third Thursday of every month, galleries along S. Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach stay open until 8:30 p.m. or later for Cedros Gallery Night. Check out fine-art photography at the Ordover Gallery (Studio 172, 444 S. Cedros Ave.) or the contemporary international collection at Gallery D'Art International (320 S. Cedros Ave.). Other worthy North County galleries include 101 Artists Colony (25 E. E St. in Encinitas), a cooperative gallery featuring regional artists, and Nofufi Garden Gallery (90 N. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas), which displays kinetic (moving) pieces in an aesthetically pleasing setting.
If you think live theater is just for the rich, prove yourself wrong at the North Coast Repertory Theatre (987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach). Theatre School productions are $7 to $9, while tickets for the group's major productions range from $23 to $30. Become theatrically involved at La Paloma Theatre (471 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas) every Friday at midnight when they show the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A cast of eccentric characters performs along to the classic film, and audience members get decked out in their best gothic gear.
Culture takes on an educational edge with workshops, concerts and exhibits at the Museum of Making Music (5970 Armada Drive in Carlsbad). Or, experience the history of surf culture at the California Surf Museum (223 N. Coast Highway 101 in Oceanside). View boards and blueprints of classic surfboard shapes from legendary shapers at the museum, created to honor local surfers.