Travel

Big Waves, Cheap Beer and Hippie Culture Make This San Diego Suburb Worthy of a Road Trip

Come for the beaches, stay for the beer.

encinitas
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Encinitas is the perfect Southern California surf town, maybe the perfect surf town anywhere—conversations are peppered with surf reports, shops sell sandwiches and burritos named after local waves, long and short boards spill from garages and bob on the heads of the hardcore out for dawn patrol. But unlike the snooty oceanfront McMansionvilles to the north or the frat-bro beach communities to the south, Encinitas has a hipper, more laid back vibe, like your cool older cousin who drives a convertible and took you on your first trip to Tijuana.  

Originally home to the Kumeyaay, Europeans first arrived in the area in 1769, when Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja California, visited the area and named it Los Encinos after the oak forests lining the valley. In 1842, following Mexican Independence, a large plot of this land was granted to Andres Ybarra in what is now New Encinitas and Olivenhain. Later, in 1881, John Pitcher and Tom Rattan founded the town of Old Encinitas. 

Karin Keller
Photo by Karin Keller

For the next half century or so, Encinitas remained a sleepy collection of rural communities known mostly for its flower industry. During Prohibition, it became a popular stop for Angelenos heading across the border to Tijuana in search of legal booze. With the opening of the Del Mar Racetrack in 1937, celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby became regular visitors, awarding Encinitas the cool factor it still enjoys today.

Curiously, what we now know as the city of Encinitas didn’t exist until 1986, when the communities of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Leucadia, New Encinitas, Old Encinitas and Olivenhain voted to incorporate. While the five neighborhoods comprising Encinitas have one governing body, each has maintained a unique identity and character.

Moonlight Beach Encinitas
Photo courtesy of Moonlight Beach Encinitas

Old Encinitas  

Old Encinitas is the historical heart of the city and home to two of its most popular beaches. Moonlight State Beach is the all-around best for a family-friendly, all-day beach session. It’s good for beginner-to-intermediate surfers and boasts an array of amenities including ADA accessibility, a full-time lifeguard, a kiddie playground, fire rings, picnic tables, volleyball and tennis courts, a snack bar, and a large grassy area for spreading out. Swami’s Beach, named after one of the fathers of modern yoga and referenced in the Beach Boys’ classic Surfin’ USA, enjoys world-wide acclaim for its outstanding right point break and numerous lively beach and reef breaks. It also has conveniences like restrooms, a water fountain, picnic tables, and benches scattered around Swami Park, plus free parking in the lot and along Highway 101. Refuel from your surfing session with manhole-sized pancakes at Potato Shack Cafe (cash only, ATM on site), Lotus Cafe and Juice Bar’s healthy, hearty all-day breakfasts or Tijuana-style tacos, paletas, imported beer, and freshly prepared churros at The Taco Stand

Away from the beach, Old Encinitas maintains the Encinitas Historical Society, where you can chat with well-versed docents or peruse photographs and documents, oral histories, and exhibits, all housed in an 1883 one-room schoolhouse. They also host guided walking tours at 10 am every third Saturday from September through July. Other historical sites include the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, La Paloma Theatre (where “talkies” were first introduced to Southern California in 1927 and you can still see a show today), and the SS Encinitas and SS Moonlight boathouses.

When happy hour rolls around, head to the Highway 101 corridor, where you’ll find options like Culture Brewing’s hazys, seltzers, and sours or Modern Times Far West Lounge for 30 taps of tasty beer and plant-based cuisine. Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizza delivers wood-fired pizzas and a killer butterscotch pudding, while Buona Forchetta dishes upscale Northern Italian entrees, including vegan options.

 Californiabeaches.com
Photo courtesy of Californiabeaches.com

Leucadia

“Keep Leucadia Funky” might sound like a PR campaign slogan, but it sums up the free-spirited, groovy vibe that embodies life in the northernmost neighborhood of Encinitas. Founded in 1870 by a group of English spiritualists in search of religious freedom, Leucadia is home to hippies, bohos, surfer dudes, and artists of all persuasions. 

The three main beaches in Leucadia are accessed via three stairways leading down from Neptune Avenue and offer no amenities, permanent lifeguards or restrooms. Grandview Beach, a narrow strip of sand below the cliffs, has swells for just about every ability and board length and tends to get crowded on weekends. Beacon’s Beach (officially South Leucadia State Beach) has long, slow beginner-friendly waves that can still be fun for more experienced surfers. Stone Steps Beach’s wave quality can be unpredictable, but when it’s good, it’s a blast, and it’s never crowded. Warm up afterwards with coffee and an excellent pastry at Pannikin, located in the historic Santa Fe railroad station, or grab a dozen raised and glazed beauties at Leucadia Donut Shoppe, a neighborhood institution for more than 30 years.  

True to its nature, downtown Leucadia is overwhelmingly locally owned, with an eclectic mix of surf and coffee shops, art galleries, clothing and beachwear boutiques mixed in with hipster and hippie cafes. 

Head to Regal Seagull for more than two dozen taps of craft beer and killer artisan sausages, plus happy hour and adult happy meal deals on weekdays, or Saint Archer Brewing Company’s huge tasting room with 30 taps of signature core and specialty brews, plus cans, crowlers, and bombers to go. Solterra Winery produces wines using grapes sourced from Northern California all the way to Baja California, Mexico and serves rustic Mediterranean cuisine with a touch of California influence. 

cardiff kook
Photo courtesy of californiabeaches.com

Cardiff-by-the-Sea

Cardiff-by-the-Sea was originally farmland settled after the Mission Era, when Hector MacKinnon and his wife, Sarah, moved to the area to grow grain and raise livestock in 1875. Purchased in 1910 by Boston painter J. Frank Cullen, who began selling parcels of land to settlers from the east, it’s thought that the neighborhood’s name came from his wife’s hometown of Cardiff, Wales.

A great way to experience the Cardiff surf scene is to camp at San Elijo State Beach, which has laundry facilities, dock access, Wi-Fi, bathrooms with showers, fire rings, a bilge pump station, a ranger station, and is easy walking distance to Cardiff Towne Center for early morning coffee. South of the campgrounds is Cardiff State Beach, home to Cardiff Reef with its right and left breaks and groups of snazzy longboarders, while about 50 yards north of the main reef is Suckouts, where the shelf break and quick dropoff are better suited to experienced surfers. At low tide, seek out the tidepools just south of the parking lot. Afterwards, hit up VG Donut & Bakery, a third-generation Cardiff favorite that makes fresh donuts twice a day, at 4 am and 4 pm. 

The San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center is a 979-acre shallow-water estuary, formed where the Escondido and La Orilla Creeks meet the Pacific Ocean. Seven miles of easy-to-moderate trails and the moderate-to-strenuous Annie’s Canyon Trail traverse wetland habitats of coastal strand, salt marsh, freshwater/brackish marsh, riparian scrub, coastal sage scrub, and mixed chaparral. Stop at the Nature Center to learn more about the reserve and plan your hike.

After your adventures, relax at The Confessional in The Lost Abbey with Belgian ales, saisons, and sours in a breezy, BYO food-friendly tasting room, then head to Restaurant Row for ocean-view dining and organic, homestyle cooking at Ki’s Restaurant, or Cardiff Beach Bar @Tower 13 for craft cocktails and shared plates.

The Craftsman New American Tavern
Photo courtesy of The Craftsman New American Tavern

New Encinitas

New Encinitas was originally part of the land grant Rancho de Los Encinitos, and later Las Encinitas Rancho, which was primarily a produce and flower growing area that includes a section of the famous Ecke Ranch, where Paul Ecke developed and marketed poinsettias so successfully that the flower became a symbol of Christmas. Now, those orchards and flower fields have given way to housing developments and shopping plazas typical of modern suburban areas. This is where you want to head when you need supplies for a day at the beach or if the propane tank suddenly runs out. 

Once you’ve loaded up on provisions, head to The Brewers Tap Room for 25 rotating taps of local craft beer, then hit The Craftsman New American Tavern for comfort food like baked mac and cheese, buttermilk fried chicken, and bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Don’t leave the neighborhood without a visit to Elizabethan Desserts, a sweet ‘50s style bake shop with exquisite cupcakes, cookies, bars, and sweet and savory pies, including a take-and-bake Thanksgiving pie stuffed with roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, stuffing, and a side of cranberry chipotle sauce, under a buttery, flaky crust.

Olivenhain

Like New Encinitas, Olivenhain was part of Rancho de Los Encinitos, then Rancho Las Encinitas. By the early 1880s, the rancho had changed hands a number of times before the Kimball brothers became owners and sought to form a colony of European immigrants to settle the area. They found a like-minded interest in Theodore Pinther, and in May 1884 the first colonists arrived—their only requirement being that they spoke German fluently. 

Olivenhain has remained a semi-rural residential area with gently rolling hills and custom homes on expansive lots, but few restaurants or shops. It enjoys a large network of hiking and equestrian trails, including a portion of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center and Manchester Preserve. Plan a night drive to the area for outstanding stargazing, the result of Olivenhain’s Dark Skies Policy, which restricts nighttime outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.
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