On the cover: Ocean Beach Newport Avenue.

Life’s a beach

An ex-Californian finds out
if a favorite town is still
as he remembers it

OCEAN BEACH, Calif. » It's been 30 years since I've stayed overnight in San Diego, the serene California coastal city touted as "America's Finest" with "the best climate" in the continental United States. Back then I would drive down from my native Los Angeles to spend days chasing surf, without contributing much to the local economy.

If you go

By air: Aloha Airlines offers round-trip flights for $398 to $458 from Aug. 22 through Dec. 15. For reservations, call 484-1111 on Oahu or 800-367-5250 from the mainland and neighbor islands; www.alohaairlines.com.

How to get to Ocean Beach: From the north, take I-5 to the Sea World Drive exit and follow it until it turns off to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. From the south, take I-5 to the Nimitz Boulevard exit, then follow that road to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Follow Sunset Cliffs to Newport Avenue, turn right and follow the road to the pier parking lot.

Britt Scripps Inn: Nightly rates start at $295. Inquire about special deals. At 406 Maple St., San Diego 92103. Call 888-881-1991 for information or reservations, or 619-230-1991; fax 619-230-1188; www.brittscrippsinn.com.

My VW van served as a bedroom and kitchen, and I parked in the county's most beautiful beach communities from Sunset Cliffs, La Jolla, to Carlsbad.

If I wanted to sleep outdoors, I would forgo the campgrounds and their $3-a-night fees -- that was enough to fill up my gas tank -- opting for a secluded beach where I could drift to sleep to the sound of crashing waves while watching shooting stars.

That sort of adventure ended when a San Diego policeman nudged me with his nightstick early one August morning to inform me, "Camping on the beach isn't allowed."

Camping hadn't been allowed all that time, but local gendarmes had looked the other way as long as peace and quiet were respected. There had been a few beach robberies, so the officer's concern was for my safety as well. He suggested that I rent a hotel room or head to neighboring Mission Beach where, he said, I might be able to park my van with little notice.

All this is racing through my mind as I drive a convertible PT Cruiser with the top down under a cloudless blue sky from my Banker's Hill bed-and-breakfast accommodations to see what's become of "my OB."

As soon as I got the writing assignment about San Diego, I starting jotting down all the old haunts I would visit. I was prepared to be disappointed by "growth and progress" here.

Aloha Airlines' new San Diego flight arrives at night, so I wanted accommodations near the airport but distant enough to avoid hearing plane landings and takeoffs. Friends and former Hawaii residents Lori and Jim Kennedy suggested a recently opened B&B, the Britt Scripps Inn, a block from popular Balboa Park and its numerous museums, and just five minutes from San Diego International Airport, downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp District and Petco Park.

I shy away from B&Bs when I travel solo -- my wife, Nancy, loves them -- because I don't like to feel forced to chat with other guests and the hosts. But Lori assured me Britt Scripps Inn is "a different kind of B&B."

Ocean Beach hasn't changed much in 30 years due to the community's slow-growth philosophy, but don't expect to sleep in your rental car.

It was cool and drizzling when I left the San Diego airport, and after three left turns in 10 minutes, I was face to face with the inn (circa 1887), an exquisite three-story Queen Anne-style Victorian.

The inn, I learned the next afternoon from owner Gordon Hattersley III, a frequent Oahu visitor, was restored at a cost of $6 million to reflect the craftsmanship and heritage of the late 1800s. The inn, which originally cost $3,000 and was then San Diego's most expensive home, has nine private rooms and bathrooms in turn-of-the century style, but with contemporary luxury, including a flat-screen LCD television and complimentary high-speed Internet access.

A night manager welcomed me through large double doors, handed me a key to the second-floor Governors Room ($235 a night), asked which breakfast service I would attend, then said his "good night" without further banter. No chatting. Perfect!

My room is where Robert Waterman, California's 17th governor, once slept, hence the moniker.

The next morning, sunrise fills the Governor's Rooms with streams of light. Downstairs, I find the dining room empty, although several tables are set for breakfast of fresh fruit, and blueberry and maple nut granola muffins. Of the three entrees available, I chose the Italian sausage omelet with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes.

"I'm going to Ocean Beach today," I tell Randy, the general manager, who offers to provide a map that I assure him I had no need for.

"I knew this city really well ... in the '60s," I said.

"Much has changed," he insists.

Not Ocean Beach, I hope.

Seashells for sale.

AS I MERGE into rush-hour traffic on the freeway, dark green and wooded Point Loma looms in the distance, marking the entrance to San Diego Harbor where I can see tiny sailboats and massive U.S. Navy ships sailing past one another.

A few minutes later, I see a freeway exit sign that reads "Beaches," taking me along Mission Bay, then a second sign: "Sunset Cliffs -- Ocean Beach."

I take a deep breath when I turn right toward OB, then exhale driving by several familiar, modest cottage-style homes similar to those that stood here three decades earlier.

Three small homes on one lot catch my attention, so I pull over. Over the wooden gate to the property is a sign that reads Aloha Shores; each cottage door has a sign: "Waikiki Beach," "North Shore" and "Haleiwa."

Once upon a time, I dreamed about owning a home in OB. I remembered that the community had a definite liberal consciousness, mellow vibe and slow-growth philosophy.

A preliminary inspection told me little has changed here, although other sections of San Diego County seem to be growing red tile roofs, with housing developments stretching to the horizon. Women in loose-fitting flower dresses and men in tie-dye T-shirts still walk the sidewalks.

"OK, this is the 'Twilight Zone' and I've stepped back to the 1960s," I tell myself, smiling.

Ocean Beach was built mostly during the early 1900s when the area was renowned for the Wonderland Amusement Park on the beach near Newport Avenue, now the town's main business thoroughfare. Wonderland boasted the largest roller coaster on the West Coast, a dance pavilion, large menagerie, fun zone with 40 attractions, roller-skating rink, children's playground, and 22,000 lights outlining the buildings. It was all washed away in 1916 by huge winter waves.

I pull into a large beachside parking lot where I often slept in the past. The shoreline is divided by a long jetty; on the north side is a sign that says "Dog Beach," and, true to its name, I see about 100 dogs romping in the sand or swimming in the surf.

Sunset Cliffs bird rock.

"Gone to the dogs," an OB lifeguard joked when I told him I often slept and surfed there. "And no, I have never had to save a dog from drowning," he said, "and no, I wouldn't do mouth-to-mouth if I did."

Turns out that San Diego County has 24 leash-free beaches, the most in California.

A cool northwest breeze seduced me to walk through the deep sand, even in tennis shoes, toward the 1,971-foot-long Ocean Beach Pier, which opened 39 years ago. I know because I was there July 2, 1966, along with California Gov. Edmund Brown, who cast the first fishing line from the pier. He didn't catch a thing.

Two dozen people are spread along the T-shaped pier, the longest concrete pier in the world, jutting into the Point Loma kelp beds.

Couples walk arm in arm or hug while leaning against a railing. Some men sit alone on benches gazing at the horizon, eye to eye with soaring seagulls. The bait shop is being renovated but is still open to rent fishing poles and sell ice cream but no coffee.

Farther out, the wind turns brisk. I start to feel melancholy and wonder, What if I had stayed? What if I moved back here?

The pier's north side became more crowded at midday. Surf school students in full wet suits had trouble making it through a pounding shorebreak in the 58-degree water.

The foot of the pier is built over a rocky cliff area, and on the south side are beautiful tide pools. At low tide I watched dads and kids exploring subsurface treasures like a tiny brown-and-white moray eel, and lobster antennae wiggling from a reef hole.

Suddenly, my attention was drawn down the pier's spine where a few dozen fit men and women in bright red lifeguard swimsuits and caps marched seaward with determination. People moved aside to let the group -- junior lifeguards training for summer jobs -- strut to the pier's end. After some sort of chant, the group leaped into the glassy water to begin the one-third-mile swim to shore.

Cheers and applause erupted from onlookers, including fishermen. San Diego beachgoers are in good hands.

Britt Scripps Inn is a hands-off bed and breakfast in a building dating to the late 1800s.

I SET OUT FOR OB's Newport Avenue, the business district that stretches three blocks from Abbott Street to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Along the concrete walkway running along the oceanfront, I watched some locals practice "rock balancing."

Newport Avenue -- except for the addition of a Starbucks -- remains untouched. The avenue is still wide, with diagonal parking.

Antique stores, retro shops featuring 1960s memorabilia and clothes, burger joints, open-air taverns and curio shops line the sidewalks. It's a joyous stroll back in time.

At Ocean Gift & Shells (4934 Newport Ave.), shark jaws sell for $20 to $199. A grab bag of seashells is offered for a dollar. The Primitive Kool Art Gallery (4944 Newport Ave.), which features "outsider art" from talented unknown artists, also houses the Electric Chair Hair Design.

The Retro (4879 Newport Ave.) sells vintage clothes and collectibles. The Black (5017 Newport Ave.) is a hippie-era smoke shop with an eclectic mix of clothing, gifts and posters that carry on the spirit of the '60s.

Bargain dining opportunities are numerous. The Old Town House Restaurant (4941 Newport Ave.) offers a large biscuit-and-gravy platter for $2.50 and a three-egg omelet for $4.50. Hodad's (5010 Newport Ave.) was voted as having the best burger by San Diego magazine. Jumbo burgers, at $8 to $10, and super-thick shakes are reasons to visit this Ocean Beach favorite.

Stop by Qwiigs Bar & Grill (5083 Santa Monica Ave.) for excellent seafood and gorgeous views of the Pacific from the second-story dining room. Stephanie's Bakery (4879 Voltaire St.) is a 100 percent vegan bakery known for its cakes, cookies, brownies, fruit breads, scones and custom-designed wedding cakes. It's located at the Bohemia Strudel Factory.

Anthony Scoggins attempts to climb Sunset Cliffs.

The melancholy that struck me earlier waned during my stroll down Newport Avenue and an adjacent neighborhood.

"You know we protested against the likes of chains like Starbucks," says Darcy Campbell, 60, who was clipping sunflowers in her front yard. "And you won't find any fast-food chains here, either. Not now or never. OB is what it always was."

Yes, it remains a hippie, liberal, middle-class beach community that loves dogs and isn't fond of big business.

The sun slides lower on the horizon, and a moist chill from approaching fog creeps in. Should I hurry back to OB pier to watch the sunset, then have a margarita ($4.95) and lobster taco ($8.95) at Bravo's Mexican Bistro & Cantina (5001 Newport Ave.), or rush back to Britt Scripps Inn, where cheese and wine will be served in 30 minutes?

I realize that I've changed. I'm glad I'm not sleeping in a van tonight, making dinner over a hibachi or dodging police looking for beach campers.

Instead, I'm looking forward to checking e-mail on Britt Scripps Inn's high-speed wireless service, watching TV news on a state-of-the-art LCD and anticipating the red wine Randy will have waiting for me.

But there's something even more confounding about this trip. I feel like chatting about my stroll down memory lane with other guests at the inn!

Ocean Beach cottages pay homage to the islands with signs that read "Aloha Shores," "Waikiki Beach," "Haleiwa" and "North Shore."

Dog Beach is one of San Diego's 24 leash-free beaches, where you'll find just as many four-legged as two-legged creatures.

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