A strangely appealing crossbreed of watered-down Mission Revival architecture (red-tile roofs, white-stucco walls) and '60s resort community, San Clemente was founded by Ole Hanson in 1928 as a haven for those tired of the big city. But its standardized aesthetic, boutique beach town feel and lazy California eclecticism are mere backdrop to a prominent and resilient surf culture that makes this South County gem justly a huge draw. San Clemente is exactly the place surfers should feel right at home in: a town on perpetual holiday, with 342 days of sunshine a year and an average temperature ideal for paddling (pant-pant) out (I'll catch up to you).
With such natural wonders, you could excuse San Clemente for resting on its Pleasantville-by-the-sea laurels, but it is also closely—surprisingly—linked to two colossal political blunders in recent history: Nixon and Proposition 187.
Former president-then-President Richard Nixon set up shop here in 1969 at the beginning of his first presidential term—blessing the city with his then-considerable political capital by purchasing the Spanish mansion Casa Pacifica and renaming it the Western White House. His graceless presence (photographed running through the surf with his dogs—in shoes, socks and long pants) also is credited with sparking a growth spurt in an outpost that was then little more than a pier and a few public structures.
And despite what happened later, none of Nixon's fallout—sorry, San Onofre—ever really contaminated this place. Same is largely true of San Clemente's proximity to the I-5 immigration checkpoint—which makes it perhaps more susceptible than, say, Villa Park to border patrol politics but hasn't diminished the status of, say, Trestles. Here, however, is where Prop. 187—a state law that would have cut off undocumented aliens from government benefits like medical care and education for their children—was birthed in 1993, when a Mexican kid accidentally speared a white kid's head with a paint roller. A freak incident, the death provoked enough state concern to help introduce Prop. 187, a law that seemed like it had a fighting chance until someone took a slant at the Constitution. And it died a none-too-speedy death, and if anyone had realized this still-sleepy-despite-all-the-development-along-the-highway town was where all the badness began, they forgot it. And got back to soaking up the sun and telling everyone to just lighten up.
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Best Way to Get Called a "Stupid American," Which Happened to My Friend While Traveling Abroad Rainbow Sandals. The longest-lasting, most comfortable sandals ever, San Clemente-based Rainbow have been made here since 1974. Instantly recognizable across the globe (a good or bad thing depending on who's in office), Rainbow sandals are that rare thing in the disposable fashion world: an investment. San Clemente, their birthplace, is home to the factory and discount outlet, where the entire line is always 25 percent off retail and in perfect condition. Recognizing the profound attachment Rainbow wearers feel towards their footwear, the owners have covered the outlet walls with Rainbows returned from the war front and letters from their former owners. 326 Los Molinos, San Clemente, (949) 492-4930.
Best Surf Spot Trestles. A good 20-minute trek out brings you to this quasi-untouched one-and-a-half-mile stretch of beach with no metered parking, no Ruby's Diner, no blackballs, no closeouts and no volleyball nets. There are the occasional bobcat, deer and a trail graffitied with insightful quips like "eat my stick." And this is where surfers actually surf—instead of just having sex and looking cool. Also, the periodic surf contest happens here. I-5 South, exit Cristianitos, left at stop sign, go over freeway, left at next stop sign, parking lot on right-hand side.
Best Clothing Boutique Bliss. More rhinestones, metallic bags, lacy camisoles and designer jeans than you'll see in a week of hanging out at the South Coast Plaza food court. Also, all the big 'uns: Michael Stars, Juicy Couture, Sevens, Joes and AGs, plus lesser-knowns like Donald J Pliner and Bivel. The salesladies are great, and the periodic sales—nanoseconds before things go out of style—are what keep this two-year-old boutique in business. 167 Ave. Del Mar, San Clemente, (949) 492-0084.
Best Sex Motel Riviera Adult Motel. For more than 30 years—the sign still trumpets waterbeds and color TVs—the Riviera has been designed for and catered to consenting adults who want to have sex with each other. Since that's very hot right now, you're advised to make a reservation two weeks in advance to take your place among those who come from as far away as New York to play on the table-sized swing in the Kings Crib room; to step down into the sunken waterbed of the Tahitian Paradise; to loll, or something more than loll, in the small-swimming-pool-sized bathtubs. And then there are the mirrors, mirrors, mirrors and the complimentary adult movies and the shag, shag, shag. Which brings us to the question owners Lee and David Lundy get the most: Is it clean? "It's the first thing I'd ask," Lee told us a couple of years ago. "It's why we skip ammonia when cleaning the rooms and jump right to sterilizing everything with chlorine." Lee knows from a lifetime in the motel business that any hotel/motel room is going to see its share of coupling and/or bodily fluids. The Riviera has the advantage of knowing it goes on. "There's nothing that goes on in this motel," Lee says, "that doesn't go on in and around Disneyland." 2723 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 492-1425.
Photo by James Bunoan
Best Photographer Rin Tanaka, the Yokohama-born San Clemente author of what is now almost a one-man bookstore of tomes on vintage American sportswear. T-shirts, motorcycle jackets, motorcycle helmets, Steve McQueen, Deadheads. Tanaka has (almost) done it all—and he's written about everything he's done, then illustrated his works with museum-quality photos of the coolest vintage clothing. (Except the Steve McQueen book, which had, well, awesome photos by other people.) You'll find his work at discerning bookstores and boutiques around the county, and it's worth noting that, while he could live anywhere, he lives here, in sight of the ocean.
Best Architectural Reuse SC Surf Co. Originally a church, this surf shop has a prime location across the street from the beach—making it reportedly only the second such store in the state to offer just-off-the-beach service. And while most custom board shops have been relegated to cheaper, more cost-effective warehouses, SC Surf Co. keeps tradition alive with in-house shapers (watch your boards being made as you descend into a resin coma) and a 26-year history. Most of their boards come from surf giant Lost (they recently purchased the shop), but high-end and import boards are available as well. 1755 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 492-5721.
Best Place for Near-Death Experiences the train crossing at San Clemente Pier. A piece of machinery roughly the size and shape of building collapse moving at, what, 40 or 50 miles per hour along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe near one of Southern California's busiest beaches through an unfenced pedestrian crossing positively teeming with preschoolers whose epidermis has been burned a soft salmon. We just absolutely love this place. Take a seat at one of the benches on the grassy slope above the pier, drink beer from a sack, and watch eagerly for the juxtaposition of cuddly toddler and brute industrial force that is unmatchable as free entertainment. It's like a bullfight with children. Where Avenida Victoria meets the pier, San Clemente.
Best Place for Neighboring Casa Romantica. We're cynical, and by "we" I still mean just "me" because, contrary to what you're thinking, the Weekly runs on a high-grade blend of optimism and cheeriness—except me. I've tried medication, religion, politics, sex and family but found little succor. I labor on. So you'll understand how weird it is for me to say that I positively admire Casa Romantica and what the people there are trying to accomplish. Beginning with an old estate (more on which in a moment), they're working to create a place where people can talk about what it's like to live here now—in Southern California, at the beginning of a new and (for me; maybe you) terrifying century. Having said that, the CR staff isn't afraid to look back: its current exhibit of photos by Horace Bristol depicts the rigors of migrant farm life in the 1930s—and how contemporary does that feel? Ole Hanson built the house, and Hanson was—let's be honest—at least occasionally a son of a bitch. Unless I am mistaken—not—Hanson was in San Clemente in the 1920s at least in part because of the events of 1919. That year, in Seattle, workers declared a general strike; Hanson was the city's mayor, elected in 1918 with the help of organized labor. He cracked down viciously—and then framed his declaration of martial law as the triumph of Americanism over Bolshevism; that too sounds oddly contemporary. Hanson fled Seattle for sunny SoCal and settled in San Clemente at a time when the place was at the back end of nowhere; he could see it for what it would become: a Bolshevik-free zone of suburban tract homes. His house is still there. But, really, to our friends at Casa Romantica: we thank you for your gifts of grace, smarts and community spirit. You give us history; you give us some soul. 415 Ave. Granada, San Clemente, (949) 498-2139.
Photo by Shannon Sibayan
Best Fry-Up Whitehorses. Facing the San Clemente pier, this lazy surfside restaurant and bar mixes beach culture and California cuisine—frittatas and potatoes with rosemary—with things like the British "fry up": fried bread, bangers, bacon, grilled mushrooms, baked beans, eggs and toast. Delicious. 610 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 429-1800.
Best Crepes La Galette Creperie. Seventeen varieties of the French rolled, stuffed pancake here; everything from the conventionally named but delectable Kansas City chicken crepe—roasted chicken, caramelized onions, maple barbecue sauce, jack cheese—to the chicken Fuji, which leans on the classic apple variety. And for dessert? More crepes, please! 612 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 498-5335.
Best Shopping Avenida del Mar. Fifteen-plus farmers, several nurseries and assorted food vendors line Avenida del Mar on Sundays, giving you something to do after combing out your sandy sex hair. Don't miss the Farmer's Market. For those bored with the run-of-the-mill peach, plum or whatever, it has all the trendy hybrids like plumcots and pluots—the best of both worlds. Sundays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Avenida Del Mar; for information, call (949) 361-0735.
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