San Clemente was founded in the 1920s by a gent named Ole Hanson, who had aspired to the Republican presidential nomination. Tough-talking Ole had gained renown as the mayor of Seattle, where he broke up the nation's first general strike in 1919, which he denounced as a "treasonable Bolshevik uprising."
Hanson failed to garner the nomination, so he moved south, bought a white suit and sold the rubes ocean-view properties in San Clemente, claiming that said ocean views would never be blocked while planting hundreds of soon-to-be-enormous eucalyptus trees and Mexican fan palms.
On the much brighter side, he laid out a community based on the concept of a little Spanish village by the sea, with meandering roadways and charming cottages. He also gave the city a wonderful golf course, a beach club, a community center, a fishing pier and a city center park. Hanson went bankrupt in the Great Depression and was in the process of building his new fortune as an ice-rink magnate when he died in the early 1940s.
San Clemente stayed a sleepy little burg for a long, long time, but in the past 15 years, the development of several large ranch properties (yes, ranches with cows and horses and guys that yell, "yee-haw" on occasion) has doubled the population and changed the city's demographic mightily. A large faction in the nouveau population sports an "I'm here now so let's not let anyone else in" mentality, and San Clemente does in fact bear the scars of development problems from the land rush in the 1960s and is having to grapple with scads of environmental concerns: toll roads, bluff-top development, beach erosion and endangered-species protection.
On the major plus side, San Clemente's historic downtown benefited from a successful renovation in the mid-1980s that has just recently come to full fruition, and preservation of the small-town character seems to be the one thing the markedly divided populace can agree upon. And the town is graced with more than its share of gorgeous parks, and although the beaches are shrinking and arguably less than pristine, they draw scads of tourists and locals and feature some of the top surfing spots in the world.
SAN CLEMENTE SHOPS
Nic's Small Appliance Repair. In today's "use it once and throw it away" culture, it's almost strange to see a business devoted to repairing things. Nic has served San Clemente since 1961, and although he's happy to sell you a new coffeemaker, toaster, vacuum cleaner, etc., he's even happier to fix the busted one you cart in. One assumes that the somewhat antiquated displays in the store haven't changed all that much in the past 40 years, but it is inspiring to think about the changes in appliance technology that have transpired and what Nic and his staff have had to acclimate to in that time. By the way, he doesn't fix computers. 216 Avenida del Mar, (949) 492-4747.Sam's Shoes. While we're on the subject of repair, Sam's Shoes has been sitting in San Clemente since 1953, not only meeting your retail-footwear needs (I NEED a new pair of Rocksport casuals; I NEED them) but also repairing those broken heels, dyeing m'lady's pumps ("More of a deep green to match my new outfit. Yes, that's it!") and trying to stretch another three weeks out of Junior's nearly new oxfords. They will occasionally stoop to handbag or briefcase repair, but locals primarily associate Sam's with two big sales each year: the overstock sale and the famous penny sale—one pair at current price, the second pair for one copper coin with Lincoln's picture on it. 135 Avenida del Mar, (949) 492-3495.
SAN CLEMENTE RELAXES
Historic San Clemente Pier. Ole built the first one in 1929, and Mother Nature tore it apart in 1939 and 1983, but San Clemente still boasts a great old-fashioned wooden fishing pier. Peep through the old-style coin-operated telescopes to gawk at Catalina, Cotton's Point or bikini-clad beach bathers. Dine at the Fisherman's Restaurant, fish for your own lunch, or relax with a cappuccino and play a game of checkers out at Schleppy's Bait and Tackle near the end of the pier. Watch out for pigeons! 611 Victoria.San Clemente Beaches. If you can't find the beaches in San Clemente—they're the wet things with the sand—you have additional problems we can't help you with.
SAN CLEMENTE EATS
The Fisherman's Restaurant. Locals tend to disparage the cuisine and long summertime waits for a table, but the mesquite-grilled seafood is usually quite good, and if you visit any time after Labor Day, there's not many folks there to step on your toes. During the summer, the best bet is breakfast, but it goes away at the same time the tourists do, in early September. Fresh catch of the day is always a good choice, and save room for the best desserts in South County: a slice of the peanut-butter pie or the mud pie, which is mammoth and retails for just $3.95. San Clemente Pier, Avenida del Mar and Avenida Victoria, (949) 498-6390.Caf Calypso. Located on the ground floor of the old San Clemente Hotel, this funky little coffeehouse has the best courtyard in town. Usual fare for dining and sipping, but seating yourself near the fountain and reliving the golden days of yesteryear while you dine and sip is free. 114 Avenida del Mar, (949) 366-9386.Chatos. A classy, non-chain Mexican restaurant that makes its own tamales and features the "Kick-Ass Margarita," which apparently does. Also impressive is the menu missive restricting children to their seats at all times. Nice patio, friendly servers. 215 S. El Camino Real, (949) 366-5202.
SAN CLEMENTE DRINKS
Fisherman's Restaurant Bar. Across the pier from the restaurant sits the Fisherman's Bar, home of great happy-hour eats ($3.95 for a steak or chicken taco platter on Thursdays) and arguably the best view in OC to drink to. Nice waitresses, friendly barmen, and the gentle sway of the surf to rock you while you sip gives you an excuse to stagger a bit when you rise to leave. 209 Palm St., (949) 675-5774.Goody's Tavern. Step through the door and leave the beach—perhaps even the century—behind. A friendly dive with an atmosphere literally reeking of a different time and place. One expects to bump elbows with John Candy or Belushi. It's difficult to recall if there are any elk heads are on the walls, but if there aren't, there should be. Not a family spot, unless Mom is still smoking unfiltered Camels and Sis carries a hip flask. 206 S. El Camino Real, (949) 492-3400.
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SAN CLEMENTE ENTERTAINS
Cabrillo Playhouse. Let's do a show! You can make the costumes, and I'll print the tickets. The Cabrillo Playhouse is an award-winning community theater and the coolest spot in OC to view thespians at work. Check the calendar for variety of drama, music and just plain fun. 202 Avenida Cabrillo, (949) 492-0465.
SAN CLEMENTE LEARNS
Nixon Library. Well, yeah, it's really in Yorba Linda. Rumor has it that Dick never really wanted his presidential library in this seaside town, but the populace moaned and groaned and blamed City Hall when it ended up in Yorba Linda. A faction of flat-worlders still think the library would have served as a destination for thousands of inquisitive tourists and made this little town into a sort of Paris by the sea. 18011 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 993-3393.San Clemente Historical Society Museum. There is more than 80 years of rich history in San Clemente, which would sound more impressive if its northern neighbor, San Juan Capistrano, didn't boast 200 years. Anyway, support the Historical Society by visiting Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 4 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 101 S. El Camino Real, (949) 492-9684.