A Starbucks barista here says this is "the forgotten beach town"—which is exactly how residents of this small community south of Surfside like it.
Sunset Beach is an unincorporated one-mile stretch of beach, businesses and oceanside homes along Pacific Coast Highway. Home to only around 1,300 residents—die-hard lifers and newcomers, all with a love of the ocean—it nevertheless fosters a strong sense of community. A small-town charm is evident in the community's numerous annual events, including a chili cook-off and a mile-long garage sale.
Unlike a fully recognized city, Sunset Beach has no police force, schools or door-to-door mail delivery. Residents and local businesses collect letters and packages from P.O. boxes in the area's sole post office, where community events are listed on fliers and where neighbors make small talk as they pick up their daily mail.
The beach here is pristine and distinguishable from that of neighboring cities by the lack of a sidewalk; it ends at about Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway on one extremity and the gated community of Surfside on the other. Shops, yacht and kayak rentals are walking distance along Pacific Coast Highway. Behind them is where the people live, primarily along two narrow streets that parallel the ocean.
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Houses are typically big and boxy, in beiges, vivid pinks, grays and pale blues—a few with stained-glass windows. And given their stark location, the more unusual become landmarks. There's the water tower house, of course, and another christened the "Castle on the Sand" by neighbors. It looks just like it sounds and is rumored to be one of the most valuable properties in the area—which is saying a lot; here small cottage-style homes start at $500,000. Roughly half the homes here are on the beach with a view of the ocean.
Factor in a fabulous nightlife and at least one genuine sunset a night and this is one place you have to see.
Photo by Keith May
Best Available Property Water Tower House. The tower that once provided Sunset Beach with water is up for sale again: a luxurious three-story, 3,000-square-foot, elevator-accessible home with a 360-degree view of its beachfront lot and about a mile in every direction. According to Realtor Gloria Sceberras of First Team Real Estate, the upper floor features windows that open on all sides, allowing in the ocean breeze and the sound of breaking waves. The highly customized residence features two master suites, a hot tub, a sauna, a home theater and other necessities, for $8 million. 1 Anderson St., Sunset Beach. For more information, contact Gloria Sceberras of First Team Real Estate at email@example.com.
Best X-Treme Beach Sport Kites Etc. Kiteboarding. Store owner Steve Kent, a.k.a. "Salty Steve," who first opened in 1986 to sell "stunt kites" to beach tourists and residents, finds his business has shifted to kitesurfing, a hybrid of windsurfing and kiting. And so he offers the largest inventory of kiteboarding equipment in the county, plus lessons. 16802 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5483; www.kitesetc.com.
Best Elite Seafood Captain Jack's Prime Rib & Seafood Restaurant. A 40-year veteran, the Captain serves everything from grilled salmon to lobster to crab legs—with entres ranging skyward from $14.95. Boisterous families with out-of-state relatives order seafood platters off giant sailboat-shaped menus in an unusually atmospheric setting. The dimly lit eatery is made up to look like the interior of a ship—large rows of illuminating fish tanks and themes like "the Captain's Galley" or "the Wharf." Employees wear Hawaiian-print shirts—and so do most patrons. 16812 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-2514.
Best Pirate Booty Antiques of the Sea. This store looks like the cabin of a quirky sea captain with serious—clinical—pack-rat tendencies. Think every prop from Life Aquatic in one room: antique weather instruments, vintage diving suits, nautical clocks, chrome flare guns, ships' wheels, old maps and oil portraits of sea captains smoking pipes. Yaaargh! 16811 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-1752; www.antiquesofthesea.com.
Best Boisterous Bar Mother's Tavern. Harleys outside and crushed peanut shells on the floor inside. The jukebox is stocked with hits of the '60s and '70s, and pitchers of beer are cheap. Wild, reckless and loud. 16701 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-2381.
Best Place to Sober Up Harbor House Caf. Open 24 hours and more than 65 years, this is the best spot for sobering up in Sunset Beach and even neighboring Long Beach. The menu includes a hearty selection of omelets, burgers, shakes and other classics. Raymond, a regular, says he drives from Whittier for the chicken-fried steak and eggs. 16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5404; www.harborhousecafe.com.
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