Great Drives and Destinations: Huntington Beach

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Cruising coastal California by car can be the vacation itself. Our second stop: Huntington Beach, better known as "Surf City, USA." Everyone here seems to know everyone else -- especially if they surf.

Photography by the authors.

Cruising coastal California by car can be the vacation itself. Our second stop: Huntington Beach, better known as "Surf City, USA." Despite Clayton Parker’s delightful 2002 mural of Huntington Beach, America’s Surf City is a lot more than an old-fashioned day at the beach. There is so much more going on in this city that lies 25 miles south of Redondo Beach. City? It is indeed a city, with a population of about 200,000, compared with its relatively small neighbor Redondo Beach. Despite its larger size, Huntington Beach readily captures the feel of small town America.

Everyone here seems to know everyone else -- especially if they surf. Surfers are royalty in this town. For example, Tom Blake’s hollow 1930s paddleboard, for example, hangs on the wall above the reception desk at the Waterfront Beach Resort.

Wander out on to the hotel’s patio and across the Pacific Coast Highway you’ll see the famous 1970s “Ultimate Challenge” statue by artist Edmund Shumpert. The piece captures the almost ballet-like skills of man riding the wave. Walk a few minutes north to the corner of Main Street and you’ll find another Shumpert statue in front of Huntington Surf and Sport. The figure is the acclaimed Duke Kahanamoku, presiding over the Surfers’ Hall of Fame.

Although the museum has future plans to have a larger building near the pier, the present International Surfing Museum is located in a former doctor’s office. The outside wall bears a colorful 1996 mural by D.J. Mac; the inside is a rabbit warren of twisting passages and you can well imagine patients going from one room to another. Inside the door, the Silver Surfer rides the wave. Made of 550 pounds of fiberglass, the piece was created by Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in 1966, then used for a Fox Studios’ “Fantastic Four” film in 2007. Eventually, the sculpture ended up on an eBay auction. The successful bidder mounted the Silver Surfer on the roof of his trailer, but when other trailer park residents objected he was finally donated the piece to the museum.

The International Surfing Museum is fun; it’s a museum that smiles. But it has its serious side, too. Tributes to Kahanamoku line one wall. The bust was mounted originally at the base of the Huntington Beach Pier, but was removed for safety after a destructive storm in 1989. The music offerings of Dick Dale and the Del Tones, and the Beach Boys recall earlier times, even as displays show the development of the surf board and film clips the history of the sport. The guest book shows an entry from one Robin Z of Long Beach: “See what makes surfers do the wild and crazy things they do even while being astronauts, physicists, doctors, lawyers, fighter pilots and bums like me.”

Long a haven for surfers, Huntington Beach is also a place for walkers. The downtown is quite compact. A wander around the downtown area should start at the 100-year-old pier -- 1,853 feet in length, it’s the longest municipal pier of its type in the state of California. Henry Edwards Huntington, the railroad millionaire who developed the Los Angeles street railway system, brought his Pacific Electric Red Car line here in the early 1900s, when promised the town would be called after him. This initially helped the town grow, but by 1905 economic progress had stalled.

“Out of the Past” an article published in Orange Coast Magazine in December 1989, tells the fascinating tale of how two local businessmen once sold copies of 16-set Encyclopedia Americana at a discount to customers of they also purchased land in Huntington Beach. The lots were two-and-a-half miles from the beach, in gullies and canyons that were considered worthless -- until 1920, when the oil well Bolsa Chica No. 1 came in with “a roar that could be heard for 15 miles.” Some of those who had merely bought the land because they wanted the encyclopedias for their children ended up getting rich as result.

Writer Chris Epting, author of “Huntington Beach, Then & Now,” accompanied us around town as a guide. Pointing to the junction of the Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, he said: “A payphone once stood at that spot that had the largest use and was the most profitable in the United States. It was used by prospectors calling in their oil claims.”

We pass the Community Bible Church across the street from the Beach Court bungalow where, say guide books, Judy Garland came to wrestle with her fame and dry out. The church lot was donated by a family who had hoped in vain that oil might lie below. There were so many places of worship here that Orange Street was once called Church Row.

Huntington Beach offers visitors so much to see and do, from simply sitting under an umbrella on the beach and meditating about life to activities such as a Segway tour with Jack O’Brien, owner of GW Segway Tours, or stand-up paddle board lessons from Rocky McKinnon, or surfing lessons at Toes on the Nose Waterfront Adventures -- or even recapturing your childhood with sandcastle-building lessons from Marc Africano and his wife Michelle at Dig It! Sandcastles.

Asked how he got started in the business of sandcastle building, Africano replies, “I was building a sandcastle with my little one. A woman went past, stopped and said, ‘How much d’you charge for a children’s party?’ I looked up and said, ‘A hundred dollars an hour.’ ‘Done!’ she said, ‘I’ll take three hours!’ And ever since I’ve never had to advertise.”

Classic places to eat in Huntington Beach include lunch at Fred’s Mexican Café on Pacific Coast Highway, or across the street at Sandy’s Beach Grill. Both use fresh local produce. (There was once a Sandy but there never was a Fred!)

We stayed at the Waterfront Beach Resort and with some guests took advantage of an excursion to the Beach Farmer’s Market with executive chef Jeff Littlefield. We went shopping, and then returned to the hotel for Littlefield’s cooking demonstration, using our freshly bought fruits and vegetables. Our hotel concierge also arranged a Surf City Bonfire and Dinner with long-established Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, the finale being when we were handed roasting sticks along with marshmallows, chocolate and Graham Crackers. A harpist, Katrina Saroyan, played softly in preparation for a wedding as the sun sank surprisingly fast into the Pacific Ocean.

More "Great Drives and Destinations" on the California coast:

  • Redonodo Beach
  • Irvine

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.