THE HAPPY WANDERER – SURF CITY USA


Still Cool in Surf City USA

People talk about defining moments. For me, it was an ad for Southern California on the back of my Superman comic. The swaying palms, the wispy sky and the bronze bodies were an irresistible image for a girl growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s. I moved west right after college.

It didn’t take long to find the California dream. I bought a blue beach cruiser, a skate board and a lemon yellow surf board and spent almost all my free time trying to master these rides.

Fast forward to last weekend when I got the call to drive my daughter and her friends to Southern California. They must have heard about my cool younger years and wanted me along.

“You’ll find your own things to do, won’t you?” my teenager asked in the sweetest voice possible. Ego slightly bruised, I started coming up with a plan. We’d head for Huntington Beach — Surf City USA.

Little known fact: Huntington Beach was first dubbed “Surf City” by the pop duo Jan and Dean in their 1963 hit by the same name. It’s still a big part of the culture today with over eight miles of sand and surf along a wide stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.

Few things in life are as freeing as surfing. The idea that a person can tap into nature with little more than a board or a body is mind boggling. And we would be surfing in a prime spot, in front of our hotel at the 4-Diamond Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort. Everything would be at our disposal: the beach, the bikes, the surf lessons — even the fire pits for roasting marshmallows at sunset.In my day, we’d have bonfires all night on the beach, playing guitars and burning everything but the kitchen sink to keep the flames going. Then one night a guy actually threw a kitchen sink on the fire — something he’d found in a dumpster nearby. Sans the porcelain fixture, I wanted the girls to have this kind of experience.

“Just have the cruisers back by dark,” said the hotel’s concierge, who was obviously charmed by three college-bound beauties. They were biking to town, just a few blocks away, to scope out the surf shops, burger stops and bikini boutiques. I grabbed the last available cruiser — lime green with a basket — and took the bike path up to Dog Beach, a section of strand where the people watching was primo. Sure enough, some guy was surfing with his dog, a terrier with a blue bandana and sun glasses perched on his snout. In fact, it was the same pooch I saw earlier that day in the elevator at the Hilton. His owner made a point of telling me his dog had a bed in the hotel for $50 a night. “Cheaper than a kennel,” I recall him saying.

About this time, my cell phone chimed with a text message. The girls, who were concerned I’d be “cramping their style,” were checking in. “We’re at the beach. U?” I fired back a cryptic answer: “Going to surf museum, Main & Olive.” I’d heard this museum captured the essence of Huntington Beach with an impressive display of old photos, surf and skate boards and even Jan and Dean’s gold record collection.

Looking at the old album jackets of those surf music icons, it was eerie to think how Jan’s fate so closely paralleled his hit “Dead Man’s Curve.” He’d crashed his car racing on Sunset Boulevard. Dean, on the other hand, went on to be the town’s most celebrated artist, both with music and his graphic designs. And while he hasn’t been spotted “shooting the curl” lately, his band still plays gigs in the area.

Speaking of music, Surf City was heating up. The sidewalk cafes touted Wednesday night specials and even the downtown IHOP was putting out a vibe. About this time, text No. 2 appeared. “We’re hungry. U?” I took that as a cue to meet the girls at Dukes, a popular spot on the pier where we shared a mountain of nachos that had us swearing off food for the rest of the trip.

I’d forgotten, however, just how hungry you get from surfing. An early morning lesson at the Hyatt, next door, had left us ravenous. The girls took off for the Dairy Queen and I headed up the strand to a place I’d heard great things about: Slow Fish. The California Korean fusion didn’t disappoint, with succulent braised short ribs that fell off the bone and a crisp seaweed salad that added just the right amount of tang.

Then it was back to the Hilton for a dip in the pool and wine-tasting on the outdoor patio at Shades, the hotel’s hip beach restaurant with fresh, eclectic offerings like baba ghanoush — roasted eggplant served with grilled vegetables and dipping bread.

As the palm trees danced in the evening breeze, I caught a glimpse of the flickering lights from dozens of tiny bonfires. The girls were out there somewhere, roasting marshmallows and making memories, not unlike the memories I’d made in my youth. I guess that’s why they call it California Dreaming.

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