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BROWSERS WELCOME HUNT FOR TREASURES IN SOLANA BEACH, CEDROS DESIGN DISTRICT.

Byline: STORY AND PHOTOS BY ERIC NOLAND

Travel Editor

SOLANA BEACH -- After a visit to the Cedros Design District in Solana Beach, your digs back home can't help but seem a little drab.

Oh, to have ample budget -- or no conscience -- for a shopping spree here. There's that ceramic urn imported from central Mexico at the Laura y Laura boutique. Or a living room chair beautifully crafted of abaca fiber at Solo. The art-glass pieces at Trios are brilliant when they catch the sunlight just so. And the sublime photography of rural Midwestern scenes at Ordover triggers memories of long-past family trips.

The Cedros is the focal attraction of Solana Beach, a tiny community (four square miles) in northern San Diego County that is often overlooked by travelers more familiar with Carlsbad or Del Mar.

It offers an uncommon shopping experience. Stores occupy a former light-industry district along the railroad tracks. Midcentury buildings have been renovated for retail purposes -- including a signature row of attached Quonset huts. Purveyors are small-scale, independent, devoted to local artists and crafts people ... and clearly are sticklers for supreme quality.

"Things that you can't see at the mall are here," said Mia McCarville, owner of a wondrous nursery called Cedros Gardens. "You don't see shelves and shelves of the same thing. It's more carefully picked by the business owner, and beautifully displayed."

"Each store specializes in a particular niche," added Athena Davis of Trios. "They're all one-of-a-kind."

An Amtrak station -- housed in a stylish building that mimics the Quonset hut architecture -- is right in the midst of the Cedros Design District, so visitors can pop down from Los Angeles without the need of a car. The station was established here in 1995, supplanting Del Mar, and led to a discovery of Solana Beach.

What tourists have found is a beach that abuts crumbling bluffs (and pretty much disappears at high tide), bike lanes, a pedestrian walkway that parallels the tracks, a heritage museum at a nearby park and a peaceful bird sanctuary that sprawls over a river estuary.

But the retail is the primary lure. The boutiques and galleries of the Cedros Design District are a showcase for home decor and furnishings, women's clothing and accessories, artworks in many media and whimsical gifts.

The shops line two long blocks of Cedros Avenue at Lomas Santa Fe Drive (an exit of Interstate 5). Also here are a sprinkling of cafes and the renowned Belly Up Tavern, an outlet for local music acts.

Old-fashioned feel

The Cedros harks to the downtown shopping districts of 40 years ago, before the mall mania of the '70s set in. Visitors stroll unhurriedly along the sidewalks and poke into shops as whim dictates.

Solo's Quonset hut has been beautifully renovated, with skylights high above illuminating furniture, folk art made from everyday items, and a superb collection of Taschen art books and other coffee-table volumes.

Trios displays fine woodwork, ceramic pieces, jewelry, art glass and meticulously crafted furniture. Calling itself a "fine crafts gallery," the shop exhibits the work of some 160 artisans, most of them local.

Laurel Smith and Laurie Wilson make frequent forays to Mexico for their Laura y Laura boutique, and offer pieces for the home that might have had much different uses originally. A sacristry table made of sabina wood, for example, dates to the 19th century, and the scratches and spills of the ages are evident in its surface. A cucucho urn may have held water at Pueblo Michoacan, but it's suitable for decorative twigs in your entry.

Photography is the featured medium at the Ordover, including John D. Clark's stark, black-and-white images of Death Valley and Will Gibson's photos of Midwestern farms, cities, industry and small-town streets.

Our favorite stop was Cedros Gardens, a rambling nursery of organic plants that presents a concerto of bees, birds, wind chimes and bubbling fountains. Transporting plants back home might not be too practical, but this is a great place for garden accessories: bird feeders, mobiles, lanterns, clay pots, rain chains and ornaments. An aviary of twittering zebra finches is sure to command the attention of the youngest visitors.

The Cedros' offerings aren't the least bit conventional, which contributes to its appeal.

The Brighter Side is a boutique for women with cancer. It carries wigs, floppy hats and bathing suits for mastectomy patients.

Out of the Blue, housed in a cottage that dates to the 1920s, is all about beach-house decor -- and doesn't take itself too seriously. It sells seashell-

encrusted furniture (honest), as well as beach signs and buoys and kitchenware. The cluttered yard is home to rusty bed frames, old wheelbarrows and railroad luggage carts. This is clearly the kind of place at which the line between one person's antique and another's junk is blurred, and we found the prices a bit steep.

Working with wood

The Cedros district was once home to woodworking shops, and one exists there today, though decidedly high end. Power saws were whirring in the deeper reaches of Cut & Dried Hardwood when we entered. The displays of wood flooring aren't much use to a leisure visitor -- aside from inspiration for the return home -- but this store also stocks a wealth of decorative hardware that is more easily transportable. If you're looking for particular cabinet pulls, hinges, handles or house numerals, you'll probably find what you're looking for here.

The visitor's experience in the Cedros district is also enhanced by two regular public events, Third Thursdays -- when the boutiques and galleries stay open later than usual, to 8:30 p.m. -- and a farmers' market, held Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.

You'll see mostly local residents at these gatherings, but it's understandable if many tourists haven't found their way to Solana Beach just yet.

"There are no hotels, and there's no place to park," said Derek Downey, a surfer from South Africa who arrived here for a visit 20 years ago and never left. "That's how they keep people out."

That might be a little harsh. The Cedros district, the train station and a couple of chain motels are proof enough that visitors are welcome, but it is true that Solana Beach lacks the lodging options of Oceanside, Carlsbad and Del Mar, and it certainly has no sprawling beach parks.

Or much of a beach at all, for that matter. The town, for which a more apt name would be Solana Bluff, sits atop a coastal mesa whose ocean-facing edge resembles a sand castle -- and is about as stable.

When the tide is up, the waves froth right to the base of that edifice. The trick is to head to the beach at low tide, when you'll find a delightfully uncrowded plain of wet-packed sand, populated by a few surfers, fishermen, exercise enthusiasts and anyone enchanted by a silvery sunset on the water.

Parking is, indeed, at a premium, but a small, reconstructed Fletcher Cove Park at the foot of Lomas Santa Fe Drive is to be unveiled Saturday. It will have a sunset-viewing pedestal, artistic walls that double as benches, a basketball court and a jungle gym.

The cove is named for Col. Ed Fletcher, who decided to do something about that pesky barrier of coastal bluffs in 1924. In an action that would induce apoplexy in today's environmentalists, he used a hydraulic water cannon to blast an opening through the bluffs to the ocean. To this day, it is Solana Beach's only small portal to the sea.

Such history is related inland at La Colonia Park, where the Solana Beach Heritage Museum is housed in a restored 1880s cottage.

Here, you'll learn that the coast road -- State Route 1 then, Highway 101 today -- wasn't paved until 1912 and wasn't strung with electric power lines until 1918. Those events, combined with the construction of Lake Hodges Dam to provide water, sparked the community's rise. You'll probably wince to hear that Fletcher paid just $20 an acre in 1922 to buy most of the land on which the current town stands.

The museum, open the first and third Saturdays of each month for a few hours in the afternoon, is modest in size but impressive in its offerings. It's no mere collection of dusty, inanimate objects. Rather, everything here works.

One side is set up to reflect what a Solana Beach home would have been like before those power poles dotted the highway. The kitchen has a wooden ice box and a hand-crank pump at the sink that actually draws water. The wind-up Edison Home Phonograph plays music on a wax cylinder.

The other side of the house reflects life in about 1930, with a gas range, running water and a player piano that pounds out jaunty tunes.

Green scene

To swap a history immersion for a nature encounter, head to the northern edge of Solana Beach, where the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve protects nearly 900 acres of coastal wetlands.

Many years ago, this mouth of Escondido Creek suffered a triple whammy of transit construction: The Santa Fe Railroad bed all but sealed off its outlet to the ocean, the coast highway created a second barrier, and I-5 was cut through the heart of the wetlands. But today, some 300 bird species call it home, flitting across the waters and resting in stands of native plants.

The Nature Center lies just off Manchester Avenue, and has a self-guided trail that skirts the lagoon and crosses sensitive areas on boardwalks. Guided bird and nature walks are conducted from the Rios Avenue trailhead on the second Saturday of every month.

While here, keep a sharp eye out for the light-footed clapper rail, the snowy plover or perhaps the wandering skipper butterfly. But don't expect quietude. That's a moot issue with those multiple thoroughfares.

The din from I-5 is particularly pronounced.

Most of those vehicles are no doubt speeding south to Del Mar, La Jolla or San Diego proper. Unaware of Solana Beach and all that it has to offer.

eric.noland@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3681

IF YOU GO

CEDROS DESIGN DISTRICT: www.cedrosdesigndistrict.net, (858) 755-0444. Businesses mentioned in the story: The Brighter Side, 439 S. Cedros Ave., www.brighterside.com, (858) 481-7565; Cedros Gardens, 330 S. Cedros Ave., (858) 792-8640, www.cedrosgardens.com; Cut & Dried Hardwood, 241 S. Cedros Ave., www.cutanddriedhardwood.com, (858) 481-0442; Laura y Laura, 404 N. Cedros Ave., www.lauraylaura.com, (858) 692-0220; Ordover, 444 S. Cedros Ave., Studio 172, www.ordovergallery.com, (858) 720-1121; Out of the Blue, 315 S. Cedros Ave., www.shesellsseashells.com, (858) 755-7630; Solo, 309 S. Cedros Ave., www.solocedros.com, (858) 794-9016; Trios, 130 S. Cedros Ave., www.triosgallery, (858) 793-6040.

DINING: Nobu, tucked into a shopping center at 315 S. Highway 101, is not related to the empire of Los Angeles celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, but it's a gem of a suburban Japanese restaurant nonetheless, with some accomplished sushi chefs. The prices are much more reasonable than at those other Nobus, too. www.nobu.signonsandiego.com, (858) 755-7787. Fidel's Little Mexico is a pleasant family restaurant that ranked second last year in our Great Escapes survey of San Diego's fish tacos. 607 Valley Ave. (858) 755-5292. The Beach Grass Cafe is said to be a good spot for casual breakfast or lunch, but we made the mistake of trying it for dinner. They aim high with some ambitious preparations, but we found the execution falls considerably short. 159 S. Highway 101, www.beachgrasscafe.com, (858) 509-0632. For a light breakfast and gourmet coffee in the heart of the Cedros district, try the Zinc Cafe, 132 S. Cedros Ave., www.zinccafe.com, (858) 793-5436. The refreshing microbrews at the Pizza Port are named after local surf breaks: Sharkbite Red, Swami's IPA, Rockpiles Imperial Porter, Old Boneyards Barleywine. The pizza, however, is no better than college-town quality, and the seating is at long communal tables. 135 N. Highway 101, (858) 481-7332, www.pizzaport.com.

LODGING: Options near the beach and the Cedros district are limited to a couple of chain hotels along the coast road. The best of these is a Courtyard by Marriott at 717 S. Highway 101. Our room at the back of the property was blissfully quiet at night, and it's a short walk to a public staircase to the beach. Room rates from $169. (858) 792-8200, www.marriott.com. Next door, at 621 S. Highway 101, is a Holiday Inn Express. (858) 350-0111, www.hiexpress.com.

SAN ELIJO LAGOON

ECOLOGICAL RESERVE: The Nature Center is at 2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff-by-the-Sea (just west of I-5). This is where the self-guided nature trail begins. Nature and bird-watching hikes are conducted at 9 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month from the Rios Avenue Trailhead in Solana Beach (terminus of Rios Avenue on the south side of the lagoon). www.sanelijo.org, (760) 436-3944.

SOLANA BEACH HERITAGE MUSEUM: 715 Valley Ave. (in La Colonia Park). Open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month. Free. (858) 755-2937.

INFORMATION: City of Solana Beach tourism information: www.ci.solana-beach.ca.us, (858) 720-2400. Amtrak: www.amtrak.com, (800) 872-7245. San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.sdcvb.org.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, box, map

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) The restored Quonset huts of the Cedros Design District, below, create a distinctive skyline in Solana Beach. Among the businesses here are the exceptional Cedros Gardens, left, and the quirky Out of the Blue, far left.

(4 -- 5 -- color) Mexican art and furnishings can be perused at the Laura y Laura gallery in Solana Beach, above. The funky Fish Walk sign stands in front of the Belly Up Tavern.

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)

Map:

SOLANA BEACH

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 10, 2007
Words:2296
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