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Endless summer.

For surfside fun, San Diego's Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are as good as it gets

Cruising along Ocean Front Walk on a one-speed bike, I flick the handlebar bell. Ahead of me, a slower-moving knot of pedestrians and cyclists silently drifts right when they hear the sound, like a school of herring about to be passed by a faster tuna.

But I'm not the quickest fish in this sea. A bronzed, long-legged skater zips by me, calling, "On your left, please!"

In San Diego's twin shoreline neighborhoods of Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, we're all in the flow, lean or plump, nearly naked or draped from cap to toes, jostling along miles of boardwalk like multicolored corpuscles, sunglasses on, smiles stretched ear to ear, loving a day full of sun and booming surf, cruising with all our senses.

Why do these two classic Southern California beach neighborhoods draw us back again and again? Is it their cinnamon-roll and burned-burger scents, early-morning fogs, or Coney Island tackiness? What spell does a clattering wood roller coaster cast, luring us once more to the weightless terror of the last seat on the very last car?

Simple but unforgettable memories prevail: Your kids following a conga line of parrots as they take a bayside stroll behind their keeper at the Catamaran Resort Hotel. Building drip-spire sand castles near Crystal Pier. Even prices are a major attraction: at some resorts, rooms and bungalows have kitchenettes, and by the end of a stay you marvel at how little you've spent (relative to Florida or Hawaii) to plunk your brood down with a beach near the door.

Kinetic energy reigns. Thousands of San Diegans and visitors learn to sail on Mission Bay - the beach neighborhoods' watery southern and eastern boundary - whether in competitive Lasers or a picnic-loaded day-sailer. This could be the most benign, dependably breezy warm-water sailing haven in the world, complete with well-landscaped parks for landlubbers. On the ocean side, we bodysurf and boogie-board along a broad long beach, sometimes glimpsing the sun through a backlit, curling emerald wall. We wash the salt from our shoulders under deliciously cool, freshwater outdoor showers. And, of course, around and around we go on the boardwalk.

Decade after decade, through eras of hoop skirts, Gidgets, and - now - bicep-banding tattoos and nose rings, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach have retained the anything-goes atmosphere your parents and grandparents loved. The 20s-and-under crowd is most conspicuous, as it probably always was, but generation gaps get lost in the laidback aura.

"I'm from New York and I went wild with all the things to do here," says Irving Prince, retired 18 years from the luncheonette business - and still spry enough to pedal his one-speed beach cruiser standing up. "I've been riding my bike on the paths here for so many years, my arm gets tired from waving hello."

"I can't go two blocks without seeing someone I know," echoes John Fry, a Pacific Beach resident and author of two local history books. "Then it occurs to me, we've got to be bigger than, say, Helena, Montana."

LEMON TREES AND SURFBOARDS

Approaching the beaches from I-5 through "P.B." as locals call Pacific Beach, you drive west on Garnet Avenue to its end at Crystal Pier. Once you could have ridden an electric car rail line, owned by the Spreckels family of cane sugar fame, along nearby Mission Boulevard. P.B. was founded in 1887, but San Diego's episodic real estate busts stalled growth here in the 1890s, and the first landowners tried to recoup their losses by turning to agriculture. More than 30,000 lemon trees once stubbled the plain east of the beach; a few still provide homeowners with lemonade, but most disappeared under post-World War II residential buildings.

Mission Beach is even more intensely populated than its neighbor. Here, as if to hold the most activity in the smallest space, the peninsula flattens into a 2-mile-long, 1/8-mile-wide strand. In the "courts" of South Mission, tiny patio front yards align narrow sidewalks, not streets. Elsewhere, the strand is tightly packed with restaurants, bike paths, resort hotels (on the bay side), surf and bikini shops, bars, and Belmont Park - home of the historic roller coaster, kiddie rides, and the original Mission Beach Plunge, a huge indoor pool built in 1925.

But for the best sense of the beaches' early days, nothing surpasses Crystal Pier. Built in 1926 to support a dance hall, its pilings fell prey within a year to marine borers. Rebuilt in 1936 sans dance hall - and with properly treated pilings and new cottages - it offered a "sleep above the waves" experience that hasn't changed much to this day.

During the day, anyone, guest or not, can walk out on the pier - one of the best places to watch top-notch surfers up close. Standing by the white rail, you look north to Tourmaline Surfing Park and south to the mouth of the San Diego River. You roll slightly with the glassy green rollers steaming through the rows of pilings. The easy chatter of surfers bobbing in the south swell drifts over, their colorful tribal language a friendly chorus.

"Turn on that motor, Gary!" one shouts to a slowpoke who misses the break. Gary's accuser darts courageously close to the pier, daring its bone-breaking ire, before pulling out.

"As good as it gets!" he exults.

Beach travel planner

The twin beach neighborhoods lie about 7 miles northwest of downtown San Diego. Late spring/early summer mornings often drip with fog, while afternoons tend toward the clear and breezy. Ocean waters warm into the high 60s in May or June.

Discover Pacific Beach (910 Grand Ave., Suite 113; 619/273-3303 and www.pacificbeach.org) offers guides and maps. History buffs will enjoy A Short History of Pacific Beach, by John Fry (John Fry Productions, San Diego, 1995; $5.99; available at Longs Drug Store, 4445 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach; 619/273-0440).

Area code is 619 unless noted.

Attractions

Beach walking and tidepooling. Head north from Crystal Pier. A rocky point past Tourmaline Surfing Park has good tidepooling at low tide.

Belmont Park. Home of a classic wood 'coaster, other carnie rides, and a 175-foot-long indoor pool. Historic Mission Beach Plunge, 3146 Mission, Mission Beach. For public swim hours at the Plunge (admission $2.50), call 488-3110. For carnival ride information, call 488-1549.

Bicycle riding. You'll find lots of bike rental shops. One good place to rent a classic beach cruiser ($5 an hour, $20 all day) is Bicycle Discovery, 742 Felspar St., Pacific Beach; 272-1274.

In-line skating. Rental shops abound, but oldest and largest is Hamel's Action Sports, 704 Ventura Place (west of the roller coasted, Mission Beach. $5 an hour, $10 a day skate rental; 488-5050.

Shore walks. Sidewalks by the sand - for pedestrians, bicyclists, and skaters - ring the 2-mile-long peninsula.

Water sports. Most small-boat activity clusters at El Carmel and Santa Clara points in the Sail Bay area of Mission Bay. If it floats, you can rent it at Mission Bay' Sportcenter, 1010 Santa Clara Place, Mission Beach; 488-1004. Private or group lessons in sailing, surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing, or using personal watercraft. Week-long sailing and surfing youth camps start in June (ages 6-16). You can also rent surfboards at Wind and Sea Surfboards, 3780 Mission, Mission Beach; 488-9374.

Dining

Catamaran Resort Hotel. Huge Sunday brunch buffet - one of San Diego's best - with outdoor seating ($24.95). 3999 Mission, Pacific Beach; 488-1081.

Firehouse Beach Cafe. Teeteringly tall sandwiches served on a sundeck. 722 Grand, Pacific Beach; 272-1999.

Kelly's Simply Fresh Natural Market. Best source for groceries, picnic supplies, and deli ready-mades. 4516 Mission, Mission Beach; 272-8400.

Kono's Cafe. Local favorite: a long line snakes out the door every morning for breakfast, but it moves fast. 704 Garnet, Pacific Beach; 483-1669.

World Famous. Big windows on the beach complement a reliable steak and seafood menu that has occasional flashes of brilliance. 711 Pacific Beach Dr., Pacific Beach; 272-3100.

Zanzibar Cafe. Boho crowd enjoys homemade breads in a grand old brick building. 976 Garnet, Pacific Beach; 272-4762.

Lodging

Peak-season hotel rates apply May (or June in some cases) through August.

Bahia Resort Hotel. On its own peninsula on the bay side. Bungalows, family activities, and some rooms with kitchenettes. From $139. 998 W. Mission Bay, Mission Beach; 539-7620.

Catamaran Resort Hotel. More upscale than the Bahia, but still with a laid-back resort feel. Owners' palm collection lends a South Seas touch. From $149. 3999 Mission, Mission Beach; 488-1081.

Crystal Pier Hotel. Cottages over the surf. From $95. 4500 Ocean Blvd., Pacific Beach; 483-6983.

Pacific Terrace Hotel. One of the best sunset-view hotels in San Diego. From $215. 610 Diamond St., Pacific Beach; 5813500 or (800) 344-3370.

Weekly rentals. Contact Discover Pacific Beach (above) for agency referrals.

Parking strategies

Most attractions and dining options are within walking distance of hotels. Day trippers should plan to arrive by 10 for street parking; no meters, but be aware that many spaces are two-hour maximum. You do not have to be a guest to park at the Catamaran Resort Hotel ($7 a day) close to the beach.
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Title Annotation:San Diego's Mission and Pacific beaches; includes related article on beach travel planner
Author:Jensen, Peter
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:1523
Previous Article:Brick by brick.
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