The wild coast of California, with its long white sands, surfers and never-ending breakers, is familiar from song lyrics and movies. To experience it for real, check out these four San Diego beaches
You've heard the song lyrics, now here's the real thing: the inspiration for all those calls to go surfin' USA. This quick tour of San Diego's beaches will give you a real taste of what California's mighty coastline has to offer.
Owned by the University of California, this used to be famous as one of America's few topless beaches – but that was in another, less conservative, era. The road, which is barred to cars, leads circuitously and steeply to the shore under great cliffs. It leads off from La Jolla Farm Road where it meets Blandford Road. On my visit, there are only expert surfers on the beach – dotted about like sea birds on the advancing high rollers. They look dedicated and awesomely fit, giving out a feeling of being in touch with the world – and they stand out a mile because of it. In the middle of summer, it can get busy with tourists even here (more than 26 million people visit San Diego each year) but if you want to get in touch with the mighty Pacific Ocean in all its glory, Black's Beach will do it for you.
La Jolla Cove
A suburban beach, this is popular with families and young surfers. Most people stay firmly rooted on the sand; the water is cold right through to almost the end of summer, as it gradually warms up after its long journey from Alaska. Here, you are closer to the city of San Diego – so if you are looking for quiet deserted beaches, this is not the place. However, it's a good location in which to experience the relaxed, easy-going lifestyle of the California suburbs. As always, an initial reluctance to enter the sea gives way to a feeling of freedom once you are in the rising and falling waves. The surf is strong: it can beat you back, drive you, turn you upside down in the lash of the breaking waves.
If you want a hotel close by the beach, the San Diego Marriott La Jolla will meet all your requirements. It overlooks La Jolla Cove and surrounding beaches but has its own pools and shops. If you prefer a smaller, European-style hotel, the 23-bedroom La Jolla Inn on Prospect Street offers Pacific Ocean views from its light and airy rooms. Little touches such as hand-made quilts and a positive profusion of flowers on your sea-view balcony will make you feel right at home.
Silver Strand Beach
More isolated from the city, this beach is reached off Highway 75 after crossing the spectacular 150ft-high bridge linking San Diego and Coronado. On the two-mile-long Silver Strand, you can catch sight of porpoises, dolphins and (in January) whales as they head south from the Arctic to their breeding grounds. Here, you can also feel the full blast of the mighty Pacific – not always as calm as its name would suggest. As in much of southern California, you are quite far south and it's important to realise that the sun is a lot fiercer than it initially appears. For the first few days, apply sun lotion religiously every hour, on the hour, if you are not to end up being treated for sunstroke or sunburn in the local outpatients' department. Easy does it.
It's surprising that one of San Diego's main beaches can be so relatively undeveloped and unspoilt. Look out, however, for the great strands of seaweed that come ashore each day and are efficiently cleared by beach tractors early each morning. This is a long stretch of white sand with some sheltering cliffs at its northern end. You can spend a rewarding day in relative seclusion here, getting into beach life on the sand or watching it from one of the bars and cafes that lie behind the promenade. This promenade is a constant parade of joggers, cyclists and California characters; some of the rougher ones are obviously sleeping out. Here, you will find a whole panoply of eating and drinking temptations, all at surprisingly good prices.
You are spoilt for choice for accommodation, too. My own favourite is the Pacific Sands Motel, right on the beach at Ocean Boulevard – but if you are into luxury living at a boutique-style hotel, the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter will take your breath away. There is no pool at this Marriott, but you are close to the beach as well as the attractions of Sea World and San Diego Zoo (both highly recommended attractions) – and you can survey San Diego Bay from the rooftop bar, which has sweeping views.
Right on Pacific Beach itself, the Lahaina Beach House (858 270 3888) at 710 Oliver Avenue is a great place to hang out with a beer and a view of the ocean, as you listen to the local radio blasting out, "If you don't play us loud, something doesn't seem quite right." This place is a must for anyone wanting to get in touch with the essential California of surfing beaches, a laidback lifestyle and a whole summer of fun. With Mexico just 10 miles south, the USA relaxes and lets it all hang loose in San Diego.