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Encinitas: The Crown Jewel of SoCal Surf Towns

Story by Michael Ciaramella

Encinitas is the type of place you could leave your wetsuit out drying overnight without the fear of someone nicking it.

At 18 years old, I moved from New Jersey to San Diego with two goals in mind: 1. Surf fun waves every day and 2. Be relatively warm while doing so. I suppose getting a college degree was also part of the equation, but in this instance university acted as a means to an end, rather than a standalone goal.

My school of choice, the University of California San Diego, was and is the best damn surf college in the nation. Located in La Jolla, UCSD sits atop California’s premier surf break and nudist paradise, Blacks Beach. As a campus-dwelling freshman and sophomore, I would make daily treks down the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” — a treacherous cliffside path that leads to the ideal portion of Blacks Beach — to get my surfing fix. When it came time to graduate, I was indecisive about almost every aspect of my life, but one thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to leave San Diego. Surfing Blacks every day was too damn fun.

But where’s a boy to go in San Diego’s sprawling metropolis? I was twenty-two years old, had an effectively useless degree in hand (Hot college tip: if you want a job post-graduation, best not to study social sciences.), and no real place to be in the world. I knew I wanted to stay in the San Diego region, but the options were overwhelming. As I went through my rolodex of coastal San Diegan towns, the answer eventually jumped out at me.

La Jolla is too expensive and too close to UCSD, I thought to myself. I should branch out.

Pacific Beach is exciting, but it’s essentially a college/party town. And I’m an adult now!

Point Loma? Pretty cool place, and right on top of some killer waves, but my knees can’t bear the burden of those hills.

Hmmm… what about Encinitas? It’s got plenty of surf, a friendly atmosphere, and a burgeoning mid-20s scene. It’s a step up from PB’s college trashiness and a step down from La Jolla’s coin-fed snootery. I could still get to Blacks in 15 minutes and Lower Trestles in 30, and my beloved Baja is less than an hour away without traffic. Best of all, Encinitas is the type of place you could leave your wetsuit out drying overnight without the fear of someone nicking it.

So Encinitas it was. Let me introduce you to my little slice of heaven.

Cardiff and Leucadia

Encinitas is a beach community comprised of a town center and two main subsections, Cardiff and Leucadia. When asked about their place of residence, Enci locals will often state their subsection as opposed to just "Encinitas", for reasons of both specificity and pride. This isn’t a dis to Encinitas as a whole, but rather a nod to their specific zip code.

Cardiff, the southernmost faction of Encinitas, begins at Seaside State Beach and stretches up to Swamis (or Santa Fe Drive, if we’re going inland). Cardiff is known as an exceptionally mellow and family-friendly zone, with an elementary school overlooking the Pacific and a small-but-bustling shopping center in the heart of the town. Another major draw to the region is the San Elijo Campground, which overlooks Cardiff Reef.

Downtown Encinitas is the most commercial part of town, and it resides between Santa Fe Drive and La Costa Avenue. One of Enci’s major social hubs is the Encinitas Community Park, which has a playground, a giant pupper field, and a highly-frequented skate park. Encinitas also has an ocean-view library and a weekly farmer’s market, but perhaps its most iconic feature of the town is the La Paloma Theater. The old-timey auditorium has been around since 1928 and is used, more often than not, for culturally relevant films and/or surf movie premieres. If you haven’t been to a flick at La Paloma Theater, I’m afraid you can’t consider yourself an Encinitas local.

Leucadia resides on the northside of Encinitas, ranging from Leucadia Boulevard to La Costa Avenue, and it has a reputation as the quirkiest part of Encinitas. Despite its affluence, Leucadia prides itself in being a little rougher around the edges than the rest of Enci, which is visible through its housing and commercial district. Apartments are aplenty, there’s an actual RV park, and the community rallies behind places like Surfy Surfy (a funky surf shop right next to Coffee Coffee), Lou’s Records, and the 454 Tattoo Shop. Most 20-something Enci residents live in Leucadia because it’s got a little bite and a lotta bars.

A Place Rich in Waves

Over the years, I’ve found Encinitas to be rich in wave quantity but middle-to-lower class in wave quality. That’s not to say that the spots don’t have their days, but in my experience, it’s rare to find properly pumping surf in Enci.

Alternatively, Rob Machado considers the stretch of waves between Seaside and Swamis his favorite zone in California. He calls it the “Miracle Mile” (which, sorry Rob, it’s actually two miles) and to prove his Cardiff allegiance Rob bought a giant house overlooking the spread. There are between 10 and 15 different surf breaks along the “Miracle Mile” depending on how you splice them. Some of the most notable ones include:

Seaside Reef: a primarily left-breaking wave, Seaside is shallow at the start but goes deep after one or two sections. Once the wave reaches the inside track, it hits a shallow sandbar and reforms to produce a vertical end-section. Seaside is considered the go-to spot for Cardiff’s most talented surfers, Machado included. Downsides include paid parking and merciless locals.

Cardiff Reef: A historic right-hand point, Cardiff Reef is typically the most crowded break along the “Miracle Mile”, and the majority of its users prefer longboards to performance crafts. Overall it’s a long, slopey wave that lends itself mostly to beginners.

Swamis: Probably the best wave in Cardiff, Swamis can be an incredible right point when the conditions align. In order to catch it cooking, Swamis needs a big, clean swell and a lethal low tide. On a solid set wave, it’s possible to get barreled out the back and unleash as many as five turns through the inside section. That is if you can dodge 80 fun-boarders in the process...

Beyond Cardiff to the north, which, if you’ll recall, leads us to downtown Encinitas, the waves become slightly less impressive. In fact, they’re so unimpressive that I’ll list only one:

D Street/Moonlight: The premier spot for Enci locals, D Street is just a typical beach break that for whatever reason is better than others in the region. It’s common to find a host of young rippers shredding The D on any given day.

Heading north once more we hit Leucadia, where old, rocky outcroppings provide a slight reprieve from long-period swells. In this part of town there are two main spots, which can be summed up thusly:

Grandview: A mushy reef break with occasionally fun peaks and abysmal parking. For whatever reason, Grandview has faced a serious car break-in problem of late, and even a recent kidnapping attempt.

Stone Steps: This rolling wave is a historical haven for longboarders, with the Stone Steps Invitational offering decades of entertainment for local surfers and spectators. While it’s not the best wave in Encinitas, Stone Steps’ roots are deeply embedded in the town’s history.

Aside from the waves themselves, Encinitas surf culture is similar to most regions in Southern California — depending on where you go, what you look like, and how you surf, you can either have great or terrible experiences with the locals. Most of the regulars are kind and happy to chat, but there are a few individuals who have, for better or worse, brought the territorial aspect of surfing into Encinitas waters. It’s pretty easy to spot these guys, so if you don’t want to deal with them, either surf somewhere else or stay out of their way.

Before we move on, I’d be remiss not to mention the mascot of Encinitas surf culture — the Cardiff Kook. Nestled just north of Cardiff Reef on Highway-1, the Cardiff Kook is a comically designed statue of a surfer riding a wave. The way he stands on the board is so aesthetically preposterous, that locals can’t help but make fun of the poorly-designed hunk of metal. Over time its kookiness has been embraced by the locals, who refer affectionately to the Kook and often adorn him in culturally relevant attire (Santa gear in December, stars and bars on the 4th of July, and so forth.) Despite the statue being property of the township, this practice of dressing the Kook in ridiculous garb isn’t even considered vandalism, it’s just an expression of love for the good ol’ town of Cardiff.

The Best of Encinitas 

Travelers be warned — Encinitas contains more than enough coffee shops, restaurants and bars to justify a week-long visit. Here are a few of, but not even close to my entire list of favorites:

Cardiff

  • Pacific Coast Grill: Boasting the best ocean views in town, PCG is a classy dinner spot with a bevy of incredible seafood dishes. I’d recommend the lobster bisque and the PCG Roll.
  • The Shanty: A proper dive-bar, Shanty is for those who prefer a cold beer and a game of pool with friends over the chaos of a typical bar or club.
  • VG Donuts: A new installment in Cardiff, VG’s “crumb raised” donut is the best I’ve ever had.
  • Papalecco: This Italian cafe has ridiculously creamy gelato. It’s a must-try or my fellow sweet-toothers.
  • Zumbar Coffee and Tea: This coffee bar is clean, easy, and hip. Also the almond croissant is to die for.
  • Seaside Market: The Market’s most famous product is called “Cardiff Crack”, a locally-seasoned Tri-tip that is beyond palettal comprehension. Rumors swirl of individuals requesting Crack deliveries from all over the country.

Downtown Encinitas

  • The Taco Stand: This place typically has a line out the door, and for good reason. Baja-level tacos reside within.
  • Shelter: This cleverly-titled club is known for its roofless aesthetic (you can see the stars while seeing double!), and it’s where all the hot 20-somethings go to party on the weekend.
  • EVE: All vegan, totally delicious, and with a stunning interior design. Lots of cute girls eat here, too.
  • Encinitas Swirl: Because froyo is important, and they have fresh fruit.

Leucadia

  • Le Papagayo: Dinner and a show! Le Paps has live music all the time, and their menu has such depth it’ll make your head spin. I’d recommend choosing two delicious starters rather than an entree.
  • Mozy Cafe: Caribbean-inspired breakfast with a healthy twist. The plantains will moisten your palette!
  • Coffee Coffee: Beyond the quality brews, Leucadians find Coffee Coffee to be a highly suitable workspace.
  • O’Hurley’s: Another dive bar, because I love them. O’Hurley’s has a competitive billiards scene if you’re into that kind of thing.

My barometer for the Community

So why do I still, after two years in Encinitas, hold the belief that this small California town is a special place. 

An anecdote

Remember earlier, when I was talking about leaving my wetsuit out to dry overnight? Well if someone told me that it’s stupid to leave my wetsuit hanging on the front porch, and that it’s just a matter of time before someone nicks it, I’d say “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

And if the day comes when my wetsuit is stolen, maybe I’ll learn my lesson. But for now that wetsuit acts as my barometer for community and respect. In my eyes it’s the people that make the town, and in two years, not one of Encinitas’ 64,000 residents has breached the unspoken contract of neoprene etiquette. In other words, a wetsuit over the front wall is my way of saying: I love you, Encinitas. Never change.