This season of the year it's the county and state beaches that draw most visitors to a fast-growing area north of San Diego, known as San Dieguito. But you'll find other enticements besides the seashore.
A leisurely drive along a five-mile section of the old coast highway takes you to spectacular cliff-top lookouts and picnic places, flower nurseries, gift and antique shops, and eateries of all kinds.
Follow San Diego County Road S21 (old U.S. 101) to explore the rapidly changing coastal communities of Leucadia, Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Solana Beach. A boom is on in these beachside enclaves that had managed to keep a 1950s appearance until recently.
Much of the building is inland along Interstate the San Diego Freeway, but vintage sections of the towns have begun to take on modern looks, too. Mom-and-pop lodgings are making room for chain motels and fancier accommodations, and sleek shopping plazas are moving in on rustic stores that line the old highway.
Plan a trip before the area has entirely new identities; Solana Beach became incorporated this month and Leucadia, Encinitas and Cardiff will be unified as one city Oct. 1.
To see San Dieguito in transition, drive south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 and turn west on La Costa Avenue just after crossing Batiquitos Lagoon.
You'll pass some of the greenhouses of flower growers who have made Leucadia-Encinitas the flower capital of the Southland, then turn left on Old Highway 101 into Leucadia.
Almost immediately on your right is the entrance to Harbor House, a hilltop restaurant featuring seafood and views of the lagoon and ocean. It's open for Sunday brunch and daily for lunch and dinner.
Tall eucalyptus trees border the highway, which parallels the Santa Fe railroad tracks through the four coastal communities and beyond.
You'll see an assortment of antique shops along the road, which is a block away from Leucadia State Beach. Turn right up Leucadia Boulevard to Neptune Avenue where there's a cliff-top viewpoint with parking and steep steps down to the sand.
South on Neptune Avenue are turnoffs at north and south El Porto leading to long stairways to Seaside Gardens Beach, a county park.
If you stay on Old Highway 101, just beyond Leucadia Boulevard look for the arches of Leucadia Plaza, home of a popular Italian restaurant called When In Rome. Dinner is served there daily--except Mondays--beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Beyond is the Pannikin, a favorite stop for coffee and light meals in a turn-of-the-century railroad depot. You'll see the renovated station at the current boundary between Leucadia and Encinitas, soon after the four-lane highway narrows to two.
At the intersection with Encinitas Boulevard, turn right on B Street which dead-ends at Moonlight State Beach, the widest stretch of sand along this rocky coast. Families like it for swimming and picnicking; walk down from the parking lot.
You can stroll along trails to view hundreds of native and imported plants and trees in Quail Botanic Gardens, a county nature center a mile inland. Detour east on Encinitas Boulevard under the freeway, then go left on Quail Gardens Drive.
These impressive public gardens cover nearly 30 acres and serve as a bird and wildlife sanctuary, too. Parking costs $1 but entry is free. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
A block west of the freeway on Encinitas Boulevard you'll pass one of the area's nicest lodgings, Sanderling Place, a 96-room luxury inn. Rooms with continental breakfast begin at $100. Reservations: (619) 942-7455. The inn's Boat House restaurant serves Sunday brunch and lunch and dinner daily.
Back on the old coast highway, which is called First Street in Encinitas, continue south to Piret's, a delightful bistro with an adjacent cookware shop, Perfect Pan. They're in the Lumberyard, a block-long shopping plaza that has other dining places such as Kiplings and Old Town Mexican Cafe with patio service.
You also can eat outdoors across the highway at St. Germain's Cafe in the Old Market, another complex of shops. Just down the street is Portofino's Italian restaurant where you'll want to dress up for dinner, served nightly except Mondays.
Architecture reminiscent of India marks a religious retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship that established a compound at the southern edge of Encinitas in 1937. Its gardens are open to the public daily--except Mondays--from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Beyond the retreat is a turnoff from the old coast highway to Sea Cliff County Park, where ocean-view picnic areas on the bluff overlook Swami's Beach, a top surfing area.
In Cardiff-by-the-Sea the road widens to four lanes as it passes San Elijo State Beach, always crowded because of its 171 coastal camping sites. Reservations: (800) 952-5580.
The highway descends to sea level and narrows again past easily accessible Cardiff State Beach. A major attraction there is Cardiff's restaurant row that boasts Charlie's, the Triton and Chart House on the beach, and Bella Via and Fish House West across the road.
After passing San Elijo Lagoon the highway rises again into Solana Beach. Turn right on Plaza Street to reach Solana Beach County Park with an aerial view of the Pacific and steps down the cliffs to the sand.
If you go inland from the same intersection on Lomas Santa Fe Drive, it leads to Interstate 5 for the return trip to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to enjoy the old and new of San Dieguito is 250 miles.