It's the avocado capital of the state, maybe even the world, but you aren't likely to stumble across Fallbrook by accident.
Fifteen miles east of Oceanside, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, Fallbrook is a well-kept secret. Local folklore has it that Fallbrook residents lobbied Caltrans to keep any mention of their cozy, rural enclave off Interstate 15.
Those who do find Fallbrook generally swoon over it.
"The setting we have, with oaks, sycamores, a stream right through the property, the avocado grove and total privacy--that's what sold us," said Bob Gabel, who moved to Fallbrook from Manhattan Beach with his wife, Kathy, last fall. Their property is just east of the village-like heart of town, near Live Oak Park.
"I always told my husband I never wanted to be away from the ocean, but I don't really miss it at all," Kathy said.
"If I want to go to the beach, it only takes 30 minutes to get to Oceanside. Manhattan Beach is getting a lot of yuppies. I loved it, but it was kind of hard to get to know people. Here, it just seems like a friendlier, down-home atmosphere. I feel a lot more comfortable."
Friendly neighbors are only one reason people fall for Fallbrook. Another is the setting. Rows of avocado trees and groves of eucalyptus soften the contours of low rolling hills, and gnarled coast live oaks line hidden valleys.
Warm days make it possible to tee off at several local golf courses all year long, and cool nights are just right for sitting by the fireplace. County zoning preserves space and privacy by keeping lots in most areas of Fallbrook to at least an acre.
Fallbrook is known as a retirement community, but it is also home to a small number of people who commute to work in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County. 'It's not really a bedroom community," says Tom Keelgan, a local real estate agent.
The village at the center of town is the kind of place many Southern Californians have never experienced. A main street called Main Street has wide sidewalks that carry you past such local institutions as The Enterprise (the local newspaper), Roger's Barber Shop, Village Stationers, Fallbrook Pharmacy, Main Avenue Books and Square One Restaurant, which serves hearty meat loaf and other nightly specials to locals who frequent the place.
Fallbrook was founded in 1885, and there are still a few storefronts on Main Street from the early days.
Of course, such an idyllic escape hatch as Fallbrook hasn't gone unnoticed, especially in crowded Southern California. Since 1970, the population of the Fallbrook area, including the small nearby communities of Bonsall and Rainbow, has grown from 12,038 to 34,600, and McDonald's, Sizzler and Del Taco have come to town.
Projections indicate a local citizenry of 38,700 by the year 2,000. The good news is that there are still no parking meters.
Fallbrook's economy mixes retailing, tourism, agriculture and real estate, and there are signs of future growth into corporate business. Hewlett Packard bought 400 acres just outside town in the early 1980s, but has yet to build on the property.
Although avocados have been the main local cash crop since the first grove was planted in 1912, Fallbrook growers also produce citrus, macadamia nuts, strawberries and tomatoes.
Many who move to Fallbrook find themselves making radical lifestyle changes. Bob Gabel, for example, went from Los Angeles fireman to gentleman rancher, tending two acres of avocado trees surrounding the motor home where he and his wife live while he remodels their low, concrete block house.
The Gabels investigated several retirement possibilities. Kathy Gabel was set on moving to another beach community until they visited Fallbrook. Soon, they had sold their compact beach home on a 40-by-118 lot for $625,000 and bought a three-bedroom fixer house on 3.8 acres in Fallbrook--for about half the price.
Like the Gabels, George and Annie Waibel are retirees who fell in love with Fallbrook on first sight while searching for an escape from urban chaos, in their case in Orange County.
"We just decided one day we wanted to get out of that rat race in the city," said Annie Waibel, whose husband retired after working for the state of California and the U.S. Navy and owning a small business.
"We had been taking little trips, looking around. We first saw Fallbrook last February," she said. "I like the laid-back atmosphere. There's no rush, people don't hurry. It's really peaceful and quiet."
The Waibels sold a 1,580-square foot house in the Orange County community of Rossmoor for $350,000 and bought 2 1/4 acres in Fallbrook with a four-bedroom country-style house for $320,000.
Waibel spends his days taking care of his "ranch." An acre of avocado trees had been destroyed by root rot, and he plans to replace them with eucalyptus. He hopes to sell eucalyptus clippings to nurseries.