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A SHOT OF SOUTHERN COMFORT : Casual Avenida del Mar Winds Down to San Clemente's Beach and Pier

March 11, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Sleepy San Clemente isn't so sleepy anymore. The city has undergone phenomenal population growth in the past two decades and no longer resembles one of those hell and gone beach towns on the Central Coast. But it still has the small-town feel.

Avenida del Mar is the unofficial downtown here, a sloping street that makes a beeline down to the city's well-known beach and pier. This is a street that is easy to lose oneself on, lined, as it is, with boutiques, gift stores and other diversions.

9:30 to 10 a.m.: The European Pastry Shop is a local fixture, the place for a hot cup of coffee, a sweet roll and the morning paper. The bakery belongs to a Dutchman named Casey Wilkes. He operates the business with his German wife, Hanna, and their daughter, Lou.

There's a small seating area ideal for lingering over the morning paper. Most people come in for the bakery's killer bran muffins, but I'd choose one of the Dutch specialties. Spice cookies like the bar-shaped Jan Hagel, full of ginger and cinnamon and topped with sliced almonds, or spekallas, crunchy windmill cookies made with clove and allspice, are both great with coffee. You could also sample the heady apple cinnamon bread or one of Casey's good apple turnovers--if you can rationalize something like that this early.

10 to 10:30: Continue your penchant for reading at the Paperback Exchange, a spotless used-book store with more than 30,000 titles. Mary and Jim Schroeder own and run the shop and stock lots of books you won't find in more conventional bookshops--an entire aisle of sci-fi, for instance, another devoted to historical romances. This could be the best organized used-book store in the world. I didn't see a single book out of place on a shelf.

It's also worth noting that the store does trades. Books here are half price to begin with, but if your book is in good condition, you get credit for 25% of the cover price. And if the credit covers the full amount of your purchase, all you have to pay is 25 cents for each book.

10:30 to 11: The Classic Closet happens to be a thrift store, but you'd never know unless you were told in advance. This is a Goodwill Industries store, but it is run like a boutique, and the clothes for sale in here are absolutely elegant.

Take, for example, the shining, sequined ball gown on one rack for $50, the entire rack of politically incorrect fur stoles, an authentic silver tea set, a four-piece set of Givenchy luggage ($50), or something I was tempted myself to buy, a beautiful bed set consisting of pillow shams, sheets and an actual comforter, in perfect condition for only $60.

The store also features and entire case of colorful costume jewelry, a complete line of men's clothes, including ties, sweaters and outerwear and much more. They'll even sell clothes for you on consignment, with a percentage of the profits going to Goodwill.

11 to 11:30: Because Easter is coming, a stop at the White Rabbit, arguably the cutest store on the street, might be in order. Owner Jamie Lewis thinks of her shop as a gift store, but she'll also tell you that it is supposed to be cozy and relaxing. So just come in and browse.

Lewis has stocked her store with rabbits of all shapes and sizes; toys to cuddle, ceramics for decoration, chocolate rabbits you can eat. There are also other gifts, greeting cards, music boxes, children's toys--in short, many things for bridal and baby showers or birthdays.

11:30 to 12:30: There is no better place to while away time than on the elegant patio of the Hotel San Clemente. While doing so, order something at Cafe Calypso, take a seat under your blue parasol and get ready for serious people watching.

The patio is done in the Spanish style; old terra-cotta tiles, a wrought-iron balustrade, a burbling fountain in the center.

The cafe serves a simple menu of sandwiches, like turkey and roast beef, hot soups and good espressos. (If you are more serious about lunch, try an Italian restaurant, Carbonara, directly across the street.) My choice would be to have one of the cafe's fresh fruit smoothies or pressed-to-order carrot juices, however. San Clemente is, after all, a beach town, and it always will be.

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