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Girls' Getaway to the Coast

Moms find tranquillity at a charming motel and kid-friendly restaurants, while daughters discover the delights of a quiet beach the right distance from home


SAN CLEMENTE — With our 4-year-old daughters tugging us onward, my friend Tami Dennis and I boarded the 7:20 p.m. southbound train, duffel bags slung over our shoulders, a beach ball cradled in my arm. We collapsed into facing seats and exchanged looks of exhaustion and relief. We'd made it.

From that moment on, our goal was to forget the clock. We planned to spend an entire weekend without schedules, commitments or chores, just hanging out in the quiet beach town of San Clemente and letting the kids set the pace.

As a single mother, I've learned two essential rules for travel: Keep it simple, and bring a playmate. Anything too complicated, especially without the distraction of a young buddy, invariably brings on whining, tantrums and vows never to leave home again.

If simplicity is the target, you can't do much better than San Clemente. Set at the southern tip of Orange County just before it runs into the open expanse of Camp Pendleton, the city of 50,000 is a gem of twisting streets, ocean views and historic Spanish Revival architecture.

Outsiders may know it best as the site of Richard Nixon's "Western White House." But to those who live there, San Clemente harks back to another piece of California history--a time of long boards, Beach Boys ballads and coastal real estate that average people could afford.

All that, and not a major museum, amusement park or mega-shopping mall for miles. Just a pier, a pristine beach, the occasional blare of a passing train and a few modest but charming restaurants. Ah, tranquillity.

OK, I admit, I felt a momentary tug of panic that Friday night. What if we got bored? What if our children, VCR-less for the weekend, grew restless? But those concerns quickly melted away as our train clacked south out of L.A.'s Union Station.

My daughter, Kevyn, and her friend, Erin, busied themselves with Beanie Babies, stickers and coloring books, pausing now and then to watch the passing landscape and the changing colors of the evening sky. Lulled by the rocking of the train, Tami and I were content to lean back and watch.

At 75 minutes, the trip is a perfect match for the attention spans of young children. Before they even thought about fighting over Osito, the red bear, our train had pulled into the San Juan Capistrano depot a few miles north of San Clemente.

Amtrak stops at the San Clemente pier, but only twice a day in each direction. In hindsight, we should have skipped an afternoon's work and grabbed the 2 p.m. train, which would have put us in our motel with plenty of time to enjoy the sunset. As it was, we were weary--and ravenous--when we stepped off the train.

Fortunately, the San Juan depot is home to Sarducci's, a pleasant, moderately priced Italian restaurant with kids' menus (corn dogs, macaroni and cheese) and a good choice of wines by the glass for moms. Sarducci's also has a cozy private room. Taking one look at our bags and excited children, the hostess quickly ushered us into it and plopped down two sets of crayons and paper.

The menu included seafood pasta and fresh halibut with mango-papaya sauce, but we stuck with relatively light fare: two pasta dishes with vegetables (about $10 each).

Refreshed, we found a chatty cabdriver outside (Michael Andersen is at the train station every night), and five minutes later we were sweeping down San Clemente's main drag toward the pier and our home for the weekend, the Beachcomber Motel.

I lived in San Clemente for a year until the commute to Los Angeles wore me down and convinced me to move north. The day before I left, during a long, last walk on the beach, I looked up to see a rambling whitewashed motel perched on the bluff. Its name and phone number were painted on an upturned rowboat--the motel's only form of advertising. I jotted down the number and vowed to stay there someday.

Ushered into our room that Friday night, I saw that the place was even better than I'd hoped. On a bluff just south of the pier, the Beachcomber has 12 rooms, each with a kitchenette and a comfy porch. The units front a wide lawn with picnic tables and gas grills.

Our unit, No. 12, was one of the largest and most expensive, running about $200 a night on summer weekends (dropping to $165 from Oct. 8 to May 23). A spacious front room had a queen bed and a full couch; the narrow back room had a bunk bed with a double below and a single on top. The small kitchen was stocked with plates, glasses, pots and pans, even a coffee maker and a blender.

Giddy with exhaustion and anticipation, the girls ran from room to room. And so what if they didn't fall asleep till midnight? We had zero planned for the next day.

Saturday morning, late, I opened the vertical blinds on the front room's enormous picture window, and there it was--the ocean. From the bed I could watch a surfer catch a wave. Had we brought coffee and bagels, we could have sat on the porch's plastic chairs for hours. But hunger motivated us to dress and explore.

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