YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Road trip

Sunset Beach: mating earth and sea

May 22, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

To the show-biz set, "Sunset Beach" triggers memories of the short-lived TV soap opera, in which women were inseminated with turkey basters and drinks were spiked with "Niagra." But to nature lovers, surfers or day-trippers eager to leave city life behind, the town from which the show lifted its name is one of Orange County's best-kept secrets. Less than an hour's drive from Los Angeles, it's still flying under the radar.

An unincorporated area abutting Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach is only 1.2 miles long, sandwiched between Bolsa Chica State Beach to the south and Seal Beach to the north. For residents -- a mix of the beach crowd and the affluent (inhabiting multimillion-dollar houses along Huntington Harbor) -- life centers along Pacific Coast Highway where signs for massages, psychics and seafood abound.

Around the early 1900s, weekend cottages and local businesses sprang up along Henry E. Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway tracks. Though oil was discovered there, the town has not been gentrified and remains uncrowded -- unlike Huntington Beach.

"This is a sleepy little town and the people here do our best to keep it that way," said Pat Milavich, manager of Sam's Seafood -- a kitchy 80-year-old Tahitian-style restaurant that doesn't appear to have changed much since moving to its present location in 1945. "We're more laid-back than Seal Beach and less developed than Huntington Beach, which is positioning itself as a vacation destination to rival nearby Newport Beach."

Surfing the waves

It's not for nothing that the Beach Boys included Sunset in the lyrics of "Surfin' USA," a laundry list of the world's primo surfing spots. The 45-acre stretch of beach accepts swells from all directions, surfers note, which makes it a prime destination. At Surfside, where big south swells hit the jetty, the action is even better. Both are good alternatives to Huntington Beach, where 10-foot breakers and strong rip tides can create un-surfable walls in the summer. One hitch: Surfside is a private community, so you can't drive inside the lot. Try parking at Sunset and walking north a bit for public access to the beach.

Au natural

Across from the 3-mile-long Bolsa Chica State Beach (with its walking and biking trail), is the 1,000-acre Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a favorite with joggers and "birders."

"Aside from the beach, it's the closest thing to being in nature in this concrete jungle we live in," says Westminster resident Ron Rowan, a part-time forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service who has spotted mallards, rabbits and gopher snakes in his daily visits to the wetlands. Starting at the Warner Avenue parking lot, he hikes (just under a mile) to the 1.5-mile loop trail that begins at PCH.

Suzanne and Dan Bowers are frequent visitors to the reserve, so it was a mandatory stop on their recent two-day honeymoon.

"In bird circles and to locals, this place is well-known, one of the best reserves in the state," Suzanne Bowers said, focusing her binoculars on a Caspian tern. "On a good winter day, you can spot 50 to 60 species."

For Fido

Though dogs (or bikes, for that matter) are not permitted on the ecological reserve, nearby Huntington Central Park is more welcoming. At one end (off Edwards Street), there's a fancy dog park with separate runs for large and small breeds and a walk of fame in which clay tiles commemorate beloved pets. And off Goldenwest Street, there's the Park Bench Cafe (a frequent haunt for members of the Bassett Hound Club), which in addition to its people fare features Rover Easy (scrambled eggs) and Bow Wow Wow (chunky chicken) on its Doggie Menu. Human beings can nibble on the cafe's famed cinnamon rolls before heading for the park's walking paths, disc-golf course, or riding stables, where horses can be rented. There's even catfish and bass fishing in the park's small lake.


Captain Jack's, known for its crab legs, is an upscale but casual seafood restaurant that comes highly recommended. But locals generally head for the Harbor House Cafe, a diner-like spot lined with movie memorabilia that serves salads, burgers and 26 varieties of omelets 24 hours a day. It's on Pacific Coast Highway next to the Sunset Beach water tower -- a 90-foot-tall landmark.

Built in the 1890s to supply water for steam trains between San Diego and Los Angeles, the structure is now the home of former Lynwood fire chief David Wallace. The three-story house was built to order and hoisted up with a crane. But beware. The occupant reportedly doesn't take kindly to passersby ringing the bell.

Los Angeles Times Articles