A few miles north from San Clemente State Beach is the pier area, a part of San Clemente that attracts visitors and locals alike. If you're looking for a weekend getaway, this may well be the spot with its charming village-like atmosphere where you can dine in sidewalk cafes, visit the local market or walk out on the pier for some great views of the surfers and the entire coast. A number of lodgings are available in this area, many with spectacular views of the ocean and pier area.
One of our favorite things to do is to stop at the pier on our way through San Clemente. It's just a little over a mile from the freeway and it's a rewarding mini-getaway just to drop in at Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier and enjoy fresh fish and a microbrew while basking in the sun and soaking up the seaside atmosphere. On a recent weekend, the restaurant's considerable outdoor seating was fully occupied through most of the afternoon, a sign that we're not the only ones who have discovered this delightful seaside respite.
Whether over nighting or day tripping in San Clemente, one of the first things you notice is the Spanish street names. Not uncommon in California, the San Clemente city fathers have taken it one step further with a kind of prohibition against any street name that does not look or sound Spanish. But all of that just adds to the charm and blends well with the Spanish architecture that is so dominant along the gently sloping hillsides of San Clemente.
Come to find out, the Spanish feel of San Clemente is quite intentional and was brought to the city not by some Spanish conquistador, but rather by the former mayor of Seattle. Ole Hanson founded the "Spanish Village by the Sea" way back in 1925 with strict guidelines that called for Spanish colonial architecture with red tile roofs and white plaster. In other words, Hanson proposed a theme town before theme towns were cool.
The town retains a historical flavor and visitors are encouraged to see remnants of the original "Spanish Village by the Sea." The former City Hall is now an antique gallery. Casa Romantica was Hanson's own Spanish compound that he lost in the stock market crash of 1929; it is now owned by the city. A San Clemente visitor center and museum offers visitors a quick overview of the attractions they'll find in San Clemente.
Another thing that becomes obvious is that there are few streets in San Clemente that are straight. Because of the hilly and sloping topography, most roads weave through and around the hills, again adding a special kind of Mediterranean flavor to the town. It may be a little harder to find your way from Point A to Point B, but you will enjoy the figuring out how to get there. And of course it's difficult to get truly lost when the ocean is visible from just about anyplace in town.
While in San Clemente, you'll want to stroll down Avenida Del Mar, where you'll find a wide assortment of shops in a lushly landscaped setting. This is not some famous shopping district with designer stores and celebrities; rather it's Main Street USA with the kind of shopping you might find in your hometown — a varied collection of shops, boutiques, antique stores, galleries and sidewalk cafes. It's a fun place to spend a little bit of your San Clemente getaway.
San Clemente is an ideal day trip for Southern California residents, but it's also an excellent base of operations for those coming from farther away. There are close to 20 different lodgings to choose from, ranging from bed-and-breakfast inns to motor inns to seaside condos. If you base in San Clemente, you'll find many attractions are located within a short drive from the city. For example, Dana Point, once the only major harbor between San Diego and Santa Barbara , is just north of the city.
The same harbor that attracted those earlier mariners is still very much a port of call, but leaning more toward pleasure craft with its 2,500 slips that are usually occupied with a wide selection of expensive yachts and small boats that would make any boat show proud. The Dana Point Marina, of course, becomes the centerpiece to the area and the focus of pictures and paintings that are readily available in local gift shops.
The Dana Point Marina is not just a bunch of boats. A whole village has grown up dockside to offer tourists shopping and places to enjoy lunch or dinner. Some 25 shops and 20 restaurants are open in Dana Wharf, Mariners Village and Mariners Alley. But the boats are a big part of its fun — it's great strolling along the docks, daydreaming about owning one of these beautiful craft.
San Juan Capistrano is close by as well and it's easy to drive from San Clemente to the famous Mission at San Juan Capistrano where you can tour the picturesque grounds. Just a bit farther up the coast is Laguna, where you'll find great shopping, a vibrant arts community and Orange County chic.
Nixon did indeed know what he was doing when he set up his Western White House in San Clemente. It's about as far away from the pressures of Washington politics as a president can get.