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Originally published Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Southern California's best beach towns

Here's a sampling of micro-itineraries for exploring some of Southern California's best beach towns.

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Hear that? That dull roar, like the sound from inside a shell?

That might be the Southern California coastline calling you.

Orange County alone offers 42 miles of beach and beach towns of counterculture surfers, ritzy golf courses, $2.69 corn dogs and $600-a-night hotel rooms. Here's a look at few of the best:

San Clemente

Just about all of Southern California's sleepy little beach towns have been built up, priced up and, by many measures, messed up. But San Clemente's pier, beaches and red-tile roofs endure, and they're worth a look. The waves here offer some of North America's best surfing, including the spot known as Trestles (just south of town within San Onofre State Beach), which some people call "the Yosemite of surfing."

San Clemente is tucked in among hills and canyons — no tidy street grid here — and on the main drag, El Camino Real, many locals like Sonny's (an old favorite for pizza at 429 N. El Camino Real) and the Riders Club Cafe (a new favorite for burgers and other "slow fast food" at 1701 N. El Camino Real). But start with the town's almost 1,300-footlong San Clemente Pier that juts into the ocean.

At the Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier, the waves crash just below and the sunset washes over everyone on the patio. And you're bound to notice the Beachcomber Motel, a block south. With its pseudo-Spanish cottage style, its 12 rooms (all with kitchens) and its perch on a grassy knoll right by the train tracks and beach, the Beachcomber is what you'd dream about if you fell asleep reading a 1955 issue of Sunset magazine (although today's prices can top $375 on summer weekends).

At the nearby Casa Tropicana, you'll get more ore space and some jazzy furniture for a similar price.

Or go in the offseason, when lodging prices tumble. (Or head to one of the many chain motels).


Laguna Beach

If you're bound for beachy, artsy Laguna Beach, would you jump in the ocean first or start prowling galleries? If you choose No. 1, begin by taking the measure of Main Beach at Pacific Coast Highway and Broadway. Besides lots of bodysurfing, skim-boarding, volleyball on the sand and half-court hoops on two of the best-sited courts in California, it's a scene of romantic strolls and playing children, all at the foot of a blue and white lifeguard tower that dates to the '20s.

There are tide pools to wander at the northern end of the beach. Then you'll be ready to start plotting time at some of Laguna's 20 or so other beaches. Surfers like Thousand Steps Beach (between 9th and 10th streets); families like Picnic Beach (which neighbors grassy Heisler Park); scuba divers favor Boat Canyon Beach; and about 200 yards off Cleo Street Beach, there's an old shipwreck.

Beyond the sand, Laguna Beach has been an art colony for a century or so. Though rising prices have worn thin the town's hippie veneer, you'll find galleries and festivals all over, especially in summer. Check the smallish but smart Laguna Art Museum and maybe have a look at blankets and beadwork at Len Wood's Indian Territory, just a few steps away.

From here, you might need to drive a bit. Dozens of galleries, scattered north to south along Pacific Coast Highway, concentrate on classic California plein-air landscapes (the Redfern Gallery, 1540 S. Coast Highway, for instance), and there's plenty else too — Todd Kenyon's minimalist modern seascapes at the Pure Laguna Beach gallery (1590 S. Coast Highway), for instance, or the cool old movie and travel images at the Vintage Poster (1492 S. Coast Highway).

More than 40 galleries stay open for the First Thursdays Art Walk (on the first Thursday of every month). As for the art festivals, the weirdest (and one of the oldest) is the Pageant of the Masters, in which volunteers don costumes and makeup and strike poses to mimic old master paintings (July 7-Aug. 31 this summer). Other stalwarts include the summer-long Festival of Arts (July 1-Aug. 31) and Art-a-Fair (June 29-Sept. 2). So, where will you sleep in Laguna Beach? Maybe you'll land at La Casa del Camino (where surf designers have jazzed up 10 rooms in an otherwise old-school '20s building); maybe the Inn at Laguna Beach (a more contemporary building with 70 rooms just north of Main Beach); maybe Pacific Edge (an oceanfront Midcentury motor lodge now boldly decorated and run by the trendy Joie de Vivre chain); or maybe you'll spend a bit more for the 165-room Surf & Sand Resort, where management has wedged many amenities into a tall, crowded collection of buildings on a beachfront perch.


The Balboas

Some of the best fun and most difficult parking in Newport Beach is on Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula. They're connected by an old-school ferry that carries just three cars ($2 a car), which is fun, but otherwise you'll be happier traveling by foot, bike or watercraft. The highlight of moneyed and mostly residential Balboa Island — which is also connected to the mainland by bridge — is the commercial strip of Marine Avenue, where you can buy boutique clothes for yourself and your kids, maybe have lunch at Wilma's Patio (get the sourdough cheeseburger) and perhaps buy a frozen banana, although that will mean choosing between Sugar 'n' Spice ("the original frozen banana," 310 Marine Ave.) and Dad's Original Frozen Banana (318 Marine Ave.).

The Balboa Peninsula includes a lot: the Newport and Balboa piers, several small hotels, a bunch of restaurants, a 1.7-mile bike trail that connects the piers, watercraft rentals, harbor cruises, the historic Balboa Pavilion building and a neighboring Fun Zone with rides and games.(If you watched "The O.C." on television — 2003-07 — many of these spots will look familiar.)

At the peninsula's southern tip is the Wedge, a prime bodysurfing spot. Partake if you dare, then rent a bike ($8-$10 an hour), pedal pier to pier, and stop near the Newport Pier at Jane's Corndogs (106 McFadden Place). Maybe later you'll pony up for one of the fancy surf-and-turf dinners at 21 Oceanfront Restaurant (2100 W. Oceanfront). But for now, get in line behind those tourists from North Dakota, fork over your $2.69 and taste that savory corn-dog goodness.

Huntington Beach

If Laguna is the rich distant relation who might not remember you in his will, Huntington Beach is the wild cousin who owes you money. Its downtown is all about scruffy surf culture, and the Main Street bars and restaurants stay lively late, with the usual attendant troubles.

For a historical look at surf culture, spend a few minutes in the free International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Ave.). From the pier, you get a great view of surfers at play, and you may bump into Lucky John, a street performer whose act relies heavily on (spoiler alert!) a hammer, a long nail and his own nose.

For a healthy helping of surf style and commerce, browse Jack's Surfboards (since 1957; 101 Main St.) and its competitor across Main, Huntington Surf & Sport (300 Pacific Coast Highway), where many a casual fashion trend has been incubated. Then grab a rental bike and take to the 12-mile Ocean Strand path, which begins down south in Newport Beach and ends near the county line at Sunset Beach.

On your right as you head north, you'll see the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. To your left, you'll have Bolsa Chica State Beach, which has camping, fishing and, unlike many beaches these days, dozens of fire rings. Come back at sunset, pay the $15-a-car fee, and you can watch the flames dance, warm your sandy feet, roast marshmallows and howl like an unhinged extra on the set of "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Note, though, that booze is banned and you have to go home by 10 p.m. You can imagine how Huntington Beach party people feel about that.

Kristin Jackson of The Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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