Stretching languidly along the sandy southern California coastline, the surf town of San Clemente is calm and comfortable. Reaching inland into green grassland where thousand-acre cattle ranches once prevailed, hill trails offer beautiful hiking and mountain biking. Sunshine filled my days at the end of March, while it was cold and raining hundreds of miles away at home. Please read on for my reviews and suggestions.
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How I Traveled in San Clemente, California
This was my first trip within the continental USA without a guidebook and no family or friends to rely on for lodging and meal recommendations. It turned into a bit of a fiasco. First of all, I learned that you need special skills to visit an expensive locale where there are no Couchsurfing hosts. (Typically I travel in developing countries where there is always a hotel room available for $10 and an entire meal can be had for $1-$4.)
Luckily, I found an affordable room on Airbnb, although I have to say I’ve had equivalent or better stays for free when Couchsurfing. So, I wasn’t especially impressed with this paid service. My hosts were lovely people, and their dog was awesome—a sweet and quiet Labrador who wanted petting all the time. However, the dresser in my room was out for repairs, so I had to unpack my suitcase and keep all my things on the bedroom floor or on one side of my queen sized bed. Now, on to the great food and the hotel I should have stayed at!
Day 1 – Tuesday – Arrival in San Clemente, California
I missed the infrequent, but direct, train service from Irvine to San Clemente, so instead arrived via 3 buses. The bus rides were generally uneventful, and it was great seeing the area—although mostly main roads with brief glimpses of the wide blue ocean.
The Bus Ride
All went smoothly until my final bus transfer. According to the schedule I had 6 minutes to cross the road and walk half a block to the northbound bus stop. I made it in plenty of time and waited. I sat on the concrete bench and waited some more. Finally, I called the phone number on the bus stop sign and learned that they didn’t know where the bus was or why it was delayed, but that another bus would arrive in 34 minutes.
Bicyclists hunkered low over the handlebars of their road bikes zipped by me. Cars passed me by, and I wondered if I could hitchhike these last few miles into town. The sun was hot at 1pm, and I was well on my way to getting hangry (hungry-angry) when my air-conditioned bus finally arrived. I was the only passenger for my entire ride in the bus, which was basically a big tourist van. The massive tinted windows and cushioned seats were lavish after the first buses. While chatting with my bus driver, I noticed beautiful, white, California-style homes contrasting beautifully with the green grass in their front gardens. “Come on this bus tomorrow and I’ll show you on the whole route and there are some really fancy homes along the way,” he invited. It was lovely to have a personal connection, and I knew I was now in ‘small town California’.
Lunch Time! I love eating
As we came down a big downhill curve, I watched the ocean waves slide up the beach. At the bottom of the hill I exited the bus just a few steps away was the Pierside Kitchen + Bar. I had decided upon this place for lunch earlier that morning, based on my online research. The wide open, high-ceiling interior and lovely outdoor seating across the street from the pier and beach was utterly inviting. I chose a seat just inside, beside the porch, since I’d already received my daily dose of vitamin D while sitting beside the highway.
Taco Tuesday at Pierside Kitchen + Bar
It was Taco Tuesday! I ordered the shrimp and fish tacos. To round out my meal, I selected the soup of the day, sweet red pepper soup with a dollop of goat cheese. And, just because I love fresh lime, I had a margarita made from scratch.
Prepared with simple ingredients, the tacos were delectable. The juicy shrimp is grilled, containing the sweetness, and topped with sour cream, creamy avocado mash, and a mild pico de gallo salsa. A detail too often overlooked, the warm corn tortilla was perfectly soft and flexible, while still thick enough to contain the bright flavors and absorb the juices without tearing.
The Alaskan cod in my fish taco, beer battered and crispified, was slightly crunchy. The flavors and textures of the fish, slaw, and aioli’s mesh easily. For a spicy kick, just add some of the chili sauce available on every table alongside the salt and pepper.
The deep red sweet pepper soup charmed me for two reasons. First, I love a vegetable mixed with cheese, and the combination of the two in this soup was scrumptious. Second, the food was served with joy. My server, Catie, detailed the food ingredients and recommend her favorite dishes. When you have an excellent rapport with a person, the food takes on the flavor of happiness and love. Everything about the food and restaurant was lovely, even the ultimate test—the woman’s restroom was clean and styled prettily. I didn’t check the men’s.
After lunch, I strolled the quarter-mile pier. It was a lonely place, with pigeons drinking out of the sink. A few people were at the very end of the pier and I met a young fisherwoman, E.
The Teenaged Fisherwoman
Watching a seagull dance in the strong wind over her fishing pole as she wound her line up and out of the waves, I was curious as to what she had caught. Young, smart and determined, her bucket was empty this day. E. had various poles and I asked how she’d learned to fish and what kinds of fish she could catch here. She explained how she went online a couple of years earlier, saw a pole, and decided to buy it and has been fishing ever since. (All I could think was, “wow! What a generation gap!! When I was her age online shopping didn’t exist. How might I have been a different person had I been born a decade later?)
Passionately, she told me the greatest story of herself as a dilettante fisherwoman. She had caught a fish so big that it managed to escape with her rod. From the beach, she had landed it in shallow water and despite her leaping on it, she just couldn’t hold onto it. Fish – 1, E. – 0. Her family does not fish, but now she has friends who do. There are several types of fish caught from the pier, including small sharks. She hasn’t yet caught a shark herself, but her friends have. Plus, lobster baskets can be lowered down. E. has been fishing for two years now, and although a teenager, is fully capable of feeding her family. They often grill her catch for delicious dinners and weekend barbecues.
Day 2 – Wednesday in San Clemente Nature
A great passion of mine is macro photography. Macro photography is not simply photographing tiny things, but rather photographing small things at larger than life size.
The Challenge of Macrophotography
I enjoy the challenge of flowers, and sometimes I even catch an ant or insect. I shoot handheld outdoors, so there are always two moving objects, however slightly—the camera in my hands and the flower. With the slightest breeze a flower sways on its stem. On windy days I capture a ‘watercolor’ effect. I shoot either with my SLR camera, which weighs a lot, so isn’t always with me, or with my iPhone 6S with the Olloclip macro lens that easily slides on whenever needed and fits in my front pants pocket when not in use.
I had a goal to do some macro photography, and reached out to Leeta, the Education and Public Programs Manager of the Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo, which was walking distance from my Airbnb. We agreed to meet at the back entrance of the Reserve at mid-afternoon. In the sunny, spring-like weather, I walked along roads and the Christianitos Trail. On the way, twice I passed rattlesnakes luxuriating in the sunshine. Both pretended to be sticks, and never moved a muscle, thank God!
The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo
I arrived alive—no snake bites! Leeta was lovely and gave me a grand tour of the reserve, teaching me flower names and showing me her favorite tree. This tour was really a treat! The reserve offers monthly events open to the public, including astronomy nights!!
Day 3 – The Beaches of San Clemente
T Street Surf Break
Waking early I caught the bus to the beach and spent the early morning shooting surfers at the T Street surf break. I arrived after sunrise, but before the sun was over the hills to the east. Around 8am parents showed up on the beach, and kids got called in for their ride to school. Then the adults arrived.
A bit later, my new friend who I’d met at Pierside Kitchen + Bar arrived with his camera. We chatted for a bit and then drove into the hills for a view of the city, and then onto the Trestles surf break near San Onofre. It was great having a photog buddy and a tour of the wider area for a few hours.
Located a mile from the beach, but less than a one-minute walk from surf shops, restaurants, and even a bookstore, Nomads Hotel is the rare lodging that welcomes everyone. The varied room configurations and prices mean there is a place for anyone from backpackers passing through to baby boomers looking for a fun place to spend a few days to wannabe surfers attending surf camp.
Each room has a tropical or nautical theme. One is reminiscent of a live-aboard with 2 twin beds. Others are large enough to contain items like a southeast Asian daybed, and many have walls painted tropical colors and gorgeous surf photography by your hotelier, Sean Rowland. Finally, if you appreciate fantastic bathrooms, prepare yourself: They’re great! The furniture and bathrooms vary dramatically from room to room, and all are unique, yet super stylish.
Primary reason I recommend this hotel: The space. The atmosphere is similar to a guesthouse in a relaxed, tropical country—an easy place to “be”. All kinds of restaurants are within 2 blocks, and the beach is a just a mile away. The only improvement I could recommend is that they put up a hammock! Really, what world traveler hasn’t stayed an extra night purely for the pleasure of spending an afternoon relaxing in a hammock.
Continue reading in Part 2 of 2 about Nomads Hotel and more great food…