Visitors to Oceanside, a southern California seaside town, will find remnants of the days when it was best known as a place for soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton to blow off steam. There are old-style movie theatres and diners, and a number of small barber shops proudly flying the Stars and Stripes and offering haircuts for as little as $11.
But things have begun to change. A new Wyndham hotel
appeared a few years ago by the water. SpringHill Suites by Marriott
followed. And then came the Mission Pacific
and the Seabird
, two sparkling, boutique hotels with rooftop bars sprung up in former parking lots overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Goodbye, greasy bacon and eggs, hello avocado toast.
The rooftop restaurant and bar at the Mission Pacific Hotel in Oceanside overlooks the ocean. At top, the Sunset Market is one of the numerous attractions in the nostalgia-filled city between Los Angeles and San Diego. (Jim Byers photo for VacayNetwork.com)
“Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to come downtown,” says Kim Heim of the Oceanside Business Association. “There would be military guys in the bars and fights spilling out in the streets.”
(I did a little research on the history of the town and read that there used to be billboards along the highway advising folks to “Tan Your Hide in Oceanside.”)
Heim decided a street market might bring in folks who’d been hesitant to venture downtown. There were some early clashes, “but eventually the interests of the many outweighed the interests of the few,” he said. “All of a sudden, it was ‘boom!’ The public adopted the market. And now we get 400,000 people a year.”
During the day, you’ll find vendors selling T-shirts, candles, and California-themed gear. At night, the vendors are supplemented by roughly 100 food trucks, offering everything from Greek food to genuine Thai and thick, rich cream puffs.
Heim shuffled off and returned with a large plate of southern Thailand-style Pad Thai, which has a hint of coconut and is utterly fabulous.
“I wanted food to be the real focus,” Heim says. “And I wanted it to be authentic. The empanada truck is run from a fellow from Venezuela. The Pad Thai truck is run by a family from Thailand.”
The market was flooded with people from all walks of life on the night we visited. People noshed on ribs North African-style chicken Hong Kong noodles as they walked along the market’s four city blocks, which are closed off to cars. On the edge of the market, a woman of a certain age was sitting alone singing show tunes your grandmother would know. In the middle of the action, a large band was playing the ska song, “Monkey Man.”
“I don’t think this market would work in Del Mar or La Jolla,” Heim says of two posh suburbs of San Diego.
But it works in Oceanside, attracting diverse people from both San Diego County and nearby Orange County.
“People like to rub elbows with other people in an authentic setting,” Heim tells me. “Here, you’ll find people who can’t rub two nickels together mingling with millionaires. And you can’t tell them apart.”
The most grabby new arrivals are Mission Pacific and Seabird, both flashy hotels with rooftop pools and bars, plenty of colorful local art, and a distinctly youthful feel.
The rooftop swimming pool at the Mission Pacific Hotel in Oceanside is a new hangout spot in southern California. (Jim Byers photo for VacayNetwork.com)
The Mission Pacific has a very nice top-floor bar with craft cocktails and fine views of the city and the beach, including Oceanside’s 1,942-foot-long (592-meter) pier, said to be the longest wooden pier on the west coast of the U.S. There’s also a lovely pool.
Seabird is a bit more family-oriented and shows “dive-in” movies at the rooftop pool. You’ll also find a fun games room with pool tables and vivid, primary colors.
“The hotels were game-changers for Oceanside,” said Mission Pacific Marketing Manager Alison Norwood. “This was the largest beachfront development in San Diego County in the last 50 years.”
Resting on the front side of the Mission Pacific is an attractive Victorian home that was moved to its location from another part of town. It was the beach house featured in the original “Top Gun” movie. The house now features a shop selling ice-cream pies and displays memorabilia from the movie.
The “Top Gun” House in Oceanside is among the places that connect with San Diego County’s military and pop-culture history. (Jim Byers photo for VacayNetwork.com)
One of the big advantages to Oceanside is that it’s located on a train line that connects San Diego with Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The train station is a couple blocks from the beach and a five-minute walk from the main downtown hotels. A ride from San Diego costs only about $20 and takes just an hour. The train also stops in the booming beach town of Carlsbad, which has a downtown worth visiting and a beach that invites you to stay awhile.
If you need to work off one of the ice-cream pies, try renting a bike and taking a ride along the city’s paved coastal trail. Another great way to work up a sweat is a kayak ride in the tidy Oceanside harbor, where you’ll find everything from humble houseboats to gleaming yachts. The harbor also is home to massive sea lions, who sometimes rest on a raft that was built for them but seem to prefer lounging on the back section of whatever boat tickles their fancy. Take a minute to admire some of the clever boat names as you glide along, including Deep Devocean, Liquid Liability, and Kelpless, which perhaps belongs to a Neil Young
Tucked up in the hills you’ll find Mission San Luis Rey, the largest of the 21 missions built by Spanish explorers who were trying to convert local Indigenous groups to Christianity (and take their land). It’s a beautiful, white structure with soaring arches and a pretty chapel. There’s also a nice museum that tells the story of the Spanish missions, as well as the original people who have lived in the region for thousands of years before colonial powers arrived.
The Oceanside Museum of Art features an exquisite view of the city’s pier and the waves that attract surfers from around the world. (Jim Byers photo for VacayNetwork.com)
Back downtown is the fine Oceanside Museum of Art
(OMA). Its wide array of paintings includes wild pop art, sunny landscapes, wavy, metallic sculptures, and work by local Black artists. A short walk away is the California Surf Museum
, which displays a monstrous, heavy wood board board used by Duke Kahanamoku and the board that legendary surfer Bethany Hamilton was riding in Hawaii when she was attacked by a shark and lost her arm. The store also sells surf books, coffee mugs, and vintage Hawaiian shirts.
MORE ABOUT VISITING OCEANSIDE
Where to Stay:
The Mission Pacific
is a gorgeous boutique property across the street from the beach that’s part of the JDV by Hyatt collection. Most rooms have at least a partial ocean view. The rooftop bar serves luscious cocktails in a sexy setting. The Hi-Low restaurant features fresh California fare and has a nice outdoor terrace, while Valle offers cuisine by award-winning chef Robert Alcocer. For the rooftop bar, try the Moonlight cocktail with gin, strawberry and hibiscus tea. Room Rates:
A weekend night in June starts at $317, based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine.
Next door, the Seabird Resort,
a Destination by Hyatt property, is a little more youthful and flashy, but just as well done. There’s also a lovely spa. Both hotels have tons of local art that’s curated by the Oceanside Museum of Art. Room Rates:
A weekend night in June starts at $309, based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine.
Where to Dine: Craft Coast Tacos and Beer
serve local beers and good tacos. The guacamole could use a boost of spice. Beach Break Cafe
is a great surf- and skateboard-themed breakfast spot in south Oceanside. The avocado omelette appeared to have half an avocado stuffed inside, and the eggs came with a small mountain of potatoes. The Lab Collaborative
serves everything from burgers and pasta to jerk pork and steak salad. The wine prices were quite reasonable.
The Oceanside Pier
is a fine place to take in the sunset or watch surfers in action.
Kayaking at Oceanside Harbor. JIM BYERS PHOTO
Kayaking: Boats for Rent
offers kayaks for $30 for an hour, or $40 for two hours. It also has stand-up paddleboards, electric boats, and other rental choices. There’s a nice village at the harbor, with a waterfront restaurant, small shops and a coffee place.
Attractions: Mission San Luis Rey
is a great spot for anyone interested in California history. The Sunset Market
is a terrific spot to mingle with locals, and save on a nice meal.