The hardest part of planning Southern California beach vacations is deciding which beaches to visit. So many great beaches, so much to see and do! Where to start? Let's step back and get a bit of perspective first. The southern California coast can be divided into three distinct regions, each with it's own special charms and attractions. Pick one of these to explore, because you're just not going to have time to see them all -- not in one vacation anyway.
We'll start with Los Angeles beaches, then head down to Orange County, and finally wind up our visit in sunny San Diego. And somewhere along the way, we'll visit that special island of romance, Catalina.
Los Angeles beaches have been made famous by Hollywood, especially the beaches at Malibu and Venice Beach. But it's not all tanned, toned beautiful people (and, ahem, colorful characters).
There's plenty of room here for family fun too, and more than enough beach to go around. Enjoy surfing, swimming, kayaking, bicycling, rollerblading, beach volleyball, and (of course!) sunbathing. Have some fun at Pacific Park, an amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier, visit the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, or take a whale-watching cruise from one of LA's harbor areas.
At the beach, you won't have to worry about LA's famous smog. The sea breezes blow all the shmutz inland, where it gets trapped by the mountains and lies ugly and brown in the Los Angeles basin, while the coast is (as the saying goes) clear.
In Orange County, head to "Surf City" (aka Huntington Beach) for surfing lessons. Enjoy a harbor cruise or romantic gondola ride in Newport Beach, or go gallery hopping in Laguna Beach. There are miles and miles of sandy beaches, numerous hidden coves, and plenty of opportunity for all sorts of recreation. Wildlife lovers will enjoy the nature preserves, and there are miles of hiking trails right along the coast.
The beach cities are also close to popular attractions like Disneyland and Knott's Theme Park. But you'll find lots of entertainment close by at the Balboa Fun Zone, in the middle of Newport Harbor. Go camping at the beach in Dana Point, or head down to San Juan Capistrano to explore the newly restored Mission.
The island of Santa Catalina is a special treat. You can get there by boat -- or even helicopter -- from several locations in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The waters off Catalina are some of the best for divers and snorkelers. Plenty of opportunity here for family fun or romantic getaways. Go kayaking or horseback riding, take a tour or get pampered at a spa.
San Diego is always a popular vacation spot, and with good reason. The weather is so nearly perfect it gets downright boring. The scenery is gorgeous, and the attractions numerous.
Beach and water activities include swimming, surfing, kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, romantic gondola tours and harbor cruises, beach volleyball, diving and snorkeling, bicycling, rollerblading, and just soaking up the sun.
Attractions include Sea World San Diego, Legoland, the world-class San Diego Zoo, historic Old Town, and the botanical gardens and museums in Balboa Park. If you're looking for romance, head to the charming island town of Coronado with its fluffy white sand beaches, or enjoy the spectacular scenery at Torrey Pines State Reserve.
If you run out of things to do on a visit to San Diego, you're just not trying. But that's ok too, because if you can't relax in paradise, where can you?
Check out the links below for more ideas for southern California beach vacations. Listings are ordered from north to south.