I was relieved when the Lunchroom Lady paddled next to me.
After a rough morning competing for waves against hotshot young surfers and guys who’d surfed this spot for 30 years, I’d grown frustrated. Because every time I went for a wave, someone else beat me to it, relegating me to a spectator.
But when this woman paddled next to me, I saw opportunity. Later, I called her the Lunchroom Lady because she looked a lot like the women who passed out Tater Tots in my middle school cafeteria — 50-ish and not exactly a yoga instructor, if you catch my drift.
But this is San Onofre, where you can be out-surfed by kids who still sleep with teddy bears. When the next wave came, the Lunchroom Lady spun around on her board, began swiftly paddling toward the shore and — before I could even begin to gain momentum on my own board — popped up for a sweet ride in the trim.
I had to smile. A surf trip to Southern California, after all, can be pretty humbling. But, if properly planned, it can still be a blast.
San Onofre has recently made news because of its nuclear power plant, which is shutting down after 40 years due to worn-out parts. In the shadow of that plant’s famously shaped twin towers lies one of the country’s best surf breaks, a popular tourist destination and still-treasured spot for locals.
In our yearly treks to “San-O,” my friend Dan and I typically start early so we can make at least one stop along the way. My favorite pit stop is Malibu’s Surfrider Beach.
While the wave at this point break can be incredible, the crowds are nuts. Still, this is where the real-life Gidget — Kathe Kohner — hung out before her father’s book (followed by the movie) caused the surf industry to explode. This is where the first documented African-American surfer, Nick Gabaldon, tragically died surfing a big swell in 1951. And this is where Miki Dora earned his reputation as a great surfer, con man and royal pain in the ass.
But mostly you come here because it’s a scene: Warm water, hot bods and the occasional celebrity surf sighting.
Hollywood at the beach.
Eventually, we wind up in San Onofre where three campgrounds are located close to the surf. We typically set up at the San Mateo Campground, which offers clean restrooms and coin-fed showers that will clear the salt away.
At the campground, you’ll hear choppers and shelling from nearby Camp Pendleton, a scenic base that first hosted Marines in training during World War II. Hopefully, you’ll be so tired from surfing, the noise from those hueys won’t impact your sleep.
Our first stop is almost always Surf Beach, which contains the break famously called Old Man’s — so named after its largest draw: geezers who can surf this place blindfolded.
Check out photos of this place going back to the 1940s, and you’ll see that it hasn’t changed much. The grass huts are still there as are the bluffs that tip off the location in those old photos. While pro surfer break Lower Trestles is located just to the north, in this legendary spot, you might get a glimpse of noted longboard stylists, like septuagenarian Skip Frye or hipster Alex Knost, showing off their skills in the water.
Beneath the water, cobblestones help create shapely waves that have earned this place a reputation as one of the best in the world for long, laidback rides. And if you go at the right time of year, you can trunk it — surf without a wetsuit — because water temperatures in the summer will warm up to the 70s.
Keep in mind, it can be very crowded here. So if you plan on chilling at Surf Beach on a summer weekend, you’ll need to show up around 6 a.m. and wait in line. (While I’m at it, campsites will be much easier to reserve in early fall.) For that reason, you might want to venture off to some other beaches. In the past, we’ve hit Ponto Beach in Carlsbad, Leucadia Beach in Encinitis and State Beach in San Clemente.
Former President Richard Nixon once lived in a house that sits above the Upper Trestles surf spot in San Clemente. The house is closed to the public, but it’s a reminder that you should explore some other places while you’re in the area.
In Huntington Beach, you’ll find the Surfing Walk of Fame — Surf City’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame — honoring legendary surfers, including Morro Bay’s Marge Calhoun. The International Surfing Museum is currently closed for remodel, but surf bands are scheduled to play there through the summer. And in this part of the state you’ll find some of the best surf shops around.
To get the real campground feel, you’ll probably want to cook at your site. But every now and then you might want to stop at Pedro’s Tacos — a popular destination for surfers — in San Clemente, where a breakfast burrito can easily serve as two meals.
But most of all, this trip is about surfing and lounging in the warm sun, enjoying San-O’s mellow vibe.
The next time you return to Pismo Beach or Morro Bay, you’ll miss that warm water. But there is one consolation:
The lunchroom ladies here don’t surf.