By Mary Milliken and Mike Blake
ENCINITAS, California, April 4 (Reuters) - This might just be the easiest suitcase to pack: running shoes, flip-flops, bathing suit, shorts, T-shirts, a hoodie and sunscreen.
That's the unfussy uniform that works almost everywhere in the beach towns of San Diego's North County, the location of choice for elite athletes in training, skateboarders-turned-entrepreneurs and smart people who have figured out how to live, work and play by the ocean.
The towns stretched out along California's famous Highway 101 - Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar - hum with the physical activity of their super-fit denizens. But they also offer the laid-back vibe that comes with a deeply ingrained surfing culture. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/TF5TN)
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to San Diego's beach towns from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
TAKE A HIKE, GRAB A BIKE
In the old days, cars travelling between Los Angeles and San Diego would have to climb a narrow, twisting and steep road through the area known as Torrey Pines.
Now cyclists, runners and hikers scale the road and then take trails lined with the rare Torrey pine tree down to golden cliffs and a long, pristine state beach. It is a stellar combination of exhilarating workout and dramatic scenery. (www.torreypine.org)
Golfers will know Torrey Pines for its two 18-hole oceanside championship courses, which hosted the U.S. Open in 2008 and will do so again in 2021. Apart from its prime placement, Torrey Pines stands out in the golf world because it is a municipal course open to the general public. (www.sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/golf/torreypines/index.sht ml)
From Torrey Pines, when tides permit, you can walk for long distances along the cliffside beaches dotted with luxurious homes and see the Surfliner train that runs from Los Angeles to San Diego.
Dawdle in Del Mar, an upscale and traditional beach community, where families and their beloved dogs make their own happy hour at sundown at what must be one of the most alluring beaches in the United States for the leash-free canine crowd.
Del Mar is also "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" at the famous horse racetrack, a favorite of the Hollywood crowd after it opened in 1937 with backing from Bing Crosby. The summer racing season at the imposing Spanish-style venue runs over six weeks in July and August. (www.dmtc.com)
A bit further up Highway 101 is Solana Beach, which boasts a design district on Cedros Avenue and some serious fitness installations for the many competitive athletes who live in the area.
If all those trim bodies make you want to move, head to Revolution Bike Shop at 235 South Highway 101 to rent a good bike and start riding everywhere, especially to the beach. (www.revolutionbikeshop.com)
THE KOOK AND THE DUDES
Ride the bike to the Cardiff Kook. It's a statue of a surfer the locals love to hate because the boy has no riding style and, according to a local website, is "more a ballet dancer than a macho rider of the waves".
His detractors dress him up (as a clown, Zorro), put a pumpkin on his head and have even served him up to "Jaws". And this being fitness central, they have created a race called the Cardiff Kook Run. (www.cardiffkookrun.com)
Encinitas is a classic California beach town combining surf and skate culture with a New Age vibe and entrepreneurial flair.
Moonlight State Beach is a spot for families to spend the whole day and night, with its wide swathe of sand hosting beach volleyball and evening bonfires. Swami's, named for the golden-spired spiritual centre above the beach, is a popular surf break where the promise of enlightenment is part of the package.
The offbeat community of Leucadia offers more secluded beaches thanks to the steep cliffs that beachgoers must negotiate, making it a favourite of local surfers.
While the impossibly blond, chiseled surfers of both sexes and all ages are California cliche, the serious business going on in surfland may come as a bit of a surprise.
Skateboarder Tony Hawk, who has parlayed his professional career into an action sports business and philanthropy, is based in Encinitas, as is skateboarder and Olympic gold medal snowboarder Shaun White, a cash cow for corporate sponsors.
REFUELLING, NOT A PROBLEM
After all that calorie-burning activity, there is no shortage of great food and drink for refuelling, starting with that Southern California staple, the doughnut.
On weekends, surfers line up out the door at VG Donuts & Bakery in Cardiff. (www.vgbakery.com)
For something more sophisticated, Claire's on Cedros in Solana Beach is a breakfast favourite. (www.clairesoncedros.com) Then there is Bettie's Pie Whole, located in a gardening nursery and offering fruit and savory pies. (www.bettyspiewhole.com)
Continuing on the sweet route in Encinitas is Chuao Chocalatier, started by a Venezuelan chef inspired by a region that grows some of the best cocoa beans in the world. His chocolate envelops surprising ingredients, including popcorn, potato chips and maple bacon. (www.chuaochocolatier.com)
A few doors down is local haunt Blue Ribbon Pizzeria, which not only serves pizza and salads with premium local produce but also a well-curated selection of beer and wine. (www.blueribbonpizzeria.com)
San Diego County is no slacker in the craft beer trade and Culture Brewing Co in Solana Beach holds its own with the cognoscente. (www.culturebrewingco.com)
Encinitas is less than 50 miles (80 km) from the border with Mexico, so it comes as no surprise that real Mexican fare and ambience can be had at La Especial Norte on Highway 101. After a day in the Pacific Ocean, this restaurant's chicken soup is known for its restorative powers.
Nearby is another local gem, Sake House Yu Me Ya, with its authentic Japanese food and wide array of sake bottles. The family-owned place is cozy, so get there early. (www.sakehouseyumeya.com)
No culinary tour to North County would be complete without a detour to the understated "Vegetable Stand" at Chino Farms among the millionaire spreads in Rancho Santa Fe.
Tom Chino's lovingly grown produce is coveted by the country's top chefs. Only Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley gets hers shipped. Everyone else must come to the farmstand.
In summer, the corn is unbeatable as are the mar de bois strawberries for a snack in the car on the way back to - where else - the beach. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)