San Diego’s Mission Beach: Family-friendly fun with some swell surfing

Beachgoers play in the surf late last month along Mission Beach in San Diego. The 2-mile stretch of sand is part of a neighborhood where tourists can relax – and park for free.
Beachgoers play in the surf late last month along Mission Beach in San Diego. The 2-mile stretch of sand is part of a neighborhood where tourists can relax – and park for free. Special to The Bee

At almost the exact moment the lifeguard at tower No. 14 went all David Hasselhoff on the megaphone – “Attention, surfers out front: You guys need to stay outside the black and yellow flags; we have a surf warning today” – Josh Long tugged down his silver board shorts, hopped on his board and caught a wave.

A gnarly wave.

A wave moving, by one estimate, at 26 mph.

A wave that seemed never to crest and tumble, only churn, like the spin cycle on a washing machine.

No worries. Long, vacationing here from hopelessly landlocked Lincoln, was not that close to the Pacific Ocean. From his vantage point, across the boardwalk and away from the sunbathers stretched out on the sand, he could see the breakers, all right. But Long was riding a wave of his own, an artificial, mechanical wave called the FlowRider at tourist-friendly Belmont Park. No chance of riptides or rescues here, though lifeguard Chris Heitzer was on hand just in case, providing a rope to steady riders and exclaiming “Dude!” when faux-surfers of either sex managed to stay vertical for longer than a few seconds.

Which Long was able to do, easily. Placer County may not be known as a surfing hotbed, but Long did the town proud by staying up for more than 11/2 minutes before the inevitable wipeout sent him reeling and tumbling back into the retaining wall, as his wife, Kristin, dutifully preserved the moment on her smartphone.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever tried before,” Long said, as he took his place back in line for another go. “I snowboard and wake surf and (do) anything on a board, really. But this? It’s really hard to put into words. It’s weird because you’re not really moving, and yet the water’s going fast. It’s something you’ve got to experience.”

He, like the seven other people in line, shelled out $30 for an hour on the surf simulator, perhaps the most popular attraction in family-oriented Mission Beach, a 2-mile spit of sedimentary rock bordered on the east by Mission Bay of Sea World notoriety, on the south by neo-hippie haven Ocean Beach, and on the north by frat-bro-saturated Pacific Beach.

It, perhaps, would’ve been bad form to ask Long why he paid to surf when the real thing was so close that you could hear each crash and roar. But Heitzer, the bleached-blond Spicoli-look-alike lifeguard, smiled knowingly and lowered his voice to note the irony.

“Sometimes, I think about that,” he said, lowering his shades and pointing to the ocean, “especially when the waves are really good right there. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I wanna be out there. What’re you dudes doing here when you can be out there catching any wave you want?’ But people like the (FlowRider). It’s all smiles here.”

That’s just so Mission Beach, MB for short. Folks here are just so accommodating, so exceedingly friendly and, to borrow the local vernacular, “mondo chillax.” None of that PB (Pacific Beach) strutting and posturing at boardwalk bars, little of that OB crunchy-granola, spare-a-dollar-for-me-to-read-your-aura stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with the neighboring beach communities – MB denizens would never slag on anyone; bad karma – but, in recent years, Mission Beach has positioned itself as the low-key touristic alternative.

During the height of the season, roughly spring break to mid-September, venerable Belmont Park is swarmed with beachgoers, tourists and locals alike, riding the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster (SoCal’s answer to Santa Cruz’s seaside attraction with the same name), riding the “waves” at the FlowRider and its even gnarlier twin, the FlowBarrel, hanging out at the cacophonous arcade, going zip-lining 29 feet above the midway, enjoying fare that ranges from Hot Dog on a Stick to the comparatively upscale South Mission Draft, with its collection of 70 craft beers, or chilling at the outdoor bar of the Wavehouse, where you can watch real surfers by staring straight ahead and check out the wannabes by looking to your left.

It’s quite a comeback story for Mission Beach. Until a few years ago, MB could’ve stood for Mainly Broke. The former operator of Belmont Park filed for bankruptcy after a rent dispute with the city – settled out of court in 2013 – that put a pause on any improvements to the aging property. But, under new management by Pacifica Enterprises and run by the hospitality firm Eat Drink Sleep, the midway at the 7-acre park has been spiffed up with added kiddie attractions, such as a miniature golf course and a rock-climbing wall, and adult attractions, such as Draft and the soon-to-be-opened Cannonball, a Pacific Rim-themed restaurant featuring sushi and sake and glassed-in upstairs dining looking out on the surf.

Like Cannonball, Mission Beach remains a work-in-progress, in some respects. The park itself might have been saved from bankruptcy closing, but The Plunge, the indoor swimming pool that dates to 1925 and purportedly once was graced by the likes of Johnny Weismuller and Esther Williams, has been under refurbishment for more than a year and missed its July reopening. You may wonder why The Plunge’s return would be so eagerly awaited, since there’s a perfectly good ocean next door in which to frolic.

It’s really the history involved, something to which tourists remain oblivious. Mission Beach perhaps wouldn’t have its look today if not for the development scheme of sugar magnate John D. Spreckels, who in promoting his electric railway and dream of housing tracts built Belmont (he called it the Mission Beach Amusement Center) in 1925 in a Spanish Renaissance knockoff of established Balboa Park. The Plunge (originally called The Natatorium, it was the largest saltwater indoor pool in the world, with 400,000 gallons in the 60-by-175-foot facility) was a hit, as was the Giant Dipper.

The Dipper survived the Great Depression and more than a few recessions, but fell into disrepair in the 1970s and closed for a while in the late ’70s. Local historians say transients twice tried to burn down the Giant Dipper, but the creaky old wooden structure proved sturdier than it looked. The wrecking ball sought to raze the behemoth in 1990, but a citizens group formed and saved it and raised funds to re-open it.

The surrounding area, once somewhat sketchy and beach-town kitschy, spiffed itself up, as well. You still can find plenty of T-shirt and trinket shops on the streets intersecting with the boardwalk, but you’re also liable to find culinary choices that might make PB residents – heck, even La Jolla swells – envious. San Diego alt-weekly readers selected The Sandbar, across from Belmont Park on West Mission Bay Drive, as its top fish taco joint, quite an accomplishment for a city that is exceedingly snobbish about its fish tacos. The lines for burritos at Woody’s Breakfast and Burgers may not be as long as those at PB’s famous Kono’s Surf Club Cafe, but locals claim the quality is matched.

On yet another cloudless, 72-degree afternoon – yes, even in late October – MB locals Dave Pike and Carl Savoia kicked back on Woody’s deck eating steak fries and looking just as if they were auditioning for a beer advertisement. (You can tell the locals, by the way, by the deep, nearly mahogany color of their tans, and by the fact that they – the men, at least – rarely wear shirts, as if to further burnish their hides.) The two weighed in on comparing and contrasting Mission Beach to its neighbors, including Ocean Beach.

“They really are similar,” said Pike, who then proceeded to list their differences. “OB, I don’t want to use the word ‘seedy,’ but just say ‘earthy.’ PB is more commercial with restaurants and more hotels, but nice. Now, here, it’s more of a mellow vibe, as opposed to PB when the sun goes down. Like, whoa. This is a great place to enjoy the scenery.”

He nodded to the Boardwalk, where two young women pranced by wearing what either were skimpy bikinis or well-placed handkerchiefs. The men on the Boardwalk, too, preen, and you wonder whether you must have rock-hard pectorals and washboard abs to live here. There’s also plenty of the pale and lobster-red – those, of course, are the tourists.

Arguably the palest on a recent day were Simon Whitworth and Adam Gott, English tourists from Manchester and Southampton, respectively. The two had just arrived from Las Vegas and said they needed to decompress after that high-voltage adventure.

“I can’t believe how crystal clear the sea is,” Gott said. “It’s as clean as anything, which is wonderful. It’s very rare to find a sandy beach at all in England, or even something this nice in Spain.”

Whitworth: “You know what impresses me? Free parking. Wonderful. In our country, that’d never happen.”

Even elsewhere in San Diego, that’s not the norm. And not only is parking free, it’s plentiful. Belmont Park has parking lots on each side, stretching from the boardwalk to the west to nearly Mission Boulevard to the east. Farther down, in South Mission, near the jetty, there’s another park connecting Mission Bay, where beach volleyball and basketball players can find parking spaces and families can picnic on the palm tree-shaded grass with built-in barbecue pits.

“If you want something even more mellow, go down (to) South Mission,” said Jake Williams, a bare-chested MB local. His son, Jack, also sans shirt, added, “Maybe a little too (mellow). If they figured a way to meld MB and PB a bit …”

Not everywhere does the chill vibe reign. Mission Beach surfers, apparently, are quite covetous of their waves. Shane Orr, working at The Surf Shop, which straddles Mission and Pacific beaches, cautions that tourists stick to the unofficially designated non-local spots – Tourmaline Surf Park (north Pacific Beach) and Pacific Beach Drive (on the border of Mission and Pacific Beach).

“The closer you get to the jetty (in South Mission Beach), the bigger the waves get, and the more localized it gets,” Orr said. “It’s extremely unfriendly to people who aren’t from there. It’s worse than most places in Southern California. I’m nearly a professional surfer, and if I were to paddle out there, I’d have 10 guys paddling up to me and saying, ‘Get the f--- back to the beach.’ Because I’m not from there. We do get a lot of surf tourists, like from Spain, Canada, Arizona. But they should know where to go.”

It’s less than a mile stroll from Belmont Park to the jetty along the boardwalk, where the roller bladers, runners and beach-cruiser cyclists are exceedingly nice in chiming “on your left” to dawdling pedestrians. Late afternoon at the jetty saw about a dozen heads bobbing in the water, awaiting the next set of 2- to 4-foot swells. You can get close enough to the shoreline to see these locals paddle frantically, hoist themselves up and ride breakers in. Few nasty wipeouts, here.

Back in the jetty parking area, surfer Colton Koons was peeling off his wetsuit. He’s not a local, but said he managed to squeeze in a few sets.

“I usually try to stay away from the localized stuff, and I certainly wouldn’t tell a tourist to surf here,” he said.

So where should they go?

“Go right in front of the roller coaster,” he said.

Wait, isn’t that where the artificial waves are located?

Koons just smiled. As they say, it’s all smiles in MB.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


Belmont Park: 3146 Mission Blvd., San Diego.

Wavehouse: At Belmont Park.

South Mission Draft: 3105 Ocean Front Walk, San Diego.

Woody’s Breakfast and Burgers: 4111 Ocean Front Walk, San Diego