Five miles off the coast of Oceanside, we ride nature’s roller coaster. Aboard a 50-foot catamaran, we rock gently side to side and roll over one liquid hill after another, capturing more thrills than could ever be obtained in an amusement park.
It’s another one of Southern California’s signature sunny and breezy midsummer days — the perfect conditions for whale-watching, according to Joe Tripiciano, our expert captain and certified naturalist who navigates and narrates the Oceanside Adventures (oceansidewhalewatching.com) whale-watching trip we are on with about 30 other passengers. My husband and I wrap our arms around our three young children, who have inched their way to the bow of the boat, their eyes locked on the enormous sapphire waves that rise and disappear beneath us.
Then we see it: A vapor plume puffs up like smoke from the ocean’s surface directly ahead. Tripiciano slowly moves the vessel forward and puts it in neutral to keep a safe and respectable distance from a blue whale he estimates to be between 80 and 90 feet long. Excitement enraptures everyone on the boat. For nearly an hour, we witness the massive mammal take a series of seven or eight breaths before disappearing back down to feed in the 1,000-foot-deep canyons below for up to 12 minutes at a time, her body rolling across the sea’s surface like an endless spool of shiny, wet ribbon.
As if spotting a blue whale on our first whale-watching tour wasn’t incredible enough, the largest animal ever known to have lived on earth graces us with a grand finale. Just before heading back to shore, she dives back down and throws her tail up out of the water, leaving us all completely speechless.
“Seeing a blue whale in and of itself is really special — only 1 percent of the population sees them in their lifetime,” says Tripiciano after we’re back on solid ground. “But to see one fluke is incredible. I’ve been on the water for a long time and this is the first summer I’ve ever seen one fluke.”
Oceanside Adventures, which just celebrated its second anniversary in Oceanside Harbor, offers consistent year-round whale-watching. On average, whale-watching trips (adults $39, seniors/military $34, children 12 and under $29, children 2 and under $10) take place twice a day and are led by licensed captains and certified naturalists who rely on their own eyes, binoculars and educated guesswork to find whales feeding in the deep canyons off the coast between Oceanside and Carlsbad. While not every trip yields a blue whale sighting, passengers usually see something big — Oceanside Adventures keeps an online daily log of sightings from each trip. Our glimpse into Mother Nature’s oceanic wonders doesn’t end with the blue whale — on the same trip, we also pass by a pod of dolphins and hover beside a large group of resident California sea lions lounging lazily on a buoy in the midday sun.
“Southern California is one of the only places you can whale-watch year round,” says Tripiciano. “So if we don’t see the blue whales, we will see the humpback, minke and fin whales. We see gray whales in the spring and winter. There is always something out there. There is a massive dolphin population. Sometimes we see over 1,000 common dolphin in one spot.”
While seeing a blue whale was likely just a, er, fluke for our family of first-time whale-watchers, it was the pinnacle of a handful of memories we collected in Oceanside, an authentic SoCal beach town sitting on San Diego’s North Shore. Steeped in character and seaside charm, O’side (as the locals call it) boasts broad sandy beaches, palm-tree-fringed streets, a laid-back surf culture and an entrepreneurial spirit that’s reflected in everything from its burgeoning local food and craft beer scene to a sprinkling of independently owned shops and businesses.
With 3.5 miles of shoreline, beach play dominated our family’s mornings in Oceanside as we watched the waves crash into the sand and surfers bob patiently on their boards, ready to ride them by sunrise. Our kids ping-ponged between splashing in the chilly waves, building sandcastles and climbing on the beachfront playground at Oceanside Pier Beach across the street from our hotel. When we had enough sand in our toes, we slipped back into our shoes and rented a double surrey bicycle large enough to fit five from Wheel Fun Rentals (wheelfunrentals.com) and cruised up and down the beach strand. Bikers who aren’t towing several kids in a surrey can pedal along Oceanside’s popular 10.7-mile San Luis Rey Bike Trail or zoom along the Coastal Rail Trail, a 44-mile regional bike trail running from Oceanside to San Diego.
We spent our evenings watching the sun melt into the sea from the historical Oceanside Pier, first built in 1888. Stretching 1,942 feet, it’s one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast and provides the perfect perch to see surfers riding waves below, visit with a handful of resident brown pelicans, watch fishermen reeling in their daily catch or cast a line yourself (rod rentals are available at Oceanside Pier Bait Shop for $5 per hour or $15 all day).
Just two blocks from the pier, soak in Oceanside’s wave culture at California Surf Museum (surfmuseum.org), which chronicles the history of surf-related sports. Here, our kids gained a new hero after learning all about legendary pro-surfer Bethany Hamilton. Her actual shark-bitten surfboard and swimsuit from the tiger shark attack that took her arm when she was only 13 years old is on display, and there’s an inspirational video that tells her story of resilience and how she was back on the water within weeks. The museum’s newest exhibit highlights the surfing experience during the Vietnam War and the healing power of wave-riding. If the visit inspires your inner surfer, there’s no better spot to attempt the sport than Oceanside, known as one of Southern California’s most consistent surf spots. Sign up for a lesson at Learn to Rip (learntoripsurflessons.com) or enroll in a weeklong surf camp at Surf Ride (surfride.com/surf-camp).
Spending time in Oceanside doesn’t require an agenda or a ton of money. In town, we wandered around Oceanside’s quaint, New England-style harbor dotted with waterfront restaurants and shops where you can watch sailboats pass by or try out water activities ranging from stand-up paddleboarding to sport fishing. We meandered through Oceanside’s distinctive neighborhoods like “South O,” brimming with personality, dining and drinking hot spots and funky shops selling everything from organic candles to handcrafted leatherworks. Sip a pint in one of the nine-and-counting craft breweries found in Oceanside, located at the western end of San Diego’s “Hops Highway”; step into Oceanside’s past at Heritage Park, home to downtown’s original buildings; or walk around Buena Vista Lagoon, a 223-acre wetland and California’s first Ecological Reserve (bvaudubon.org).
Just a few minutes outside of town, we delighted our little Lego-lovers with a trip to Legoland California (california.legoland.com), bursting with more than 22,000 Lego models created from more than 57 million Lego bricks. Now through Oct. 31, kids go free with a paid adult ticket to Legoland California and Sea Life Aquarium (kidsfreesandiego.org). But whether touring Lego replicas of the world’s most iconic sites or watching whales, we found endless adventures in this captivating SoCal beach community.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Oceanside is located near a handful of major airports. We booked direct flights into Long Beach Airport (lgb.org) on JetBlue for $100 less per fare than connecting flights into larger surrounding airports. This gem of an airport boasts only 11 gates, an outdoor security line, rental cars steps away, free Wi-Fi and open-air restaurants where you can sip a glass of wine and enjoy a bite while watching your kids play in the breezy plaza. The resortlike redesign weaves together modern indoor and outdoor spaces to create a relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere that’s the antithesis of typical airports.
Stay: The brand new SpringHill Suites Marriott (shsoceanside.com) sits across from the historic Oceanside Pier and beach. Perfect for families, the beachfront hotel combines spacious surf-inspired suites, a sixth-story rooftop pool that eyeballs the ocean and complimentary hot breakfasts convenient for feeding kids who wake up too early.
Eat: We slid open our balcony doors and walked across the rooftop to dinner at Hello Betty Fish House (hellobettyoceanside.com) to enjoy fresh, innovative takes on Baja SoCal favorites like smoked fish tacos and limey O’Side Ritas. The eclectic surfside restaurant boasts beachy vibes as well as a gold dune buggy and arcade games perfect for entertaining little ones while they wait for their plates. In “South O,” we stumbled onto the Privateer (theprivateercoalfirepizza.com), where we sampled California craft beers — there are more than a dozen local and regional brews rotating on tap — before sinking our teeth into coal fired pizza like the Raen pie, made with prosciutto di parma, provolone and mozzarella piled high with arugula. We satisfied sugar cravings at Nana & Pop-Pop’s Sweet Shoppe, tucked in Oceanside Harbor, with double scoops of ice cream and a bag of classic candies for the road.