How to live the California beach dream

Story highlights

  • California's 840 miles of coastline offer variety of beach options
  • Swimmers should watch out for cold waters, clothing regs and sharks

(CNN)You could travel the world, experts say, but nothing comes close to the golden coast of California.

The state's 840 miles of coastline offer something for everyone, from Orange County's swanky oceanfront resorts to the campsites on Humboldt County's redwood-lined beaches.
    Below are a few tips for making the most of a beach getaway in the state that knows how to party.

    Wear a swimsuit

    Nothing says "I'm not from here" like frolicking in the ocean in sopping shorts and a transparent T-shirt.
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    Boardwalk gift shops have swimsuits for sale.
    Less expensive options (and a better selection for the mature or amply proportioned beachgoer) are available at the closest Target or Wal-Mart, two megastores within a 20-minute drive of virtually any spot in the US.
    Wearing clothes in the ocean makes you look like you're on day leave from some kind of institution.
    No one cares about your thighs or abs or back hair. Suit up.

    But leave the Speedos at home

    We understand that those snug-fitting spandex briefs improve your aerodynamic performance as you amble toward the snack bar.
    We understand that there are parts of the world in which Speedos (aka banana hammocks, aka budgie smugglers) are considered acceptable beach attire.
    California is not one of them.
    Put your board shorts on, Borat.

    California does, in fact, get cold. Plan appropriately

    Coastal areas are prone to thick morning mists known as the marine layer.
    Mark Twain never actually credited his coldest winter to a San Francisco summer. But it's still often a disappointing shock to tourists that even the Golden State has some very gray and chilly days.
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    Average monthly temperatures in sunny San Diego top out at 65 F (18 C) in December through February -- not frigid, but not quite tropical either.
    San Francisco's Baker Beach, with its sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, is roughly that same temperature all summer long.
    Coastal areas also get breezes and a thick morning mist known as the marine layer that keep them cooler than inland cities.
    Check the weather before you book, and pack a sweatshirt for breezy nights all year round.

    Do your homework before you strip

    California does have clothing-optional beaches.
    In a vexing twist of fate for the aspiring naturist, the concentration of nude and topless beaches increases in northern (and colder) latitudes.
    Keep that in mind, but don't let it stop you.
    If there's any mental image to bring home from vacation, it's a chilly aging naked hippie.

    Keep an eye out for fins

    "If you're at a northern California beach and you're stepping over half-eaten seal carcasses in the water, you better be wary," says Wes Willis, a surfer since 1970 and a resident of Garden Grove, California.
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    There have been 79 shark attacks along the California coast since 2000, according to the Shark Research Committee.
    That's hardly an epidemic -- and hey, only five of them were fatal!
    Still, a good rule of thumb is that if everyone else is getting out of the water, you probably shouldn't get in.
    "I talked to a beginner who said he was wondering why all the wildlife was rushing to shore while he was paddling out," Willis laughs. "He eventually turned around."

    Take a surf lesson

    There are professional surf schools in virtually every town and city along the coast.
    Surfing is a lot of fun and a great workout, but it takes a few tries to get comfortable on the board. You'll get a lot more out of sessions in the water with a surf lesson under your belt.
    There are professional surf schools and independent coaches in virtually every town and city along the coast. There are even overnight surf retreats for those who want to learn to get up on the board while reliving the glory days of sleep-away camp.
    Try Endless Summer Surf Camp (P.O. Box 414, San Clemente, CA 92674; +1 949 498 7862), Pacific Surf School (707 Pacific Beach Drive, San Diego; +1 858 488 2685), or Richard Schmidt (849 Almar Avenue, Box 192, Santa Cruz; +1 831 423 0928).
    If you do choose to skip the lesson and head straight for the water, we recommend you save some time and simply toss the cash equivalent of the board rental fee in the ocean, swallow a cup of salt water and bash your head against a nearby surfboard instead.

    Wear sunscreen

    We know you only have a weekend and desperately want to come home with a tan.
    Mother Nature is not so easily fooled.
    In addition to skin cancer and premature aging, a gnarly sunburn can make you sick and ruin the rest of your trip. SPF 30 sunscreen is an essential beach bag item, even on cloudy days.
    Don't forget: The sun will still reach the spots you can't.

    Hit the boardwalk

    If you need a break from the sand but can't bear to lose sight of the ocean, California has some great old-school style boardwalks with cotton candy, arcade games, kitsch souvenirs and nausea-inducing rides.
    The Santa Monica Pier has everything from a trapeze school to an aquarium, in addition to one of California's prettiest views at dusk. Farther north is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a 1907 gem that's the oldest amusement park in the state and still going strong.

    Mind the kids

    The Santa Monica Pier has everything from a trapeze school to an aquarium.
    For those with little ones in tow, there are lots of beautiful spots ideal for families. Check out Baby Beach at Dana Point Harbor, or Long Beach's Marine Park, an inlet known locally as "Mothers' Beach" for its flat, shallow sea and nearby play park.
    Conversely, if your dream beach holiday isn't set to a soundtrack of constant whining over sand or spilled Capri Sun, consider this a handy list of places to avoid.

    Find your spot

    Beaches have different degrees of surf difficulty, just like the slopes at ski resorts -- without the helpful coded signs.
    For beginning surfers or bodyboarders, finding a spot that matches your skill level is essential.
    South Africa native Dale Goosen, found this out the hard way on a 2009 trip to Huntington Beach when he blithely paddled a rented board just north of the city's famous pier.
    Unbeknownst to the novice surfer, it was also one of the most competitive spots in what's been legally declared Surf City, USA -- a fact he realized only when he accidentally cut off a fellow surfer and got an angry earful.
    "The crux of the message was pretty clear," Goosen recalls. "He just paddled away in disgust."
    Beginners can admire the hotshots at Trestles in San Onofre State Beach before paddling into gentler waves at nearby Old Man's. No need to shoot the pier in Huntington Beach City Beach when beginner-friendly Huntington State Beach is just down the road.
    Just pop into the closest surf shop for local advice on the best place to enjoy the water at your own level.

    Respect the vibe

    In any surf session, respect the pre-existing vibe in the lineup. Don't snake your fellow surfer.
    Both of these mantras -- taken from Surfology's Surfer's Bill of Rights -- translate roughly into English as "don't be a careless jerk."
    This applies onshore as well. For the best California beach experience, be willing to go with the flow.
    Relax. Chat up the state's famously friendly locals, who are only too happy to pass on their favorite recommendations for surf spots and fish tacos.
    "For the most part California is pretty mellow, really," says Bob Levy, a lifelong surfer in his late 60s and a resident of Long Beach. "If you sort of blend in with them and pay a lot of attention to what they're doing, eventually they accept you."
    Originally published April 2015, updated September 2016.