At the southern edge of 125,000-acre Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Oceanside (pop. 167,086) is one of the largest cities between Los Angeles and San Diego, but it offers few tourist attractions—apart from a long fishing pier and guided tours of Camp Pendleton’s amphibious-assault training exercises. But if you’re in the mood to shop for camouflage gear, watch the muscle cars cruise Hill Street, get a $5 G.I. Joe haircut, or drink beer with a gang of young recruits, this is the right place.
Oceanside is also home to one of the last survivors of the old pre-Interstate Coast Highway businesses: The 101 Café (631 S. Coast Hwy., 760/722-5220) has been open for classic road food since 1928. It often hosts classic car rallies and generally glows with neon-lit nostalgia. Other, more retro-minded All-American roadside favorites include the Breakfast Club Diner (228 N. Coast Hwy., 760/722-3124) and a branch of the popular local chain Ruby’s Diner (760/433-7829), at the far end of the Oceanside Pier.
South from Oceanside, all the way to San Diego, a very pleasant alternative to the often-clogged I-5 is the old alignment of US-101, now signed as County Road S21 (and occasionally Coast Highway 101). Slower than the freeway but still in regular use, the old road is now the main drag of quaint beachfront towns like Carlsbad, Leucadia, Encinitas, and Del Mar. If you have the time, it’s a great drive, in sight of the ocean for most of the way.