Get Thee to Carlsbad, California’s Singular “Village by the Sea”

A laid-back oceanside retreat under two hours from L.A.

February 11, 2022 2:15 pm
a view from the Cassara hotel in Carlsbad, CA

For most Californians, the ideal vacation involves water. Looking at it, swimming in it, even just driving near it: the proximity to the Pacific and pools, spas, lakes, and beaches aplenty are part of what makes this state such a sought-after place. And that’s also why Carlsbad’s nickname, “Village by the Sea,” has persisted, not only documenting the San Diego suburb’s pastoral charm, but, above all, its coveted proximity to the ocean. 

Now, beautiful water doubles as a tourist attraction, but centuries ago, proximity to fresh water was essential for survival. Early settlements in Carlsbad congregated in the area due to ample fresh water, available to anyone with the ability to clear land and dig a well. Folklore has it that a famous mineral well with healing properties is exactly what earned the town its name, after Karlsbad, Bavaria, which was famous for the same healing mineral water. 

These days, the area is packed with seaside hotels, emerging restaurants (including a Michelin-starred kitchen), local seafood production, and plenty of outdoor attractions, like the few remaining tidal wetlands, surfer-laden beaches, hiking in the area’s 38-mile hilly trail system, and the glistening peacocks at Leo Carrillo Ranch. Ticking under the two-hour mark from LA by car, this quiet coastal haven should be your next SoCal road trip destination — here’s why: 

Swimming in water while looking at *more* water is the best activity on the planet

There’s ocean views, and then there’s the sweeping, skyline-to-shore expanse that The Cassara boasts. Perched high on a hill, the property’s Olympic-size pool is situated directly in the front of the hotel, so nothing blocks a pretty magnificent piece of scenery. Even better? This pool is the “quiet pool,” completely separate from a family pool area, where splashing is confined to those who enjoy it. Oh, and if you fancy some time in the hot tub, it’s even closer to that ocean view than the pool is. Sometimes, great hospitality is all about the views, but sometimes, it’s as simple as intelligent pool layout.

silos of farms in the water in Carlsbad, CA
Carlsbad’s Aquafarm, in Carlsbad, CA.
Jackson Flemming

Visit the Carlsbad Aquafarm to learn about the lifecycle and upkeep of shellfish, taste the freshest oysters possible, and learn how to shuck your own

Whether you’re an oyster obsessive, or just want to learn more about local industry, Carlsbad Aquafarm is one of the most fascinating tours in the area. As the only oyster farm in Southern California, Carlsbad’s Aquafarm is able to offer oysters directly to customers, fresher and cheaper than any restaurant or market. Biologist Rachael Taylor joined the Aquafarm in April 2021 and helped launch the farm’s tour to help both the community and its influx of visitors understand the steps it takes to sustainably harvest shellfish. 

“The process of farming mussels and oysters improves the environment,” Taylor explained. “There’s a direct correlation between the farming of mussels and oysters and having a rich, high-biodiversity environment. Every year we plant millions of oysters into the lagoon. Our farm-to-table products are also substantially cheaper than what you find in seafood eateries, as we are cutting out the additional fees that are involved with handling, shipping, and shucking oysters to consume in restaurants.” 

The tour comes complete with an oyster shucking class and an oyster tasting, so visitors can learn how to hinge open the tricky shells, and taste exactly how fresh the farm’s shellfish are for themselves. So far, it’s been so popular that tours are now offered three times a day, seven days a week – if you’re looking for a weekend slot, book early.

a table of food at a restaurant in Carlsbad, CA
Fair from Campfire, in Carlsbad, CA.
Kacie Tomita

During a recent trip to Oceanside, another blossoming San Diego suburb, locals kept suggesting we make our way to Campfire, over in Carlsbad. It’s the kind of restaurant that inspires so much local pride that even foodies from a few towns over make the trek to get a taste. The same way a great brewery can feel sexy and family-friendly at the same time, Campfire’s environment is so warm and inviting that guests of every age and walk of life seemed to be dining out the night we went. Eating at Campfire feels more like eating at a very generous friend’s sprawling home, but the relaxed dining experience is punctuated by the polished service.

Come early and sit at the bar for some funky natural wine or herb-driven cocktails, then get into the spirit of the campfire by sharing some apps, sweetly called “kindling” here, and more substantial grilled vegetables and meats. The charred Pasturebird chicken with smoked plum and dandelion is a standout, but the smoked, coffee-rubbed brisket was a sendup of all things smoky and decadent. For those who are always craving pasta, cavatelli with mushrooms was just as hearty as any of the carnivorous offerings. And if you are with kids, or just adults who love burnt sugar, yes, they do have s’mores for dessert. Obviously.

Beaches and lagoons, watersports and hiking trails — there’s an outdoor activity for everyone. Plus, Leo Carrillo Ranch is another stunning local landmark

Just like any village by the sea, Carlsbad doubles down on their status as an oceanfront town by providing a whole host of watersports. Local favorites, like South Ponto Beach and Terramar Beach, are both open to the public for surfing, volleyball, long walks, and beachcombing. 

Carlsbad Lagoon will rent you anything from a pontoon to kayaks and paddleboards to a swan boat, plus the lagoons themselves are some of the few left along the SoCal coastline. There’s ample birdwatching at Batiquitos Lagoon, or landlubbers can stick to sashaying with the peacocks at the historic Leo Carrillo Ranch. The park is so beautiful and secluded it’s sometimes called the “sleeping beauty” of Carlsbad, and the retreat is now preserved by the state.

a restaurant front in Carlsbad, CA
Michelin-stared Jeune et Jolie, in Carlsbad, CA.
Jeune et Jolie

Jeune et Jolie is a formal yet playful fine dining experience that lives up to its recent Michelin distinction.

Any relatively small town dreams of recognition on a global scale, but Carlsbad got it in droves back in September 2021 when they notched their first Michelin star. Chef Eric Bost opened the upscale French bistro in 2018, and has run away with dreamy French elegance in decor, the four-course prix fixe menu, and cocktails that rival Manhattan’s snobbiest haunts. It might cost a pretty penny ($95 for the prix fixe, $70 for wine pairings), but that investment in Bost’s vision is returned tenfold as a meal with detailed precision of a tapestry unfurls. Ask the expert staff for comprehensive descriptions and recommendations regarding the options for each course, and let yourself get swept away in the excitement of it all. With all the cooking and preparation done in the center of the restaurant’s glowing open kitchen, you’ll get dinner and a show as the chefs shout ticket items to each other in unison. The best thing Jeune et Jolie reminded me after months of schlepping takeout back to my couch? Dining is supposed to be fun.


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