Were it not for President Richard Nixon’s ties to the town, bougainvillea-wrapped San Clemente may have remained a relatively unknown spot on the Pacific Coast. Not that it needed an excuse to rest on its laurels, but the heightened interest did help a bit.
San Clemente is a hub for surfing activity, a vacation spot, a home to ocean-and-sun worshippers; it holds a great amount of beauty along a considerable stretch of the rugged Pacific coastline.
Of course, I didn’t know much about any of this before I moved to the “Spanish Village by the Sea” – so named by its residents – four years ago. Despite being lured away after a near two-year residency by the bigger LA, and subsequently back to the even bigger and bustling NY, paying a visit to the town a week or so ago felt a little bit like returning ‘home’.
Reflecting on my time in San Clemente, I cannot help but wax nostalgic; I associate a large part of myself with the town – something I didn’t realise until I’d left it. San Clemente played host during the first years of my thirties. It was there that I fell in love with the Southern Californian way of life: I embraced its lush colourful hilly landscape, and the dazzling ocean scapes that seemed to stretch to infinity; I reveled in its warm climate, and found comfort in San Clemente’s relaxed vibe. This is a town filled with precious moments; it is where I got engaged and married to my wonderful husband.
As I have written a short memoir of my time in San Clemente here: An Ode to San Clemente, I will continue that conversation by sharing slivers of facts and history along with a series of recently taken photos (as well as two borrowed vintage ones).
NB: it is no coincidence that the glistening Pacific is my favourite vista.
I hope you enjoy and take something away from the documentary.
If you’ve seen the movie Frost/Nixon, you may have heard San Clemente mentioned in passing. This is where the nation’s 37th president built himself a part-time home, back in 1969. Nixon named it, “La Casa Pacifica”; it fostered the nickname, “Western White House.” Influential figures – Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, and Henry Kissinger amongst others – passed through the town on their visits to the mansion. Not bad for international exposure.
Having resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal, Nixon moved to San Clemente full-time; this is where he wrote his memoirs. In 1980, he and his wife relocated to the East Coast. Today, his estate no longer exists in its former glory; the lot was divided up with a large proportion of the house being rebuilt.
Architecture similar to that of Nixon’s home is so prevalent throughout San Clemente. Spanish Colonial is the town’s signature style; Bougainvillea is the city’s flower.
Ole Hanson, who founded the city in 1925, was quoted as saying, “I have a clean canvas and I am determined to paint a clean picture.” He saw the potential in San Clemente as a respite for urban dwellers; he thought the coastline romantic.
Hanson ensured the buildings adopted a Spanish style; terracotta tiled roofs can be spotted all over town.
A train track (really does) run through it…
The horn of the passing train is a regular sound as it passes through San Clemente; a blare that continues to scare, I’m sure of it, many a soul out of their sneakers as they exercise along the graveled walkway that runs alongside the scarcely barricaded train track.
Known as the Pacific Surfliner route, the train track hugs the coastline between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, and make stops at Los Angeles and San Clemente Pier (sometimes) enroute.
Noted as the 60th busiest Amtrak station out of 73 in California, Amtrak calculated that 25 passengers board and detrain at the San Clemente Pier station daily. A sure sign of a vacation town.
Crossing the train tracks leads you to San Clemente’s Pier and beach, the most populated part of the town.
Here, you’ll see surfers either waxing their boards, or floating on the Pacific – perched, waiting, and ready to catch the next wave; satisfied restaurant patrons walk the length of the Pier after a filling meal at the Fisherman’s Wharf. Located at the beach-end, its dining room and terrace balance over the water lapped shoreline, supported by the Pier’s stilts.
At various times of the day, it isn’t uncommon to notice patient fishermen by the Pier’s balustrades, in hopes of reeling in a bite. Ocean gazers abound.
The views on and from the town’s hilly terrain are worthy of a pause too – cacti, California lilacs, hot pink bougainvillea, bright red bottlebrush, Mexican sage, and the ubiquitous palm tree are part of the flora that make up the town’s landscape. As is typical throughout California, San Clemente is made all the prettier for its manicured gardens.
Spot a hummingbird; it’s your lucky day. So fun to watch – small, with a beak like a tapestry needle – they flutter their wings hundreds of times a minute whilst hovering mid-air. Blink, and they’re gone – off to their next hovering spot.
All the while, the Pacific provides a captivating backdrop. Whether it paints a scene that glistens under the sun’s rays, or something a little wilder – crashing waves under a cover of fog; either could be listened to/watched for hours.
Such is the allure of San Clemente.