Don Winslow's San Diego: Hitting the waves with the dawn patrol

 

The sun warms my neck as I paddle out to sea, though it doesn't quite blunt the sting of a cold Pacific which is being churned into four-to-six-foot waves (with occasional plus-size sets) by a midwinter swell. To my left is Crystal Pier, a prominent local attraction; to my right is Bird Rock, a peninsula that funnels the walls of breaking water into nicely rideable peaks.

I grab a spot in the middle of the line-up and glance at my watch. It's 6am in San Diego, time for what surfers call The Dawn Patrol.

Students of Don Winslow know all about this famous beach-break, where I'm sat astride a seven-foot Greg Griffin "thruster", in a 3.2 wetsuit. It is part of Pacific Beach (a suburb known locally as PB) and features in the opening chapters of what, for my money, is his most compelling book: a dark crime novel set against the seedy underbelly of Southern California's surfing community which, somewhat appropriately, is also called The Dawn Patrol.

Like many of the very best writers, Winslow, aged 57, knows exactly how to bring a place and its heritage alive. A former private investigator, who began to gain prominence as an author after he moved to San Diego in the mid-1990s, he writes – in a prose style that recalls Frederick Forsyth and James Ellroy – about the drug dealers, cops, surfers, hookers, gangsters and multimillionaires who shaped this city and its suburbs. His protagonists are very local heroes: shady characters, with a heart of gold.

To do Don Winslow's San Diego justice, the literary tourist must make certain sacrifices. The first is to forego the creature comforts of the many local luxury hotels. Instead, you are obliged to book cheap accommodation in PB, where motel rooms cost $100 a night, and come with paper-thin walls and TV remote controls screwed to the bedside table. The second sacrifice is to forget about nearby attractions Sea World or Lego Land. They are for another trip.

I resolved, during a weekend-long Winslow pilgrimage in mid-January, to follow a strict routine: surf morning and evening, for an hour or two at a time, then use the day to take in places with links to his 13 novels, the most recent of which, a brilliant, sprawling tale about Mexican drug cartels called Savages, is being made into a film by Oliver Stone.

My journey began at Crystal Pier, a magnificent structure in the heart of PB, where I hired a bicycle and meandered down the promenade next to the beach. This wide strip of bright yellow sand stretches for several miles south from Bird Rock, with its cliff-top McMansions, into Mission Beach, a marginally less salubrious area full of crab shacks, dive bars, beach houses let to partying holidaymakers, and a vast, gaudy funfair.

Here, as you pedal past beautiful people in swimwear playing endless games of beach volleyball, and try not to run over roller-bladers and joggers, you get a sense of the sun-dappled promise upon which San Diego was built. Though originally founded by Catholic missionaries in the 18th century, it can trace the growth which turned it into America's eighth-largest city to the Second World War, when a generation of young men passed through its port en route to the grizzly theatre of the Pacific.

When peace came, many of them headed back West, lured by the promise of endless summers and well-paying jobs in the huge local Navy facilities, or factories that supported the booming aerospace industry. Hard-working folk, from blue-collar backgrounds, could afford detached houses, two-car garages, and a swimming pool out back. It was San Diego rather than vulgar Los Angeles, which truly exemplified the post-war Californian Dream.

Yet dark shadows also fall across Winslow's sunny city. You can sense them in the whiff of marijuana smoke which sometimes catches on the breeze, and the tattooed tough guys who sit on Mission Beach park benches, patting pitbulls. Stop for a drink in a local dive bar, and you'll realise that this is no place to spill someone's pint. Drive past roadblocks on the freeway, where police check for drugs and illegal immigrants smuggled up from Tijuana, and you'll appreciate an edginess in common with almost every border town.

Surfing, the preferred pastime of both laid-back spiritual types and hard-knuckle street gangs, perfectly represents the light and darkness Winslow finds in San Diego. A short drive up the coast, in a town called Oceanside, I paid a visit to the California Surf Museum, which traces the sport from its ancient roots.

Two things have spurred surfing's progress, and both were born in Southern California. The first was fibreglass, invented by the aerospace industry. It meant that surfboards morphed from the 40-pound wooden behemoths to the five or six pound items we carry under our arms today. The second was Hollywood: the 1959 film Gidget sparked the dramatic surf "boom" of the subsequent decade.

Further north, in the foothills of Orange County, is the Richard Nixon Library. The former President's home, Casa Pacifica, is about an hour's north of San Diego, and crops up in Winslow's The Power of the Dog. Splendidly, the part of the Library dedicated to Watergate, the scandal for which Nixon is notorious, is confined to a tiny corridor, near the exit.

Back at Pacific Beach, I returned to the water for a final evening surf session. Fishermen tossed lines off Crystal Pier, reminding me of Frank the Bait Guy, the protagonist in Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine. A lifeguard strolled past, like Dave the Love God, The Dawn Patrol's resident lifesaver. An hour later, with arms like spaghetti, I headed back to dry land for beer and burgers. It was a cheap and cheerful dinner, so I hope Winslow would have approved.

San Diego: whales, wine bars & history

* If you can't face the crowds at either San Diego's Sea World or its exemplary zoo (set in the sprawling Balboa Park), nature lovers can take a whale watching tour during migration season (Dec-April); flagshipsd.com.

* In the 1800s, Coronado Island was one of the world's great tourism hubs, thanks to the Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian confection of spires and gables that's best-known for providing the beach scenes in Some Like It Hot; hoteldel.com.

* Hike from San Diego city limits, through the Torrey Pines State Park, down to the satellite beach town of La Jolla to get spectacular views of the city's 70 miles of sandy coastline, including some superb seal-spotting in La Jolla's pretty bay; torreypine.org.

* Explore upcoming North Park district. A little less polished than the much promoted "historic" Gas Lamp district, this collection of neighbourhoods north of Balboa Park are characterised by Craftsman cottages and have become a hub for rising-star chefs, decent dive bars and a lively music scene; sandiego.org.

* Stay at the new Andaz hotel; the quirky chain has joined the W and Hard Rock to up San Diego's cool hotel quota. Rooftop terrace with fire pit, self-service wine bar (bottles in cages accessed with credit card) and peakaboo bathrooms that demand double rooms are shared with nearest and dearest; andaz.com, visitcalifornia.co.uk.

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