A beautiful San Diego day and it’s getting time for lunch. In the driveway is a modern interpretation of the classic, big American sedan, a Dodge Charger R/T; its Hemi waiting to rumble.

Let’s head to one of the few surviving original drive-in burger joints in the county, Peppertree Frosty in Vista. Unfortunately, the country roads that once lead to downtown Vista are now four- and six-lane suburban collector highways, but the upscale developments that built these roads have created quite a pleasant drive for visitors.

Take the Leucadia Boulevard exit from Interstate 5 and after exiting head east over the hill to El Camino Real. You’ll pass through the first of three golf courses along the way, the Encinitas Ranch Golf Course. The boulevard goes through a portion of the course with a classy bridge providing access for golf carts going from one side to another.

Although Encinitas is known as a beach town, you’re entering the area where most of its residents live and the area where most of the towns in coastal North County intersect. To the south and west is Encinitas and its communities of Leucadia and Olivenhain; north is Carlsbad and its community of La Costa. As we reach Rancho Santa Fe Road, its namesake community is to the south, and as we turn north, we’re entering the outskirts of San Marcos. But what’s this… north on South Melrose Drive, we’re in Oceanside.

What’s developed over the last 20 years are some very pretty neighborhoods served by meandering boulevards that on a Sunday morning aren’t crowded for the perfect San Diego day trip. I wouldn’t want to drive them in rush hour, but with minimal traffic, drivers and passengers can enjoy the palm-lined byways, especially in a car like the Charger.

Pepper Tree Frosty in Vista, Calif.
Pepper Tree Frosty in Vista, Calif.

Our test model was the R/T, the middle-trim version tequipped with the 5.7 liter Hemi V-8, leather-trimmed seats, navigation, the Beats by Dr. Dre sound system and many other goodies. The hills and curves didn’t test either the Hemi or the sport suspension, it was just the kind of road my Dad used to look for when we’d take Sunday drives in the Pontiac.

Honestly, I love vintage cars, this was much more pleasant a drive in the ’12 Charger than it would have been in the ’64 Catalina. In the 48 model years between the two cars, suspension, brakes, seats and just about everything else has evolved. The Charger looks big but is more the size of a late ’60s midsize sedan, but it has nearly as much room inside as the Catalina. It’s an entirely pleasant car to drive and park, owing to the tight (37.7 inch) turning circle.

I’d love to have the old Catalina at a car show, but I’d rather take the Charger to get there. And at a bit over $40k for the loaded test car ($29,995 base), it’s a good price for the sector. The downside is the fuel economy on the 5.7 liter hemi, or lack of it. I couldn’t get the built-in meter above 19 mpg. Of course the Catalina, with its 389 cubic inch V-8, rarely got about 14 (my dad would check it, even though gas was 30 cents a gallon).

Continuing our San Diego day trip, Melrose Drive provides another pleasant drive with even a bit of old North County along the way. Actor Leo Carrillo’s old estate, now a museum, is just off on a side street; and a half-mile or so of horse stalls and ranchettes line the road just before drivers reach the county courthouse in Vista.

In Vista, while the city has developed its old center into modern suburbia, the crazy quilt of streets remain, so make sure you make all the turns.

The Pepper Tree, with roots to 1953, didn’t disappoint. Be sure to walk up like you’re a local and order a burger from the back window and the chocolate malted from the front. Then enjoy lunch on one of the picnic tables. The old pepper tree is long gone, but the Pepper Tree carries on. And don’t miss the annual Burger Run car show, coming up on Jan. 12.

Nostalgia isn’t always what it used to be, but finding some of the good stuff that’s still around is always great fun. Pick any sunny day you like and hit the road.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 14 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy

Directions


View Larger Map

  • Interstate 5 to Leucadia Boulevard. Head east.
  • Continue onto Olivenhain Road.
  • Continue onto Rancho Santa Fe Boulevard, heading north.
  • Left at South Melrose Drive.
  • Right at West Vista Way.
  • Left at Vista Village Drive.
  • Right at North Santa Fe Avenue.

Locations and websites

Pepper Tree Frosty, 270 South Santa Fe Ave., Vista, (760) 726-0732, Facebook

  • From October 2012

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