Talked with a buddy last night who lives in Long Beach - after that chat I've ruled out anything south of Carpinteria, California.
Now looking at:
San Luis Obispo/Morrow Bay
Santa Rosa - was there in 80's and liked it.
Also Sequim and Port Townsend in WA/Olympic Penn. But the more realistic I become, the less I think I can handle the months of gray weather and drizzle.
Though I love Carmel, it seems to become nothing but a tourist trap in the Spring-Fall and the traffic becomes a nightmare on 101 (last visit there was 2 years ago).
I also remember San Luis Obispo area as being nice - any feedback on this city?
Close friend suggests going between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe - say Cameron Park or Folsom Lake.
That would mean giving up the beach access but I'm finding beach access may have to be traded off for other attributes.
On this list, I'd vote for SLO. Nice college town fairly close to the Pacific. Puts you in good striking range of the Sierras as well as LaLA and SF, but gets bloody hot in the summer. One of the epicenters of the craft beer movement.
As you had stated a desire to spend time swimming in the ocean, the further north you go, the colder the water, the higher the bluffs to get down to the beach, and the rockier the beaches. The surf gets more treacherous the further north you go as well. Another good beach town is Santa Cruz. Would consider that over the greater Monterey area. Another thing to consider is that from Monterey north, most of the summer is fogged in on the coast. People die in Frisco if the temperature goes above 80 F.
If a vibrant cultural scene is important, that pretty much leaves The Bay Area or LA. College towns are usually Ok, but on a much smaller scale. The BA is the only place in California with a real mass transit system that will actually let you get around without a car. If considering the East Bay, check out Alameda as well as the Berkeley/ Piedmont/ Hayward hills areas. Try and stay on the west side of the hills.
I'd stay out of the valley. 100+ for weeks at a time and colder in the winter than the coast. The central valley now has the worst air quality in California, thanks in part to suburban sprawl and just too many vehicles, as well as geography. Both the I5 and 101 corridors have turned into bedroom communities with the attending rush hour gridlock. A couple of years ago it took me an hour to get through Santa Rosa.
If your goal is to be within easy striking distance to mountains while living on the coast, you are pretty much restricted to Pismo on north. SoCal will place you closer to the deserts and the South West. Death Valley is still one of my favorites. In California, nowhere on the coast is really convenient to most of what is considered to be classic landscape territory(Big Sur/Pt Reyes excepted), tho there are little gems hidden away everywhere. A spendy little beach town that is often not thought of is Malibu. Besides the famous beaches, it's surrounded by coastal parkland and far enough from LA to avoid the smog. Must be a reason the Hollywood types live there. I'd stay out of the canyons as they go up in flames just about every summer.
If the beach thing is not set in stone there are quite a few nice little towns along Hwy 49 in the Gold Country, about two hours from SF unless it takes four, depending on route and time. Several are on Yosemite's door step. Another below-the radar area is the Anderson Valley. Close to the coast and the redwoods, and an up and coming wine region. About the same distance from the BA as Santa Rosa, but much less crowded and nicer climate.
Probably the best way to check things out is to start in San Diego and head north on the Pacific Coast Highway sometime in July/August, this will give you a feel of what weather and traffic conditions are like most of the time. Same for the valley and foothills. When I lived in Laguna, you either got out of town by Friday afternoon, or planned on spending the weekend home. In any case, it's best to spend some time in the areas rather than relying on internet searches and peoples experiences from years ago. Things have been rapidly changing throughout the state.
My experience with California - A 6th generation Californian, I was born in LA, grew up in the Bay Area, then went to school in SoCal and got stuck for twenty years(pleasantly so). Since high school, I've lived in Monrovia, Glendora, Glendale, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach, Venice Beach, Huntington Beach, Placerville, Alameda, Paradise, and currently reside in Sacramento. The ocean still beckons and I still miss the SoCal beaches and cutural scenes. I try and get to 10,000' in the Sierras at least once a year.