The city is like a wickedly beautiful teenage girl -- alluring and playful, ready to grow up but fully aware of how good she's got it. Start with the mañana vibe that creeps in from south of the border and add it to the year-round beach days, and it's no wonder that the prevailing philosophy is "one good day after another."
where to stay
La Valencia Hotel 1132 Prospect St., La Jolla; 800/451-0772 or 619/454-0771, fax 619/456-3921; doubles from $235. The epicenter and first lady of La Jolla, the 1926 Spanish-style La Valencia is an oasis of sunshiny serenity. You don't stay for the rooms, which are average (and you pay extra for a view), but rather for the walk down steep steps to La Jolla Cove, to have a drink with the local cuff-links crowd in the red-walled Whaling Bar, or to kick back in the elegant lobby on cushy couches and watch Leviticus, the flamboyant, dreadlocked entertainer, sing and play piano on Friday and Saturday nights.
Horton Grand Hotel 311 Island Ave., San Diego; 800/542-1886 or 619/544-1886, fax 619/239-3823; doubles from $129. The pair of 1886 buildings that make up the Horton Grand, in the heart of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, were formerly a busy brothel and a saddle shop; Wyatt Earp even lived here during the seven years he spent in San Diego. Rooms are decorated with dark wood and wallpaper; many have wrought-iron balconies overlooking a brick courtyard, and more than one is said to be haunted.
Crystal Pier Hotel 4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego; 800/748-5894 or 619/483-6983, fax 619/483-6811; doubles from $125. Once you drive through the white Deco arch, bump along onto the 1927 wooden pier, and step into your bright blue-and-white cottage, you'll have a hard time leaving. Luckily, with a kitchenette and a private deck built smack over the breaking waves, you won't have to.
L'Auberge Del Mar Resort & Spa 1540 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar; 800/553-1336 or 619/259-1515, fax 619/755-4940; doubles from $260. Parlor-like rooms with French doors (some with fireplaces too), a private path leading down to the beach, a full spa -- the whole Auberge experience captures the spirit of Del Mar's glamorous past as a Hollywood hot spot. There's also a booming horse- race season in town and excellent shops and restaurants within walking distance.
Hotel del Coronado 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado; 800/468-3533 or 619/435-6611, fax 619/522-8262; doubles from $205. The historic Hotel del Coronado, which sits like a big white Victorian wedding cake on Coronado Island, is definitely worth seeing. Don't miss the crown-shaped chandeliers in the carved-oak Crown Room. But "the Del," as locals call it, has bought into the tour and convention business; that means lone travelers can feel as if they're swimming upstream against a sea of name tags. Best just to rent a bike at the hotel and take the five-mile ride that loops around the golf course, under the San Diego- Coronado Bay Bridge, along the harbor (for one of the best views of San Diego), up the main drag, and back to the hotel.
La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club 2000 Spindrift Dr., La Jolla; 800/624-2582 or 619/454-7126, fax 619/456-3805; doubles from $129. This is one of the few private, blue-blazer-type clubs in what is otherwise a fairly anti-exclusive city. Forget about joining; there's a five-year waiting list. Still, the club is generous enough to open up its hacienda-style main building, lush grounds, and extensive facilities -- beach chairs, private beach, tennis courts, nine-hole golf course (for a $6.50 fee), pool, fitness center, dining room -- to the non-members who rent its beachfront bungalows. There are also two two-bedroom cottages available by the day or week, both of them with kitchenettes.
U.S. Grant Hotel 326 Broadway, San Diego; 800/237-5029 or 619/232-3121, fax 619/232-3626; doubles from $195. Built in 1910 by the grandson of Ulysses S. Grant, the hotel is as dignified as its guests, who have included Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Bush. The Grant has marble floors, crystal chandeliers, 280 Victorian-style guest rooms, and a hefty dose of doormen. Packages such as the Overnighter ($109 per night) and the Bed &a,p; Breakfast ($129 per night) make it surprisingly affordable.
Westgate Hotel 1055 Second Ave., San Diego; 800/221-3802 or 619/238-1818, fax 619/557-3737; doubles from $199. Walking into the downtown Westgate is like walking into Versailles. This is no coincidence, since the lobby was designed to replicate a reception room in the French palace and is furnished with 17th- and 18th-century antiques. The harpist-accompanied afternoon tea is the ultimate opulent-lobby experience. If you request a room above the 12th floor, you'll get a spectacular city view.
flights of fancy
Since I moved away from San Diego, where I grew up, I've come to love landing at Lindbergh Field. As the plane maneuvers between the tall buildings of downtown, it's like being on a real-life Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The first time I watched a plane take off from this airport with my stepdad on it, I cried. I was seven years old and I was upset because the farther away it got, the smaller it became. I couldn't imagine how my six-foot-tall stepdad could possibly survive the shrinkage. When he got back a few days later, he stopped the car in what is now the Solar parking lot (2200 Pacific Hwy.) and explained the whole concept of "perspective." This is where San Diegans still park to watch the runway action.
There is an ongoing drone of complaints about the airport. That it's dangerously close to residential neighborhoods. That it's too noisy. (Actors in the Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park have to freeze to statue-like stillness whenever a plane passes overhead; but then, that was always my favorite part.) Opponents argue that, with only one runway, Lindbergh Field (a.k.a. San Diego International Airport) will eventually choke San Diego's economy. But all proposals for moving the airport -- including one for a "Floatport" (floating airport) proposed by architect Don Innis and his Float, Inc., in 1995 -- have dried up. Practical considerations aside, the giant winged beasts coming and going against the backdrop of the harbor, with a changing lineup of ships anchored in its waters and the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge winding behind, are as integral to San Diego's skyline as the Empire State Building is to New York City's.
where to eat
San Diego is only now beginning to find its footing in the food world, and at the forefront is Laurel (505 Laurel St., San Diego; 619/239-2222; dinner for two $70). The French-accented Mediterranean menu -- which details who grew the greens, nurtured the cheese, confected the chocolate -- reflects a pride that's evident in the food.
Blue Point Coastal Cuisine (565 Fifth Ave., San Diego; 619/233-6623; dinner for two $60) -- with lots of oysters, a five-deep bar crowd, and big round booths -- is the place to enjoy both the Gaslamp Quarter scene and Asian- influenced seafood.
Pacifica Del Mar (1555 Camino Del Mar, atop the Del Mar Plaza, Del Mar; 619/792-0476; dinner for two $65) provides the quintessential California dining experience, with ocean views, a huge halogen-lit room, and a menu that includes crab in a martini glass.
Bread & Cie. (350 University Ave., San Diego; 619/683-9322; lunch for two $15) is one of those pristine places where they do everything right, including the best-ever chocolate biscotti. This is bread-making as art; the French ovens were imported by impassioned owner Charles Kaufman.
The eclectic crowd of lawyers, businessmen, and fishermen at San Diego's oldest bar, the Waterfront, roll up their sleeves to dig into the city's best half-pound burgers (2044 Kettner Blvd., San Diego; 619/232-9656; dinner for two $12).
Go to the ode-to-the-fifties Corvette Diner (3946 Fifth Ave., San Diego; 619/542-1476; burgers for two $13) and give your kids permission to stuff their pockets full of free Bazooka bubble gum, and their bellies with fountain drinks made by a Buddy Holly look-alike.
Whether they're talking about the informal, wear-sunscreen-to-lunch Ocean Terrace, the café and bar on the middle floor (the handsomest pickup place in town), or the formal dining room downstairs, George's at the Cove (1250 Prospect St., La Jolla; 619/454-4244; dinner for two $45-$75) is repeatedly mentioned by San Diegans as a favorite. The menu for the café and terrace ranges from salads to a chicken and black bean soup that is so often asked about, they give out the recipe (see below).
Smoked Chicken and Black Bean Soup
Created by chef Scott Meskan of George's at the Cove.
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. each diced carrots, onions, and celery
1 c. broccoli stems, peeled and diced
2 tsp. each dried thyme and oregano
1 tsp. dried sweet basil
1/2 c. white wine
4 c. chicken stock, hot
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. Tabasco
1 c. diced smoked chicken
1 c. cooked black beans
1 c. broccoli florets
2 c. heavy cream
2 tbsp. cornstarch, mixed with a small amount of warm water (optional)
In a large pot, melt 1/4 cup of the butter, then sauté carrots, onions, celery, and broccoli stems for 5 minutes. Sprinkle in thyme, oregano, and basil; sauté 5 minutes more. Add wine and deglaze pan. Pour in hot stock and reduce by one-third. Stir in Worcestershire, Tabasco, chicken, beans, and broccoli florets; simmer 5 minutes. Add cream, simmer 5 minutes more, and season to taste. (Thicken with cornstarch, if desired.) Drop in remaining butter, piece by piece, stirring until melted. Serve immediately.
Before being designated a National Register Historic District in 1980, it was nothing but X-rated movie theaters, pawnshops, and abandoned buildings. Now the 161/2 blocks known as the Gaslamp Quarter -- after the lights that lined the streets at the turn of the century, since replaced by electric replicas -- have been revitalized. The boutiques, restaurants, and galleries that moved in have essentially created a "downtown" in San Diego, where only recently there really wasn't one. For guided or self-guided historical tours of the area, contact the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (410 Island Ave; 619/233-4692).