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San Diego Shines Brighter

The Gaslamp is a great place to spend a day wandering in and out of shops. Many Hands Craft Gallery (302 Island Ave.; 619/557-8303) is a cooperative -- meaning the artists also work in the store in shifts -- of about 20 San Diego craftspeople who create pottery, glassware, stemware, baskets, photography, and stained glass. For women's clothing, check out Lulu Boutique (762 Fifth Ave.; 619/238-5673), with its Tocca dresses and sweaters, Susana Monaco Supplex sportswear, and Lonely Hearts lingerie. And then there's Shake Rag (440 F St.; 619/237-4955). It has a 10,000-piece inventory of vintage clothes -- baseball jackets, swing skirts, corduroy car coats, professorial tweed blazers -- sold to a funky seventies sound track. At the Cuban Cigar Factory, real Cuban expats use tobacco grown from Cuban seeds to roll cigars in front of you (551 Fifth Ave.; 619/238-2429). Gaslamp Books (413 Market St.; 619/237-1492) has an odd collection of used books and whatnot for sale.

Revive yourself inside downtown mainstay Pannikin Coffee & Tea (675 G St.; 619/239-7891). One of the original urban pioneers during the area's renaissance, this bright, warm, great-smelling café and brew-accessory emporium is where the natives go for their coffee fix.

a picnic in the park
On a sunny, 70-something-degree Sunday afternoon in January, I got my hard-to-impress best friend and a couple of guests together for a picnic in Balboa Park (visitors' center, 619/239-0512). As a child, I spent hours during school field trips seeing the how-science-works exhibits at the park's Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (619/238-1233). The park is also where I invariably fell asleep during performances at the Old Globe Theatre (619/239-2255). And, of course, there's the San Diego Zoo (619/231-1515) and the 1910 carousel. My friends were amazed that a quarter-mile from downtown, tucked away behind palm and eucalyptus trees, is a fun house of art and history and secrets.

We had two goals that day: to be outside, and to find the ideal place to eat our box lunches from Bread & Cie. Some parts of the park vary with the seasons. The 2,200 rosebushes in the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, for instance, which looked like nothing but rows of pruned-back shrubs when we were there, are in peak bloom in May. The day of our visit, we found our Shangri-la on benches overlooking Lily Pond.

After lunch, we strolled through the little cottages that compose the House of Pacific Relations (call the park visitors' center for more information), a veritable it's-a-small-world version of Asia; in the House of Japan, you sit on a tatami mat and drink green tea. We then headed to the San Diego Museum of Art (619/232-7931) and talked about men while we pretended to look at paintings. If we'd had kids with us, there's no way we would have missed the mummy exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man (619/239-2001). Meanwhile, the lone guy in our group wasn't about to leave without seeing the Aerospace Museum (619/234-8291), which, with more than 85 flying machines, is an inspiring tribute to aviation history. As we left, my hard-to-impress friend said, "I have to come back. I could spend a whole week here and still not see everything." Exactly.

tijuana
El Otro Lado (or, "the Other Side")
I was born in Tijuana, to a Mexican father and an American mother, so I'm always slightly exasperated when people say that Tijuana is "not really Mexico." "Tell that to the 2 million Mexicans who live there," I say right back. In fact, Tijuana is the fourth-largest city in Mexico, and the border between it and San Ysidro, with about 90,000 people passing across it each day, is the busiest in the world.

The problem is that the main drag, Avenida Revolución, is a bit of a joke. La Revo, as it's called, is filled with tacky shops, hustlers, and two-for-one margaritas. But if you're up for a little cultural adventuring and local culinary flavor, there is Real Mexico to be found in Tijuana -- basically anywhere except La Revo.

How to Get There
The rail route between San Diego and San Ysidro -- the last exit north of the border -- is so popular that San Diegans call the shiny red train that goes to the border the Tijuana Trolley (619/685-4900). Once you get off, follow the signs and the herd of people walking across. Taxis will be waiting on the other side. Many drivers speak English and all gladly accept U.S. dollars; just make sure to agree on a fare before getting in. I don't recommend driving, because you'd have to deal with buying insurance.

Where to Eat
A local friend suggested I try Cien Años (1407 Calle José María Velazco, Zona Río Areaf; 52-66/343-039; dinner for two $30; reservations recommended), a favorite place for her husband and her to go without the kids. The room is small and looks like a Cuernavaca cobblestoned-street café, with its pink stucco walls, bougainvillea vines, little archways, and dim amber lighting. The food -- new interpretations on traditional dishes and ingredients, such as crepas de huitlacoche (a black fungus that grows on corn) and cecina (grilled meat prepared with adobe chilies) -- is a culinary adventure, and is delicious.

My dad used to take me to La Fonda de Roberto (Sierra Motel, 2800 Blvd. Cuauhtemoc; 52-66/864-687). Throughout the meal he would point out, "Over there is the mayor. The guy in the brown suit runs the bullfights." It's that kind of place. La Fonda is well known for its chiles en nogada, which are stuffed with a spicy meat-and-nut mixture, covered in walnut sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Because the dish comprises the colors of the Mexican flag (red, white, and green), you'll usually find it in most restaurants only around Mexican Independence Day (September 16), but La Fonda serves it all year.

What to Do
The Tijuana bullfights (Sundays at 4, May through October), with world-class Spanish and Mexican matadors competing at two arenas, still sell out every week, at El Toreo de Tijuana (Blvd. Aguas Caliente; 52-66/861-219) and Plaza de Toros Monumental (Playa de Tijuana; 52-66/861-510). They're gory and cruel, but they're also very Mexican.

surf's up, diva
My life as a Surf Diva started out as a pipe dream. I grew up around surfers -- guy surfers who made it very clear that they didn't want any girls taking up space on their waves. Which is why, no matter how much I wanted to be one of them, I never tried. That, and I thought there was no way I would ever actually be able to stand up.

So I was psyched when I heard about Surf Diva Surf School, a women-only school founded in 1996 by competitive surfer and local legend Isabelle ("Izzy") Tihanyi. I signed up for a clinic and headed for La Jolla on a 60-degrees-and-climbing Saturday. Our group consisted of several women from UC Santa Barbara, an engineer from L.A., an editor from Vogue, a woman who'd just had a cancer scare, another who had made learning to surf one of her resolutions for 1999, and myself. Thirty-two-year-old Izzy and her co-instructors, Cari and Heather, insisted they could teach us how to stand up and ride the waves. And indeed they did.

Izzy started surfing when she was six and put herself through college on a surf scholarship. Surfing is not just her life, but her life philosophy. After lessons about waves, etiquette (like, never steal another surfer's wave), and safety, Izzy told us how "the surfer who hesitates is lost. If you don't go a hundred percent for a wave, you'll get caught on the inside and you're history. The same is true in life."

That said, it was time to squeeze into a wet suit, grab a soft, skull-friendly long board, and hop on. We spent the majority of that day learning the pop-up, which consists in jumping from horizontal to vertical; and which, coupled with bent knees and arms out, makes you feel like a regular Gidget. On dry land.

Day two was big-surf day and it rained hard. The fact that all 15 of us got in the water is testament to the Surf Divas' contagious enthusiasm. That we stayed out there until our feet turned blue is due to the insane addiction of surfing. Catch a wave and you'll not only want another one, you'll have Izzy screaming what a "shredder" you are.

Afterward, we went to the Coffee House for hot chocolate. While we divas-in-training sat there, Izzy, Cari, and Heather let us know that they did not intend for us to just have a good time and call it quits. They told us how surfing helps you forget guy troubles, how even just waiting for waves is good meditation, how surfing is the best thing in the whole entire world, and how we should therefore surf from now to eternity. As if making Surf Divas of us all would be one giant leap for womankind.

Surf Diva Surf School 2160A Avda. de la Playa, La Jolla; 619/454-8273; two-day clinic $98 per person.

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