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).
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.
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.