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Weekend Escape: Carlsbad : Blue Highways : Out for a spin over coastal North County in a very open cockpit

February 04, 1996|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Eastman is assistant Life & Style editor in the Times Orange County edition

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Desperately needing to break the mid-winter doldrums, my boyfriend, Mark, and I went in search of an adventure and found it inside the open cockpit of a 1927 biplane. If joy riding with the wind in your face over North San Diego County's coast doesn't blow away the post-holiday blahs, nothing will.

We began on a bright, breezeless Saturday by checking into the Pelican Cove Inn a few blocks from the ocean and Carlsbad's downtown. This 10-year-old bed-and-breakfast inn has all the modern amenities a couple would love on a getaway--a spa tub, private entrance and flip-of-the-switch fireplace--as well as many pleasantries of the past--Scandia featherbeds, Victorian furnishings and the proprietor's careful attention to detail.

When we pulled into the driveway, we were greeted by co-owner Nancy Nayudu, who took us upstairs to our room, one of two suites in the eight-room inn. It's pricey ($175 a night plus tax), but the La Jolla Room has a bay of windows, vaulted ceiling, reading nook and vanity area that offered us space to stretch out and enjoy our stay. But be warned: The half-moon-shaped windows along the top of one wall are not covered, and light, either from the sun or street lamps, pours in continually.

When I asked if there was a refrigerator in the room, Nancy said there wasn't one, but that she could chill our champagne and bring it to us when we wanted it. Since our champagne bottle was still in the trunk of the car, I gave her points for having a hostess' intuition.

In the lobby, there were menus from about a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the inn. We took a handful up to our room to study. Each of the restaurants we tried on this trip offered good food in a super-casual atmosphere. Those qualities sum up most of the nicer restaurants in Carlsbad's downtown "village," which straddles the main drag--Carlsbad Village Drive--from Interstate 5 to the ocean.

For lunch on Saturday, we had grilled shark tacos and margaritas at the Coyote Bar & Grill, then wandered in and out of antique shops on nearby State Street. Although trains buzz along the tracks that divide the small downtown area, Amtrak no longer stops in Carlsbad, and the quaint train depot, the city's first commercial building, now houses the visitor's bureau. It is here that you get your first sense of history.

Carlsbad was one of many coastal cities that sprang up during the land boom of the 1880s, but in addition to its surf and sunny climate, it had a mineral spring to lure potential buyers. The city's name comes from a similar therapeutic spring in Czechoslovakia founded by King Karl in the 14th century. In the United States, Karlsbad--Karl's Bath--became Carlsbad.

City founders pushed the healing properties of the mineral water to attract settlers to "Nature's Sanitarium." Train passengers stopping at Carlsbad's platform found faucets from which they could get a free taste of the mineral water. Many stayed, while others who bought home sites here, including President Grover Cleveland, hoped to retire near the soothing waters.

Lots were selling briskly for $175 to $500 each in 1887, but a few years later, land values dropped and in 1939, the mineral water well was filled in. The site of the original well is now in front of Alt Karlsbad, a former museum, on Carlsbad Boulevard. One entrepreneur has reopened the well and hopes to bottle the water.

Nearby Magee Park has several historic buildings, mainly the Magee House, the headquarters of the historical society, which offers walking tours of the area if you call in advance ([619]-434-9189 ). Adjacent to the park is the 60-year-old Army and Navy Academy. You can't miss the school's boarders, pint-size cadets in blue uniforms, milling about town.

Saturday night, we walked down to the village and ate at the Vera Cruz Fish House, where fat fillets are cooked over an open pit of mesquite. Mark had three large Alaskan King crab legs ($19.95); I ate a generous portion of tender local white sea bass ($12.50). Then we went on the village club circuit, checking out the live entertainment at the Alley (baby boomer rock fare), the newly opened Boar Cross 'N Bar (rock 'n' roll), Coyote Bar & Grill (top 40) and Neimans (blues). It's easy to slip comfortably into any of these nightspots.

On our walk back to our room, we stopped at Dini's, which pulls in the locals for free-form karaoke sessions.

When we returned to our room, the champagne was chilled and we started the fire. In the morning, Nancy brought us a tray of coffee, juice, artichoke quiche, croissants, preserves and fruit.

Sunday was our day to dip, spin and swoop. After checking out, we headed southeast a few miles to the McClellan-Palomar Airport to experience our eye-opening flight in the front cockpit of a Travel Air biplane. Seated behind us was pilot Tom Harnish, who, when airborne, goes by the name "Tailspin Tommy" (better than "Crash and Burn Curt," Mark observed).

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