DEL MAR, Calif. — This pretty beach town is just north of San Diego, so a Del Mar weekend could ostensibly include zoos, nightclubs and trained whales.
But, once in the "People's Republic of Del Mar," a two-mile municipality that has vigorously fought off incorporation and maintained its independence, this thought emerges: "Once you've found perfection why bother to venture farther?"
Del Mar looks perfect. Even the post office has a riotous garden worthy of a Sunset magazine cover. The Del Mar Gardening Club donates time and money to beautify all public spaces. The beach is white sand. On the cliffs above the beach is a grassy park where a couple often is getting married and everyone puts away their Frisbees for a moment to listen to the wedding music.
When we go to Del Mar, where my boyfriend grew up and his mother still lives, we do exactly the same things every time. But this time we were taking our well-honed insider's routine and adding it to the framework of a real getaway (i.e. trading the extra room at Rich's mom's for scrunchy robes, maid service and a spa experience, in this case yoga on the beach with a personal trainer, at L'Auberge Del Mar Resort and Spa).
While we had often pitied the tourists for choosing Starbucks over the locals' favorite French bakery or not knowing where the waves break just so, we had never pitied their terraced lodgings, swimming pools and tennis courts at the ivy-covered hotel on the site of the old Del Mar Hotel, right between the beach and town.
Before checking in on Saturday we started our weekend the same way we always do, with breakfast at St. Tropez Bakery, just a few steps from L'Auberge. When you walk in, owner Christina Pellrud calls out "bonjour" with that musical lilt pulled off only by native French speakers. As always, we ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice (made from just-picked oranges from nearby Rancho Santa Fe), pain chocolate (flaky croissants filled with bitter chocolate) and a custard-fruit tart.
Next, we strolled to the bluff overlooking the beach. From here Del Mar looks like a "Where's Waldo?" picture. On the sand below and in the grassy park next to us there are kids, dogs, kites, sandcastles and beach umbrellas. People surf, Boogie board, nap, read, eat and play cards, smash ball and the occasional musical instrument.
Those in the know bring hibachis to the park and grill corn--but it isn't just any corn. It's Chino's corn--impossibly sweet, white corn from nearby Chino's Farms, where the likes of Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck have been known to buy vegetables.
From late July to mid-September, during the Del Mar Racetrack season, the trick to finding an uncrowded beach spot is simply to wait until the mass exodus when everyone high-tails it to the track for the first horse race of the day at 1.
Usually we walk up the hill from the beach and stroll through the winding, residential streets of Old Del Mar where tourists seldom wander, admiring the creative, well-tended gardens. Our routine is to end our walk looking at the pictures on the wall outside the real estate office in the Del Mar Plaza. We do it for the same reason people go to scary movies: just for the jolt and shiver as we contemplate a 1,500-square-foot house selling for $800,000.
But this time instead of pricey homes, we checked out our pricey digs (summer rates at L'Auberge start at $259, and it's worth an extra $40 to get one of the rooms on the top floor where the balconies have beach views and privacy). The gracious room was pale yellow, with a four-poster bed, sofa and botanical prints on the wall, but what really caught my eye was a basket of cookies and granola bars.
"Oh, isn't it the little surprises that really make a nice hotel?" I thought just before I saw the card listing the price of $2.69 for one Nutri-Grain bar. My feeling of being gouged grew when I tried to arrange for a checkout time later than noon on Sunday--since our yoga appointment was at 11:30--and was told there was a $75 fee for doing so. (We passed.)
But at night we could hear the sound of the ocean, the waves even drowning out the occasional passing Amtrak train except for a distant whistle. And early Sunday morning, playing tennis on freshly surfaced courts with a view of crashing surf, I was more than happy to be there.
Rich originally was in on the next planned activity, the yoga, at $60 per person--but with the waves topping 6 feet, he suddenly had other plans. What can you expect from someone who grew up where surfing was a high school P.E. elective? My cousin's wife, Jen, however, enthusiastically volunteered to take his place.