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Weekend Escape

Doin' the Wave in La Jolla

A school called Surf Diva teaches women how to play the quintessential Southern California board game.


LA JOLLA — The Pacific scares the nail polish off my fingers. That's been my dirty little secret since I moved to Southern California 31/2 years ago. I love beaches and can swim like a guppy, but have you seen the waves at Zuma and Topanga?

Being afraid--especially of something millions of people seem to enjoy--aggravates me. So in the dog days of August, I decided to face my fear by coming here for a weekend clinic at Surf Diva, a school for women at La Jolla Shores a few miles north of town.

Izzy Tihanyi, a tall, muscular 30-year-old with sun-streaked hair, founded the school with twin sister Caroline in 1996. Izzy, a competitive swimmer and surfer since she was 8, noticed that women didn't always fare well in coed classes she taught with male instructors. "The women students were really intimidated to ask 20-year-old surfer dudes questions," she says.

Hence Surf Diva, with headquarters in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood. The school offers intensive weeklong programs, five-day surfing camps in Carlsbad, surfing safaris in Mexico and popular weekend clinics, which consist of two hours of instruction on a Saturday and a Sunday for $98, including equipment. The goal is for women novices to have fun without breaking any nails and to get confident and competent enough to practice surfing on their own.

I never expected to become a Marge Calhoun or Linda Benson, Southern Californians who were among the first women surfers to brave the big waves on the North Shore of Oahu in the late '50s. I just wanted to get comfortable bodysurfing and bodyboarding in the big ocean at my front door. I wanted to better understand Southern California beach culture. And I needed to get baptized in the Pacific so I could finally call myself a "California girl" with authenticity.

Besides, the shopping's good in La Jolla.

Scoff if you like. But Izzy, who designs women's surfboards and sells Surf Diva T-shirts, thinks surfing and shopping are dynamically related. "You used to have to pick between being a jock and a girl," she told Andrea Gabbard, the author of "Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing" (Seal Press, 2000), "but now you can be both."

On the 100-mile Friday afternoon drive to La Jolla, cruising by San Onofre, I heard on the radio that a shark attacked a Florida surfer.

The only thing worse than big waves is sharks. But Izzy says only harmless sand sharks roam off La Jolla. I pushed away the thought of an ocean-based amputation by having a Caesar salad and English breakfast tea on the flowery terrace at Cody's, a La Jolla restaurant overlooking the pretty cove that put the town on the map.

I bought a nightie at Victoria's Secret and strolled along the waterfront in Scripps Park, where love-struck couples were picnicking and kids were flapping their water wings.

La Valencia Hotel, painted a shade of pink that put me in a good mood, rose on the cliffs above. For dinner I had a Manhattan and a bowl of French onion soup in the Whaling Bar at this landmark hotel.

Afterward it would have been convenient to take the elevator to one of the rooms at La Valencia, but they are a bit pricey at $275 and up, so I stayed at Shell Beach Apartment-Motel just down the block.

The complex, made of up three buildings on Coast Boulevard, looks a little funky, like the sort of place that would have cockroaches. But there wasn't a bug in sight in my room on the second floor of the main brick building. It had a bay window overlooking the water, a queen bed, kitchenette, small bath, sad, shabby furniture and hooks on the wall with no pictures for $135 a night, including continental breakfast and use of the pool at its nearby sister hotel, La Jolla Cove Suites.

If I hadn't felt justified in indulging myself after the rigors of surfing class, it would have been a reasonably priced getaway. But I work on the carrot system, which in this case involved offering myself a reward for venturing into the Pacific by booking a Saturday massage at the nearby Chopra Center for Well Being for $95.

The thought of that sybaritic rubdown compelled me to the beach Saturday morning. Surf Diva holds classes at 7:30 and 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on weekends. I chose the earliest one.

I indeed got there early and strolled the wide, gray sand beach with a coffee in hand. Soon a group of young women in wetsuits appeared by Lifeguard Stand 32. They set up a card table and awning, hauled out clothes racks with T-shirts and hung a Surf Diva sign. When class got started, I realized they were the instructors, trim and suntanned, enthusiastic and articulate, like Michelle Woodward, who is financing a master's degree in marine biology at UC San Diego by teaching surfing.

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