YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Western Travel | WEEKEND ESCAPE

La Jolla's down-to-earth side

The playground for the rich can be laid-back too. Casual shopping, museums, nature walks and eateries beckon.

April 16, 2006|Liane Bonin | Special to The Times

La Jolla — UNABLE to face yet another weekend of home improvement hell, my husband, Brad, and I decided to make a run for it.

After dumping the dogs on my unsuspecting in-laws, we faced the tricky business of finding a hiding place. My requirements: quiet but not somnambulistic. Close to nature but not too far from the civilizing influence of good dining. Brad's requirement: a sports bar for that Sunday's big game. That's men for you.

Surprisingly, La Jolla fit the bill for both of us. The seven-mile stretch of rocky coastline is sleepier than the rest of San Diego but has enough culture, good eats and hiking trails to make its distance from the world-class zoo utterly forgivable. And despite La Jolla's painfully pricey reputation, our off-season visit gave us a taste of luxury without having to take out a second mortgage.

Still, as we arrived in town we braced ourselves for a snooty quotient. La Jolla ("the jewel" in Spanish), with its dramatic cliffs and quaint, turn-of-the-last-century architecture, long has been a playground for the rich and famous. Newspaper heiress Ellen Browning Scripps moved here in 1896 (thus, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography), polio vaccine creator Dr. Jonas Salk established his institute here in 1960 and native son Gregory Peck founded the La Jolla Playhouse, a magnet for celebrities in the '40s and '50s.

The demure streets of cozy boutiques and cottage-like storefronts of La Jolla Village certainly seemed like a proper playground for wealthy landowners. Instead, we found the town was less hoity-toity than laid-back, dude. Shop windows showed capri pants, not haute couture, and young families and retirees glided out of their pricey SUVs in lowbrow flip-flops. Instead of fake-baked sunbathers on the beach, we spotted men in sun hats carrying metal detectors. Seemingly the only difference between the upscale natives and us was the sweaters they wore around their shoulders. Good thinking -- the minute the sun slipped behind a cloud, we felt how chilly that ocean breeze could be.

After a quick tour of the neighborhood, we went hotel hunting. After eliminating the Best Western Inn by the Sea (right price, wrong decor) and the Grande Colonial Hotel (lovely but pricey), we landed at the Empress Hotel. For $179 a night, we had a plush, king-size bed, recessed lighting, fresh-baked cookies in the lobby and sophisticated decor in an array of earth tones. Perfect.

Well, almost. The Empress' complimentary breakfast of bagels, muffins and hard-boiled eggs was underwhelming, so we set out to try our luck in town. Little more than a block away, we stumbled across the Cottage, a quaint early-1900s home transformed into an eatery offering sunny bistro fare. The short wait for a table was offset by a cart of free coffee and crumb cake on the sidewalk. We considered holding out for a table on the umbrella-covered patio, but the plates traveling by on the arms of the wait staff looked too tempting. We weren't disappointed. My lobster omelet special ($16) was stuffed with an entire claw of the good stuff, and Brad made an impressive dent in an omelet of mushrooms, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and brie.

Over breakfast, we leafed through fliers from our hotel's concierge, settling on the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. We missed the aquarium's naturalist-guided whale watch departing from the San Diego Harbor, and we lacked sufficient interest in the three-minute simulator ride for $4. Sitting in a bucking and rotating tin can while watching nature videos may be great for the kids, but not adults full of omelets. So we set off to see the aquarium proper.

We lingered over the multitudes of jellyfish and patted some sea stars at the tide pools in Preuss Plaza, but even taking time to find out about our genetic similarities to a sea squirt at the educational Sea of Genes exhibit (open through summer 2007), we were in and out of the aquarium in a scant 90 minutes. "We could've gone to a movie instead," Brad said with a shrug as we got into our car.

Still, we were glad to have the extra time when we spotted the Torrey Pines State Reserve off the Coast Highway. This 2,000-acre stretch of unspoiled beach, hillsides and a lagoon popular with migrating birds is the home of the rarest native pine in the United States and is laced with five hiking trails. After huffing uphill to the visitor center, we caught our breath watching a 10-minute film about the history of the reserve before setting out on the Parry Grove Trail, a half-mile loop with a steep drop-off. Though drought and beetle infestation had left barren spots in the low-lying brush and had toppled some of the spindlier pines, the silver lining was a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the shore.

Los Angeles Times Articles