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Above it all in La Jolla

Floating on air is a reality at Torrey Pines Gliderport. With tandem paragliding, you don't have to be a thrill seeker to ride like the wind.

December 30, 2007|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla

Jumping off a cliff isn't everyone's idea of a good time. In fact, I wasn't so sure I would even like it when I paid $150, signed a stack of waivers, strapped myself to a seasoned paraglider and leaped from the 350-foot ledge at Torrey Pines Gliderport. But 35,000 people can't be wrong, can they?

That's how many tandem fliers have paid to make the jump in the last 10 years and lived to tell the tale. In fact, the main hazard at this registered historical flying site hasn't been in the sky but on the ground. It's gopher holes, which some fliers have tripped on as they ran toward the sandstone cliff.

The port's safety record is stellar partly because the pilots won't fly if conditions aren't favorable, which is often. If the wind isn't moving 8 to 9 mph and blowing straight from the west, the Gliderport won't risk it, which is why I made four calls in as many hours until I was given the green light to stop by.

The Gliderport isn't hard to find. It's in an elevated seaside enclave of La Jolla, so you just travel toward the water, look up and voila. The sky is filled with color as a rainbow of paragliders sails through the air.

Housed in a little white shack on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the Gliderport consists of three parts -- an equipment store that's ringed with photos shot from the sky; a gourmet Cliffhanger Cafe that's best visited after the jump; and a grassy knoll overlooking the ocean where a handful of solo pilots were leaping into the air for takeoff and rolling in the grass like puppies when they returned to land.

It was on this knoll that I met Robin Marien, the pilot who would captain my ride. Being more of a land-loving type, I asked Robin the usual newbie questions and received answers he has no doubt given hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the 10 years he's been flying doubles.

Me: How long have you been doing this?

Robin: I just started yesterday. Didn't they tell you? This is my second time.

Me: How'd you get into paragliding?

Robin: After they let me out of the insane asylum, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

We had this conversation during the scant 10 minutes of pre-flight instruction given all tandem fliers. It was after I strapped on my helmet but before I stepped into my harness, which was connected to his harness, thus combining us into a single flying entity. It wasn't exactly comforting, but I guess that's what you get when you reveal your lily liver to a seasoned daredevil.

With the two of us hooked together with carabiners, Robin briefed me on how we'd take flight. He'd count to three, we'd run toward the edge of the cliff, and then we'd step off. As promised, he counted to three, but we didn't run forward. The wind was pushing us back.

Robin counted again, and this time we moved in the right direction. We were just moving like some sort of ultra-klutz comedy team as we stumbled, giving the wind a chance to fill our para- sail and fly us up and over the edge. I heard the flap of the canopy, then silence as we floated away.

Once we were flying and not careening downward toward the beach as any first-timer fears, I could sit back and relax.

When you paraglide, you're sitting down, so it feels like you're riding through the sky in a La-Z-Boy with a bird's-eye view. Sea gulls flew within spitting distance, as did the handful of other paragliders enjoying the day's blue sky and light breeze.

We spent the next half-hour floating back and forth above the sandy cliff at ocean's edge, looking down upon sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions, the beach, Torrey Pines golf course, the Lodge at Torrey Pines and the Torrey Pines State Reserve, which as a whole, pretty much sum up what's happening in the area.

I was staying at the lodge, a woodsy and warm luxury hotel frequented by golfers and anyone else who can afford a room that costs $400 per night on the low end. Appointed like a well-staffed, sprawling Greene & Greene mansion, the grounds include a croquet course, pool, hot tub, spa and two restaurants, besides the famous golf grounds.

After I checked in, the nearby trails beckoned. The State Reserve is within walking distance of the lodge. A short jaunt on the sidewalk abutting the golf course yields to a series of sandy trails detouring inland, taking me on a 2 1/2 -mile loop past the native chaparral, down to the beach and back again. It was just in time for dinner at the lodge's in-house grill.

The salmon and wild mushroom risotto were even more delicious post-flight, without the pre-paragliding butterflies.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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Torrey Pines Gliderport

THE BASICS

2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive

La Jolla

(858) 452-9858

Hours: 9 a.m. to sunset daily (except Christmas)

Cost: $150 for 20- to 30-minute flight

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