Lajolla: the Beverly Hills of San Diego

With its panoramic ocean views, swaying palm trees and unbeatable weather, La Jolla is like Hawaii without the five-hour flight.

This was decades ago and we had just returned from our first real long-distance travel experience  an unforgettable, eye-opening journey to Hawaii that exposed a couple of soggy Pacific Northwest college students to bright sunshine and warm saltwater that we never even knew existed. The very next month we were taking a Southern California vacation when we came upon La Jolla and it was, as Yogi would say, d? vu all over again.

To be sure, the water in Southern California was prettier than it was warm. And there weren’t too many native Hawaiians  although Hawaii doesn’t seem to have many either. WHAT La Jolla did have was the views and that bright sunshine, and we were determined that someday we would come back and live there.

We did eventually live and work there, if only for a brief time, and this special coastal haven delivered on all its promises. The “Village,” as the locals call Girard Avenue and the community surrounding it, is a gourmet blend of those spices that make life so enjoyable  fine dining, world-class shopping, countless outdoor activities, surf, sand, incredible views and, of course, almost-constant sunshine.

Nowadays, the local home values have priced out the average mortal and, if you’re living there, you’ve either done very well for yourself or had the good fortune to grow up in a family that bought local real estate back when local land prices were reasonable  probably sometime just after statehood. But there are two groups of people who are living in the Village temporarily: the renters and the tourists. The renters plunk down several thousand each month for the barest of digs; the tourists stay only briefly but much more economically.

Which is why it’s great to be a tourist in La Jolla. With a choice of several tasteful hotels and spa resorts  and, yes, some are quite reasonably priced  visitors can pretend they’re living the lifestyle for a few days and still go home with money in their pockets.

It all begins with watching the people parade down on Gerard Avenue. Plan to have a gourmet sandwich down at one of several cafes and then plop yourself at an outside table. Leading the parade is a 20-something bombshell dressed in a spaghetti-strapped halter and capris, dragging along a five-inch poodle that is decidedly disinterested in being part of this parade. Next up: a 30-something clean-cut guy wearing lumberjack boots up to his ankles, his pants squished into the boot tops, and his long-sleeve shirt well down over his belt buckle. It must be new La Jolla fashion because his stylish 20-something model-like girlfriend doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed to walk beside him. Then along comes two 30-something men, dressed almost identically in turtlenecks, expensive sports jackets and shades, surely sweltering in the mid-day sun but cool in their own minds. And on it goes all during lunch, making it almost worth the nine bucks it cost for the sandwich.

You might even see celebrities in this neck of the woods. We came upon Geena Davis and her kids one time, while beautiful people such as Cindy Crawford have actually bought houses in the Village. Barbra Streisand is said to have bought her wedding ring down at Bowers Jewelers. Movie and TV filming are common and the longtime series Silk Stalkings used the local scenery quite often to depict the glitzy glamour of Southern California.

Walk down Gerard just a little ways and there seems to be plenty of temptation to bring out your credit card. There are specialty stores like Rangoni shoes, art galleries like Cosmopolitan Fine Art and Images of Nature, and then more typical “mall” stores like Banana Republic and the Gap. Side streets have their own offerings, many of them related to health, fitness and well-being  even if you need a little plastic surgery to be well.

Gerard is one of two main streets in the Village. Also famous for its shopping is Prospect Avenue which also has lots of trendy boutiques and popular eateries. Check out George’s for spectacular views of the ocean and award-winning cuisine. Brockton Villa’s another one just off Prospect that seems a perennial favorite. A Caesar salad on the outdoor deck at Moondoggie’s can be a refreshing and relatively inexpensive pause as the breezes from the shoreline find their way to this part of the shopping district. Just footsteps from Scripps Park are such outdoor cafes as Cody’s, the French Side of the West and Fay’s Gourmet Seafood.

Scripps Park is, in fact, just a block down from the main shopping district, and yet is anything but commercial. You might find an ecology tee-shirt stand but mostly it’s green lawn and meandering walkways that entice friends, lovers and families to stroll along one of the most picturesque shorelines in all of California. The shoreline is jagged and rocky in places while at the same time offering up just enough beach to lay out your beach towels in some privacy. Stroll about 10 minutes south and you’ll find La Jolla Cove where you can watch the local seals sun themselves on a scenic beach.

Skirting the east edge of Scripps Park is a scenic roadway that is often used as a bike route between La Jolla and the more touristy beach town of Pacific Beach. The ride takes you through beautiful neighborhoods  never far away from ocean views  and through the fascinating town of Birdrock. It, too, is artsy and trendy but maybe down a notch in price.

La Jolla Shores is just north of the downtown area and offers a mile-long beach where locals and tourists alike congregate for outdoor activities. Nearby are the expensive homes of the La Jolla Shores area as well as a few hotels and a tiny shopping district.

Nearby is a marine preserve so it’s common to see divers preparing for their scuba sessions out in the deep. If you don’t scuba, you’ll find other ways to get close to the ocean such as paddling a kayak in an area near what is known as the La Jolla Caves. Or you can actually climb down in the caves by visiting the La Jolla Cave and Shell Shop, where there is a 145-step walkway to the Sunny Jim Cave, the largest of these grottoes.

Another seaside favorite is the Birch Aquarium, a popular place to take families for an up-close look at sea life such as coral reefs, tide pools and even sharks. The Aquarium has a 70,000-gallon tank in which many sea creatures are on display.

If you simply want to drive around the area, the spectacular homes make it worthwhile. One especially rewarding drive is to head up Nautilus Street to the highest elevations in town where the Mt. Soledad Memorial Cross is dedicated to veterans of the two world wars and the Korean War. While there has been a political tug-of-war about whether the cross will remain, the views from this part of La Jolla offer one of the best ways to see the topography of the entire San Diego area.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: La Jolla has often been called “the Beverly Hills” of San Diego and is located about a 15-minute drive north from downtown. Several of the best San Diego hotels are located here, so this is an excellent base of operations for a Southern California vacation.

WHAT: A seaside village that offers some of the best shopping, restaurants and ocean views of the entire San Diego area. Spa vacations are big here, and there is a good selection of spa resorts and facilities in the area.

WHEN: Year-round. Always keep an eye out for travel deal, and travel packages at San Diego hotels are more plentiful during slower times of the year.

WHY: La Jolla is quiet and has a village-like atmosphere, and is perfect for a vacation — or even retire if one could afford it.

HOW: For more information, contact the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau at (619) 236-1212 or visit www.sandiego.org. For a list of San Diego hotels and recommended lodgings, please click here.