I have a goal of visiting every grande dame in California, and I don’t mean the ones with heartbeats and multiple strands of pearls.
I mean the older, elegant hotels that have stood the test of time; they may have had a few face-lifts, but their original glory is undeniable.
There is something I find soothing about these classic bastions of hospitality. For the cost of a night’s stay and a few drinks in the bar, I can walk in the footsteps of celebrated international dignitaries, Hollywood celebrities of long ago and wartime soldiers who came before me.
After more than six months of dating Jane, I felt we were ready for a romantic getaway. By now, we understood each other’s daily rhythms and requirements. Jane is someone who needs to run, or at least sweat, at some point during the day. And sometimes I need to nap. Jane had suggested a trip a few months earlier and I’d strategically dodged the idea with some mealy-mouthed excuse. If we traveled too early in the relationship, I reasoned, without that basic understanding of how to get along, the trip (and relationship) might be doomed.
So last month I brought her to one of my favorite Southern California destinations. The coastal enclave of La Jolla had the elements we both wanted for a long weekend away: warm weather, surfing (including a place for Jane to learn), art galleries and a grande dame of a hotel: La Valencia.
Originally built in 1926 as an apartment hotel, for a then-stupefying price of $300,000, La Valencia had 28 rooms, a restaurant and two shops—one sold antiques and the other offered needlepoint items. The “Pink Lady of La Jolla,” as she is called, has the bone structure of my favorite classic Califonia destinations: thick stucco walls, high ceilings, Spanish-tile floor, turn-of-the-century artwork and lots of ocean views.
The 90-minute flight from SFO was easy, as was securing the convertible I had booked through Orbitz. Within 30 minutes of San Diego airport, we’d left the interstate madness behind and pulled onto La Jolla Village Parkway, and then Prospect Street. The familiar pink Spanish-style tower of La Valencia materialized on the right, looming over the row of small shops, restaurants and storefronts that have grown around it over the past 80 years. Thanks to recent renovations to the tune of $10 million, the hotel has received accolades including being on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List and Travel & Leisure’s top 500. I’d booked one of the new ocean villas, which come with amenities like a steam shower, whirlpool tub and private butler service.
Surfing was high on our list of priorities. Windansea, a legendary surf spot just a few minutes south of the village, was made famous by Tom Wolfe’s book The Pump House Gang, which celebrates youthful dominance of that particular strip of sand in the 1960s. These days, a more fitting moniker for the local zeitgeist might be “Old Guys Rule,” the mantra printed on so many decals, coffee mugs and faded T-shirts worn by silver-haired surfers nationwide. To keep this vacation in the happy-memories category, I signed Jane up for Surf Diva’s Weekend Surf Clinic at La Jolla Shores, three miles north. This long, gentle, soft-sand-bottomed shore has excellent conditions for beginners. (“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun,” Surf Diva’s website attests.)
The weather was ideal—no coastal fog, warm enough to be comfortable in a bathing suit, but not too hot. Life in La Jolla is good. After a morning of separate surfing adventures, we enjoyed a well-earned lunch and light, crisp, homemade brew at the La Jolla Brew House, up the street from the hotel. Our conversation floated from what to do next—explore the coast on kayaks, lounge by the pool, or shop—to Jane’s morning. She’d enjoyed her introduction to surfing, she said, and was looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson, where she hoped to actually catch and ride a wave. She’d also stumbled on an unexpected surprise during a post-surf walk: at the northern end of the mile-long shore is Black’s Beach, one of the world’s most popular clothing-optional surfside hangouts. “Good thing I was wearing my sunglasses,” she said.
We reserved two kayaks for the next afternoon and spent the rest of the day relaxing. As expected, our definitions of relaxing diverged. I felt I had to kick off my flip-flops and take a nap in our villa with the windows open. The cool, sea air and muffled sounds of surf and screeching gulls would lull me to sleep. Jane, as I like to say, runs hot, so for her, relaxing meant taking a walking tour of the town. While La Jolla has been a tourist destination for decades, it’s also home to over 40,000 full-time residents—many listed among the Forbes 400 richest Americans as well as professors and students from University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This eclectic population, along with the ever-present tourists, makes for an interesting mix of shops and amenities.
Jane’s favorite spot was the Museum of Contemporary Art, where she stumbled on an exhibition of works by the Brazilian artist Vic Muniz. Muniz is known for re-creating masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa using materials like peanut butter and jelly. “He is a genius,” she mused, as we sat in the old-timey comfort of the Whaling Bar at La Valencia. Though she’d been a Muniz fan for years, finally getting to see his work in person was not what she had expected when I told her we were going to a beach town for the weekend. After a cocktail, we moseyed across the lobby to the Mediterranean Room for the most delicious calamari steak appetizer and fresh halibut I’ve ever had. We were happy to find Stubbs Chardonay on the menu, and once we had polished off the bottle, we somehow started talking about Marin with our waitress. Turns out, she was headed up here with a friend, and was planning on hiking in Muir Woods. Ever the ambassador, Jane gave her my son’s phone number in case she needed a guide. Beyond the wall-size windows open to the Pacific, the surf was pounding the rocks of La Jolla Cove, as an army of pelicans rode on the air currents backlit by the languid setting sun.
“Here.” Jane broke the spell by setting a paper bag next to the remains of our chocolate torte.
I put my hand in the bag and felt the familiar shape of a framed picture. Apparently, as Jane walked through the museum and art galleries in town she was inspired to search for the perfect memento to bring home. Surprisingly, she said, she found it at the Wyland Gallery: a simple line drawing of a turtle. “It reminds me of you,”.
Places to Stay
La Valencia When La Valencia opened in 1926, a room for two people was $5 a night. Today’s nightly rates start at $300 for a room in the hotel and $695 for the luxury Ocean Villas. 800.451.0772, lavalencia.com
La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club Sign up for a week of tennis or golf at this popular spot. Rooms and suites from $169 to $689. 800.640.7702, ljbtc.com
La Jolla Shores Hotel Set right on the beach; rooms and suites start at $179 to $499. 866.392.8762, ljshoreshotel.com
The Grande Colonial Another historical elegant hotel on the coast. Brand-new suites available in summer of ’07, starting
at $375 per night. 888.530.5766, thegrandecolonial.com
Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa Selected by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the “Hottest New Hotels in the World” in 2005, this is a great spot to go as a family or with a large group. Starting at $299. 858.550.1000, estancialajolla.com
Things to Do
Surfing Private and group lessons available for all levels. 858.454.8273, surfdiva.com
Kayaking Explore the coastal coves including the picturesque seven caves and Underwater Park. 858.459.1114, lajollakayak.com
Snorkeling Beneath La Jolla Cove lies San Diego–La Jolla Underwater Park & Ecological Reserve—6,000 acres of ocean bottom and tidelands, from Scripps Park in La Jolla, north across La Jolla Shores to the upper end of Torrey Pines State Reserve, where crystal-clear waters reveal a wealth of sea life, including bright orange garibaldi, tiger sharks, and spiny lobsters. 858.454.1010, sandiegobikeandkayaktours.com
Stephen Birch Aquarium This aquarium-museum focuses on ocean science education through its 34 qaquarium displays, demonstration tidepools, ocean science museum and tropical seas gallery. 858.534.3474, aquarium.ucsd.edu
Places to Eat
Alfonzo’s Enjoy casual, family-style Mexican food indoors or out. Great margaritas, fish tacos and carne asada burritos.
1251 Prospect St., 858.454.2232, alfonsoslajolla.signonsandiego.com
La Jolla Brew House Good for lunch or dinner, plenty of homemade brews and a wide variety of comfort food and eye candy. 7536 Fay Ave., 858.456.6279, lajollabrewhouse.com
The Mediterranean Room and Tropical Patio Take in the views of the Pacific and enjoy a cozy atmosphere any time of day. On Sundays check out the champagne brunch, voted “Best Brunch” by the La Jolla Light Reader Poll. 1132 Prospect St., 858.551.3765, lavalencia.com
Jack’s La Jolla It’s any gastronome’s dream: three distinct restaurants and four bars in one space. Choose the Dining Room, where the chef, a former three-Michelin-star winner, turns out contemporary American cuisine. 7863 Girard Ave., 858.456.8111, jackslajolla.com