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La Jolla, Calif.: Seaside Getaway

Winter blues? Not here. Bright skies, warm water, and loads of sea critters make for a great beach escape in Southern California.

beachgoers at La Jolla Cove in Calif.
Photo caption
Beachgoers head for the water at La Jolla Cove.

Bobbing in a kayak in the creamy swell offshore from La Jolla’s famous sea caves, I spotted a distant commotion. It looked like something big eating something that didn’t want to be eaten. A pod of hungry seals attacking a school of anchovies? Exciting. So I paddled toward the splashing, only to find a swimmer in wet suit and goggles out for his morning workout. There he was, a mile from the beach in the open ocean. The people here are just crazy about the water.

La Jolla has many pleasures, but the sea should get top billing. Just 12 miles north of downtown San Diego, La Jolla—"the jewel"—sits on a coastal bluff above a necklace of coves. It makes sense that artist types were the earliest pioneers; the place begs to be painted. My idea of a getaway here is to never let the Pacific Ocean out of your sight. You can stroll, swim, kayak, and eat a bucket of seafood all within the sound of barking seals. And there’s no better time to visit than late fall, when the crowds are gone and the weather is lovely.

La Jolla has a reputation for being a little posh. But if there is money here, it has been put to good use. The newspaper heiress Ellen Browning Scripps fell in love with La Jolla after she arrived in 1897. Miss Scripps (as she’s still called around the village) established one of the premier scientific research facilities in the world, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It is home to the Birch Aquarium, a "living museum" focused on sea life of the Pacific from Alaska to Mexico, with more than 60 marine tanks and a man-made tide pool. Ever wonder what goes on underneath a pier? Watch a school of silvery sardines, bright as new dimes, circling round and round and spiny lobsters loitering in crevices like muggers. Kids press their noses against an exhibit filled with black-tipped sharks prowling in a sleek, ceaseless motion.

At Coast Boulevard in the heart of the village, I begin a mile-long shoreline stroll above rocky grottoes and tucked-away sandy beaches. The water looks as fresh as a shaken martini. Divers in full scuba gear lumber by on their way to water’s edge, sharing the sidewalk with shaggy-haired kids clutching surfboards. Around the Children’s Pool beach, a crowd watches the resident harbor seals inch across the sand, looking like old men getting out of bed, before they blast off like torpedoes once they hit the surf. To follow them out to the kelp forests, you’ll need to visit La Jolla Kayak and rent a boat. "We put Girl Scouts in kayaks," shop manager Jason Burrows assured me. "There’s no experience necessary." The La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve, which begins at the beach and has a mellow launch, sheltered coves, and water that in November hovers around 60 degrees, is a great reason to grab a kayak and bob atop the waves. (In December, you can spot migrating gray whales.) I paddled over to a row of seven sea caves, where seals hauled themselves out to sun on rocky ledges. Below, I could see the seafloor humming with orange garibaldi and purple urchins. I felt like I was floating through the Birch Aquarium.

All that fresh ocean air can make a mariner hungry. I got a table at Georges at the Cove one night, and the chef killed me with his papery slivers of octopus carpaccio and halibut served bone-in. I honored the fish with every single bite. But my favorite meal was a slow late lunch at Jack’s La Jolla, with its three floors of open-air seating. Still salty-skinned from an ocean swim, I started with a riesling as crisp as a finger snap, followed by a platter of crunchy Dungeness crab spring rolls. Then I had a second glass of wine to ponder the ocean view and to raise a toast to good old Miss Scripps, who polished this jewel.

Photography by Gina Sabatella

This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.