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La Jolla

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Picture of the La Jolla coast La Jolla sea cave Picture of Boomer Beach and La Jolla coastline at sunset Photo of La Jolla Cove Picture of La Jolla cliffs with kayaks Picture of Torrey pines at Ellen Browning Scripps Park

La Jolla is a decidedly upscale coastal resort 19 kilometers north of downtown San Diego. Although it’s entirely within San Diego city limits, everyone who lives or runs a business in La Jolla seems determined to make us all believe it’s a separate city— or perhaps a world unto itself. Even the United States Postal Service is part of this “conspiracy,” insisting that mail must be addressed to La Jolla rather than to San Diego. They’ve also given it its own Zip code different from the rest of San Diego.

According to guidebooks and official brochures, “La Jolla” (pronounced “la hoy-uh”) is a fanciful or poetic misspelling of the Spanish La Joya, “The Jewel.” Along with some very attractive coastal scenery that mostly does live up to the brochure hype, La Jolla is known for its collection of expensive hotels, “foodie” restaurants, and boutique shopping. It’s also renowned for some of the highest real estate prices in the United States. So calling it a “jewel” is not so far-fetched. But historians favor a less romantic explanation. The Kumeyaay Indians apparently called the place Mut Lah Hoy Ya, which someone during the Spanish or Mexican era transcribed as “La Jolla.” The Kumeyaay phrase probably means “Place of Many Caves,” referring to the sea caves north of La Jolla Cove.

Promoters sometimes claim that La Jolla is the closest you can get to visiting a Mediterranean resort without the hassle of flying to Europe. Although a number of Southern California communities can just as credibly assert some resemblance to the coast of Italy or Spain, La Jolla’s claim historically reflects the vision of Ellen Browning Scripps, perhaps its most illustrious resident.

Born into modest means, “Miss Ellen” worked her way to wealth while building her family’s Midwestern newspaper business. She moved to La Jolla in 1896, and then received a very substantial inheritance when her half-brother died in 1900. She apparently regarded that windfall as more of an embarrassment than a blessing, so she spent her remaining 32 years giving it away to worthy causes in her adopted community. That’s why the name “Scripps” shows up in so many places in La Jolla and San Diego. A partial list includes the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Memorial Hospital, Scripps Clinic, and the Scripps aviary in the San Diego Zoo. And Ellen Browning Scripps Park, planted with rare Torrey pines, occupies some of La Jolla’s prime real estate on the bluffs overlooking scenic La Jolla Cove.

La Valencia Hotel with palm fronds Photograph of La Valencia Hotel exterior
Picture of Grande Colonial Hotel with reflected in a modern bank building

Ms. Scripps envisioned La Jolla as a Mediterranean village. Persuading real estate developers to go along with that didn’t require much effort, since “Spanish Colonial Revival” and “Mediterranean Revival” were the prevailing architectural fads in Southern California during the early decades of the the twentieth century. Although “The Village”— the resort area centered on La Jolla Cove— has been extensively redeveloped since the Scripps era, some historic buildings remain. The opulent La Valencia Hotel, with its landmark tower, opened in 1926 as an “apartment hotel.” It’s painted in the Pepto-Bismol pink favored by seaside resort hotels of that time. The Grande Colonial Hotel— reflected here in the windows of a modern bank building— isn’t Mediterranean, but it’s also from the 1920s.
Children's pool breakwater Picture of napping seals at Children's Pool Photo of a spotted seal at Children's Pool

One of Ms. Scripps’ final philanthropic endeavors was a protected beach where children could safely frolic in the ocean. In 1931, she funded the construction of a sea wall at Casa Beach just south of La Jolla Cove. To protect the beach from development, she prevailed upon the California Legislature to pass a law dedicating the land exclusively as a park and recreational preserve. The beach inside the breakwater became the Children’s Pool, which families enjoyed just as Miss Ellen intended for the next 65 years.

By the mid-1990s, much of the pool had filled up with sand. And the burgeoning local population of seals had discovered that the pool was an excellent safe place to give birth their own offspring, to rest up from their deep-sea dining expeditions, and to discharge the bacteria-laden residues of their fishy feasting. Thus began a battle between humans and pinnipeds— and also between state law that favors humans and federal law that favors the seals. Legislation in 2009 amended the 1931 law to give the City Council the authority to declare the park a seal sanctuary, which may at last allow an end to the dispute. But representatives of both interests continue to face off in court.

Signs at the pool reflect the confused legal situation. Visitors are informed that swimming is allowed but “not recommended” due to the bacterial hazard. The signs also warn about the seals’ sharp teeth and potential for attacking if cornered, and about the federal law against harassing marine mammals. The City puts up a rope barrier around the beach between December and May to keep people from bothering pregnant mothers and newborn pups; but the barrier is “advisory” and includes an an opening to allow public entry, in compliance with state Coastal Commission requirements. Most visitors choose to walk along the sea wall, where they can safely view the seals without disturbing them.
Photo of a couple enjoying the sunset at La Jolla Cove Picture of a sunset at La Jolla Cove Photo of rocks La Jolla Cove Coastal bluff trail from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores beach

La Jolla’s Village would seem purpose-built for honeymoons and romantic getaways. A couple can take a sunset stroll on the beach at La Jolla Cove, dine at one of the elegant restaurants that offer special dinners for two, and then retreat to their posh hotel room or suite. But La Jolla isn’t exclusively reserved for well-heeled lovebirds. During the summer, or on any sunny weekend, a polyglot crowd of families from all over the region— including vacationers staying in more affordable parts of San Diego— converge on Ellen Browning Scripps Park and La Jolla Cove for picnicking, kayaking, and exploring the rocks.

If you’re not looking for a romantic splurge— or even if you’re by yourself— La Jolla can still offer a fine vacation in a beautiful location. If you plan a visit during the week (Sunday through Thursday nights) in the spring or autumn, you might find some relatively affordable accommodations along with pleasant weather. You might also find parking.

Like many seaside destinations in Southern California, the development of La Jolla began at the end of the 19th century. The streets were laid out for pedestrians and horses, leaving little room for parking when the automobile arrived. As you’d expect, the scarcity of parking becomes particularly difficult and frustrating during the summer and on sunny weekends. Fortunately, city officials have not (yet) brought in voracious meters and predatory meter maids to turn the shortage into revenue. Unfortunately, most hotels in La Jolla take full advantage of it by charging their guests a daily parking fee on top of their often-stratospheric room rates.

Even in the off-season, La Jolla is no bargain paradise. But as with life itself, the best things in La Jolla are free. There’s no admission charge for Ellen Browning Scripps Park and the beaches it overlooks, or for the scenic trail along the bluffs leading north to La Jolla Shores Beach.
Picture of Windansea Beach Surfer at Windansea Beach Picture of the surf shack at Windansea Beach

Picture of the cliffs at Windansea Beach Photo of a pocket beach at Windansea Beach

If La Jolla Village is a “Mediterranean resort,” a short drive south will take you to “Hawaii.” Windansea Beach is San Diego’s premiere surfing spot. It’s named for an adjacent hotel that opened in 1909 and burned down in 1943; and it’s spelled with only one d. The combination of underwater reefs and steep drop-off creates “shorebreak,” strong waves that break in shallow water or directly on the shore— the ideal conditions for surfing.

Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang made Windansea Beach famous in 1968, with a semi-fictional account of a gang of teenage surfers who hung out there. The beach is also home to the Windansea Surf Club, originally formed in 1962 to qualify local surfers for a competition in Malibu. The club now has a membership of over 300 avid surfers, each of whom has demonstrated “outstanding character” in addition to advanced surfing skills.

The iconic surf shack covered with palm leaves contributes to Windansea’s Hawaiian flavor. Local surfers originally put it up in 1946 for their notoriously rowdy summer luaus. The luaus ended in 1950s; but the shack has been consistently maintained, and rebuilt whenever winter storms damaged or destroyed it. The San Diego Historical Resources Board officially designated it a historical landmark in 1998.

If you’re not a surfer, Windansea offers scenic rocky cliffs that partition the shore into sandy pocket beaches for sunbathing or for watching the sunset. But like some Hawaiian “secret spots,” Windansea is not a user-friendly beach. The parking lot in front of the surf shack accommodates only about a dozen cars; so in summer or on a sunny weekend you’ll probably have to spend a lot of time searching for parking on nearby residential streets and hiking to and from the beach. There are also no showers, changing rooms, toilets, or any other facilities, although I did find one Porta-Potty.

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