The Boutique Beaches of San Diego

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Travel Issue: June 2012
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CORONADO, or “Merry Isthmus”
Poised less than a mile across the water from downtown San Diego, Coronado is the bobbin-shaped peninsula that juts up from the Mexican border to form the underlip of the San Diego Bay. Known as “Coronado Island” or just “the island” to locals, it’s also one of the world’s most picturesque beach towns. Occupied jointly by affluent retirees, seasonal renters and U.S. Navy base personnel, the community of 26,000 feels a world apart from the rest of San Diego, and for good reason – the main artery into town, Coronado Bridge, is a four-lane lash of concrete that banks high and excitingly over the bay. Driving over it feels like a short plane flight.

The Beach: Ranked by marine expert Dr. Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach) as the nation’s second-best coastal playground, Coronado City Beach is one-and-a-quarter miles of sparkling sand, grassy dunes and sun-drenched pleasantness. Coronado boasts all the amenities of a regular city beach (lifeguard oversight, copious dining options, bathrooms) with a fraction of the rabble. You can also let your four-legged friend roam free at the leash-optional northern portion of the beach near Naval Base Coronado.

Where to Stay: Overlooking Coronado’s bayside interior, Glorietta Bay Inn (1630 Glorietta Blvd., 619-435-3101, makes for a quaint, less-trafficked alternative to the bustle of the famous Hotel del Coronado. Anchored to a 100-year-old mansion originally owned by San Diego developer John D. Spreckels – who kickstarted the AZ love affair with San Diego by establishing the San Diego & Arizona Eastern railroad in the late 1800s – the inn features 11 old-timey rooms in the main house, 89 modern rooms and countless disarming details. (You gotta love the antique marble staircase – so magisterial you half-expect Scarlett O’Hara to appear on the landing in her best ruffled ball gown.) The mansion also boasts a stately music room and a sunny common area stocked with hand-squeezed lemonade, along with other discreet and not-so-discreet reminders of the property’s blue-blooded past. Word of advice: Spend a little extra and stay in the mansion. And then try suppressing a chirp of pleasure when you find an iced carafe of milk and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies outside your room when you go down for the night. Cookies before bed? Who does that anymore? It’s as if Mrs. Spreckels herself rose from the grave and fired up the kitchen.

Eating/Drinking: Fans of Scottsdale’s Citizen Public House probably wish they could pack up Bernie Kantak’s gastropub and take it with them on trips; where San Diego is concerned, Leroy’s Kitchen and Lounge (1015 Orange Ave., 619-437-6087, is the next best thing. Located in Coronado Village right off the Orange Avenue drag, it’s a cozy locavore dining nook that boasts a truly superior drink list (San Diego craft beers on tap, mixologist-conceived cocktails) and elevated pub-grub like the pork belly BLT with heirloom tomatoes, which proves crunchily satisfying after a mid-morning run on the beach. For dinner, swing over to Candelas on the Bay (1201 First St., 619-435-4900,, a haute-Mexican concept that makes its delicious Mixto Ceviche ($12) in the Baja style with octopus, shrimp, scallops and other seafaring delicacies piled into a sundae glass and bathed in spicy-sweet tomato broth.

Wild Card: If you get tired of splashing in the warm, gentle swells of Coronado Beach, head to the seaward Hotel del Coronado (1501 Orange Ave., 619-435-6611,, or “the Del.” The 680-room National Historic Landmark boasts one of San Diego’s finest spas. Not to belabor the obvious, but nothing gets the saltwater out of your pores like a ten-minute eucalyptus steam treatment, followed by a 50-minute deep-tissue massage, followed by another ten-minute steam treatment, followed by a nap near the Del’s infinity pool. All hail the Del.

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Home to dot-com industrialists, celebrity virologists, college students and some of the most infuriatingly gorgeous real estate you’ll ever behold, the resort community of La Jolla straddles seven miles of curving coastline about 12 miles north of downtown San Diego. It could be America’s brainiest beach town – researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Salk Institute (founded by Jonas Salk, the learned fellow who vanquished polio) both toil in clifftop facilities with commanding views of the Pacific.

The Beaches: Few stretches of sand are more befitting of the term “boutique beach” than La Jolla Cove. Roughly as long as a football field, and about half as wide, this cuticle-like mini-beach sits at the tip of the La Jolla peninsula, just a five minute stroll from the community’s humming shopping and dining district (known as the Village of La Jolla). Given the cove’s cozy dimensions, beach-towel space can be scarce on peak weekends, but there are also advantages. One: Your little ones can’t run off; the beach’s bowl-shaped layout traps them like toreros in a bullring. Two: Beyond the beach is a protected underwater marine park, so the snorkeling and diving – highlighted by sea lions, garibaldi and kelp forests – are arguably the best in San Diego. If you need a bit more Frisbee room, hop in the car and drive five minutes north to La Jolla Shores, a roughly mile-long public beach hemmed by two large, grassy parks perfect for kite-flying and picnicking.

Where to Stay: Judging from the guttural neins and clipped jas one overhears during breakfast at the Hotel Parisi (1111 Prospect St., 858-454-1511,, the Euro in-crowd is lapping up all the zen elegance this eco-friendly boutique hotel in the Village of La Jolla can throw at them. Done in marble and travertine, the hotel’s walk-up is strikingly handsome – more Florentine villa than beach hotel. The inside is just as eye-pleasing, informed by spare Oriental elementalism, with a calming solarium over the lobby and a conscious premium on feng shui flow. Each of the 29 suites is equipped with energy-saving googaws and bathroom-fixture doodads that make for oddly fascinating diversions. The net effect is like being on a terrifically elegant, well-staffed spaceship.

Eating/Drinking: Reality hits you hard after the first bite of fresh spaghetti smeared with smoked hen yolk and flecked with caviar-like bottarga: AR Valentien (11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., 858-777-6635, is special. Like, Binkley’s-special. And then comes that moment of panic, when the courses of your tasting menu start to pile up and feel like a brutal test of your long-term memory retrieval. Will I remember the name of this pinot gris? What did the waiter call the whipped hollandaise concoction that went with the lobster? Are we even allowed to print “shaved kumquat?” AR Valentien is the embedded fine dining destination at the Lodge at Torrey Pines and – if a knock-your-socks-off meal is your sole ambition – the only name in La Jolla you need to know. Not that quality dining destinations are scarce in San Diego’s “jewel city”; George’s California Modern (1250 Prospect St., 858-454-4244, in the Village does a fantastic Niman Ranch burger draped in Maytag blue cheese ($15) and an energizing farro salad ($15) with roasted beets. It also boasts grade-A people-watching on its rooftop dining terrace. Just ask the family of sunburnt Swedish tourists over there in the corner.

Wild Card: Serious about the snorkeling and scuba diving? The lads at OEX Dive and Kayak (2243 Avenida de la Playa, 858-454-6195, will set you up with all the wetsuits, booties, diving gloves, tanks and flippers you need to tackle the great blue yonder. “The waves here are pretty small, so you can just walk in,” owner and dive master Chris Lynch says before leading a group into the ocean to explore the underwater ledge at La Jolla Shores. Sightings of shovel-nosed sharks and sea stars are common, and the ledge itself is blanketed with sand dollars. For sea lion encounters, sign up for OEX’s dive at La Jolla Cove – the place is teeming with the blubbery beasts. For a different kind of nature show, drive three miles up the road to Black’s Beach, the secluded stretch of clothing-optional shoreline beneath the bluffs at Torrey Pines. (To get there, take Torrey Pines Scenic Drive towards the ocean and park in the dirt lot at cliff’s edge; the trail down to Black’s is just south of the parking lot.)

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DEL MAR, aka “Everything here is named Del Mar”
The daily grind is but a scurrilous rumor in this utopian city of 4,161 – there isn’t a big-box employer in sight, and the town’s hypnotic aura of laid-back prosperity never seems to slip, whether it’s a weekday, weekend, national holiday or national recession. Home to the Del Mar Fairgrounds – which hosts the Del Mar Horse Races (2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., 858-755-1141, during the summer (July 18-September 5) – the town also boasts the nation’s highest per capita rate of All-Pro quarterbacks: NFL signal-callers Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer are all part-time Del Marians.

The Beach: Stretching roughly two miles from Torrey Pines State Park to Solana Beach, Del Mar’s share of the North County coastline is divided into three segments. The north section of the beach, dubbed Dog Beach for its liberal no-leash policy during the off-season, includes access to the mouth of the San Dieguito River and its jog-able lagoon trails, while central Main Beach sees the most human traffic. For out-of-the-way lazing, try the section of South Beach between Seagrove and Powerhouse Parks – a pair of grassy climes overlooking the ocean. With just enough mob activity to keep it interesting, but plenty of room to let a Nerf fly – even during high season – South Beach is where you should take your talents.

Where to Stay: The seaside L’Auberge Del Mar (1540 Camino Del Mar, 800-245-9757, dominates the lodging conversation, but lower-cost options are also available. The Del Mar Motel on the Beach (1702 Coast Blvd., 800-223-8449, offers easy access to the surf at motel-ish rates ($159).

Eating/Drinking: I’m getting a serious Pavle Milic vibe from Jerome Astolfi. Granted, the general manager of Flavor Del Mar (1555 Camino Del Mar, 858-755-3663, is French, not Yugoslav-Colombian, so the accent doesn’t jibe, but in other ways Astolfi eerily evokes the FnB mastermind: same robust roundness, same all-pro European geniality, same impresario flair. “Did you like how we did the sashimi?” he asks, explaining how the chefs skillfully sear the salmon cuts by drizzling them with boiling-hot sesame oil. Finished with a lemon-soy plasma, it’s an electrifying dish – one of many at this Euro-Asian concept right off the main drag in downtown Del Mar. It’s not strictly a Japanese place, but many of the dishes would seem completely at ease in a Tokyo izakaya, from the delightful honey-crisped “foie gras donut” to the crazy-succulent wagyu ribeye – finish-grilled in a soy glaze and served on a butch wood slab with a mason jar full of pureed potatoes. “Wait, I have a perfect wine for that,” Astolfi says, returning with a glass of Arizona Stronghold cabernet. See? Just like Pavle.

Wild Card: If “playing the ponies” isn’t your thing, how about a night at the theater? The award-winning La Jolla Playhouse (2910 La Jolla Village Dr., 858-550-1010, is a scant five-minute drive from downtown Del Mar and features a cutting-edge summer playbill, including the Crash-esque ensemble drama Hands on a Hardboy (April 27-June 17) and the CIA spy fable Blood and Gifts (June 12-July 8). For more high-stakes entertainment, visit the Torrey Pines Gliderport (2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr., 858-452-9858, and take a flying leap off a 400-foot cliff in a paraglider. You’ll be flying over Black’s Beach, so bring your binoculars.

Though it lacks swells, this manmade saltwater lagoon just north of downtown also makes for an exceedingly swell weekend.

Stuff to Do: Sea World (500 Sea World Dr., 800-257-4268, is the ultimate no-brainer for family vacationing. Watch manta rays glide underwater, then soar at 43 mph in a manta-shaped coaster on Manta, a new attraction that debuted in May. Also check out summer night-only shows like Shamu Rocks and Sea Lions Tonite.

Places to Stay: The bayside Catamaran Resort (3999 Mission Blvd., 858-488-1081, offers stunning rooms with walk-up access to the resort’s white sand beach and myriad watersports. Nestled near Santa Barbara Cove, Bahia Hotel (998 W. Mission Bay Dr., 858-488-0551, is a short walk from the Pacific.