Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Illustration by Maria Jesus Contreras
21 secret spots in La Jolla that shine in the winter
Out among the whitecaps and sea caves of La Jolla, the seals bark and the kayaks keep coming.
Meanwhile, onshore, several restaurants have popped up or morphed over the last year, two hotels have taken on new identities and the art museum, already a standout, has grown. In short, La Jolla is getting more attractive, which doesn’t seem fair.
Here — as the weather cools, crowds thin and prices drop — is a Southern Californian’s guide to recent changes (and more than a dozen enduring attractions) in this seaside San Diego community, which has been seducing Angelenos on getaway weekends since the 1890s.
Back then, those who made the 110-mile journey south from Los Angeles might have glimpsed the daredevil Miss Hazel Keyes ascending in a hot-air balloon over Boomer Beach with her trained monkey Miss Jennie Yan Yan and companion Professor Romeo, then descending under three separate parachutes.
We don’t get to see that. But La Jolla these days has the busy Torrey Pines Gliderport (which features paragliders, model airplanes and falconry, not to mention nude bathers on the beach far below). And there’s plenty more that Miss Keyes & Co. could never have imagined.
This list includes places to sleep, eat, swim, surf, kayak and examine tide pools, plus assorted opportunities to gawk at penguins, thumb through rare books, hear a string quartet or cower beneath brutalist architecture.
1. ‘Whomp” in the waves at Windansea Beach
There’s a beach shack here with a historic plaque (it dates to 1946). This is also the beach where writer Tom Wolfe encountered emergent Southern California surf culture in 1965 (and described it in his 1968 book “The Pump House Gang”).
A note on vocabulary: Because the shore break is so abrupt and powerful at Windansea and nearby Marine Street, local bodysurfers like to call their sport “body whomping.” (Because of that rough surf, this beach is not the best spot for splashing around with the kids.)
And don’t let the Promiscuous Fork’s name mislead you. These people are playful, but they’re also serious about their food. Since 2012, this eatery has offered lunch and dinner in an ultra-casual setting, either inside or on the parking-lot patio. I recommend the $16 Best Fork’n Chicken Sandwich ever (it has bacon and habanero pesto on toasted sourdough) with a side of macaroni salad.
2. Challenge yourself amid the art at MCASD La Jolla
700 Prospect St., La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-454-3541
Through Jan. 29, the museum is featuring an Alexis Smith retrospective, full of the artist’ playful takes on pop culture and the American Dream. The MCASD La Jolla site also features several dramatic outdoor works and commanding views of the ocean. Adult admission, $25.
3. Relax in the Redwood Hollow Cottages
256 Prospect St., La Jolla , California 92037 | 858-459-8747
All units have kitchens. Many have two bedrooms. Many have fireplaces. And all have fetching details, whether it’s vintage kitchen counter tiles, exposed beams or shingled walls outside. Prices start at $280 nightly.
After two nights there, I can attest that this is no party spot — the vibe is very low-key — but it is a grand way to lie low and still be in the middle of La Jolla’s well-heeled bustle. There’s a two-night minimum stay in cooler months, four nights in summer. Apart from four off-street spots, it’s street parking only.
Fly, watch or hike at Torrey Pines Gliderport
2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-452-9858
The gliderport is where paragliders and hang gliders take to the air, 300 feet above the beach below. Model airplanes fly here, as do birds of prey as part of falconry classes you can join.
Or you can grab a picnic table and watch them take off, land and jockey in the wind while you snack on something from the Cliffhanger Café (nothing more than $11.25).
If you’d rather explore on land, you can try the steep, short travel to Black’s Beach. If you do, you’ll be joining many surfers (who prize its waves, especially when the swell grows in winter) and also many nudists (who have been showing up here for decades, despite local ordinances forbidding it).
The main trail, moderately challenging, is just over half a mile, about 1,000 steps, with a 320-foot change in elevation. (At the trailhead is a city sign saying “Unstable cliffs. Stay back. No public access.” Every day, hundreds of people ignore it.)
The route is a mishmash of potholed blacktop, yielding to irregular steps of boards and dirt, with the occasional old tire thrown in. Some think it’s harder going down than going up. Either way, if your knees are sound, go slow and you’ll probably be fine.
Once you get to the beach, the rule of thumb used to be nudists north and surfers south, but don’t count on that. Last time there, I saw plenty of nudists, north and south, all men, immediately on reaching the bottom of the trail.
If you’re eager to see the beach but daunted by the trail, at low tide, you can also reach Black’s Beach by walking 3 miles north from La Jolla Shores or 2 miles south from Torrey Pines State Beach. At high tide, you can’t.)
5. Grab a bite at the Flower Pot Cafe
7530 Fay Ave., La Jolla, California 92037 | 619-454-5453
That’s because the Flower Pot is a sort of second life for Pannikin, a La Jolla institution on Girard Avenue for 51 years until its closure in April. Many former Pannikin people are part of the Flower Pot, including owners Amanda Morrow and Gloria Serna. They have given the new spot a similar menu and unpretentious bohemian feel.
6. Dig deep at D.G. Wills Books
7461 Girard Ave., La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-456-1800
Don’t miss the semi-secret passage to more books in back; if you get hungry, the shop is neighbored on one side by il Giardino di Lilli (a new Italian bakery in the space that was formerly Pannikin Coffee), on the other by Paru (tea) and Haru (sushi).
7. Prowl the La Jolla Tide Pools
Over the last several decades, it has been largely taken over by seals and sea lions, amid much kids-versus-critters debate (with a bit of back-and-forth over vendors on the side). From Dec. 15 through May 15, the beach is closed to the public for harbor seal pupping season. In other months, there’s often rope strewn across the sand to keep humans back. But there’s plenty more beach and coast to explore.
Keep heading north at water’s edge and keep an eye out for the old lifeguard box that has been transformed into an artwork, its exterior inscribed with words from a poem. It’s between Scrips Park and Boomer Beach.
8. Survey seals at La Jolla Cove
1100 Coast Blvd., La Jolla, California 92037
Rough-water swimmers make this their target when they set off from La Jolla Shores (some do it every day). Families throw down blankets. Vendors set up tables. A few steps to the west at Boomer Beach, crashing waves throw spray high above the rocks.
In many ways, the cove is the hub of beachfront activities in the area, and it is neighbored by grassy Ellen Browning Scripps Park.
Be sure to follow the shoreline east toward Goldfish Point at the northeastern end of Coast Boulevard. That’s where the Coast Walk Trail begins — a family-friendly walking path that continues for 0.6 mile above 100-foot cliffs, neighbored by homes that most of us can only dream about.
9. Descend to a netherworld from the Cave Store
1325 Coast Blvd., La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-459-0746
The opening at the bottom, known as Sunny Jim Cave, feeds directly into the ocean. Sometimes seals or sea lions appear among the rocks at the bottom, and kayakers are often visible at the entrance. The shop above is filled with souvenirs. The cost to enter the cave is $10 per adult.
10. Sleep (or look for Irving Gill’s ghost) at Orli
7753 Draper St., La Jolla, California 92037 | 619-576-0806
From the front lawn, you see the La Jolla Woman’s Club and La Jolla Recreation Center, both Gill buildings. Within two blocks, you’ll also encounter the Bishop’s School, the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla and Wisteria Cottage (home of the La Jolla Historical Society), also designed at least in part by Gill, though the art museum has seen multiple revisions.
The Orli property, built as a family home and then converted into a bed-and-breakfast, reopened in October with a new name, interiors, landscaping and modus operandi. (There’s no front desk; guests typically contact staff through their phones.) The 13 units include two suites. Though Gill was famous for his minimalism, light-colored walls and arches, the Orli interior redesign features bold Parisian Art Deco flourishes and dark hues. Rates typically $245 to $1,200.
11. Line up at the Taco Stand
621 Pearl St., La Jolla , California 92037 | 858-551-6666
Since 2013, it has made street-style food, drawing from the style of Tijuana’s taquerias. Corn tortillas (except for the Sonora Taco, which is flour). Salsa from scratch daily. Burritos, quesadillas and Mexican Coke. Loteria card art on the walls.
Since opening in La Jolla, founders Julian Hakim and Aram Baloyan (who both claim roots in Baja) have added several spots in San Diego County, Orange County, Las Vegas and Miami.
I found a line out the door on a Monday night in late October, but the wait for my carne asada and Baja-style fish tacos was worth it. Most tacos $3.19-$4.99.
12. Listen at the Conrad
7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-459-3728
Home to the La Jolla Music Society, it has a 513-seat concert hall, a 136-seat cabaret space called the JAI and a courtyard. Some performers from December’s schedule: pianist Daniil Trifonov, violinist Randall Goosby, vocalist Storm Large, Poncho Sanchez.
13. Feel rich at the La Valencia Hotel
1132 Prospect St., La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-550-1010
Head straight down the entrance hall to La Sala for a drink with an ocean view. If you’re looking for a fancy meal, veer left off that entry hall to the Mediterranean Room (which has patio tables with equally terrific views).
If you’re tempted to spend the night, take a deep breath. Rates in winter start at about $470. In summer, that number is closer to $600.
By the way, Angelenos: You may think of the Beverly Hills Hotel as “the pink palace” or “the pink lady,” but once you’re south of Del Mar, most people mean the La Valencia when they say that.
14. Taste sea creatures at Sandpiper
2259 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-228-5655
Desserts come from Sandpiper’s big sibling, George’s at the Cove, one of La Jolla’s two or three favorite special-occasion restaurants. (Sandpiper took the place Galaxy Taco, which lasted 2015-21.
15. Find views (and a minimalist vibe) at Cormorant Boutique Hotel
1110 Prospect St., La Jolla, California 92037
Some 22 of the guest rooms have tiny balconies, but bear in mind that the rooms are small (most rooms are 205 to 305 square feet), there is no elevator in the four-story building and parking is on the street (where demand is very high) or via valet at $50 per night. My queen-bed room cost $287 on an October weeknight.
16. Kayak the cove and sea caves
2199 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-459-1114
From that spot, you can peer into sea caves (and venture into one, if the water is calm enough). You then turn around and paddle back to shore, tide at your back. This is the roll-out for a typical La Jola kayak tour, an adventure that will take 90 minutes to two hours, and you probably won’t be alone.
There are five kayak tour and rental companies within a few seaside blocks of Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores, which means 100 or more kayaks making the same circuit on sunny summer days. In fall and winter, it’s much less crowded, and the temperature is still usually pleasant.
I did a tour with La Jolla Kayak (in business since 1994, adult rates: $44 for a single kayak, $69 for a double). Because there was a 2- to 3-foot swell, we didn’t get into the sea cave, but the guides were quick with quips and stories about sea life, coastal erosion and La Jolla real estate (which were entertaining but could stand some fact-checking).
Next time, I might take a kayak-and-snorkel tour (or just rent a kayak and bring my own snorkel), the better to see garibaldi (they look like oversize goldfish) or a leopard sharks (4 to 5 feet long, generally harmless) that congregate La Jolla Shores. Other kayak tour companies include Bike & Kayak Tours, Hike Bike Kayak Adventures and La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks and Everyday California.
17. Eat cheap at Jeff’s Beach Burgers
2134 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-535-2227
The bosses are actually two guys named Jeff. Besides burgers, they have shakes ($4.95) and a sign warning that if you’re not barefoot, you’re overdressed.
Sit at a table on the patio and watch the parade of kayak-renters trooping down the sidewalk to meet their guides and board their vessels.
18. Sleep or eat by the sand at the La Jolla Shores Hotel
8110 Camino del Oro, La Jolla , California 92037 | 855-923-8058
The family-friendly hotel has ping pong tables and cornhole games in the courtyard near the pool, and no street between the guest rooms and the beach sand. Of 119 rooms, 28 have kitchenettes. Its restaurant, the Shores, faces the beach, and if you show up at happy hour (2 to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday) you can get a ceviche tostada (or street corn, asada fries or tacos al pastor) for $7.
If you want a fancier stay or meal, next door is this hotel’s smaller, smarter sibling, the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. It goes back to the 1920s and has 90 rooms and suites (most of which include kitchens), 12 tennis courts, a 75-foot-long swimming pool, 9-hole golf course and a more formal beachfront restaurant, the Marine Room. Winter rates there typically start at about $340 on weekends.
19. See sea life up close at Birch Aquarium at Scripps
2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, California 92037 | 858-534-3474
Its latest major addition is the Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins habitat, which opened over the summer to highlight a community of penguins, all less than 12 inches tall. They look like underwater hummingbirds when they’re swimming.
Most visitors spend about 90 minutes. Don’t miss the leopard sharks and moray eels in the Giant Kelp Forest (it’s two stories high) or the hands-on features of Tidepool Plaza, which also has big views of the La Jolla shoreline.
Adult admission is $24.95, with advance reservations strongly encouraged.
20. Roam the UCSD campus
9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla , California 92093 | 858-534-2230
By day, you can take a self-guided tour among the artwork of the campus-wide Stuart Collection (Robert Irwin, Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen and Jenny Holzer are among the artists). Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God is a good place to start.
Also, to remind us how popular Brutalist architecture was in the 1970s, there is the otherworldly Geisel Library (eight stories of concrete menace designed by William Pereira).
By night, the biggest campus draw for nonstudents is the La Jolla Playhouse, which has sent more than 30 plays and musicals to Broadway over the years. Also, the campus unveiled its new Epstein Family Amphitheater in October, with a diverse mix of classical and pop programming.
21. Gawk at the cliffs of Torrey Pines State Beach
To reach the beach most directly, try to park in the South Beach lot ($12 to $25, depending on when you arrive), but be warned that it’s often jammed in summer and on sunny weekends. The alternative is the North Beach lot, farther from the cliffs.
As you look south, red-dirt sandstone cliffs will rise 300 feet to your left, and the vast, flat Pacific will reach to the horizon on your right. Don’t walk close to the cliff: Erosion never sleeps, and rocks fall regularly.
Arrive at low tide, as I happened to do recently, and you’ll have a broad swath of sand to tread between sea and cliff. At high tide, there’s almost no beach at all.
Regardless of where the water is, if you show up in late afternoon on a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs darken as the sun sinks, until they’re as red as any butte in Utah.