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La Jolla Sparkles as SoCal’s Riviera

Torrey Pines. Courtesy Joanne DiBona SandDiegor.org

By Brian E. Clark

The  360-degree view from Mount Soledad, which rises to a height of 822 feet above La Jolla and is home to a veterans’ memorial, is stunning in its expanse:  One a clear day, you can see Orange County to the north. To the south, downtown San Diego and beyond to Tijuana, Mexico.

And far below, the blue Pacific Ocean and La Jolla, which means “the jewel” in Spanish and is sometimes referred to as the Riviera of Southern California. With homes boasting values that run into the many millions of dollars, stunning beaches, numerous parks, art galleries, museums, high-end shopping and myriad restaurants, its a well-deserved moniker.

San Diego Fly Rides guide Peter Hurlbut (cq) talks to a group of cyclists in La Jolla’s Helen Browning Scripps Park during on an SoCal Riviera tour using electric-assist bikes that make it much easier for participants to get to the top of 822-foot-tall Mount Soledad. Credit San Diego Fly Rides.

My 18-year-old daughter and I visited recently, and pedaled bikes we rented from San Diego Flyrides (sandiegoflyrides.com) from the heart of La Jolla Village to the summit of Mount Soledad. Because we’re only recreational cyclists who try to avoid steep hills, we chose e-bikes for our ascent and joined a Flyrides tour led by Justin Montrivat, who also (but of course) teaches surfing.

The Flyrides shop was just blocks from our digs at the Empress Hotel (empress-hotel.com), where beach concierge Ryan Fohne had given us the scoop on things to see and do both on the beach and from the heights.

At the Flyrides store, Montrivat briefed us on how to ride an e-bike (it’s as simple as a regular bicycle) and we headed through the village to La Jolla Cove, a protected ecological reserve. From the cliffs above the cove, we saw snorkelers, swimmers and scuba divers in the ocean.  I used to scuba dive in the cove and recalled seeing bright orange Garabaldi fish, seven-gill sharks, sea anemones and other marine critters. (Fortunately, no great white sharks.)

A passel of plump sea lions. Credit Maddie J. Clark

Around the corner, scores of sea lions had hauled themselves up on the rocks to sunbathe – and in the case of some males – tussle and bark over territory. Most of them, though, were content to sleep, lying together in piles of brown fur and abundant flesh.

We pedaled on through Ellen Browning Scripps Park, where locals say an odd-looking tree inspired the late Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) to create the Truffala tree for his 1971 book, “The Lorax.”  Geisel, whose home and studio was on the side of Mount Soledad, reportedly visited the park many times to admire the Monterey Cypress that he used as his arboreal model.

From there, we headed to the Children’s Pool, where we viewed dozens of seals. Though they’re speedy and graceful below the waves, they looked like a batch of spotted sausages hauled out of the beach. Hundreds of people lined the walkways to view the seals, which are now in “pupping season,” which means the beach is closed to humans until May 15.

We rode on to Windansea Beach, popular with surfers, and then followed Montrivat through some tony neighborhoods and up to a bike trail that led us La Jolla High School, which has alumni that include actors Rachel Welch, Robin Wright, and Cliff Robertson.

From the school, it was another 10-minute ride to the top of Mount Soledad. If we’d had regular bicycles, it would have been a difficult grind. But the electric motors on our e-bikes made it a breeze, though I did have to shift into the most powerful assist level.

A tall white cross marks the summit of the Soledad – which means solitary or lonely in Spanish – and is flanked by hundreds of plaques honoring veterans who have served in this country’s numerous wars.

Then it was down to La Jolla Village, taking a road that swooped around on itself and back under an arched bridge as we headed back to sea level to turn in our bikes and continue our exploration of La Jolla.

Fohne, the Empress concierge, set us up with beach chairs and towels for an hour of watching the surf breaks at a stretch of sand by WindanSea Beach. Later that afternoon, we strolled by pricey shops on Prospect Avenue and dined at George’s at the Cove, which has a terrace with an excellent view of the Pacific coastline. From our perch, we could watch sea kayakers exploring sea caves and families picnicking in the Ellen Browning Scripps Park.

Beach lounging at La Jolla Shores. Credit SanDiego.org

In the distance, the broad and sandy beach at La Jolla Shores beckoned. When my daughter and her brothers were younger, they’d taken lessons from the Surf Diva outfitter. I’d surfed there, too, in a fashion, when I’d lived in San Diego and was a staff writer for the Union-Tribune newspaper.

We could see the Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier at the northern end of the beach and further among the bluffs, were the hiking trails in Torrey Pines State Park. Beside the park is the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course. Owned by the City of San Diego, it boasts two 18-hole courses and is the site of PGA tournaments.

The University of California at San Diego also calls La Jolla home, and the Brutalist-style main library on campus is named in honor of Theodore and Audrey Geisel. The angular structure, designed by William Pereira to look like a pair of hands holding a stack of books, houses the “Dr. Seuss Collection” and contains original drawings, sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books and photos totaling 8,500 items.

Birch Aquarium. San Diego.org

The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is on the edge of campus and is well worth a visit. It features more than 3,000 animals representing 380 species. Sitting high above the beach, it has excellent views of the ocean.  My favorite exhibit is the jellyfish. But don’t miss the Hall of Fishes, which has 60 tanks filled with Pacific fishes and invertebrates in habitats ranging from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California.

Back in La Jolla Village, we’d hoped to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it is being expanded and renovated, so it’s closed until 2020. So we opted for the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library and the Maps and Atlas Museum of La Jolla instead. Then, tuckered out, grabbed a cone at the Bobboi Natural Gelato shop and returned to the truffala tree to watch the sun sink into the Pacific.

For ideas on other things to see and do, visit the websites for La Jolla and San Diego.


Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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