Beach-side bohemia near San Diego

Times Staff Writer

I first visited the tiny community of Leucadia in northern San Diego County four years ago on a bicycle trip.

It was a town in a time warp, circa 1967. Its downtown, if you could call it that, consisted of a few stores and cafes along one side of Highway 101. I noticed a head shop, a used-record store, even hubcaps for sale. The laid-back, hirsute inhabitants appeared to eke out an existence by selling secondhand anything and by repairing a surfboard or two.

Down the highway in tony Del Mar, my bicycling buddy, Wendy, and I made another discovery that day: Les Artistes Inn, a quirky, renovated 1940s motel where each of 10 guest rooms is decorated to honor a different artist. We stayed in the Georgia O'Keeffe room, sun-bleached animal skulls and all.

I was fascinated -- and resolved to return.

When I did, on a weekend in early December, I cobbled together an artsy, bohemian sojourn to a string of beach communities: Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, and its enclave of Leucadia. The trip turned out to be more costly than the average "La Boheme" protagonist could manage but still fairly inexpensive: a shade over $400 for two.

I brought along my partner, Wesla, a graphic designer, illustrator, art school grad -- and fan of the late Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Of course we chose to sleep in the Diego Rivera room at Les Artistes, which seemed little changed since my bicycle trip. Set back from Del Mar's main drag, Camino del Mar, the inn is easily overlooked. It still has a funky charm that may not be for everyone, but that suited us fine.

The staff is eccentric about reservations. Try to book more than a month ahead, and they may balk. Don't expect a written confirmation.

But the staff is congenial about other matters, and the homage to each artist is heartfelt. Though walls are hung with inexpensive prints, not original artwork, the rooms are full of wonderful handcrafted touches. Many have patios with hand-set mosaic tiles, fountains and sculpture.

Our room was adorned with pre-Columbian-style Mexican figurines, books about Rivera and prints of works by the artist and his wife, Frida Kahlo. The second-floor room ($135 a night, including a basic continental breakfast) also had a king-size platform bed, a charming knotty-pine kitchen nook with breakfast bar, a sitting area and front porch.

The inn is a project of Sulana Sae-Onge, a Thai architect who has been transforming it for more than a decade with the help of her partner, John Halper. They created, besides the units devoted to artists, a room with a Zen theme and another with a Japanese-style soaking tub.

Entertainment for a song

For our Friday night entertainment we headed to the Belly Up Tavern, a longtime venue in nearby Solana Beach for jazz, blues and other music. For the price of a couple of drinks, we enjoyed an early set by the Zydeco Blues Patrol and watched line dancers in what looks like an industrial barn.

After a light dinner of salad, tasty salmon dill cakes and vegetable brochettes at the Wild Note Cafe next door, we returned to Del Mar, where we had one of the weekend's most outre experiences -- at the Flower Hill Mall, no less.

A blues quartet called Billy Watson & the International Silver String Submarine Band was playing for a standing-room-only crowd at the Pannikin coffeehouse. At one point, Watson donned a mask of '40s horror-flick fave Tor Johnson and leaped onto chairs and tables, menacing the audience.

Wesla and I sipped strawberry-kiwi and eucalyptus-mint teas, shared a slab of apple-rhubarb crumble and counted ourselves lucky to be so fabulously entertained for $5.20 plus tip.

Saturday opened with an alfresco breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt at the quaint Stratford Court Cafe, a few blocks from our inn. (Don't miss the fancy stained-glass window depicting a sailing ship at the back of the cafe's vintage building.)

We strolled the shops of Camino del Mar, including Ocean Song Musica del Mar (world music, cards by local artists, crafts and books on spirituality and the arts) and the Frustrated Cowboy (horse-themed gifts).

Our main destination that day was Leucadia. Although it clings to much of its countercultural past, we discovered that an upscale mentality is creeping in. There goes the neighborhood.

Once dubbed Quaaludia for its somnolent surfer-hippie ethos, the community is waking up to soaring real estate prices and yuppie newcomers.

"You can't make it just by fixing dings on surfboards," said Patricia Bell, owner of Embellishments, a new upscale gift store on Highway 101. Down the street in the year-old JB Victoria's, a collection of vendors in a converted house sold books, candles and other gifts, antiques and amazing Balinese paper kites. Some of the wares were (gasp!) new.

I was thankful the strip still had stores selling items such as secondhand jeans and used vinyl. Lou's Records also stocks new stuff and is worth a spin. Just-opened Surf Hut Fine Art Gallery, showing local watercolors and ceramics, sits in back of Shatto & Sons Custom T-Shirts, which features the slogan, "Leucadia, where the sixties never really died."

Our favorite shop was Ducky Waddle's Emporium, crammed with new and used books on art, '60s counterculture, sex and more; old sheet music; and a fine collection of Day of the Dead art and crafts. It also had a gallery showing social-commentary drawings by Douglas Thompson.

Owner Jerry Waddle, a self-described "curmudgeon on my way to geezerhood," ran a similar shop for years in Silver Lake.

Another blast from the past was the price of lunch at La Especial Norte, a 25-year-old Leucadia favorite. For $11.10 plus tip, Wesla and I shared a fine black bean soup, cheese enchiladas with a side of cabbage salad and a Mexican soda.

Most of Sunday was devoted to exploring the natural beauty of the coast. We breakfasted on pad Thai and other leftovers from the previous night's dinner at the Taste of Thai restaurant in Del Mar. Then we hiked along the city's bluffs, counting more than 100 surfers trying their luck on the wintertime waves.

From there we drove to Encinitas and meandered through the small, lush gardens of the Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage, founded in 1937 by spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), author of "Autobiography of a Yogi." The tropical foliage, benches for meditation and serene ponds with koi and waterfalls are on bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Admission is free. (The organization's store down the street, stocked with clothes and crafts from India, is also worth a stop.)

It was a fitting end to the weekend: surfers, spirituality and sublime beauty.

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