Imperial Beach, at the southwest corner of the United States and a short hop from Tijuana, is the poor cousin of Southern California beach towns. Dicey areas have detracted from attractive, sandy beaches and good surfing, so the city is trying to burnish its image. My husband and I enjoyed the redeveloped pier area and the surfing-inspired artworks, especially "Surfhenge," the city's signature public art piece. There has been little in the way of lodging to entice tourists, but a new upscale hotel and restaurant is changing that. The tab: Summer weekend room rates at Pier South Resort start at $319 a night; meals for two cost us about $100.
Pier South Resort (800 Seacoast Drive;  621-5900, bit.ly/1xP7vKd) sits on the sand, a block from the pier. The new 78-room hotel is part of Marriott's Autograph Collection. The lobby has an artistic beach vibe, and there's a gym, day spa and ocean-view deck. The oversized rooms have a built-in wow factor with floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies that showcase the fabulous view (try to get a room that faces the ocean; some don't). I was disappointed by the pool's small size.
Mom-and-pop eateries (Thai, gyros, pizza) are next to the hotel. If you want to drink with the locals, stop at Ye Olde Plank Inn (24 Palm Ave.;  423-5976), a dive bar filled with character and characters. Katy's Café (704 Seacoast Drive;  863-5524, katyscafeib.com) has good breakfasts and smoothies. (Ye Olde Plank Inn and Katy's Café are also right by the hotel.) But the talk of the town is the new Sea 180 Coastal Tavern in the hotel, which features shareable plates and where almost every seat has an ocean view. My husband liked the smoky marinara bison and pork meatballs more than I did, but neither of us liked the pulled pork empanadas, which were dry. Best bet: Have a drink on the terrace and watch the sunset.
The Tijuana Estuary (301 Caspian Way;  575-3613, trnerr.org/plan_a_visit/visitor_center), a mix of coastal wetland, research reserve and state park, is a serene place to commune with nature. Stop in the visitor center, a mini-museum filled with exhibits about the local flora and fauna. Beachgoers often overlook this area; there was hardly anyone there the day we visited. We took a hike and saw some of the hundreds of bird species that like to hang out here. There are trails to explore, or you can take a free guided tour on the weekend.
We intended to rent horses from one of the stables in the estuary area, but it was too late in the day by the time we left the visitor center. You can ride to the beach near the Mexico-U.S. border, then trot near the surf. How cool is that? Next time for sure.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times