Maybe you've always suspected that there was more to San Diego's North County than beach towns, rolling hills, expat giraffes and a walled kingdom of brightly colored plastic. But frankly, they had me at beach towns.
I always figured the rest — even the two marquee attractions, Legoland in Carlsbad and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido — was just gravy. Or icing on the cake. Or maybe, given San Diego's love of beer, the chaser after the pint.
But now I've spent several days on and off the beaches, and it looks as if you're right: San Diego County's northern reaches, beginning above La Jolla and ending at Camp Pendleton, deserve more attention than they get.
So here are 11 micro-itineraries, which are the latest addition to our ongoing Southern California Close-Up series. (To see others, go to latimes.com/socalcloseups They're far from comprehensive but enough to get a beginner started. And, yes, the beaches, the beasts and the molded plastic kingdom are in here too.
1. The land of Lego
Apart from that guy who whispered "Plastics!" to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" all those years ago, who suspected that little interlocking bricks would one day threaten to rule the world? The Lego people, that's who. Long known as a theme park that's better for younger kids than older thrill-seekers, Legoland (1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad) has grown to include more than 60 rides and shows, an aquarium and water park next door, and a new 250-room hotel coming next summer. One-day admission is usually $75 for adults (13 and older) and $65 for children (ages 3-12). You'll pay an additional $35 a person for a two-day pass that gets you into the water park and Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium. In other words, hefty fun and hefty bill. If you're spending the night, consider the pleasant Sheraton Carlsbad Resort (5480 Grand Pacific Drive, Carlsbad) next door, which has its own Legoland entrance. Or stay along the coast highway in Carlsbad at the kid-friendly Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort (3075 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad), which backs up to the beach.
2. Carlsbad eats, Carlsbad sleeps
Feeling naughty? Grab a sugary bite at Boxd (430 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad), which serves waffle sandwiches out of a converted shipping container in the heart of town. Then jump in the ocean and see if you get cramps. (Despite what your mother told you, the evidence is thin.) After your dip, try lunch or a happy-hour dinner at Las Olas Restaurant (2939 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad), an ultra-casual Mexican place with an older sibling restaurant farther south in Cardiff. If you're roughing it (and you've booked well ahead), you can pitch your tent at South Carlsbad State Beach campground (7201 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad), three miles south of town. If you're splurging, family-style (or have a ton of Hilton HHonors points), head for the kid-friendly Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort (1 Ponto Road, Carlsbad), which opened in June. Yes, $349 may seem a lot to pay for a room on the inland side of the coast highway, but everything is new and shiny, most of the rooms have ocean views, there's a spa and a big pool with a neighboring baby pool, and when the summer masses go home, those rates will ebb.
3. The Swami and the Incas
Swami's Beach (1298 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas) is a great spot for surfing, strolling or running, reached by a staircase just south of the Self-Realization Fellowship's temple grounds. (Hence the name Swami's.) For dinner, there are plenty of options along the coast highway, but there's only one Q'ero Peruvian Kitchen (564 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas), a very tasty spot.
4. Leaves and beans
The San Diego Botanic Garden (230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas) is a 37-acre wonderland of plants that has been open (under various names) since 1971. It includes flora from around the world, including a hilarious band of semi-topiary musicians in the Mexican garden and the terrific Hamilton Children's Garden, whose "spell and smell" garden covers the alphabet from aloe to zebra grass. The kids' area also includes a treehouse, chalk zone and mud play area. Then catch your breath and recaffeinate at the Leucadia end of Encinitas, where you'll find Pannikin Coffee & Tea (510 N. Coast Highway, Encinitas). It's a surfohemian (you know what I mean) coffeehouse in an 1888 train station, full of artwork, coffee beans and kitchen goods for sale. Pannikin, by the way, is a San Diego chain (three locations) that's been pouring fancy coffee since 1968, when Starbuck was still best known as Ahab's first mate in "Moby-Dick."
5. Design and dinner
Who knew, back in the late 1940s, what the Bill Jack Scientific Instrument Co. was starting? That company, housed in a series of Quonset huts along Cedros Avenue, has receded into Solana Beach history. But those swooping rooflines remain, the space now occupied by shops and restaurants — and Cedros Avenue has been reborn as a design district. Browse its many design and antiques shops (www.cedrosavenue.com), such as the Leaping Lotus (240 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach), which sells jewelry, furniture and art (and, regrettably, Obama and Romney toilet paper at $5.99 a roll). Across the street, SoLo (309 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach) is more sophisticated, with design books, curios and strangely compelling reclaimed industrial objects. Elsewhere on the avenue, you'll find succulents (Cedros Gardens, 330 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach) and surf photography (Aaron Chang Ocean Art Gallery, 415 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach). Also — attention, bored husbands — camping gear and carabiners await inspection at Adventure 16 (143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach), another Southern California brand with roots in San Diego. For a snack, try Lockwood Table Cafe (346B S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach). For dinner, Wild Notes Bistro (143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach) is a logical stop before a show at the Belly Up Tavern (143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach), which has been booking live music (under a Quonset roof) since 1974.
6. A swim and breakfast
How to begin an ideal day: Rise early. Jump into the ocean at Solana Beach's Fletcher Cove (111 S. Sierra Ave., Solana Beach), where a pleasant little green park meets the sea. Some locals call it the Pillbox because there was a gunnery installation here during World War II. On Thursdays in summer, the park often hosts community concerts. Whatever the day, you can load up on carbohydrates, including the excellent chocolate-chip pumpkin bread, at the nearby Naked Cafe (106 S. Sierra Ave., Solana Beach). Then back to the beach.
7. Peace, quiet and primo produce
In the fertile hills a few miles east of Solana Beach, you'll find the roadside headquarters of Chino Farms (6123 Calzada del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe), a Japanese American family operation that produces fruit and vegetables beloved by chefs such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. The farm is 45 acres. The stand (officially known as the Vegetable Shop) has been in business since 1969, and whether it's peppers, strawberries, carrots, onions or greens, the quality is startling and priced accordingly (cash only). If you want that low-key luxury feeling for a few hours or even overnight, continue a few miles up the road to Rancho Santa Fe, one of the wealthiest (ultra-upscale retail, restaurants and real estate) and quietest enclaves in Southern California. Now check out the hacienda-style Inn at Rancho Santa Fe (5951 Linea del Cielo, Rancho Santa Fe), which dates to the 1920s. Besides 87 rooms, it offers a dining room and veranda with a popular daily brunch. Some rooms rent for as little as $152 (but haven't had their old TVs replaced yet by flat-screen models). Some of the suites have kitchens (the better to exploit your fresh produce).
8. Del Mar
Del Mar, with its many Tudoresque buildings, Olde English street names, stratospheric property values and well-fixed gentry, might remind you of Carmel. But Carmel has no horse racing (see below), and Del Mar has milder weather, busier beaches and bigger home lots. It's the sort of place where a motel can charge $259 a night in summer and Ranch & Coast Plastic Surgery hangs its shingle along the main drag. So it's a surprise to find the artsy little Les Artistes Inn (944 Camino del Mar, Del Mar), whose 12 rooms are named and decorated for a dozen painters. There's no pool, but a lobby fireplace is lighted most nights, the beach is a few minutes away, you're steps from the main drag and you can often get in for less than $200. If you need a pool, consider the Hotel Indigo (710 Camino del Mar, Del Mar).The next morning, walk to breakfast at the Stratford Court Cafe (1307 Stratford Court, Del Mar), where flip-flops may outnumber proper shoes on the patio (that's good). Or, for a quicker tempo, do breakfast at Americana (1454 Camino del Mar, Del Mar) at the busy corner of Camino del Mar and 15th Street. Then walk a few blocks to the beach, past Sea Grove and Powerhouse parks. On your way, be sure to admire the bracing plainness and spectacular location of the boxy old '60s Vista Del Mar condo complex on 15th Street. Like a mole on the face of a supermodel, it makes you covet Del Mar more. Wind up your day with dinner at the Del Mar Rendezvous (1555 Camino del Mar, No. 102, Del Mar), where the menu is Chinese fusion.
9. The track and the fair
It was here at the county fairgrounds (2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar) in 1958 that a teenager named Raquel Tejada was named San Diego's Fairest of the Fair and was launched on her way to becoming Raquel Welch. Like Raquel, the San Diego County Fair endures (it ran June 8-July 4), midway and all. But the bigger draw for celebrities and out-of-towners is the horse racing, which began in the '30s with marquee names such as Bing Crosby (a co-founder of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club) and Seabiscuit (winner of a much-celebrated exhibition race in 1938). The racing takes place five days a week for most of the summer (the season ends Sept 5). Mondays and Tuesdays are usually dark.
10. Safari in Escondido
If the San Diego Zoo is the tidy and compressed Twitter version of the animal kingdom, then the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido; formerly the San Diego Wild Animal Park) is the New Yorker article. It rambles. The animals, scattered over 1,800 acres of dry hills in the San Pasqual Valley, are relatively free to roam. Your admission ($42 for adults, $32 for kids) includes a 25-minute narrated ride on a tram that chugs past giraffes, rhino, gazelle and perhaps an ostrich sniffing its eggs (which weigh about 3 pounds each). It costs $40-$95 more to do the zip line, the ropes course or see animals up close from a special safari truck. Be sure to check out the lions — they often snooze in the shade right next to an observation window. On your way out, grown-ups can quench their thirst with a tasting at nearby Orfila Vineyards & Winery (13455 San Pasqual Road, Escondido). For beer or a pleasant dinner al fresco, head to the home of Arrogant Bastard Ale: Stone Brewing Co. and its World Bistro and Gardens (1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido). The indoor-outdoor dining area is clever, and there are $3 tours in the afternoons and movie nights in summer.
11. Low profile in Rancho Bernardo
There are plenty of premium golf options north of La Jolla, including hotel-adjacent courses at the Grand Del Mar (www.thegranddelmar.com), Aviara (www.parkaviara.hyatt.com) and La Costa (www.lacosta.com) in Carlsbad. There's also a less luxurious, less pricey option a little farther inland — the hacienda-style Rancho Bernardo Inn (17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego). Along with its 18-hole championship course, this resort offers more than 280 guest rooms, three pools and three restaurants. (The fanciest, Bizcocho, is French.) To appease kids and art lovers who won't be swinging clubs, head to nearby Kit Carson Park (3333 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido) and follow the signs to Queen Califia's Magical Circle. It's a sculpture garden, 120 feet in diameter, by the late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Mosaic critters. Kaleidoscopic colors. Textured tile work. The queen herself (whose name comes from the 16th century Spanish novel that inspired this state's name) stands about 24 feet high, astride an eagle, surrounded by eight totems and a maze. Escondido has a gem here. Let's hope the queen's keepers fix the cracked tiles in the mirrored area (barely noticeable now) before they get worse — these fantasy creatures make a great complement to the real ones at the Safari Park.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times