A leisurely drive down to La Jolla. A chance to walk the beach, sniff the affluence, see family and celebrate somebody else's 40th birthday. And then to sink into a ritzy new inn two blocks from the sea. What could be finer?
Not much, my wife and I thought. And so we headed south in late May, armed with high hopes and a fistful of Internet printouts on the new lodging, the 20-room Hotel Parisi.
Also we had baggage. As a resident of La Jolla for most of the '80s and none of the '90s, I'd wondered how the place was bearing up. As an elementary school teacher in the home stretch of the academic year, my wife, Mary Frances, was ready for a breather of any kind.
As it turned out, the hotel didn't wow us, and my plans to revisit old haunts went a bit sideways. But our friend Karla did successfully turn 40, and a happy whirlwind weekend did materialize.
Around 8:45 Friday night, we reached La Jolla, almost precisely 100 miles south of our condo in the Hollywood Hills. We pulled off Interstate 5, rolled slowly through the usual stop-and-go traffic on Prospect Street, the main drag for night life, and eyed the largely familiar landscape.
Here was the rocky coast, here the tall palms, here the cliff-top shell shop with its not-so-secret stairsteps carved through the rock to a sea cave below. Here, the ice-plant bluff-tops and sandstone drop-offs.
Back up on Prospect Street, we peeked into the Spot, still offering late dinners (until 1 a.m.) in Chicago-steakhouse style; and Jose's Courtroom, still filled with rowdy students hollering over their affordable Mexican food; and the Top o' the Cove, with its $35 continental entrees, its twinkling tree-branch lights, its recommendation that gentlemen wear jackets.
From its address, I gathered that the Parisi must stand quite near the grande dame of La Jolla lodgings, the big, pink La Valencia Hotel. And sure enough, when we reached the upscale retail corner of Prospect and Herschel streets, there loomed La Valencia on the ocean side of Prospect, and there stood the Parisi across the street, fronted by a sculpture fountain with a big rolling ball.
Looking more closely, I realized that the Parisi is a second-story operation in an otherwise retail-commercial building. It sits above an Express clothing shop and a Victoria's Secret outlet, with parking in a subterranean garage.
Clearly, a lot has been spent on the way it looks. My Internet print-out said the Hotel Parisi is owned by Sami Ladeki, a restaurateur whose holdings include the Sammy's California Woodfired Pizza chain. The hotel name, I read, comes from Parisi Interior Design of Del Mar, whose owner, Stephanie Walters, drew on Mediterranean textures and colors in putting together the hotel's look.
From the Parisi's brochure rates--beginning at $225, after an introductory rate of $199--I knew the hotel's prices rivaled La Valencia's. And from its opening date, just six days before our arrival, I knew we'd probably have to allow for a few first-week glitches. (So we did: A lamp was broken, a luggage rack was missing, themaid service was tardy--probably all remedied by now.)
But first things first. We stepped across the street to a new ocean-view restaurant called Azul, indulged in a couple of tasty desserts, gazed at the dark sea and the lights of La Jolla Shores, then turned in at the Parisi.
The hotel's common areas feature gentle curves, dim light, and a palette of beige, ecru and khaki. There's a big fireplace of custom-wrought iron and, near the elevator, a witty sculpture of a newspaper-reading man. Inside our room waited more earth tones, along with clever custom furniture, a lavish bathroom, fancy linens and a wonderfully firm mattress. It was a great room for a business traveler or anyone who wanted insulation from the outside world. But the outside world of La Jolla is one of the most fetching places on the planet.
By 8:30 Saturday morning, I was roaming the waterfront, checking out the rough-water swimmers, the early-bird families grabbing up the best picnic tables, the sea lions at the Children's Pool inlet, roped off from onlookers and spread on the sand like drying tubers. Then we gathered with family for a top-notch breakfast at La Valencia's handsome Mediterranean Room.
Though I knew there wouldn't be time for everything, I counted on retracing a few old steps from my former La Jolla life: a walk through the galleries and gift shop of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; a browse at John Cole's Bookshop, next door to the museum; maybe a pizza at Carino's on La Jolla Boulevard.
Happily, those options remain, and I recommend them. But this weekend, we found time for none.
By noon Saturday we were a few miles up the coast at Torrey Pines State Reserve, hiking the 1.2-mile trail down from the visitor center, through a cleft in the cliff, to a beach peopled by a few tide-poolers and almost nobody else.
The next stop, as we headed south on North Torrey Pines Road, was an impulsive right onto Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, which leads past the stark gray buildings of the Salk Institute into an unpaved parking lot full of cars with bumper-sticker slogans like QUESTION GRAVITY.
This is the way to Black's Beach, if you're interested in nude sunbathing and don't mind a hike to the sand. More to the point for us (and the gravity-questioners), it's the way to the Torrey Pines Glider Port, where Charles Lindbergh launched a sailplane in 1930 (so a sign told us), and where these days the cliff top is full of hang gliders, para-gliders and model-airplane pilots in colorful and remarkably serene coexistence.
We grabbed lunches at the Cliffhanger Cafe, and soon I sat with bacon cheeseburger in hand, grinning wife at my side, and a scene before us of ecstatic young men and women leaping off cliffs and then rising in the wind, high above the nudists below. This, I thought, is why people make fun of Southern California. And then move here.
Since we'd had a late lunch, we were happy with a light dinner at the Ocean Terrace of George's Cafe--another prime-view restaurant and always a contender for top honors in Zagat rankings of San Diego restaurants. Then we were off to our birthday party and, afterward, further exploration of the Parisi.
The hotel perplexed us, we decided, because it seemed to deny its neighborhood instead of celebrating it. Also, though it does have meeting space and a modest free continental breakfast spread, the Parisi has no restaurant, no terrace, no pool, no workout room. (Nor does it have an agreement for guests' free use of one nearby, even though the La Jolla Athletic Club is but a block away.)
Next time we're in the market for an intimate La Jolla inn, we'll probably try the 15-room Bed & Breakfast Inn at La Jolla, which I walked through recently. It's built around a charming 1913 Irving Gill building on Draper Avenue, and hot breakfasts are included in the rates, which begin at $139.
Anyway, this weekend was running low. We took Sunday breakfast, another family affair, by the inlaid abalone-shell fireplace of the Brockton Villa Restaurant, a rehabilitated old vacation bungalow on Coast Boulevard. We headed up to Girard Avenue to malinger in the D.G. Wills used-book shop and the P.F. Mullins used-book shop across the street. (We also chatted with D.G. and P.F. in a way that nobody can chat with the gremlins at Amazon.com.) Then we faced reality--no time for all those other favorite old places--and headed north toward home.
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Budget for Two
2 nights: 440.90
Dessert, Azul: 21.53
Breakfast, La Valencia: 25.09
Admission, Torrey Pines State Reserve: 4.00
Lunch, Cliffhanger Cafe: 13.28
Dinner, George's at the Cove: 35.67
Breakfast, Brockton Villa: 26.90
Lunch, Pollo Loco (Tustin): 7.08
FINAL TAB: $588.13
Hotel Parisi, 1111 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; tel. (619) 454-1511, fax (619) 454-1531.