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La Jolla

It's ready when you are

La Valencia of La Jolla

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I have a goal of visiting every grande dame in California, and I don’t mean the ones with heartbeats and multiple strands of pearls.
I mean the older, elegant hotels that have stood the test of time; they may have had a few face-lifts, but their original glory is undeniable.

There is something I find soothing about these classic bastions of hospitality. For the cost of a night’s stay and a few drinks in the bar, I can walk in the footsteps of celebrated international dignitaries, Hollywood celebrities of long ago and wartime soldiers who came before me.

After more than six months of dating Jane, I felt we were ready for a romantic getaway. By now, we understood each other’s daily rhythms and requirements. Jane is someone who needs to run, or at least sweat, at some point during the day. And sometimes I need to nap. Jane had suggested a trip a few months earlier and I’d strategically dodged the idea with some mealy-mouthed excuse. If we traveled too early in the relationship, I reasoned, without that basic understanding of how to get along, the trip (and relationship) might be doomed.

So last month I brought her to one of my favorite Southern California destinations. The coastal enclave of La Jolla had the elements we both wanted for a long weekend away: warm weather, surfing (including a place for Jane to learn), art galleries and a grande dame of a hotel: La Valencia.

Originally built in 1926 as an apartment hotel, for a then-stupefying price of $300,000, La Valencia had 28 rooms, a restaurant and two shops—one sold antiques and the other offered needlepoint items. The “Pink Lady of La Jolla,” as she is called, has the bone structure of my favorite classic Califonia destinations: thick stucco walls, high ceilings, Spanish-tile floor, turn-of-the-century artwork and lots of ocean views.

The 90-minute flight from SFO was easy, as was securing the convertible I had booked through Orbitz. Within 30 minutes of San Diego airport, we’d left the interstate madness behind and pulled onto La Jolla Village Parkway, and then Prospect Street. The familiar pink Spanish-style tower of La Valencia materialized on the right, looming over the row of small shops, restaurants and storefronts that have grown around it over the past 80 years. Thanks to recent renovations to the tune of $10 million, the hotel has received accolades including being on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List and Travel & Leisure’s top 500. I’d booked one of the new ocean villas, which come with amenities like a steam shower, whirlpool tub and private butler service.

Surfing was high on our list of priorities. Windansea, a legendary surf spot just a few minutes south of the village, was made famous by Tom Wolfe’s book The Pump House Gang, which celebrates youthful dominance of that particular strip of sand in the 1960s. These days, a more fitting moniker for the local zeitgeist might be “Old Guys Rule,” the mantra printed on so many decals, coffee mugs and faded T-shirts worn by silver-haired surfers nationwide. To keep this vacation in the happy-memories category, I signed Jane up for Surf Diva’s Weekend Surf Clinic at La Jolla Shores, three miles north. This long, gentle, soft-sand-bottomed shore has excellent conditions for beginners. (“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun,” Surf Diva’s website attests.)

The weather was ideal—no coastal fog, warm enough to be comfortable in a bathing suit, but not too hot. Life in La Jolla is good. After a morning of separate surfing adventures, we enjoyed a well-earned lunch and light, crisp, homemade brew at the La Jolla Brew House, up the street from the hotel. Our conversation floated from what to do next—explore the coast on kayaks, lounge by the pool, or shop—to Jane’s morning. She’d enjoyed her introduction to surfing, she said, and was looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson, where she hoped to actually catch and ride a wave. She’d also stumbled on an unexpected surprise during a post-surf walk: at the northern end of the mile-long shore is Black’s Beach, one of the world’s most popular clothing-optional surfside hangouts. “Good thing I was wearing my sunglasses,” she said.

We reserved two kayaks for the next afternoon and spent the rest of the day relaxing. As expected, our definitions of relaxing diverged. I felt I had to kick off my flip-flops and take a nap in our villa with the windows open. The cool, sea air and muffled sounds of surf and screeching gulls would lull me to sleep. Jane, as I like to say, runs hot, so for her, relaxing meant taking a walking tour of the town. While La Jolla has been a tourist destination for decades, it’s also home to over 40,000 full-time residents—many listed among the Forbes 400 richest Americans as well as professors and students from University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This eclectic population, along with the ever-present tourists, makes for an interesting mix of shops and amenities.

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