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California Dream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The phrase "February in Baltimore" is not one that warms the heart -- or the fingers and toes. It's cold here and often dark, and by now it's been that way for what feels like a very long time.

No better reason to head west, to a spot that's hip, reasonable and, most of all, balmy: San Diego. Although the city is officially in its off-season, you'd never know from the weather, which averages 66 degrees this month.

My husband and I recently took this sage advice and brought our 3-year-old along for good measure. We found a city that's quirkier and more varied than its Southern California surf-dude reputation (although there's plenty of that, too).

We ate sophisticated seafood, saw striking architecture and had a close encounter with some rambunctious baby lions. And since San Diego is wave-crazy, we tasted the thrill of hurtling toward shore while standing on a longboard.

Our adventures always started with a festive morning meal. Breakfast is a big deal in San Diego. On the East Coast, diners might indulge in a leisurely brunch on Sunday -- waking up late, digging into eggs, bacon and grits, and a second cup of coffee.

But for many San Diegans, this sort of laid-back, calorie-laden affair is an everyday occurrence. At 11 a.m. on weekdays, breakfast spots are often crowded. You're likely to see pajama-clad women or tanned surfers enjoying breakfast burritos, French toast, even a mimosa or two.

Some of the best places to chow down are just north of the city in Pacific Beach, or "PB," as locals call it. The neighborhood is sort of San Diego's equivalent of Canton -- lots of young singles and recent college graduates, and hence a lot of coffee shops and bar / restaurants.

Our first foray was to Kono's Surf Club, a small breakfast and lunch spot on the waterfront, with tables inside and out.

Even at 7 a.m., the place was crowded, mostly with surfers, runners and other early risers. (Contrary to their indolent reputation, surfers are often up and out at dawn, when the waves tend to be smooth and surfable.)

Many diners seemed to have already engaged in some sort of vigorous physical activity and were avidly replacing lost calories with breakfast burritos and piles of pancakes. By midmorning, there's usually a line to get in, especially on weekends.

Another morning, we returned to Pacific Beach to check out the Broken Yolk Cafe, which offers a 12-egg mushroom-onion-cheese-and-chili omelet. It's $16.99, but if you eat it within an hour, it costs $1.98, and you get your name added to a plaque on the wall, along with 550 other gluttons who have done it in the last 25 years.

Other large, but more manageable dishes include 26 varieties of omelets, and huevos rancheros (eggs with salsa and tortillas).

Behind us, two guys in their 20s enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of eggs, pancakes and -- at 10:30 on a Friday morning -- a few mimosas. Actually, more than a few, since they went through two bottles of champagne.

Also worth trying is Cafe on the Park, north of downtown in an area known as University Heights. The menu offers creative comfort food, like Cap'n Crunch and blackberry pancakes, in a sleek setting. The breakfasts here, like everywhere we went in San Diego, are big.

Surf's up

It looks so cool: Speeding down the smooth face of a wave, carving a path toward shore. But can an average non-teenager learn to hang ten, or at least stay upright long enough to catch a ride into shore?

To find out, we headed back to Pacific Beach, a famed San Diego surfing hangout.

I was the guinea pig, signing up for a lesson at the Pacific Beach Surf School, with a 23-year-old instructor named Erik Hamor. The son of lawyers, Erik had dropped out of San Diego State to surf, much to his father's chagrin.

I picked out a surfboard, deciding on a long one, almost eight feet, because added length makes it easier to catch the wave.

We began by putting the board on the sand. The key to catching a wave, Erik said, is to stand up as quickly as possible. On land, the maneuver seemed easy enough. But then we headed into the Pacific. The waves looked small from shore, but the closer we got, the bigger they looked. It was exhausting just to get through the breakers.

Beyond the foam, I lay down on the board while Erik steadied it. When a suitable swell arrived (not too big, not too small), he gave a push, and I leaped up in time to catch a brief ride before losing my balance and tumbling into the drink.

This drill was repeated many times. It was grueling work, because you are constantly battered by the waves. There were a lot of wipeouts, but I caught a few short rides. And near the end of the 90-minute lesson, I caught a wave almost to shore. It's easy to see how someone might get addicted to the rush of a good ride.

Animal house

Our daughter Ginger loves the beach, so we spent a lot of time building sandcastles, dredging up tiny clams and splashing in the shallows. But kids are easily bored. Thankfully, the city has lots of child-centered activities.

We ventured first to the San Diego Zoo. It occupies 100 acres of Balboa Park, a kind of West Coast version of New York's Central Park, albeit with palm trees and Spanish colonial revival buildings. The zoo is home to 4,000 animals, including elephants, pandas and warty pigs.

We started with a guided bus tour, which offers a 35-minute survey of the zoo. Ginger got restless about halfway through, so this may not be a good option if you have younger kids. There are also buses, which stop often, and an aerial tram that provides a bird's-eye view.

Once off the bus, we headed for the primate area, where Ginger could see apes, chimpanzees, and relatively unknown apes named bonobos. All are housed in large, naturalistic environments with glass windows, so she could watch them up close.

A couple of days later, we drove 35 minutes north of downtown to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which is affiliated with the zoo. The park shelters 3,500 animals, spread over 1,800 acres, much of it sculpted to look like the creatures' natural habitats.

There is an African wilderness with cheetahs and giraffes, a tropical rain forest with two-toed sloths and bird-eating spiders, and Asian plains with rhinos and antelopes.

We began by checking out the lorikeets, a species of small, colorful and very loud birds native to Australia. Eighty-eight of the birds live in a cathedral-like aviary that features trees and a babbling brook, and is covered with netting.

The squawky creatures love to drink nectar, and are now tame enough that they'll sip it from little cups in your hand. The park has set up a nectar concession just outside the birdhouse -- $2 for a thimble-size cup. When you enter the aviary, the birds swoop down and land on your arm, eager for a snack. It's a bit of a scam, but also a lot of fun.

The highlight of the visit was the new $5 million lion exhibit, featuring six baby lions bounding around two acres of naturalistic savanna habitat. Humans can get close to the animals, but the animals also have space to move around. There are few things as impressive as seeing a lion take a running leap.

At one spot, the only thing separating you from these babies -- they already weigh more than 270 pounds -- is a pane of glass. Luckily, the glass is very sturdy. How do we know? Because a couple of the lion cubs took an inordinate interest in our much smaller cub.

We were there on the exhibit's first day open to the public, and the zookeeper told us that the lions, who'd been imported from South Africa, had never seen a human child before. They were fascinated with her, and stalked her as she walked along the edge of the exhibit.

At one point, Ginger got right up to the glass to get a close look, and one of the cubs leaped into the glass with a thud.

In search of less playful creatures, we walked back to the park's central area, which has a petting zoo filled with miniature deer and antelopes from India. Perhaps frustrated that there was no nectar concession outside the corral, one little guy started munching on my husband's pants, much to Ginger's delight.

For those with hourlong attention spans, the park offers a supposedly marvelous 5-mile train ride that winds its way through most of the animal compounds. You're likely to see elephants, lions, zebras, ostriches and giraffes roaming reasonably free.

If you still have the energy, San Diego has a lot more for families in need of stimulation. SeaWorld offers sharks, killer whales and lots of less lethal ocean creatures, and LegoLand is a large-scale fantasy for anyone who ever created a spaceship or a house from the colorful little blocks.

Scene and serene

La Jolla, about 15 minutes north of downtown, is a West Coast version of the Hamptons -- lots of people with money, and lots of cute, pricey shops.

And just like the Hamptons, there's a reason people gather there: It's drop-dead gorgeous. La Jolla has one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline you'll see anywhere. Much of it consists of high cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

Windandsea Beach is a particularly breathtaking and peaceful spot, with a couple of staircases leading down from the street. Unlike many San Diego beaches, this one has no fast-food joints or surf shops -- just the waves, a few rocks and a magnificent sunset view.

On the evening we visited, a few local families gathered to watch and applauded when the sun disappeared into the sea.

Even if you aren't wealthy, you'll get a kick out of the vibe. La Jolla's main drags -- Prospect Street and Girard Avenue -- are lined with upscale boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. There are run-of-the-mill tourists, but also a steady stream of the fabulous: well-coiffed folks who look like they probably cross paths with Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.

We made our way to George's at the Cove, a restaurant that sits atop a rocky outcropping at the northern tip of La Jolla. We walked to the rooftop Ocean Terrace Bistro, where almost any table offered a stunning view of the ocean a few hundred yards below. It's not a place for those with vertigo.

George's is expensive for dinner, with entrees running into the $30 range. The trick is to go for lunch, when the prices are more reasonable.

On the afternoon we were there, the crowd was a mix of tourists and a few upscale La Jollans. Locals seemed to congregate at the bar inside; endless stretches of perfect weather can apparently make you a bit blase.

Not content with natural beauty and wealth, we also went for a little culture. One afternoon, we drove to south La Jolla for a look at the Salk Institute. A world-renowned biomedical research center, the institute was designed by modernist architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s.

The buildings, which face out over the Pacific, are made from poured concrete, and have a rough, pitted look. Kahn wanted to convey a feeling of cathedral-like grandness, while at the same time integrating the complex with the surrounding landscape and the ocean. He succeeded wonderfully.

An ideal day

8 a.m.: Begin with a big breakfast at Cafe on the Park in San Diego's University Heights neighborhood.

9 a.m.: Drive north to Escondido to spend the morning with wild animals at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. Don't miss the new lion exhibit.

1 p.m.: Head to La Jolla. Have a leisurely lunch at the Ocean Terrace Bistro at George's on the Cove, where there's a magnificent ocean view and tasty American food.

3 p.m.: Drive to La Jolla's Windandsea Beach. Take a walk and then maybe a dip. If you've rented a surfboard and wetsuit, you may want to paddle out; the waves here aren't usually enormous.

7 p.m.: Dinner at the Fishery, a sophisticated but friendly Pacific Beach spot that began life as a fish market. Start with the calamari, then try the Chilean sea bass charbroiled with soy ginger marinade.

-- Natasha Lesser

When you go

Getting there: Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com) offers nonstop flights from BWI to San Diego, with fares starting at $139. Other major airlines offer connecting service.

Attractions:

San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Dr., San Diego, CA 92101

619-234-3153

www.sandiegozoo.org

* From alligators to zebras, and not far from downtown. Adults, $21; children 3-11, $14.

SeaWorld , 500 SeaWorld Drive, San Diego, CA 92109

800-380-3203

www.seaworld.com

* Watery thrill rides, dolphins and Shamu the killer whale. Ages 9 and older, $50.95; ages 3 to 9, $40.95.

Wild Animal Park, 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, CA 92027

760-747-8702

www.wildanimalpark.org

* Get close to leaping lions and loping giraffes. Ages 12 and older, $29.50; ages 3 to 11, $19.50.

Salk Institute, 10010 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92186

858-453-4100

www.salk.edu

* Stunning architecture by the shore. No charge to walk around the grounds. Closes at 5 p.m.

Dining:

Broken Yolk Cafe, 1851 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach, CA 92109

858-270-9655

* Omelets, pancakes, hambur-gers, salads and other American fare in a casual diner. Serving lunch and dinner (daily 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.); entrees from $4.50.

Cafe on the Park, 3831 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA 92103

619-293-7275

* Creative comfort food in an industrial chic setting. Serving lunch and dinner (daily 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.); entrees from $4.25.

The Fishery, 5040 Cass St., Pacific Beach, CA 92109

858-272-9985

* Fresh seafood in a sophisticated yet low-key atmosphere. Serving lunch and dinner; entrees from $12.

George's at the Cove, 1250 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

858-454-4244

* Creative American cuisine in three settings -- an upscale dining room, a bar and a rooftop terrace cafe. Serving lunch and dinner; entrees from $9.

Kono's Surf Club, 704 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach, CA 92109

858-483-1669

* Big breakfasts and burgers are the draw of this beachfront spot. Serving breakfast and lunch (daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.); entrees from $3.

Lodging: San Diego has all the major hotel chains, plus some local places to stay. Downtown, Old Town and Hotel Circle are some of the most convenient places to stay, though you may prefer to be closer to the beach; for all, a car is necessary to get around. For more information about hotels in San Diego, visit the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau online: www.sandiego.org.

Surfing: Lessons are available at many San Diego beaches. Here are a couple of suggested schools:

Pacific Beach Surf School, 4150 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach, CA, 92109

858-373-1138

www.pacificbeachsurf school.com

* Individual and group lessons are available throughout the year. The cost for a 90-minute private lesson, including wetsuit and surfboard: $70.

Surf Diva, 2160 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, CA 92037

858-454-8273

www.surfdiva.com

* This outfit focuses on teaching women, although men and kids are welcome. Individual and group lessons are available; private lessons, $65 per person per hour.

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