At first glance, La Jolla, Calif., seems merely Malibu meets Beverly Hills. One part beach town, one part trust-fund enclave. Combine the two, and out pop guys with liposuctioned abs and ladies with severely pulled-back blond hair. All orbiting in Lexus SUVs hunting for Armani, Rolex and the other usual high-end retail suspects.
Robb Report, the magazine for millionaires (and the wannabe wealthy), once crowned the town as the best place to live in America.
But a closer look shows La Jolla (pronounced la hoya) to be a far more intriguing stop than the usual west-of-the-freeway suburban seaside pack.
La Jolla has attracted legions of offbeat authors, most notably Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler called La Jolla a haven for old folks, while Tom Wolfe wrote that one of its best beaches was segregated - only the young could be seen on the sand.
Gliders circle above the nation's most-famous nude beach. Body surfers (clothed) share the waters with nasty-looking but harmless small leopard sharks (though a possible great white shark report was made in August).
New-age guru Deepak Chopra has decamped from downtown to the golf resort at nearby Carlsbad, but La Jolla remains a place where a dozen or so establishments will clean your aura or unlock your hara.
All this is packed into a gorgeous 20 square miles at the northwest tip of San Diego that's home to just 35,000 of the metropolis' 1.2 million residents.
"I love the way the mountains coalesce with the sea," says Michael DiGruccio, a local. "It's a beautiful place to live andwork."
The signals that you are someplace apart start at the off-ramp. You know you've hit La Jolla when the bland corporate boxes along Interstate 5 suddenly give way to an urban fantasyland. Post-Mod architect Michael Graves' Hyatt hotel looks like a 1930s radio. The gleaming white Mormon temple resembles a rocket ship ready to blast off.
La Jolla has been a San Diego hot spot since the early 19th century. Locals joke that the last real estate bargain was in 1886 when Frank Botsford, the "father of La Jolla," sold lots for $1.25 per acre. Today it would top $2 million per acre. The average home price is now $1.2 million.
At the north end is Torrey Pines State Reserve, the 1,700-acre green space with its famous pine trees atop steep sandstone bluffs. Nearby is Torrey Pines Lodge, with a spa offering Clarity Sage- an aroma emitted in a glass-boxlike therapy room. For $275, guest s c an part a ke of a 140-minute Ayoma Ritual based on 5,000-year-old Indian wellness concepts.
For millions of fans of the little pock-marked ball, Torrey Pines is synonymous with pro golf. Home of the Buick Invitational, the resort features two championship 18-hole courses. Along with the usual sand and water traps, golfers have to deal with the frequent roar of F/A-18 Hornet jets streaking overhead from nearby MiramarMarine Corps Air Station.
Just down the hill is the Salk Institute, which from the outside looks like just another office complex. But walk into its magnificent main courtyard and you are standing in one of the shrines of modern architecture created by Louis I. Kahn.
The buildings on either side seem to fold back, as the expanse of white stone stretches toward the sea. It's a stark, simple and oddly calming space.
Occasionally, visitors will see what looks like a parachutist floating by next door. Torrey Pines Gliderport is said to be one of the most popular spots in the country for non-motorized aircraft. U-shaped paragliders float off the towering sea cliffs. Neophytes can come to ride tandem with an experienced flier.
"It's the only legal way I could think of telling my kids to go jump off a cliff," says Danny Dominguez, a visitor from El Paso who was treating his 12-, 13- and 1 5 - year- o l d daughte r s to $150-apiece tandem flights.
If something goes wrong, it is a long way down to Black's Beach, the area's famous nude beach. From high up on the cliffs the notso- buff folks in the buff are tough to see, though their monochromatic skin tone indicates they are sans swimsuits. The most established nudists have their own club, the Black Beach Bares.
Up on the cliffs, a lifeguard perched on a wooden platform keeps tabs on the goings on, radioing down to a beach patrol below.
"There's a spot for girls who like boys and one for boys who like boys, though some of the girls who like boys go to the boys-wholike- boys area to get away from the boys who like girls a little too aggressively," the lifeguard says. He declines to give his name because "my boss probably wouldn't like it."
Down the hill is the famous Birch Aquarium, essentially the public-outreach arm of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Farther along is La Jolla Shores, the wide sand strand that's the best beach in the area. At night, bonfires blaze to keep away the chill. Follow Prospect Street, where Dr. Seuss used to walk his dogs, into the heart of La Jolla Village. Girard Avenue is the main artery, filled with shops eager to separate visitors and residents from their savings.
Geisel, who died in La Jolla in 1991, is the most celebrated of La Jolla's offbeat literary lineage.
He lived in a converted observation tower where he wrote books about the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, Horton the elephant, Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfer and dozens of others.
Mystery writer Raymond Chandler of Farewell, My Lovely fame lived in La Jolla off and on for 13 years after World War II, tried to commit suicide here and ultimately died in Scripps Clinic in 1959. His views on the place were mixed. "A nice place for old people and their parents," he once remarked.
Tom Wolfe had exactly the opposite take in his short story "The Pump House Gang," whose title characters were surfers at La Jolla'sWindansea Beach.
"This beach is verboten for people practically 50 years old,"Wolfe wrote. "This is a segregated beach. They can look down on Windansea Beach and see nothing but lean tan kids." The locals "attended the Watts riots as if it were the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena."
Anne Rice, author of Interview With a Vampire, penned a recent New York Times essay about her beloved New Orleans from her secondhome inLa Jolla.
Not just authors have called La Jolla home. Actors Gregory Peck, Desi Arnaz and Raquel Welch lived here. Quarterback Doug Flutie still does. The long list of the super-wealthy is headed by agribusiness heiress Margaret Anne Cargill, worth a reported $1.5 billion.
The 'pink palace'
Most everyone, famous or not, resident or visitor, eventually makes their way at some point to La Valencia. The "pink palace" hotel has been a local landmark for more than three-quarters of a century. The inn's Whaling Bar is the city's best place to meet up with friends. Others like the quieter lounge with its nearly floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
"We came down to go to Sea World, but I could just sit here all day," said Kim Greiner of Santa Clarita.
Across the way is the Hotel Parisi, whose sumptuous suites are laid out according to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese philosophy of harmony. Though it has no spa on the premises, the cool and quiet hotel has a legion of bodywork specialists on call offering a menu of new-age treatments.
Tres Hall, with Holistic Health Practitioners, does an "east-west fusion" massage that rolls shiatsu, Indian Aruyvedic medicine and traditional muscle-release therapy into one hour of kneading fingers and rolling elbows. As he unties muscle knots, he talks about La Jolla lore.
"John Steinbeck wrote about the place in Cannery Row, when Doc comes down on an expedition," Hall says. "Back then it was a lot more like a wilderness around here."
Ellen Browning Scripps Park, set against the Pacific, is La Jolla's equivalent of a town green. Locals have family parties on the manicured lawns.
Down in the cove, children play hide and seek in the caves, while snorkelers head out beyond the shallows for a look at bright orange garibaldi fish and the occasional dolphin or lemon shark. La Jolla Underwater Park & Ecological Reserve, established in 1970, is a haven for snorkelers.
In the park is the "Dr. Seuss tree," a bent specimen with a shaggy top that supposedly inspired some of Geisel's illustrations. Dr. Seuss is gone, but the tree remains. So does his quirky spirit in the rich, off-kilter world of La Jolla.
Gary A. Warner is travel editor of the Orange County Register.