A New Look at La Jolla

A New Look at La Jolla

A plein air painter captures the beauty of La Jolla Cove on the Southern California coast

Like a cozy Parisian apartment, my French door windows open onto an ironwork balcony overlooking the chic street scene one floor below. Walking up the carpeted stairs to my room—No. 812—artistic black-and-white photos of a young John Lennon, comedian Sid Caesar, a very young Gwyneth Paltrow, and other stars cover the walls. Am I in Europe? No. But the feeling here at the newly revamped La Valencia Hotel in the heart of oh-so-chic La Jolla, California, on the Pacific Ocean 10 minutes north of San Diego, is decidedly similar.

The La Valencia has been the heartbeat of La Jolla since it opened in 1926. Its prime location—perched above the ocean in the heart of La Jolla Village surrounded by the best restaurants, boutiques, and museums—makes it the place to stay. Personalities from Charlie Chaplin to Madonna have slept here.

As with any grand dame, “The Pink Lady” (so nicknamed for its pink stucco façade and the tile image of a woman dressed in pink) needs a little work now and then to look her best. The nearly completed renovation (final completion is set for late 2014) is the most comprehensive ever. “Reimagined” is the word the new owners and new management use to describe the $10 million project. While purists may argue it was extreme—the dark and storied Whalers Bar is gone, for instance, reimagined into the light and Euro chic Café la Rue bistro, bar, and sidewalk café, and the rooftop Sky Room is also history, reimagined into two opulent guest suites (scheduled to open later this year)—in my opinion, the changes are all in the right direction. My four glorious nights at La Valencia showed me it’s as historic as ever, just better, now sporting a contemporary luxury that meets the criteria of today’s vacationers. A new spa is set to open later this year.

Superstar portraits by New York celebrity photographer Brian Hamill add a hip vibe to the revamped Hotel La Valencia

The celebrity photo exhibit is an example of the hotel’s new hip persona—as is its new nickname, now trending as “La V.” The black-and-whites are the work of noted New York celebrity photographer Brian Hamill, whose brother, novelist Pete Hamill and former partner of Shirley MacLaine, assures Brian access to everyone who is anyone. Hamill’s photos are for sale and I was lucky enough to meet up with him at La V’s re-opening night reception in March. Hamill said longtime La V staffers told him nearly every big star he’s got pictured on the walls stayed here, including John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Frank Sinatra.

Pretty good company. I’m sure they’d feel even more at home now amid the opulent upgrades. I certainly did. Mirrored walls are part of the room renovations, completed in 2013. I loved my mirrored room—not garish, tasteful. A floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall behind the bed added a cheery, bright ambiance, reflecting the room’s contemporary Euro décor. Mirrored walls also add a chic cache to La V’s posh suites, particularly the 1,200-square-foot La Valencia Suite —Villa No. 15—that boasts a contemporary fireplace in the living room and wrap-around balconies from the dining room to the master bedroom literally hanging over picturesque La Jolla Cove.

La V’s location is simply the best for enjoying La Jolla. Managing director Mark Dibella told me they have European repeat guests who stay for weeks at a time. Some like to surf; it’s a short walk to great surf breaks. Others like to dine; it’s only a few steps to La Jolla’s great restaurants and La V’s delicious cuisine. Some like to shop; Cartier and dazzling independent boutiques from cheap to pricey are at the front door. Most everyone likes to sightsee, and La V offers self-guided village walks and motor tours to all of the San Diego area’s top attractions. I enjoyed seeing all the nearby sites and had time for relaxing, too. La V is that convenient.

A frothy morning latte hits the spot on the Café la Rue’s sidewalk terrace

The first morning found me sipping a strong, frothy latte at the Café la Rue’s sidewalk terrace on Prospect Avenue, La Jolla’s “Main Street.” Shopping was on my mind and it was easy to plan my itinerary with Cartier (for window shopping) directly across the street and dozens of inviting boutiques within view. Chef concierge Nancy Hirsch—a delightful and knowledgeable woman (she’s a founding member of the San Diego Concierge Association and was Concierge of the Year in 2004)—also gave me stellar recommendations.

Inside the Norma Kay Gifts & Designs boutique, adjacent to La V on Prospect Street, I found creative jewelry and home accessories. I bought a pair of big dangly Brazilian pink quartz earrings, in the style of Academy Award night nominees, for $128 and my girlfriends bought stunning silver bracelets, which look way more valuable than their $30 price. I added a stylish black jacket—reduced from its original $400-plus price—to my wardrobe at Pomegranate, a trendy woman’s wear boutique half-a-block from La V. Turning the corner onto Girard Avenue, I made the pilgrimage to Meanley & Son Hardware. Opened in 1948, Meanley is a must-see landmark and way more than a hardware store. Designer cookware, figurines, garden décor, and high-end kitchen accessories make it a sought-after gift shop, along with the paint and repair supplies. Chico’s and a $15 dollar dress shop (yes, in La Jolla), both on Girard Avenue, rounded out my retail reconnaissance.

Hotel La Valencia’s charming garden setting pool overlooks the Pacific Ocean

La V’s garden setting pool—now saltwater thanks to the renovation—made a perfect spot to celebrate my shopping success. Mai tai in hand—handcrafted from scratch at the pool bar—I lazed on a chaise. Flowers and vines circle the pool and clear glass-like walls offer impressive views of the ocean and surrounding condos and cafés. It’s a perfect location to feel pampered, as one watches “the little people” go about their day on the streets below. A terraced lawn near the pool sports the hotel’s namesake, the 1920s tile artwork of a Spanish lady dressed in pink. Fountains and original tile steps add to the charm.

After a light lunch poolside, it was time for a walk. Using the resort’s complimentary map and tips from Hirsch, in a little more than 90 minutes and roughly two miles I saw most of the landmark sights. La Jolla Village is surprisingly small considering all there is to see and do.

From La V’s doorstep, my route began up a hilly incline to Park Row, a historic neighborhood so elite the homes do not have street numbers. “Park Row” is all that’s needed for mail to arrive. Heading down toward Coast Boulevard, I passed the Cave Store, a rustic landmark built into a bluff in 1902. A quaint sign announced that inside 145 steps led down a man-made tunnel to the sea caves. I opted to remain outside, continuing through a shady grove of Torrey pines—the rare and elegant trees that grow only in La Jolla and Santa Rosa Island off the Santa Barbara coast—and onto a grassy ocean bluff. La Jolla’s rugged coast spread north and south and the glorious Pacific Ocean glistened to the horizon. Pelicans sat at the cliff’s edge. Peering over the cliff, I watched the waves pounding the pebbly shore some 100 feet below and viewed the famous caves accessible from the Cave Shop—giant arched caverns dug into the sandstone cliffs by the relentless surf.

Turning south, I followed the cliff-top path to La Jolla Cove and sweeping views of the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve and its small beach. The reserve’s crystal waters make it popular for diving. Plein air painters were capturing the scene on canvas; families were enjoying the wide lawns of bluff-top Scripps Park. The La Valencia Hotel rose into the sky on a bluff above the park, the only hotel overlooking this rarified location. Continuing to the south end of the cove, I watched the famous seals that have taken over the children’s pool area, lolling on the sand because they can. Turning up Cuvier Street brought me back into the village and landmarks including historic St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, where parishioners can be buried in the front lawn if they wish, and the avant garde Museum of Contemporary Arts San Diego.

A bright Parisian ambiance welcomes locals and visitors to the new Café La Rue bistro, bar, and sidewalk café at Hotel La Valencia

Dining at La V was on my nighttime agenda. The cuisine by new executive chef Daniel Barron is a prominent component of the hotel’s makeover. “We essentially have our own chicken farm,” chef Barron told me as I dined at The Med, the hotel’s signature “great room” restaurant, serving New American fare. The chef is so passionate about seasonal, organic, locally sourced ingredients he’s arranged with a local farmer to raise chickens only for La V to his exacting standards. “You won’t believe chicken can be so tender and juicy,” he enthused. With that said, I immediately ordered the local, pasteurized, free-range chicken breast. He was right. The chicken was unexpectedly juicy and flavorful and accompanied by delicious house-made chicken sausage, cauliflower, and yam purée. The baby beet salad—my starter of multi-colored organic beets, baby purple carrots, white balsamic, pistachio brittle, and goat cheese—was also wonderful. The Med has been a beloved spot for lunch and dinner for generations of locals and visitors, all of whom are pleased the décor is staying the same—original Spanish-style tiles, a dark vaulted ceiling, scenic garden and ocean views from the terrace, and views of the Prospect Avenue buzz from the large palm-shaded patio.

The Med, however, is only one of many fine restaurants in La Jolla. The following night, I walked to the Whisknladle, a casual, acclaimed bistro that made the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List in 2008, the year it opened. Whisknladle chef Ryan Johnston is another farm-fresh, made-from-scratch fanatic. Pastas are hand-cut, veggies are pickled, and meats are cured on site. My slow-braised beef cheek with roasted Chino baby carrots, snap peas, horseradish parsnip purée, and Bordelaise sauce melted in my mouth. And the charred bone marrow, a unique house specialty served with the bone split open to easily scoop out the marrow, was to my taste sensational.

Sea kayaking took on a new dimension the next morning at La Jolla Shores, a short drive from La V. I’m used to paddling in the still waters of Lake Worth in Seattle, as well as Florida, Fiji, and Tahiti—calm, clear, surf-less experiences. La Jolla’s rambunctious West Coast surf added extra thrills. From the sunny sands, this kayak ride began with me rocking and rolling up, over, and through the big splashy waves as the strong guides of Bike and Kayak Tours literally pushed my kayak and me through the surf. Once past the surf line, however, the ocean calmed down and I enjoyed a scenic paddle along the towering sea cliffs and into some of the shadowy caverns on the company’s Kayak Tour of the Seven Caves. In the summer months, Bike and Kayak offers an even more exciting tour, a combination snorkel and kayak trip in these same waters to view the beautiful, harmless leopard sharks. The timid, gentle creatures are bottom-feeders and migrate annually to La Jolla to give birth to their live young.

A rare and beautiful Torrey pine graces the Beach Trail in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

From the sea to a bluff-top grove of Torrey pines in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve was a quick 15-minute drive north. The invigorating fragrance of pine trees and salt air welcomed me to the trailhead of the Torrey Pines Beach Route. I followed the popular trail as it zigzagged from under the pines across an oceanfront mesa and down through a narrow, deep-walled gully—that even with built-in log steps was a steep scramble for casual hikers like me—ending on the black sands of Torrey Pines State Beach. California sage and other wildflowers bloomed along the way. Red Butte Lookout, named for its rusty-colored soil, provided a picture-perfect ocean view framed by a single Torrey pine. Fossilized shells were visible in the narrow crevices. On the beach, I walked beneath the spectacular cliffs. Seaweed, driftwood, and shells—I spotted a sizeable clamshell—littered the protected beach. The trek took me about an hour. It was definitely shorter for the regulars who bounded passed me, some in flip-flops.

On Sunday, I enjoyed a late breakfast at The Cottage, a local favorite hangout not far from La V. The place was packed with people like me, sitting on the umbrella-shaded deck, sipping a mimosa, and enjoying unique dishes such as lemon ricotta pancakes, chilaquiles (nearly as good as the chilaquiles of Mexico), and a fabulous polenta Benedict, eggs atop polenta with tomato relish, kale pesto, goat cheese sauce, and chives. Once an early 20th century bungalow, the cheery corner restaurant retains its homespun charm with flowering vines, a white picket fence, and a brick patio outside and hardwood floors and original woodwork inside.

It was hard to believe my La Jolla getaway was coming to a close, but not before I popped over to the La Jolla Playhouse for a live matinee in the contemporary glass and steel Mandell Weiss Theatre nestled under tall eucalyptus trees. Founded in 1947 by Hollywood celebrities Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, the not-for-profit playhouse is on the UC San Diego campus about 20 minutes from the village. Known for new works that frequently go on to Broadway and Tony Awards, I couldn’t miss this opportunity. Upcoming shows include “Chasing the Song” May 13 through June 15, a new musical from the creators of Tony Award winning “Memphis,” and “The Orphan of Zhao” July 8 through August 3, a reinterpretation of a classic Chinese tale often described as the Chinese “Hamlet.”