Impossibly quaint seaside charm does exist in the hustle and bustle of Southern California€”you just need to acquaint yourself with two magical words: €œLa€ and €œJolla.€

From shore, the sea swell appeared placid, and to an experienced kayaker undoubtedly benign. But to me, a prairie boy, a man for whom the term “large body of water” signifies an eight-person hot tub, the ocean is a vast, dark, deep, terrifying, hostile, sick-making, lonely and threat-ridden entity. I’d rather be shot into space than left adrift on a boat. Yet there I was, ever the professional journalist, on a sea kayak doing what no man of sound mind and standard dignity would do. I had accepted the challenge of our guide, Aidan. “I only ask for volunteers,” he noted, “because I just can’t force anyone to do it. It wouldn’t be right.”

(Photo: Neta Degany)

This wasn’t just about professionalism. You get to a certain age and, yes, as pathetic as it is, you want to prove every now and then that you aren’t just a spent shell casing, that there’s still a little gunpowder left in the mixed metaphor tank. Not that everyone agreed with me. My wife, Cathy, was at the front end of our two-seat kayak. “Just sit down,” she said. “You’re going to tip us over.”

Her wise counsel fell on water-plugged ears. The challenge? Stand up for 10 seconds on the kayak. A couple of kids in our flotilla had already given it a go and failed. They were half my age, half my weight and had twice my flexibility, but apparently were about as smart.

“Oh, and don’t forget about the marine life in La Jolla Cove,” added Aidan. “Such biodiversity. Dolphins, squid, seals…sharks. Just kidding!” Ha.

Sean Lions at La Jolla Cove. (Photo: Neta Degany.)

The first stage was hard enough, and that involved simply bending my knees to get a foot under one butt cheek, calling for manoeuvers such as dipping one leg over the side, rolling to the other side, then yoinking a foot under my torso. It was about as elegant as a newborn foal trying to stand for the first time, though not nearly as heartwarming. I eventually managed to screw myself into a squatting position. Cathy was trying to prevent us from capsizing, though she also looked suspiciously ready to abandon ship, and me, at the first sign of any real trouble. I slowly achieved a crouch, got halfway up, eased into a standing position, and was getting ready to crow in victory when it hit. The sea swell. The boat rose and fell so sharply it was as if a whale were passing directly underneath us.

I buckled a bit at the knees, adjusted, waved my arms around, staggered like a cartoon drunk, grabbed for Cathy—but then the swell passed, and suddenly the water was flat and calm again. I was still standing. Aidan was hooting, counting. Four, five, six, seven…another swell, but this time I was ready…eight, nine. “Ten!” Aidan shouted out. Others splashed the water with their paddles. I took another few seconds to look around from my perch. The shore was a painting of gorgeous homes, bluffs, pines, bird life. I could see hang-gliders drifting around in the sky to the north. Incredibly, a quartet of dolphins broke through the water’s surface a couple of hundred metres to our south. It seemed hard to believe that all this was visible from just one spot.

At that point, I realized that my moment of triumph over the sea swell hadn’t quelled various internal waves. It suddenly seemed wise to take a seat and get paddling. “We have to get to shore,” I said. “I think I’m going to hurl.”

(Photo: Mike Vas)

Back on land, barely in time, Cathy and I made our way to La Jolla Cove, where, for some reason, I thought I could calm my stomach at the Karl Strauss brewery, one of San Diego’s brewing institutions and the outfit that, in many ways, started the craft beer trend in the area. I can’t say my plan worked, exactly, but at least now I know that a hoppy IPA and fiery tofu sticks don’t cure seasickness.

After regrouping back at our base—the gorgeous Balinese-inspired Pantai Inn, which virtually sits on the water in La Jolla Cove—we had a stroll down the beach walk, where we were able to see both the famous Lorax tree (actually a Monterey cypress) that inspired Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, and the seal gathering at Point Mencinger, where mums and their pups lay around impersonating bloated sausages, occasionally rolling over as if that was all they had in them to accomplish. After dining that night on the French cuisine at the excellent Marine Room, I could relate.

The tree that inspired the Lorax. (Photo: Sherry Smith.)

This rather odd pairing of activities within a two-minute stroll of each other—seeing the Lorax tree and the seal pup cove—struck me as emblematic of what makes La Jolla such a pleasant and even surprising place to visit, especially given that it is part of a larger urban area, San Diego, which itself has typically been known for little else besides great weather and a big zoo.

But when you break it down, La Jolla is actually about five different villages, each possessing its own character and vibe. South La Jolla is primarily outfitted with the kind of neighbourhoods that if you need to ask what it costs to live there, you can’t afford it. Just north of this is the Cove, which is replete with high-end art shops, a superb bookstore (Warwick’s) and a good supply of fine restaurants. It’s the Monaco of the area. When you pass over the Cove’s hill and cliffs, you’ll head into La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Village proper, with their long beaches and SoCal vibe. This was where we departed for our kayak adventure, and it’s where you’ll come across some of the funkier, student-type places, as opposed to the more high-end shops of the Cove. North of the Village and slightly inland is the University of California San Diego campus, which has more than 35,000 students and is regularly ranked among the world’s top universities. Topping it all off, geographically, anyway, is the northernmost end of La Jolla, where you’ll find Torrey Pines Golf Course, the Lodge at Torrey Pines and the Torrey Pines State Reserve, all of which are stunning in different ways.

Broken Hill at Torrey Pines State Reserve. (Photo: Sam Antonio.) Torrey Pines golf course. (Photo: Ron Thomas.)

Our second evening there, we walked to dinner on the coastal path along the cliffs and outlooks. As you walk, you can see that many segments of the trail have had to be rerouted or repaired over the years due to coastal erosion. The concept of erosion is something La Jollans have to grapple with just about every day, probably more than most seaside dwellers. That’s because much of their coastline is built from sandstone piled up onto cliffs and arroyos and barrancas that, on the plus side, create dramatic spots for viewpoints, glider launches, golf courses, hotels and staggeringly expensive residences.

The downside is that sandstone is porous and unstable, which tends to be an issue with the ocean pounding away at the shore every second of every day. The coastline is inevitably and irreversibly shifting. Humans have built retaining walls and bulwarks all along that stretch of the coast, but the reality is that, sooner or later, the sea will win.

The charcuterie at A.R. Valentien.

Luckily, there is also erosion of a different kind at work in La Jolla, namely the erosion of homogeneity due to its growing melting pot of populations and cultural influences, particularly from south of the border. There are Mexican influences to be felt everywhere, from the music to the people to the art. Cali-Baja is alive and well in La Jolla and San Diego, and perhaps the best example of the fusion that’s taking place is the cooking scene. A number of chefs from both sides of the border have come up with a variety of cross-fertilizing events throughout the year. La Jolla cuisine stands out for that fusion (as well as for the quality of its seafood). Our meals ranged from plain tasty to outright sensational. There was the inventiveness of George’s at the Cove, the stunning view and French influence of the Marine Room, the exceptional service of Nine-Ten. But the highlight had to be A.R. Valentien in the Lodge at Torrey Pines. It was as close to perfect as a meal can get; we were seated in a lovely booth overlooking the golf course and the bluffs as the sun set. Chef Jeff Jackson’s menu is primarily focused on local and seasonal availability—and might feature such things as truffled celery root risotto, caramelized scallops, sea bass with fava beans, vol-au-vent with green garlic and oyster mushrooms. It was a memorable meal. The restaurant is named after the early 20th-century California artist whose paintings hang in various spots throughout the room.

Karl Strauss brewery. (Photo: Wonho Frank Lee.)

The Lodge at Torrey Pines (a traditional California Craftsman building) also happens to be a great home base if you’re visiting La Jolla for outdoor pursuits, since it’s right beside three such pursuits, two of which I tried and the third being something I will attempt only on the day I lose every one of my faculties. That’s hang-gliding I’m talking about, by the way. The Torrey Pines Gliderport is just down the street from the Lodge, and even if you’re not a parasailer or hang-glider, you can pass an hour watching these brave and foolhardy souls launch themselves off cliffs with nothing but the wind and a couple of bedsheets to keep them aloft and therefore alive. The pièce d’insanity came when we watched an elderly gent trundle toward the cliff in a homemade balsa wood WWI-style biplane glider. I watched through my fingers, already looking for the coast guard, but somehow he got airborne and stayed there. It was a Sunday, so I’m guessing he must have been a man of faith.

The Pantai Inn. The Lodge at Torrey Pines.

From the Gliderport, you can actually see the 12th green of the recreational facility that I was willing to become more involved in, that being the Torrey Pines Golf Course. The South Course (there is also a shorter North Course) is an iconic track that hosts a PGA tournament every year and that hosted the US Open in 2008 (Tiger won) and will do so again in 2021. At over 7,600 yards, it is the longest course on the regular PGA roster, so I thought I’d play it from the back tees, just to see precisely what it is the pros are up against. Cathy and our two other playing partners played from the forward tees, and at times they were so far up the fairway waiting for me to tee off that it sometimes felt as if I had an entire golf hole to play prior to reaching them. It is an outrageously picturesque setting, with the village of La Jolla to the south visible behind the scrim of parasailers hovering over the course and the cliffs. The scenery was welcome, given that there were no personal bests being recorded on my scorecard. It is a difficult test of golf, but it has the advantage, rare among top-flight courses, of being entirely public. It’s not cheap, but if you are a San Diego resident, the green fees are quite reasonable.

Smokes jidori chicken at Georges at the Cove. (Photo: Brogen Jessup.)

This north end of La Jolla is spectacular in different ways than the south end. South is gentrified village elegance, whereas the north is cliffs, a brawny golf course and the Torrey Pines Reserve, a nature preserve that is a must for those who enjoy walking, hiking, birding or just seeing a different part of how the local ecosystem thrives when a desert landscape moving west meets up with a marine layer moving east. Our friendly and knowledgeable guide from the Lodge, whose name was Joe, led us on paths through the many different types of spiky bushes and trees, pointing out what the Indigenous tribes once used for medicines, which birds hid where, what berries were edible. At one point, he didn’t stop me when I picked a berry, though he immediately said, “That’s a $400 fine! Works for me, though. I get a cut.”

The entire experience of La Jolla left me wondering if it were all real, if it actually is as heavenly as it seems. Of course, nothing is perfect. La Jolla is not cheap to visit, and to live there would be beyond the means of most. La Jolla Cove has some of the priciest real estate in America. It’s not hard to see why. Perfect climate. Not nearly as crowded as L.A. Not the same water issues as Phoenix. Good cuisine. Access to nature. Fascinating crossover vibes from south of the border. No, the truth is there’s not much to complain about in La Jolla. It’s picturesque, friendly, dramatic, laid back. And it’s full of surprises if you take the time to stand up and look around. Even if you’re on a kayak.

Torrey Pines paragliding. (Photo: Ron Thomas.)