California Dream

San Diego's warm climate and laid-back attitude make a good antidote for a Baltimore winter.

Cover Story

February 13, 2005|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,Special to the 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.

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