La Jolla, California

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 On a luxurious swath of southern California coastline, near multimillion-dollar homes and swanky shops, the University of California, San Diego, is a far cry from your typical campus. Nearby La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego, is one of the nation's poshest communities, complete with Gucci and Cartier shops and one of the highest per capita incomes in the state. Yet the school, just north of the town center, is as democratic and diverse as any in the nation, with important-and even free-cultural attractions. Though La Jolla itself is fiercely expensive, its outskirts are host to comfortable, budget-priced accommodations. With a beachy, laid-back atmosphere, it makes the perfect physically relaxing yet intellectually stimulating (and inexpensive) getaway. As a well-versed budget traveler and southern California native, on a recent visit I was able to dig up free movies, $1 tickets for the world-class aquariums, $20 tickets to Broadway-caliber shows, and quite decent rooms starting at only $26 per person.

The setting alone justifies a visit, even if it weren't supplemented by the attractions of the university. La Jolla overlooks broad beaches and seal-covered rocks and is blessed with warm, dry weather. Thousands of tourists come to San Diego for its multiple attractions-SeaWorld, the renowned San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park-but completely overlook this sparkling, truly Californian community just a 20- to 25-minute drive north of the larger city.

The University above the sea

The serene grounds of UCSD are perched on sea cliffs with inspiring views of the ocean. Before you actually step onto the campus, take in the surrounding landscape with a ride along Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, which traces the edge of the gorgeous cliffs as they spill into the sea just west of the campus. You can watch hang gliders and paragliders take off while you sit at the Cliffhanger Cafe (858/452-9858), munching on burgers, salads, and sandwiches-nearly all cost less than $7. For the adventurous, follow the steep trails down to Black's Beach, an expanse of California sand that has been a popular nudist hangout for decades, attracting students and locals alike.

With a student body of roughly 22,000 (of which only 35 percent live on campus), the university feels like a wooded retreat, with eucalyptus trees dominating the campus in tidy rows. A hotbed of leftist political action in the '60s (you'll see remnants of this era at the funky, mural-heavy Che Cafe off La Jolla Village Drive), UCSD is more buttoned-down nowadays.

The entire rolling property is home to one of the best outdoor art collections in the country: the Stuart Collection, which includes rock monuments, avant-garde sculptures, and the most famous statue on campus, the robustly colored, 14-foot Sun God. Each spring, students hold the huge Sun God Festival here in its honor.

The center point of the campus (and a good place to get your bearings) is the Price Center on Library Walk. Located in a sunken recess in the middle of campus, it is where skateboarders hang out and where you'll find an enormous university store, restaurants, and even a theater presenting avant-garde and provocative plays (The Vagina Monologues was recently presented, at a cost of $6 per ticket), as well as art movies. At the university bookstore, be sure to pick up a copy of Improbable Venture by Nancy Scott Anderson, which details the amazing creation of the university out of stark rural land over half a century ago. Every Sunday at 2 p.m., free 90-minute campus tours start at the Price Center-call 858/534-4414 for reservations. Note: Parking on campus is free every weekend, and weekday campus buses are also free.

Just north of the Price Center is the otherworldly Geisel Library. Funded by Audrey S. Geisel, the widow of Theodor Geisel (you may know him as Dr. Seuss), this enormous, improbable, futuristic, upside-down glass pyramid on stilts, holding over 2.3 million books, appears like something straight out of one of Seuss's books. (I believe he would approve of the long path in the guise of a snake slithering its way up to the building.) As part of a public, tax-funded institution, every room of the library (computer lab, periodicals reading room, exhibits) is free and open to the public; and during the summer and in the month of March, you'll find a collection of Seuss's drawings, paintings, and photographs on display on the main floor. Call 858/534-0133 for further information.

Another free exhibit to check out on campus is the University Art Gallery located in the Mandeville Center, near the appropriately wooden John Muir College buildings. The sleek gallery has a splendid rotating display of conceptual modern art, as well as a host of other no-cost intellectual goodies like lectures, films, concerts, and receptions with artists. Past film series have included subtitled Latin American and Spanish films, all absolutely free. Call 858/534-2107 or surf to universityartgallery.ucsd.edu for a full calendar of events at the gallery. For still more free events around campus (and there are many, all open to the public), pick up a copy of the UCSD Guardian (ucsdguardian.org). If you are looking for other lectures in a classroom setting, call the registrar's office at 858/534-3156 for information on auditing classes for free.

Broadway on campus

The best-known artistic center at UCSD is the nonprofit La Jolla Playhouse on the southern tip of the campus. Founded in 1947 by Hollywood stars Gregory Peck (a La Jolla native), Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, this theater is a national cultural hot spot, and the site of countless world premieres that made it big on Broadway, including The Who's Tommy, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Two-time Tony winner Des McAnuff is the current director of the theater. Tickets for performances are usually less than $40-compared with the $80 you'd spend in New York-but the key is to call or check the Web site (858/550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.com) for the dates of preview performances, when tickets are less than $20 apiece.

Another must-do on campus is a stop at the Grove Cafe (858/534-5272) near the Student Center. Here, under lots of shaded trees, you can watch artisans work on ceramics, glass, and metal while you sip coffee (only $1 for a cup of the house blend, 75¢ for refills) on wooden decks in tranquillity. It's a favorite hangout for students and faculty alike, and a great spot for lunch-the Grove Chicken Salad is only $4.25, a large slice of quiche is $2.50. If you want to buy college shirts or memorabilia, do so at the adjoining General Store Co-op, where prices are the lowest on campus.

Maritime life on campus

Next door to UCSD and affiliated with the campus is the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the premiere establishment of its kind. The Institution itself is not open to the public, but you can visit the important, large Birch Aquarium at Scripps (858/534-FISH, aquarium.ucsd.edu), a two-minute drive from the university on the hills above La Jolla on Expedition Way. For $9.50 (or $8.50 for the last hour before closing), you peer into world-class tanks holding rare and bizarre-looking jellyfish, sea horses, coral, and sharks. The views of the coastline are worth the price of admission alone.

The Scripps Institution was founded by Ellen Browning Scripps, a respected journalist, and her half brother Edward Wyllis Scripps, founder of the United Press International news service. Miss Scripps also established the Ellen Browning Scripps Park overlooking La Jolla Cove, a palm-lined promenade just below the very center of The Village (the locals' name for downtown La Jolla), where residents soak up the glorious southern California sunshine. At the south end of the park is the Children's Pool, a tiny cove now used for sunbathing by once-endangered harbor seals and sea lions instead of human toddlers. Watching these large, humorous creatures roll around on the small beach here is the best free entertainment in town.

For other ocean creatures, check out rocky Windansea Beach (five blocks west of La Jolla Boulevard between Fern Glen and Palomar Avenue), one of the best-known surf spots in the world. Made famous by Tom Wolfe in the '60s surfer classic The Pump House Gang, this beach was also, sadly, where renowned groundbreaking surfer Bob Simmons died-two facts that make the spot legendary.

Back to the Village: your room and board The Village of La Jolla is made up of high-class eateries, shops, and hotels, all worth a (no-cost) gawk. Many of its lodgings and eateries are among the most expensive in America. Without even inquiring about the rental of a room, simply slip into the meticulously refurbished Grande Colonial Hotel, a 1926 property poised on a sloping hillside on Prospect Street, for a taste of the classy La Jolla of yesteryear.

Meals needn't be expensive in The Village if you know precisely where to look: You can't miss Wahoo's Fish Tacos (637 Pearl St., 858/459-0027), where decal stickers are plastered on all the windows, the waiting chairs are fashioned from skateboards, and surf paraphernalia adorns the ceiling. Fresh, flame-broiled fish tacos or enchiladas, with rice and spicy Cajun white beans, are only $3.25. Also try Sammy's Woodfired Pizzas across the street (702 Pearl St., 858/456-5222) for California-style pizzas that can easily fill two people for under $10.

Even though it's been a vacation getaway since the 1880s, La Jolla does not have a wide range of accommodation options. The secret for budget travelers: Don't book a room in The Village, where rates are stratospheric, but head just south to the intersection of La Jolla Boulevard and Colima, only a couple of miles away. Here you'll find a clump of unassuming budget hotels, all clean and some with ocean views. The Sands of La Jolla (5417 La Jolla Blvd., 800/643-0530, sandsoflajolla.com) has a heated pool, ocean views, and a free continental breakfast, all priced at $59 for a double in winter, $69 in summer ($99 on summer weekends). On the same side of the street is the La Jolla Biltmore Motel (5385 La Jolla Blvd., 858/459-6446), where doubles start at $52 in winter and $65 in summer.

Across the street from the Biltmore and Sands are two properties under the same ownership: the Inn at La Jolla and the La Jolla Shores (5440 La Jolla Blvd., 888/478-7829, theinnatlajolla.com, lajollashoresinn.com). Dated but spiffy double rooms start at $79 in winter and $99 in summer.

Goin' to California or bust

Second-tier regional airlines (often cheaper than major airlines) that service San Diego International Airport are America West, Frontier, and Southwest-check to see if they service your home city. This is California, which means you'll need to rent a car at the airport-Budget, Thrifty, and Alamo tend to be the cheapest. La Jolla is less than a 25-minute drive north from the airport. For general information on the San Diego area, surf to sandiego.org or call 619/236-1212.

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