The California We Love: San Diego And Vicinity

Spas, veggies and tapas

All Play And No Work...
The buffed training instructors at Cal-a-Vie , combination fitness/pampering spa, show no mercy. Though the cottages dotting the hillside simulate a Provence holiday, the morning activities seem more like basic training. But oh, the afternoon rewards: massages, seaweed wraps, nail and hair treatments, or simply a nap by the pool. This is one of the best places to come for a week of inner renewal, to put your body in shape, to rein in eating habits (the low-calorie, portion-controlled Mediterranean meals are reasonably creative), or to shut out the world. You bond so deeply with the others in the group—this happens easily in an intimate, 24-guest retreat—it takes you 45 minutes just to say goodbye. $5,150 for a week, European plan (fitness and all therapeutic treatments); $4,850, California plan (six therapeutic treatments). 2249 Somerset Rd., Vista, CA 92084; 760-945-2055;

If you want to give yourself over to the best spa fitness program in America, head for the Golden Door Fitness Resort. The Door, as repeat visitors refer to it, is in the farming hamlet of Escondido, northeast of San Diego. By sequestering you from the world, it removes distraction (and excuses for not exercising). By feeding you a low-fat—and it should be said, delicious—diet, it paves the way to lose inches and/or pounds. And by giving you a regimen that takes up most of the day and is equal parts exercise, pampering, and play, it makes getting fit fun.

The Golden Door normally caters to women, but five weeks a year it gives itself over to the weaker sex in a program dubbed Men's Week. The atmosphere is part fraternity house, part corporate retreat. Most participants are top executives or owners of their own companies, and some have been to the Door as many as 70 or 80 times. There is a small menu of activities at various levels in four categories: hiking up the avocado-covered mountain behind the spa; cardiovascular exercises like step and treadmill running; weightlifting; and sports (tennis, swimming, water volleyball). The whole thing works because everyone is in it together. Indeed, camaraderie is the great by-product of Men's Week. There are spas in California that are more luxurious, more glamorous, more extensive, more modern, but not one more effective at its mission—putting its clientele on the road to a healthier life. $5,375. Box 463077, Escondido, CA 92046;

Fresh From The Farm
"There really isn't much right now," says Tom Chino apologetically. To anyone else, it looks like a lot: 18 different types of lettuce; yellow, white, and red carrots, the latter from Kyoto; Romanesque cauliflower; luscious Cavaillon melons; sweet, fragrant strawberries; precise little bundles of herbs; and many other fruits and vegetables. All lovingly arranged on the counter of the Chino Farm's vegetable stand.

The zealous Chino family—five children of founders Hatsuyo and Junzo Chino—are entirely dedicated to the northern San Diego country farm where they grow what may be the most dazzling variety of vegetables anywhere. No wonder so many chefs are devoted; those from L.A. will make the two-hour trip on any given morning. This is an extraordinary market experience. 6123 Calzada del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067; 858-756-3184.

Back At The Ranch
Rancho Valencia—a 40-acre resort and the sister property to the La Jolla hotel La Valencia (below right)—is a perfect place to drop out of sight for the weekend. The 43 beige-toned, airy, terra-cotta-tiled suites (all with fireplaces) are scattered around the grounds, separated by generous green lawns and shielded by Valencia orange trees and clusters of hibiscus and geraniums. (Best suites: 126 and 130, the 1,200-foot Rancho Santa Fe suites with magnificent sunset views. Largest and most private: the three-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot Hacienda, with its own pool.) There are 18 tennis courts, spa treatments, and a good restaurant. The only downside: steady group business. But given the expansiveness of the setting, there is plenty of room to sneak off on one's own. $425-$5,000. 5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067; 800-548-3664, 858-756-1123; fax 858-756-0165.

Full Plate
The servings at Pamplemousse Grille are enormous. Everything about chef-owner Jeffrey Strauss is oversized—big portions, big flavors, a big voice, raucous laughter. And that outsized personality creates really vivid food such as a perfectly seasoned fusilli with chicken and a wild mushroom ragout. (Sometimes it goes too far, however, like the tasty but overly gooey, sticky pear tarte Tatin.) Also, special praise to the super-accommodating and gracious staff. $100. 514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach, CA 92075; 858-792-9090; fax 858-793-3591.

The Pink Dowager
Fans of contemporary design may be drawn to the new boutique property Hotel Parisi across the street but it feels generic, as if it could be anywhere. In contrast, La Valencia Hotel, the town's pretty-in-pink top hotel since it opened in 1926, is unique. It evokes a history of the movie stars who have weekended here with memorabilia framed on the walls, and its tiled passageways and courtyards lend it a Mediterranean feel. Plus its view of La Jolla Cove is sensational, making it a gathering spot for locals who have drinks in the Whaling Bar and lunch on the patio. Right now, the bedrooms feel a little tired, but that will likely change with the completion of 15 new suites, butlers in attendance, scheduled to open in September. $250-$3,500. 1132 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; 800-451-0772, 858-454-0771; fax 858-456-3921.

Quick Bites
Breakfast dishes such as oatmeal pancakes and eggs Benedict with crab cakes are the draw at The Cottage. But locals also come to this quaint early-1900s bungalow for one of the best fish tacos around—grilled mahi mahi with cilantro avocado sauce and fresh papaya salsa ($7.50). 7702 Fay Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-454-8409; fax 858-454-0284.

Great Food, Ocean View
Upstairs at George's at the Cove, the action at the bar is buzzing, and casual diners are congregating on the ocean terrace to look at the water in the fading light. The serious eaters, however, are downstairs. Chef Trey Foshee does densely flavored, creative-but-not-fussy dishes such as a sensational seared ahi with Chino Farm radish salad and an avocado-ginger-lime dressing; crisp-skinned black bass on a ragout of artichokes and fennel in a leek and black-truffle broth; and a perfect rack of lamb with green lentil, apple, and celery root ragout with yogurt and curried lamb jus. Who needs a view of the water when you have a menu like this? $100. 1250 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-454-4244; fax 858-454-5458.

Fabulous Furnishings
Turin-born and recent citizens of St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Antonella and Giorgio Patierno were drawn to the seaside community of La Jolla because it reminds them of the Mediterranean and to the stone cottage where they house Pulchra Inc., Fine European Paintings and Antiques, which specifically reminds them of Provence. The furniture they sell represents the best of those regions, as well as other spectacular European styles. On display one day: a 16th-century walnut Tuscan writing desk ($8,500), an 18th-century Italian burled-walnut desk with marquetry panels ($62,000), a 17th-century Spanish walnut table comprised of one piece of wood ($21,200). "We find them in the homes of private families we know . . . it's the only way to get them," says Giorgio. 864 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-459-6145; fax 858-459-6819;

Dramatic Art Settings
The La Jolla outpost of the Museum of Contemporary Art/San Diego occupies the former Ellen Browning Scripps house, designed by noted California architect Irving Gill. But while the soaring modern space of the redesigned building is the perfect setting for the changing modern art exhibits, the whimsical sculpture garden, displaying—among other pieces—the vibrantly painted elephant Big Ganesh by Niki de Saint Phalle, is the best part. 700 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-454-3541; fax 858-454-6985.

Best Beach
Best beach in La Jolla: Windansea, off Neptune Place. It's the locals favorite for surfing, sunbathing, and watching the sunset.

Tops For Tapas
The social scene and the bar action at Roppongi is so thick that it seems improbable the food could be as strong. But it is, particularly if you ignore the main dishes and order from the Asian-fusion tapas menu as most of the locals do. Among the best: barbecued mini lamb chops in a cilantro hoisin sauce; pan-seared foie gras with Japanese pear and orange tamarind sauce; duck quesadillas; and sautéed prawns and pineapple fried rice topped with wonton bearing a mango salsa. Tapas, $6.50-$21. 875 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-551-5252.

Antique Antics
You never know what you're going to find when you pick through Pied-à-Terre, a shop crammed with antiques ranging from 18th-century French mirrors to Asian figurines. Owner Javid Nazarian is an idiosyncratic collector with a taste for the dramatic, so his finds are rarely subtle—a 19th-century Italian ebony chest with ivory inlay ($75,000), a set of 18th-century bronze candelabra ($55,000), Napoleonic crystal-and-bronze chandeliers ($15,000), or two black Moor pillars ($38,000). But they are generally stunning. And piling them on top of each other seems both necessary and part of his plan. "I want people to rummage through things and then feel that they have discovered something," Nazarian remarks. 7645 Girard Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037; 858-456-4433; fax 858-456-4623.

Out Of The Ordinary
At The WineSellar & Brasserie, downstairs is the wine store specializing in hard-to-find French and California vintages; upstairs is the restaurant showcasing chef Douglas Organ's vivid Mediterranean dishes. Best time to go: Saturday lunch when bottles are uncorked in special tastings—sparkling wines one day, say, Sonoma Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs on others. And the food is bursting with flavor—grilled lamb salad with warm spinach and feta cheese; spicy tuna tartare; herb-marinated chèvre with roasted tomatoes and black olive tapenade; wild mushroom, leek, and butternut squash tortelloni. The restaurant has an odd location in an out-of-the-way office park and the decor is pretty sterile. But those are minor flaws given the values and flavors. Tasting lunch, approximately $42; dinner, $90. 9550 Waples St., San Diego, CA 92121; 858-450-9557.

Catch Of The Day
11:01 Sunday morning. To see the crowd surging the minute the doors open at Point Loma Seafoods, you'd think they're giving fish away. At this fish market in San Diego harbor, crabs, clams, sushi-grade tuna, lobster, and all the various fillets are piled high in gleaming cases. Their take-out ceviche and crab sandwiches are both so luscious, you'll be eating them even before you get outside. Also takeout sushi, seafood cocktails, and other sandwiches and salads. 1 2805 Emerson St., San Diego, CA 92106; 619-223-1109.

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