Autumn is a subtle season in the border city of San Diego. The temperature hovers in the 60s, and skies are quintessentially blue, making it a great time to kayak the bays, bike through historic neighborhoods, or claim fire rings at the beach. Rates are also low this time of year, so spending a weekend soaking up sunshine in one of dozens of parks and admiring the rich cultural heritage evident in the city's architecture is easy on the wallet. Even the finest restaurants, of which there are plenty, accept last-minute reservations (or none at all), and with weather so inviting, casual dining outdoors is still a pleasant experience. Spend a few days in the city that has been cited as one of America's fittest because of its access to healthful activities. Start planning your trip with the following three-day itinerary.
Day One: Cruise the Coast
Driving along the coast is an integral part of the California experience, especially if you have access to a convertible. On your first day, drive to Ocean Beach (or OB, as the locals call it), and watch surfers ride waves beneath the OB Pier. Do your own workout by walking the length of the pier and back, and if you repeat three times while admiring sun and sea, youï¿½ll rack up a three-mile mind-and-body workout. Fuel up with lobster tacos at the ultracasual South Beach Bar and Grill (5059 Newport Ave.; 619-226-4577). Nab a stool at the window counter for some great people watching, then check out the many vintage clothing and antiques shops that line Newport Avenue.
After lunch, take a ride up Highway 101 through laid-back coastal communities. If you're up for more shopping, the trendsetting boutiques in the Cedros Design District (South Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach) display the accoutrements of stylish seaside living. Quench your thirst with a cool lemonade at Café Zinc (132 S. Cedros Ave.; 858-793-5436), then point the Thunderbird (or whatever youï¿½re driving) east on Lomas Santa Fe Drive. Eucalyptus groves give way to horse farms and multimillion-dollar estates on the road to Rancho Santa Fe, where you can check out Chino Farm (6123 Calzada del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe; 858-756-3184). The Chino family has grown produce here for two generations. Alice Waters is a fan, as is Wolfgang Puck. Chef Carl Schroeder of Arterra (11966 El Camino Real, Del Mar; 858-369-6032) bases his daily menus on Chino's produce, pairing purple tomatoes with pink shrimp and Brussels sprouts petals with pork. Start thinking about dinner as you sniff the herbs.
By midafternoon, trees cast shadows on Encinitas Boulevard leading back to the beach and the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple (939 Second St., Encinitas; 760-436-7220, open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., closed Monday), home to Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Way of the Yogi. Take a break in the temple's tropical meditation gardens. Round out your day with a return trip down Highway 101 to Del Mar and dinner at Arterra. Diners dress up a bit here, so be sure to smooth your windblown hair before requesting your table.
Day Two: Two-Wheeling in Coronado
The narrow island of Coronado, actually a peninsula about 15 minutes southwest from downtown San Diego, is the ultimate southern California biking community. Its broad, flat streets are lined with jaw-dropping homes and bike stands as common (or more so) as parking meters. Bikes and Beyond (Ferry Landing, 1201 First St.; 619-435-7180) rents beach cruisers with baskets and supplies a map to keep you off busy streets.
Pedal along First Street, with views of downtown San Diego across the bay, then cut across the island to the Glorietta Bay Inn for walking tour guide Nancy Cobb's wry yet amusing take on the neighborhood. (You can secure your bike at the hotel.) Her Coronado Walking Tours' (619-435-5993; Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 11 a.m.) 90-minute stroll takes in Star Park, where author L. Frank Baum wintered in an early 19th-century cottage. Although he had finished writing The Wizard of Oz before visiting Coronado, some of the island's shops make the most of his name with retro Dorothy posters and other memorabilia. Follow Cobb down the road to the oceanfront Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave.; 619-435-6611, www.hoteldel.com). Her anecdotal island history hits full stride at Est. 1888 Market, a gourmet deli and gallery located in the hotel's original basement cistern. The photos of Tent City, a Coronado resort in the 1800s, will capture your imagination, and the selection of imported cheeses and meats is perfect for a post-tour picnic on the beach.
Retrieve your bike, and ride along Glorietta Bay about 4.5 miles to Silver Strand State Beach, named for the silvery seashells cast and crumbled on the sand. Cruise through the campground, and watch anglers catch halibut or perch on the beach. The ride back to town is an excellent workout; you'll be riding into the wind most of the way. It takes much less effort to stroll along Orange Avenue, recipient of a Great American Main Street award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stop at the Coronado Museum of History and Art (1100 Orange Ave.; 619-435-7242) for an exhibit dedicated to early aviation on neighboring North Island. Museum visit complete, mount your bike and wind through the island's back streets, where historic beach bungalows stand proud alongside gabled Victorian houses and modern mansions.
Once you return your bike, ask for a window seat at the Coronado Boathouse (1701 Strand Way; 619-435-0155), a waterfront restaurant that dates back to 1887. Sip a mai tai and sample fresh ahi sashimi while watching the illuminating sunset.
Day Three: Strolling in La Jolla
Mediterranean in appearance and attitude, La Jolla, about 15 minutes northwest of downtown San Diego, is both chic and staid. White villas swathed in bougainvillea lead the way to Prospect Street and Girard Avenue, both peppered with upscale boutiques and galleries. Browsing is the preferred form of exercise here; shopping is just the reward. Pull on a polo shirt and shorts, and start your day with breakfast burritos and papas locas at Mission Coffee Cup Café (1109 Wall Street; 858-454-2819). Walk it off window-shopping on nearby Girard Avenue. La Jolla is a bookworm's warren; Raymond Chandler and Dr. Seuss both found the rarefied air inspiring. Visiting authors happily sign their latest tomes at Warwick's (7812 Girard Ave.; 858-454-0347), a family-owned bookstore since 1896.
Once the shopping urge is satisfied, head west to Ellen Browning Scripps Park, where a carpet of velvet green grass borders a rocky coastline and scenic coves. Here, a colony of harbor seals dozes on the sand beside the Children's Pool. You may be enchanted by these aquatic pinnipeds, but they've taken over the village's best beach, and debates over the rights of seals versus humans are all the rage here. A paved pathway runs along the park to La Jolla Cove, which features rocky pools that harbor such sea life as yellow starfish and fluttering white anemones.
When your body demands sustenance, take it to George's at the Cove Ocean Terrace Bistro (1250 Prospect St.; 858-454-4244), and be seated at any of the tables overlooking the shore. Quell your hunger with a grilled vegetable salad and an icy, salt-tinged margarita, then shake off impending drowsiness with a stroll to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (700 Prospect St.; 858-454-3541). You'll find the architecture is as stunning as the installations.
Wind down your afternoon with a drive to La Jolla Shores, a mile-long stretch of sand and sea that appeals to runners, body surfers, and nudists (north at Black's Beach). Shoes in hand, dodge the waves along the water's edge, and search for hermit crabs hiding in the rocks. If you can make it to the classy Marine Room (2000 Spindrift Dr.; 858-459-7222) before 6 p.m., your day-in-the-sun outfit is welcome. Nurse a La Jolla Royale (kir and champagne) with a goat cheese brûlé as the sun sets beyond the restaurant's windows.
Once cocktail hour is over, the restaurant Zenbu (7660 Fay Ave.; 858-454-4540) is an informal neighborhood favorite. Sit at the sushi counter, and ask the amiable chefs what the owners' fishing boat brought for the day. If raw fish isn't your style, order the Lobster Dynamite, featuring local Pacific spiny lobster, or the delicious, miso-glazed lamb chops. Be sure to chat with the locals on adjacent stools; they're sure to divulge enough insider tips to make you want to visit again.
Where to Stay
The Glorietta Bay Inn (1630 Glorietta Blvd., Coronado; 800-283-9383, www.gloriettabayinn.com) was the home of sugar baron J.D. Spreckels, who showed considerable restraint with the design of his 1908 Italian Renaissance mansion. The original bedrooms are now gracious suites. Rates start at $160 for a standard room and $245 for a suite.
The Crystal Pier Hotel (4500 Ocean Blvd., Pacific Beach; 800-748-5894, www.crystalpier.com) sits above the waves on a wooden pier in Pacific Beach. The lull of the surf serves as a lullaby for guests who reside in blue and white cottages with kitchens and open decks. Rates start at $225.
The Bed and Breakfast Inn at La Jolla (7753 Draper Ave.; 800-582-2466, www.innlajolla.com) was designed in 1913 by Irving Gill in his much-loved cubist style. Wood-burning fireplaces, bathtubs for two, sherry decanters, and peaceful gardens equal pure romance. Rates start at $189.
Maribeth Mellin is the author of Insider's Guide to San Diego
and the Unofficial Guide to Mexico's Beach Resorts.