Del Mar
With or without fair, tiny beach town has flair

If you're looking for all the excitement of a state-quality fair and a great beach getaway to boot, consider visiting Del Mar between mid-June and July 4. That's when the San Diego County Fair comes to town with its top-drawer big-name entertainment and enough exhibits, fair food and displays to keep you busy for days.

Or, if you want a quieter experience, visit just about any other time of the year.

Technically it only has about 4,500 residents, but the beach town known as Del Mar has just the right combination of legend, lore and beach access to draw literally millions of visitors each year. Despite the onslaught, this distinctive little burg still registers high on the charm scale.

It's the kind of place where prospective residents are sure to ask about the zip code of any home they might buy — if it isn't 92014, well, that just won't do. With the median price home in Del Mar now close to 2.5 million dollars, the city bestows upon its new residents a certain status that you just don't find in most 'burbs.

Chalk that up to Bing Crosby who, along with his buddy Pat O'Brien and Paramount Studios opened the Del Mar Race Track back in 1937. Soon the stars were coming south from Los Angeles to enjoy big-time thoroughbred racing "where the surf meets the turf." Just a few blocks from the ocean, the track became an icon not only for Del Mar, but for San Diego County, which to this day uses the 350-acre track facilities to host a plethora if events including the annual San Diego County Fair.

Nowadays, race season is 43 days long, from mid-July to early September. People come into town during that time and book short-term apartments fetching astronomical prices just so they can take part in the racing action. Meanwhile, those who have no interest in horse racing whatsoever still find Del Mar's beaches and upscale shopping an irresistible draw. The restaurants here are trendy and cater to a young, hip crowd of San Diego professionals — or at least professionally beautiful people — who drive their Beamers and Mercedes 20 minutes north from San Diego to be in the center of the action.

This all makes for world-class people-watching and, with the city's European-inspired architecture, makes visiting this tiny town a less expensive substitute for that trip to the Mediterranean. Whether you're on the beach or browsing the pricey shops in the Del Mar Plaza, the Pacific sunset from most locations in Del Mar is well worth the price of admission.

On our recent visit to Del Mar we stayed at L'Auberge Del Mar, a fixture of downtown Del Mar and the luxury hotel with Del Mar's best location. While not on the beach — hotels aren't built down to the beach in Del Mar — this hotel does offer views of the Pacific and is the hotel most convenient to the shopping and restaurants in the village of Del Mar. It's also set apart by its distinctive French architecture.

Visitors to L'Auberge are first impressed by the luxurious lobby with its dark wood ceilings and carved beams, designer chairs and sofas, lush tropical plants and, of course, the pianist greeting guests with soothing live music played on the lobby's grand piano. The same themes and stylish furniture are found in the exquisitely appointed rooms where soft brown and cream tones are used along with expensive bedding accessories to create a feeling like you would experience in an upscale bed-and-breakfast inn. L'Auberge, in fact, is what is called a boutique inn where the emphasis is on the "little" things that make an overnight stay feel special. Just outside of the French doors leading to our balcony was a rewarding view of the Pacific.

The beach was indeed close. We took the short path down to the water to one of the city's best beachfront locations. In this particular area, city fathers have put together a park with lots of grass and strolling paths on the bluff overlooking the Pacific below. It was just a few steps from there down to the wide beach, a spot especially popular with San Diego residents and bound to be busy on any bright summer weekend.

Just a little south of the village is Torrey Pines State Reserve, the perfect place to combine a little exercise with expansive views of the Pacific. You can park your car in the beachside parking lot and then walk a mile or so down the beach before starting your climb up onto the bluffs where the views get more spectacular with every few footsteps. You can also do the Torrey Pines trail in reverse — walk up the paved road leading to the bluffs and then catch the trails back down to the beach. Either way, it's an exhilarating experience.

Still one more beach option — and your dog will thank you for this one — is Dog Beach, just north of the village. It's one of the few beach areas in San Diego County where it's legal to let your dog run loose on the beach. If you're single, it's a great place to meet new friends — assuming you both enjoy dogs.

Back in the village, we enjoyed a stroll from L'Auberge up the main highway through the village of Del Mar, stopping in several eclectic shops along the way. Along here you find apparel of every type and price range along with more unusual items such as the fossils and other related items at the Dinosaur Shop. Over in Del Mar Plaza — just across the street from L'Auberge — there are 30 boutique-style shops that feature fashions, collectibles, fine jewelry and home d'cor. And just a short drive north from Del Mar is the Cedros District, one of the best places in San Diego to find unique and stylish home furnishings.

Depending on the weekend and time of year, your stay in Del Mar might also include a stop by the Del Mar Race Track. When there is no horse racing, the fairgrounds often are used for home shows and various large events such as the Christian Music Festival being held the weekend of our visit.

Back at L'Auberge we completed our day with a scrumptious and expertly prepared dinner at J. Taylor's, the hotel's dining room where guests can relax in an outdoor seating area amid the lush palms and floral arrangements that greet new guests at L'Auberge. The operative word for J. Taylor's is sophisticated. Entrees are imaginatively prepared and presented just as if you were photographing your entr'e for one of those fancy culinary magazines.

But what else would you expect from what some might call Del Mar's signature hotel? Anything prepared in this zip code has got to taste good.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Del Mar is on the coast, just north of La Jolla and the city of San Diego.

WHAT: Del Mar has long been known as one of San Diego County's finest neighborhoods and gained prominence with the addition of the Del Mar Race Track in 1937. Today, Del Mar is an ideal getaway for people wanting a seaside community with charm, excellent shopping and a variety of top-rated restaurants.

WHEN: Any time of the year. Expect more traffic in the area from mid-June until early September because of the San Diego County Fair and then the 43-day Del Mar racing season.

WHY: Charming, quaint, beachside.

HOW: For more information on Del Mar, visit www.delmarchamber.org or phone 858-755-4844. For information on the San Diego County Fair, visit www.sdfair.com or phone 858-755-1161. For more information on L'Auberge Del Mar, visit www.laubergedelmar.com or phone 800-245-9757.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Huntington Beach, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach

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