by Bob McCulloch

Descending the hills into the seacoast town of La Jolla, California, you are at once taken by the variety of trees (eucalyptus, pine, palm) and plant life (cacti, mustard flower, ferns, pink and green ground cover) adorning the hillsides. The road winds its way past diverse networks of homes, many of which appear at first unassuming but with the views of the Pacific Ocean increase their value immensely. Being more accustomed to Eastern beaches such as NH, NY, MD, etc., I was amazed at the panoramic views I could see past the houses. I had no idea, however, just what lay ahead.

Beemers and Benzes, Land Rovers and SUV’s fill the main streets of La Jolla as one would expect at any upscale USA town of the ’90’s. Although it has its share of cell-phone toting, blonde, stay-at-home wives sporting designer shades and trendy hair styles, I was not put off by their pretentiousness or “pseudo-chicness.” It seems less pervasive than Washington DC does, for example. I am sure that Los Angeles/Beverly Hills is more overwhelming. Anyway, you come to expect the bottled water “props” carried ever so fashionably and their “drop-dead good looks” as normal parts of the scene. There are not many horns honking or arrogant “alto-voce” discussions as would be the norm in the East. I did see a couple dressed in business suits (escapees from a convention or seminar, I assume) strolling the beach. One cell-phone toting local nervously paced the beach, chatting up his counterpart and I thought, “What’s up with that?” I mean, he was not even looking at the water as he yakked. Some locals lugged their tourist friends around bragging loudly about how things “used to be” and “remember when…” but this was not the norm. Overall, the main part of town is friendly.

There are many pricey shops but, for the most part, a normal, middle-aged, middle-classed, retiree clad only in surf shorts, T-shirt, ball cap and sandals can feel at home perambulating La Jolla’s business district.

On a Clear Day
The weather – oh yes, the weather. It was not, perhaps, as idyllic as I have imagined, but it definitely was nice. The temperatures in May varied from the high 50’s to mid-70 during the day. Mornings were usually cloudy or fog-shrouded – “marine cover”, the locals call it. Nevertheless, unlike the East, of which I am more familiar, one can expect the sun to “burn off” the clouds sometime during the day and usually before noon. When I say “burn off” I mean a change to clear, azure skies and cool ocean breezes, of which I had no memory. It is so different from Ocean City, MD or Corolla, NC beaches, for example, that it really does seem surreal.

When you are standing in the sunlight, it is hot. When you move to the shade, it is cool. I wore a sleeveless Polartec vest in the shade most of the time there.

And the water temperatures? – fugeddaboudit! I tried swimming in the icy (62 degrees) Pacific and chilled myself to the bone. And although full wet suits and head covers are “de rigeur” for swimming in the ocean, I saw enough men, women, boys and girls who braved the chilly waters that I did feel fairly wimpy for an easterner.

Speaking of unprotected swimmers, there is a local club whose members regularly brave the cold waters to swim from shore to offshore buoys, located about ¾ mile away – quite impressive!

The Eyes Have It
The views, yes, yes, the views. Sorry for that circumlocution, but I wanted to save the best for last. As you descend the coastal boulevard to the sea, one cannot help but imagine being in Italy or perhaps Greece. The stucco-sided buildings with their curved, terra-cotta roofs are a perfect backdrop for the splendor, which waits. As you move away from the homes and palm trees shielding your view to the north, a majestic, blue, cliff-lined expanse spreads out before your eyes. I could only imagine what the Spanish explorer Balboa must have experienced when he first enjoyed this wondrous spectacle. Of course, he had no stucco homes, no trendy shops, no Starbucks to caffeinate and intensify his observation. However, imagine his delight, his awestruck stupefaction at this view from hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean (he dubbed it El Mar Pacifico – the peaceful sea). The surf crashing in, caves carved out of the indigenous sandstone, dolphins gliding, seals cavorting, and pelicans in groups of four, two or solo and flying inches over the water. All that, the blue sky, the cool breezes, the palm trees, the sun’s nectar dripping everywhere. Nevertheless, it is the view, the vista, the height, the cliffs, the coastline curving around the La Jolla cove, which captivate. I really cannot describe, in English, what it feels like. In Spanish, “azul” feels much more than “blue.” “Belleza” is much more encompassing than mere “beauty.”

“La Jolla,” oddly enough, is not a Spanish word. It does not appear in the Spanish dictionary. Local customs suggest that the word derived from the Spanish word “la hoya” meaning pit, grave or valley or from the word “la joya” meaning jewel or gem. Anglos hearing the sound “joya” and being familiar with the “y” sound” being written as “ll” wrote La Jolla in error. To me, there is no debate. “La Jolla” is not a pit, grave or valley. It is a gem, a jewel – one of the most thrilling sights I have ever witnessed!

As I stood there, awe-struck and slack-jawed, enthralled by the magnificence, I wanted to scream out. I looked at passersby and wanted them to join me in trying to articulate this feeling. Alas, I saw no one unencumbered by friends, or jogging schedules or manicure appointments that would stop and pass the time, or so it seemed.

However, like an oasis to a parched camel, I saw him. My view-sharing, “vista-addict.” He brought a chair. He wore shades but not designers. I innocently asked, “Are you a local?” He responded, “Yes, a native, born in Palm Springs and living in the San Diego area my whole life.” I made some small talk about the buildings and such (La Jolla has only one high-rise building on the shorefront. The locals learned quickly what Ocean City, MD never did about the eyesore these behemoths can be.) Then I started my caffeinated meandering about the beauty, the glory of that spot, the view, and the wonder. Finally, someone could relate! I then asked how La Jolla compares to Monterey, farther north. To my amazement, he said he had never been there. He had visited San Francisco but never to Monterey. Speaking of slack-jawed, that was I. I mean, duhhhh – it is only an 8-hour drive to Monterey. But, hey, when you have steak on the grill why visit Mc D’s?

As I turned left and looked south down the beach, I became amazed again. Here is this simple, white beach with water-eroded sandstone walls about 15′ high. Cliffs with green and pink cliff-cover rise above this. Above are white stucco buildings with their terra cotta roofs. Above them stands an old mission with a bell tower on one side and a domed church on the other. While this view was not equal to the cove view, it surely rated a nine (out of ten).

I guess that is La Jolla for me. Moreover, I have not even mentioned the surfers, spongers (boogie boarders), in-line skaters, joggers, skateboarders, which also abound and have their own cultures.

La Jolla is it – the top – apex – summit – top o’ the heap – king of the hill. I want to return and revisit with my wife some day to re-experience its glory. I then recalled what my mother said after returning from a western trip some 44 years prior. “La Jolla is the most beautiful place I have ever seen!” I now can positively agree.


  1. I wrote this over ten years ago. I plan to return in a few months. Any new happenings I need to check out?

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