Beautiful La Jolla, California
I started with this photo because, when I returned back to cold, gray Chicago, this was the image of Southern California that was stuck in my mind. While our hotel was in Pacific Beach, we spent a lot of time in the neighborhood just to the north, La Jolla. Besides the beaches, cliffs, and beautiful ocean, the area is home to a variety of wildlife — most of which was in its breeding season during our visit. My favorite bird, the Cormorant, Amanda's favorite bird, the Pelican, and dozens of seals and sea lions covered the rocks and cliffs. In this photo, you can see a Brown Pelican in the lower left corner, and there are a dozen or so Cormorants on a guano-covered rock in the right-center area in the midground.
Tower23, our hotel in Pacific Beach
We looked at several different hotels in San Diego, but ultimately decided to stay up near the beaches, rather than somewhere near downtown. This proved to be a great decision, and the Tower23 Hotel in Pacific Beach was very unique, modern, comfortable, and conveniently-located. After booking the hotel, we learned that several people we know had previously stayed here and all loved it. A boardwalk/walking/biking path runs in front of the hotel and connects Pacific Beach with Mission Beach to the south. When we first arrived, we were too early to check in to our room, so we took a long walk along this boardwalk. We would walk it many more times during the trip.
Our balcony at Tower23
As soon as we were able to check into our hotel room, we knew we were in for a really special trip. We discovered that not only did the hotel have free bikes to rent, and a beautiful balcony with ocean view in our room, but they even brought free cocktails up to our room shortly after arrival. This photo was actually taken at the very end of the trip, which makes it more meaningful; at this point, we had spent many amazing nights and beautiful mornings sitting out on this balcony, and it was one of the hardest things to leave. I spent every morning out on this patio, drinking coffee, listening to the waves crash, and smelling the salty sea air.
View of Crystal Pier from Tower23
The Tower23 Hotel is right on the beach, and looks out at the Crystal Pier (a.k.a. the Pacific Beach Pier), which is open from 7am until sunset every day. You can see there are actually little houses along the pier, available for rent, and people would even park their cars on the pier in front of the houses. During high tide, the waves would pound against the pier so hard that you could feel the pier shake. Numerous surfers would be out in this area every day, usually first thing in the morning and again around sunset, no matter the weather. We found the mid-60s sunny temperatures to be wonderful, but for the locals that was apparently considered a bit chilly.
Baja Beach Cafe and Pacific Beach boardwalk
There were so many restaurants and bars all along the Pacific Beach boardwalk that, if you came for a week and did nothing but eat, you still probably couldn't hit them all. One of our favorites was the Baja Beach Cafe, who specialize in large plates of brunch and Mexican food, and even larger margaritas. The place was very brightly colored and always just felt like a party. It seemed like every time we walked past it along the boardwalk, we at least briefly considered stopping. It was nothing fancy, but it was everything you could want from a fun, casual, beachside bar and grill.
Selfie on Crystal Pier
As I mentioned above, we would watch the sunset every day from the end of the Crystal Pier by our hotel. There would always be a decent-sized crowd up there. Growing up on the East Coast, there is just something amazing about watching the sun set into the ocean. This was the first of many selfies we took on the trip, but arguably the best. You can see several surfers in the background, trying to catch some of the big waves. This photo would be just about perfect if it weren't for that one piece of my hair flying up in the wind.
Sunset self-portrait at the end of Day One
As we watched the sunset on Saturday, I decided to get artsy and have Amanda take this silhouetted photo of me from behind. It was a perfect end to an amazing day and the sunset was warm and glorious. We were even fortunate enough to see a few spouts of water, which were presumably from the blowholes of migrating whales.
Watching the sunset from Tower23's roof deck
Before the sunset had completely finished on Saturday, we went back to our hotel and shared some drinks on the rooftop deck, with the gas fire pit going. It felt so relaxing and wonderful, like paradise, as we sat on a large L-shaped couch with servers from the downstairs restaurant taking care of us. While sitting there, we met another couple who were visiting from Boston, and enjoyed chatting with them.
Kono's Cafe, best brunch in Pacific Beach
There is no shortage of beachside brunch restaurants in Pacific Beach, but the one that stands out above all is Kono's Cafe. On Trip Advisor, it's the #1 rated breakfast place in San Diego, and the #6 rated overall restaurant. They are cash only, and there's consistently a line out the door, but they run an amazing business. I ordered the "Little Breakfast", which was actually pretty huge. We didn't initially know they were cash only, so when we went to the counter to pay we were a couple dollars short, but the guy just said "it's fine, you pay what you can now, and get me back next time." File that under "Things That Would Never Happen in Chicago".
Walking north toward Bird Rock
One thing we did a huge amount of in San Diego was walking. Sure, there are buses and Ubers, but we wanted to explore and see peoples' neighborhoods, houses, yards, way of life, etc. Our bext experience doing this was on Saturday as we walked about 5 miles from Pacific Beach, through Bird Rock, and up to La Jolla. We walked partly along the boardwalk and partly through various neighborhoods and side streets. This photo was taken just a little ways north of our hotel and you can see a surfer walking along the beach in the lower left corner.
My dream home
When it comes to architecture, some people prefer modern-looking buildings, while others prefer historic homes. But for me, there's nothing better than southwestern style (aka Spanish style) homes with terracotta roofs, stucco walls, and palm trees and succulents growing all around. This beautiful home we saw in the Bird Rock area is literally my dream home; the perfect representation of what kind of architecture I find most attractive.
Succulents near Windansea Beach
During our long walk up to La Jolla, we stopped at a lovely beach called Windansea ("wind and sea"). Just looking at this photo, I can still remember the wonderful smell of the sea air blowing in my face. These lovely succulents grow in many places and, from afar, they can almost resemble grass, but are obviously much thicker. They sometimes get these beautiful pink flowers. I would've been content to sit here all day.
This photo was taken just down the hill from where the previous one was taken. We found a flat spot on some rocks to sit, and there were several photographers around who had the same idea. The tide was coming in and forming little tidal pools in this area behind some rocks. I feel like this photo really shows the great range of my wide angle lens, and is the epitome of a shot that wouldn't be as good if taken with an iPhone camera.
Brandt's Cormorant at La Jolla Cove
The Cormorant, although not the most traditionally attractive bird, is actually my favorite. I gained a greater respect for them after reading Richard J. King's The Devil's Cormorant, which explains that these animals live all over the world, in the air, on land, and underwater, and are very adaptable. However, the most commonly-seen is the Double-crested Cormorant, which has an orange gular pouch, whereas this is actually the Brandt's Cormorant, which has a blue gular pouch. The birds were in breeding season at this time, so you can see the little white feathers they get during this time. They were nesting all along the rocks in La Jolla Cove, and I managed to get really close to this one. I came back to visit him 2 more times on the trip, and really love this photo I took.
Brown Pelican at La Jolla Cove
I have a confession to make: I did not take this photo—my wife Amanda did. But in a way it's fitting that it should be one of her photos, as the Brown Pelican is her favorite bird and this was probably the best shot she took of one. The Panasonic TZ5 point-and-shoot camera has excellent zoom and a Leica lens, which helps the photo immensely. The Pelicans, like the Cormorants, were also in breeding season, which is why they have highlights of red along their gular pouch. It made me happy to see Amanda's favorite bird and my favorite bird coexisting and breeding peacefully in such close proximity to each other.
Water, stone, and light
All throughout La Jolla Cove there are these little, well, coves formed underneath rock formations, with tidal pools inside. This one I found was underneath the nesting area for a group of pelicans, and provided an opportunity to frame the sky, rocks, and ocean in a unique way. As beautiful as this photo may be, it smelled horrificly bad inside and was very slippery, dark, and hard to navigate.
Exploring the Desert Garden in Balboa Park
While we had a large agenda of things we wanted to see in San Diego, we frankly spent most of our time in the Pacific Beach/La Jolla area. However, Sunday we took an Uber down to Balboa Park, which is home to the San Diego Zoo (which we did not visit, as tickets were $52/each). Our favorite thing we found there was the Desert Garden, where an extensive variety of succulents grow. This photo was taken at the edge of the garden, looking across a road that cuts through the park, to another part of the park. Coming from the flat Midwest, I loved seeing these rolling hills and desert plants.
Succulents in Balboa Park's Desert Garden
If you've read this far, and know me well enough, you are already very much aware of my love for succulents. Balboa Park's Desert Garden was a great opportunity for me to use my 20mm pancake lens to get some great close-up shots of succulents like this one. I love the hints of different colors hidden within each succulent, and all the unique variations there are. This will serve as the description for the next two photos, as well.
Succulents in Balboa Park's Desert Garden
Succulents in Balboa Park's Desert Garden
Exploring the Gaslamp Quarter on Super Bowl Sunday
One area of San Diego that's supposed to be really amazing and we had high hopes for (and almost booked a hotel in) is the Gaslamp Quarter downtown. The one time I had been to San Diego before, in 2003, my Dad and I stayed in this area as it's near the massive convention center. On this trip, Amanda and I ventured down there on Super Bowl Sunday, in hopes of finding a fun, unique place to watch the kickoff. We wandered up and down the streets and eventually found a place with a nice rooftop deck that wasn't too sports-bar-ish. Ultimately though, we weren't that impressed by the Gaslamp area. It all seemed kindof pretentious, overpriced, and not unlike some of the hipster neighborhoods of Chicago. We ultimately just wished we were back in Pacific Beach.
Back to La Jolla
Compare this photo with the Gaslamp Quarter photo above it and maybe you can understand why we liked this area better. This was taken at the end of our last full day in San Diego, on Amanda's 30th birthday, just before we left La Jolla for the last time. Different people have different ways of defining what they call "natural beauty", and this is mine. I find this photo to be so beautiful that almost makes me sad if I look at it for too long...
Rocky Point in La Jolla
With all the rocks and cliffs in La Jolla, you don't necessarily have the miles of open, sandy beaches like you find in Pacific Beach. This one area near the Cove, appropriately called "Rocky Point", has a staircase that leads directly into an area covered with large rocks. We attempted to go down and navigate this area, but it wasn't easy. The tide was coming in, and the Pacific Ocean is obviously pretty cold, so we had to step carefully, but it was fun nonetheless.
Cormorants, Seals, and Sea Lions
Some people may find this photo a bit gross — black cormorants, seagulls, seals, and sea lions lying around on a rock covered with bird poop — but not to me. To be fair, the smell in this area was powerfully bad, not to mention my dislike for seagulls. Nonetheless, I love cormorants and found it so fascinating how (a) they coexist so peacefully with the seals and sea lions, and (b) they let you get so close to them. As I took this photo, there was no barrier between myself and then animals only 5 or 6 feet away, and dozens of other people standing around taking photos. Perhaps they're all just used to it by now, but for me it was an incredible sight that I'd never seen before.
Sunset on Pacific Beach
Overall, our trip to San Diego helped us feel better in more ways than we expected. Beyond just needing a break from the cold Chicago winter, we were feeling confused and somewhat unhappy with our jobs and lives back home. At many points in the trip, we seriously discussed the feasibility of moving to Southern California. I think the peace and relaxation that the trip provided ultimately helped us to find some mental clarity regarding our situation in life and our options moving forward. It made us realize that, before we tried to make a major change in our life (like, say, moving to Southern California), we hadn't really tried to make even smaller changes yet. When we got back home I started looking for new jobs and ended up actually finding one within a couple weeks. I'm not necessarily saying I wouldn't have gotten a new job if it weren't for our trip to San Diego, but I think it helped me to take a step back and reevaluate things in a calmer, more constructive and mature way. When you're in the middle of a Chicago winter and everything is gloomy, gray, and dead, it's sometimes hard to maintain a positive outlook, so the trip to San Diego came along at just the right time, when we needed a sort of "mental refresh". The long walks on the beach, evenings watching the warm sunset over the ocean, late nights having great discussions over dinner and drinks, and time spent on our balcony just listening to and smelling the ocean really helped clear my mind and put me back on track. So, thank you, San Diego. We'll definitely be back!