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Sojourn by the sea

SoCal's Del Mar great bet for laid-back vacation

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DEL MAR, Calif. -- California dreamers have been building resort communities for well over a century, and Del Mar is one of the earliest. Col. Jacob Taylor bought 137 hectares in 1885 with a vision of creating a seaside haven for the rich and famous, and a century-and-a-quarter later it remains a playground for the well-heeled one-per-centers.

That said, the town of just under 5,000 affords the remaining 99 per cent of us the chance to frolic and play in the surf, sand and shops. Spanish for "by the sea," Del Mar is a long stretch of a community running along the sandy shores of the Pacific, and one can walk the length of it in an hour.

Del Mar central is the intersection of Camino Del Mar (also known as Highway 101) and 15th Street, where you'll find the four corners inhabited by the restaurant-rich Del Mar Plaza, the high-end L'Auberge Del Mar Hotel and Space, Stratford Square, and Ranch and Coast Plastic Surgery.

The main beach is just a block to the north, with surf and paddle-board schools sharing space with sand volleyball courts and paved basketball courts. During the day, this is the high-traffic area of Del Mar, but even then you won't find the crowds that typify San Diego beaches to the south and L.A. ones to the north.

Where you will find crowds is at the north tip of Del Mar. It could be called the house that Bing built.

Del Mar Racetrack

It was 1937 when this now-legendary track with the slogan "where the turf meets the surf" opened, and co-owner Bing Crosby was at the gate greeting all comers. The Hollywood icon partnered with fellow actors and horse nuts Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Durante, Charles S. Howard and Oliver Hardy to build the one-mile oval and tan stucco grandstand.

The 2013 season runs from July 17 to Sept. 4, with racing Wednesday through Sundays, and with on-site stables that house 1,000 horses, the action is fast and furious.

It's also fashionable, as we discovered after dropping our bags at our hotel, the Hotel Indigo, 45 minutes after landing at San Diego International and driving the five minutes to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the track's impressive entranceway.

Decked out in typical tourist travel attire -- shorts, T-shirts and sandals -- we felt extremely underdressed among the dresses, blazers and skirts racegoers of all stripes were wearing. And my wife and daughter, to their horror, were two of the very few women not wearing hats.

One doesn't get opportunities to wear hats, I learned, and this was a missed one about which I'm still reminded to this day. However, once we made our way to our reserved table in the trackside Stretch Run Grill, ordered a few cold drinks and settled in with our racing sheets, all was forgiven.

We enjoyed a light lunch of tacos and nachos as the action unfurled on the track, the relaxing and tranquil lead-up to each race punctuated by the frantic screams and yelling for the few minutes the horses and jockeys put on their show.

Speaking of shows, there's also a summer concert series of free performances every Friday on the grounds, with last year's acts including Jimmy Cliff and Michael Franti and Spearhead.

Even non-racing fans will be entranced by this place. Thousands were packed into the grandstand and grounds under a warm California sun, enjoying the colourful flowers and lush landscaping as much as the on-track action.

True to its founders' origins, there is something about the place that feels right out of a Hollywood set. This is how a racetrack should look. And the patrons, in the roles of extras, certainly play their part.

Bed & Brickfest

Twenty minutes up the road from Del Mar is the coastal city of Carlsbad, well worth a visit when you're staying in Del Mar.

Skip the San Diego Freeway (Highway 5) and stick to the North Coast Highway (No. 1), that takes you through the cool coastal communities of Encinitas and Cardiff and Solana Beach. Time has stood still in these places, with a definite '60s surfer vibe permeating the salty air and sand-floor taco shacks.

With a population of more than 100,000, Carlsbad has plenty for visitors to see and do, with a wide variety of accommodation options -- from quaint seaside hotels to full-blown five-star luxury resorts.

Families are drawn to the area to visit Legoland, a sprawling theme park dedicated to those little plastic building blocks.

The latest addition to the Lego empire is the Legoland Hotel, a 250-room, three-storey building with a pool, lounge, patio, Castle Play area and family restaurant. Oh, and more than 3,500 Lego models on-site, including seven large animated ones, the most impressive of which is a smoke-breathing dragon at the entrance.

There are three choices of room themes -- pirate, adventure and kingdom -- and at least eight Lego models in each room.

And, thankfully, for the parents who foot the bill for their Lego-mad children, each room has two TVs, meaning a much-needed break from the kid-centric activities can be had at bedtime.

San Diego speedboats

Another side trip from Del Mar well worth the 30-minute drive south is a unique, self-guided tour of San Diego Harbor in a speedboat.

On a previous visit to the city, my family hopped aboard a large, double-deck ship for a harbour tour, which was very enjoyable and very informative about the rich naval history of the area.

Five minutes into our Speed Boat Adventures tour ( -- or about the time we cleared the marina markings and hit the throttles into open water -- the screams of delight (terror?) coming from both our speedboats indicated this was the preferred way to tour the harbour.

A guide boat leads the way, with about 100 metres between each boat as you zip around the harbour, taking in all the sights -- in the case of the lounging seals on a U.S. Navy sub dock, smells -- that are covered in the sightseeing boat tours.

Only you're in a sports car of the waves, and get some great up-close and unique views of the many ship attractions that line the harbour, including the USS Midway aircraft carrier. No experience is necessary to pilot the four-metre-long boats, and the entire tour takes about 90 minutes, including a pre-trip safety briefing.

Prices are $100 for a one-person boat, $59 each for a double, children under 10 ride as passengers for $39, and you can get one adult and two kids in one boat. Note that reservations are required.

Before you head back to Del Mar, drive 15 minutes from the Harbor Island marina into the Gaslamp District and order up some Messy Sundaes at Sammy's Woodfired Pizza ( on Fourth Avenue. A great way to cap off a great boat trip.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 E4

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