LA Times: SoCal Close-Ups

SoCal Close-Ups: San Diego’s North County much more than just a pretty face
By Christopher Reynolds

August 19 2012 | Los Angeles Times

Yes, the beaches are gorgeous, but head inland and you can go on safari, tour a plastic kingdom, eye topiary musicians or kick back at a hacienda.

Maybe you’ve always suspected that there was more to San Diego’s North County than beach towns, rolling hills, expat giraffes and a walled kingdom of brightly colored plastic. But frankly, they had me at beach towns.

I always figured the rest — even the two marquee attractions, Legoland in Carlsbad and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido — was just gravy. Or icing on the cake. Or maybe, given San Diego’s love of beer, the chaser after the pint.

But now I’ve spent several days on and off the beaches, and it looks as if you’re right: San Diego County’s northern reaches, beginning above La Jolla and ending at Camp Pendleton, deserve more attention than they get.

Low profile in Rancho Bernardo

There are plenty of premium golf options north of La Jolla, including hotel-adjacent courses at the Grand Del Mar, Aviara, and La Costa in Carlsbad. There’s also a less luxurious, less pricey option a little farther inland — the hacienda-style Rancho Bernardo Inn (17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego). Along with its 18-hole championship course, this resort offers more than 280 guest rooms, three pools and three restaurants. (The fanciest, Bizcocho, is French.) To appease kids and art lovers who won’t be swinging clubs, head to nearby Kit Carson Park (3333 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido) and follow the signs to Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It’s a sculpture garden, 120 feet in diameter, by the late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Mosaic critters. Kaleidoscopic colors. Textured tile work. The queen herself (whose name comes from the 16th century Spanish novel that inspired this state’s name) stands about 24 feet high, astride an eagle, surrounded by eight totems and a maze. Escondido has a gem here. Let’s hope the queen’s keepers fix the cracked tiles in the mirrored area (barely noticeable now) before they get worse — these fantasy creatures make a great complement to the real ones at the Safari Park.