April 5, 2012

Finding paradise along the way

Posted in Between Us column, Travel, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

Drive onto the grounds of Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego at night, and your body will instantly relax. The lights that lazily wind up the trunks of trees along the driveway entrance say welcome to our island on Mission Bay, leave your cares behind, and listen for the sounds of wind and water.

When my sister Linda and I decided to take a weekend trip to San Diego, home to the first permanent Spanish settlement in California, we wanted to try a spot close to the water. So we chose Paradise Point, a luxury resort that sits on 44 acres of private beaches, walking trails, and tropical greenery.

Built by Hollywood producer Jack Skirball, the resort offers gorgeous views of the Bay, bonfire pits on the sand, and a wonderfully friendly staff that doesn’t mind pointing you in the right direction when you get lost on your walk.

After checking in Friday night, we found our way to our assigned “bungalow,” which was not a free-standing structure, but offered a sense of privacy just steps away from the beach. Walking out the back door, we had our own little patio and could easily imagine ourselves in a tropical paradise.

The recently-renovated guest room had an Indonesian-inspired decor, with teak furnishings and a flat screen television on one wall. The wireless Internet worked well and the lights above the beds were great for reading, but the floors were cold underfoot with no floor coverings.

As we got ready for bed, we caught up on family news and what was going on in each other’s lives. Since Linda lives in Houston, and I live in Los Angeles, it isn’t often that we get the opportunity to spend a few days together and just share. Life goes by so quickly, yet family time often gets put on the back burner.

The next morning, Linda and I took a stroll around the resort. Families are sure to love the numerous swimming pools and water sports offered here. You can go sailing, jet skiing or kayaking at the resort’s marina, or rent a bike and explore the island with pedal power. A SeaWorld water taxi ($9 for adults, $5 for children) will ferry you across the bay if you want to bypass the crowds this summer and avoid the traffic.

As we passed tennis courts, ponds, and the resort’s putting green, Linda’s eyes were drawn to the Island Market, an extensive boutique offering everything from apparel and accessories to forgotten sundries and reading material. So we went in to browse before asking a sales clerk for directions to our afternoon activities.

Happily, everything seems close in San Diego, so it didn’t take long for us to drive downtown for a Flagship whale watching cruise, which features commentary by experts from the Birch Aquarium at Scripps (www.flagshipsd.com). Adult admission is $35 weekdays, and $40 weekends. Youth, ages 4 to 12, cruise for $17.50 weekdays and $20 weekends. Children ages 3 and under are free.

“We’re watching the whales during their migration from Alaska,” explained Rachel Pound, an educator from Birch Aquarium. “They leave home during October and we start seeing them here in December to mid-April. They’re solitary creatures, so they’ll be by themselves, or be with five other whales, 10 at the most. We also see dolphins, who will play alongside the boat, and California sea lions and other species.”

We had a sunny afternoon for our four-hour cruise, and were lucky enough to not only have two whale sightings, but a number of dolphins also swim with us part of the way. While most of us get to see marine life in aquariums, it was amazing to observe sea creatures in their natural habitat.

For dinner that evening, we decided to head to Old Town, the oldest part of San Diego. Mexican lore and historic sites can be found at every turn in the crowded neighborhood that features mostly Mexican restaurants. Traffic is everywhere, so be prepared to walk from wherever you can find an open spot.

One of the oldest surviving buildings in San Diego is the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant (http://oldtowncosmopolitan.com/), which is now the only bed and breakfast hotel in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Catherine Miller, one of the co-owners of the concession, gave us a peek at one of the 10 private rooms with private bathrooms above the restaurant.

“This is the largest house in the square, and everything is furnished with period antiques,” said Miller. “The 1870 bar downstairs came from a saloon in Silver City, Idaho. It was apparently bought by Wyatt Earp, put in storage, and then was found through eBay. The property has wonderful trees. We have lemon, lime, olive, fig and loquat trees that give us fruit that we use in the bar and kitchen.”

The kitchen, under the direction of Executive Chef Andrew Sasloe, produces an amazing variety of dishes with a distinctive flair. Dinner entrees run the gamut from seafood and pasta to chicken and steak, as well as Mexican favorites.

The appetizers ranged from house-made Guacamole with Sea Salted Chips ($7.25) to an Artisan Cheese Board ($14.95). We tried the Beef Fritters with Chimichurri Pesto ($9.50), which turned out to be the one disappointment of the evening, as the meat was a tad tough.

For her entree, Linda decided to try the Expresso-Braised Kobe Short Rib, with Smashed Potatoes, and Root Vegetables in a Cabernet Reduction ($17.95). She raved over the flavor of the tender short rib and said all veggies should taste so good.

I chose the Jumbo Shrimp Scampi with Portobello Mushroom Ravioli, Oven-Dried Tomato and Shaved Black Truffles ($17.95). It was a heavenly combination that made me want the recipe. After tasting Linda’s entree, as well, I would say that dinner at this restaurant is a fantastic find, especially with its reasonable price point.

Desserts (at $6.95) included Seasonal Gelato, Cinnamon Churros, and more. We gave in and ordered the Cardamom Spiced Carrot Cake Pop-Over, which was a sinfully rich indulgence with citrus cream cheese, crystalized ginger, sun-dried cranberries and slivered almonds. If you’re in Old Town, this is definitely the place to dine.

A visit to Old Town would not be complete without exploring the mystery of Whaley House (http://whaleyhouse.org/ghostly.htm), known as a San Diego historic landmark and one of the most famous haunted houses in the country.

From the outside, the mid-19th Century Greek Revival home doesn’t look spooky at all. But when you take the last tour of the evening at 9:30 p.m. and listen to a tour guide share the history of the place, you just might get a chill.

Built on land where people once hung from the town gallows, the building that stands there has alternately served as a granary, courthouse, general store, and commercial theater, as well as the home of Thomas Whaley and his family.

Visitors have reported seeing several ghosts in the house, including those of Thomas Whaley, his wife Anna and the family dog, Dolly.

“There have been seven identified spirits in the house, none of them malicious,” said  Andrea, our tour guide for the evening. “I’ve worked as a docent here for four years, and have experienced numerous things. Creaking floors, chandeliers swinging. One night, one of the crystals in a chandelier started vibrating and I saw it. Why was it happening? It didn’t make any sense, but these things happen frequently.”

Linda and I are both sci-fi fans, so we enjoyed the paranormal tales, even if we left with none of our own to tell. We were, however, happy that it was short drive back to Paradise Point. You never know when ghosts will choose to follow.

The next morning, we headed out to Little Italy where we had Sunday brunch at Davanti Enoteca (http://davantisandiego.com/), a wine bar bistro with a lovely courtyard and private booths out back.

The intimate eatery, with wood plank walls and exposed beams in the ceiling, is reminiscent of neighborhood restaurants on New York’s East Side. A Sunday brunch menu features Italian fare that’s plentiful and filling.

Linda enjoyed the Davanti Burger ($12), which came with shoestring fries and the expected accompaniments, and an antipasti dish of Crispy Pork Belly and Peach Mostarda ($8). She deemed the burger an excellent choice, but said the pork belly was closer to its Chinese version than expected. “It was, well… just pork belly,” she said.

I had the Calzone del Mezzardro, folded pizza dough around scrambled eggs, potato hash, sausage and provolone cheese ($10). Unfortunately, the filling was slightly dry. For the price, though, the offerings were a great value.

It was neat strolling through the neighborhood of Italian bakeries (I had to pop into one for a bagful of cookies), grocery stores, gifts shops, and restaurants. Parking is difficult here, so be prepared to walk a few blocks.

The afternoon was spent back at Paradise Point, getting pampered in the resort’s wonderful spa, but more about that another time.

At the risk of sounding like foodies, Linda and I love to try different restaurants. There’s nothing as meaningful as breaking bread together, and we were happy to discover that Paradise Point has two restaurants well worth trying.

One morning, we stopped in at the Barefoot Bar & Grill, the more casual spot, for breakfast. Tables on the deck seemed a little chilly, so we opted for a spot indoors. Offerings here include the omelettes, French toast, and steak and eggs that you’d expect at any hotel restaurant. The difference is, everything was mouth-wateringly delicious.

Linda ordered the Eggs Benedict ($13), which were perfectly poached, and served with grilled potatoes. I had the Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal ($7), which came with dried fruit, roasted nuts and brown sugar, a hearty way to start the morning. Fresh orange juice was $4. While we arrived slightly after 9:30 a.m., the restaurant was already out of their fresh baked muffins ($3), so they must have been yummy.

Lunch, on another day, was equally satisfying. Linda’s Cobb Salad ($15) was excellent, and my Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pulled Pork and Tomato Basil Soup ($14) hit the spot. You know a restaurant is solid when the popular dishes sound pedestrian, but please the palate.

Our last night at Paradise Point ended with an evening at Baleen, the resort’s restaurant for fine dining. In keeping with the resort’s paradise theme, fanciful monkeys are hidden in the restaurant’s wall murals and perch playfully around the chandeliers. An open kitchen sits on one side of the dining room, with a fireplace adding warmth to the other.

The service is here impeccable, and by the welcome smell of the house Monkey Bread — a Foccacia with rosemary, thyme, butter and parmesan cheese — you know it’s going to be a memorable meal.

Appetizers range from an Artisan Cheese Plate ($15) to Seared Diver Scallops ($19), but since both Linda and I didn’t want to stretch our tummies too much, we decided to just split the Poached Pear and Arugula Salad ($11), which came with Bosc Pear, Candied Walnuts and Roquefort Cheese.

For an entree, Linda chose the Apple Brined and Glazed Pork Chop, accompanied by a Chipolte Sweet Potato Gratin, Smoked Apple Slab Bacon, Apple and Pecan Relish and Long Beans ($28). I selected the Wood Roasted Half Chicken with Seasonal Baby Vegetables, Goat Cheese Arugula Potato Puree, and Wild Mushrooms in Herb Citrus Butter ($26).

If you think those descriptions are a mouthful, they were, but oh, what a mouthful they made. The nicely seasoned, pork chop was thick and tender. The chicken was juicy and nearly melted in my mouth. We both cleaned the vegetables off our plates.

When it came to dessert, we almost declined, but when the house specialty was described, we couldn’t resist. The Black Bottom Creme Brulee with Fresh Berries and a Cookie ($8) came with a chocolate surprise underneath the traditional French custard. Needless to say, we left Baleen that night wishing we had room for more.

Our weekend in San Diego was jam-packed with sightseeing, and staying at Paradise Point turned out to be a luxurious treat. Not only was it within a 15 minute drive of everything we wanted to see, it was a comfortable retreat to return to each night.

It’s nice to know that even if you’ve only got three nights to get away, paradise can still be found.

For room rates and more information on Paradise Point, check out http://www.paradisepoint.com/ on the Internet.

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