By ann wycoff
Captain Russell Moore killed the engine on board an Xplore Offshore Navy Seal-certified rigid inflatable boat, three miles off the coast of San Diego on a glorious winter day adventure. To our left, snowcapped distant mountains and sunshine shimmered on a calm cerulean sea; to our right, a frenzy of motion charged towards us. Suddenly, we were surrounded by a megapod of Common dolphins.
Highly social and insanely energetic, the dolphins arced, spun, flipped and somersaulted across the top of the water. As we started up the engine to move with the pod, a group escorted us at the front of the boat, playfully bow surfing. They left us speechless, grinning ear to ear.
San Diego County stretches along seventy miles of coastline from the California-Mexico border to Oceanside, dotted with golden sand beaches, epic surf breaks, emerald fairways, coastal hiking trails, sea caves and snorkeling coves. Pair that with 146-plus days of sunshine, laid-back SoCal flip-flop culture and friendly locals, and you’ve got an adventure playground to explore by sea, by land and by air.
The dolphin sightings on the inflatable boat tour had been the perfect blend of taking in the views of coastal San Diego while communing with marine wildlife. So much so that we returned to Xplore Offshore in summer for another tour, to be humbled by the majesty of the planet’s largest creatures—blue whales, the 90-to-100-foot-long leviathans of the sea.
In addition to marine wildlife tours, myriad San Diego adventures deliver the wow factor. Yacht America, the 139-foot schooner helmed by Next Level Sailing’s Troy Sears (who is a walking encyclopedia of all things America’s Cup), offers soul-stirring views of the city, while the Patriot Jetboat—a turbo-charged, wet-n-wild ride—does 360-degree spins while whizzing past historic sites such as the USS Midway. Rent jet skis at SD Adventures and blast across the bay all the way to the Coronado Bridge from Shelter Island, drinking in the spectacular views of the city’s skyline with a wake of laughter trailing behind.
On the other hand, for quieter exploration on the water, spend an afternoon kayaking with Everyday California. La Jolla Cove is a thriving, underwater ecological reserve boasting one of the highest concentrations of sea life in all of California. Paddle along the cantilevered cliffs and sea caves or get closer to the action by snorkeling in the cove in search of bright orange garibaldi fish, rays, rockfish and harmless basking leopard sharks in late summer.
Surfing is another way to get into the waves. Surfers from around the globe adventure to San Diego for dozens of surf spots, ideal conditions and every imaginable type of break. I took my first surfing lesson with Surf Diva, the all-female surf company, where we practiced popping up in the sand then paddled out on long boards into the gentle waves of La Jolla Shores. There was nothing like catching that first exhilarating ride. Seasoned chargers should paddle out at Black’s Beach below the cliffs of La Jolla. In addition, head to Seaside Beach in Cardiff, favored by local ripper Rob Machado, or try Oceanside Pier where the U.S. Olympic team trains.
When friends recently visited San Diego for the first time, we started their adventure at Mt. Soledad, the Veteran War Memorial in La Jolla. Standing high on the hill, we drank in the panoramic view, revealing San Diego in all of her glory. Scripps Pier, Point Loma Peninsula, and yacht-dotted bays, appeared in the distance. Mountains rose in the east, and sparkling skyscrapers and the arc of the Coronado Bridge dotted the landscape. Even the urban crush of Tijuana could be seen on that clear day.
After enjoying the expanse of San Diego County, we journeyed to nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. A network of trails meander through the striated sandstone canyons of this 1,750-acre coastal park. As we hiked past clusters of the rare Torrey pine, only found here and on the Channel Islands off Ventura, the air was redolent of sea salt and pine. Then, we stopped at various vantage points on the cliffs and spied dolphins and surfers sharing waves, the distant spray of a passing whale and a parade of colorful paragliders ridge-soaring, as they caught lift from the ocean wind that ricocheted off the cliffs.
Donning a headset and aviator sunglasses, I felt my stomach leap as we took off in a four-seater Waverider helicopter for a birds-eye view of my hometown. Buzzing past the historic Oceanside Pier, we came upon squads of surfers. Their multi-hued boards were a vibrant collage against the teal green water. Inland, swaths of blooming ranunculus colored The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. We passed over bird-filled estuaries at the edge of the sea. Then, we followed the ribbons of golden sand that trimmed the shoreline that led to Bing Crosby’s famed Del Mar Racetrack by the sea.
Adrenaline junkies braver than me should check out GoJump Oceanside. It’s the only place in Southern California for tandem skydiving with the coast in view for the entire freefall. I decided taking to the sky on a hot air balloon with Compass Balloons was enough excitement for me. I found myself white-knuckling it in a handcrafted wicker basket as the balloon began to rise, buoyed by flame-heated air. A peaceful calm followed as the gentle floating verged on stillness. The sense of motion disappeared as we flew with the wind.
Below us, the mega estates of Rancho Santa Fe became miniature doll houses with kidney-bean shaped pools and dramatic landscapes. As we passed over polo and soccer fields, the children below looked like tiny ants scurrying across the field. We continued to ascend as the sun started its descent into the Pacific, illuminating the coast and cliffs of Del Mar and painting the sky in pinks and burnt orange. This bird’s-eye view was simply magic, making it impossible not to fall in love with my hometown even more.