San Diego's North County offers a blend of town and country
Finding the right balance of urban amenities and small-town charm has long been the conundrum for planners when weighing options and locales for meetings. Planners want a destination with first-rate hotels, activities and ambience that can be coupled with a relaxed pace to get down to business.
One area of Southern California naturally solves this problem: San Diego’s North County. Just north of downtown, this slice of coastal real estate has all of the great offerings that San Diego is known for, such as pristine beaches, endless sunshine and excellent venues, without the congestion.
“You definitely have a lot of dining and shopping options, but you have Legoland, the races, hot-air ballooning and golf. You definitely have a broad spectrum of activities that you can look at,” says Gregory Pynes, senior director, meetings and partnerships for Dallas-based Physicians’ Education Resource, who has planned many meetings in the area. “You are close enough to go back into San Diego proper to experience downtown and go to a baseball game. You are not spending an hour on the road to get somewhere. Being north of [the city] is just as advantageous as being in San Diego to some extent, because you get the best of both worlds.”
North County can be eclipsed by downtown San Diego and its environs. And while the city itself is a great destination for meetings and events, many planners happily head to North County because, after all, in San Diego, “happy happens,” which happens to be the bureau’s marketing campaign. “I think it is a special region of Greater San Diego County that sometimes people lose focus on because there is so much in the downtown area. People who live and work in downtown call North County ‘God’s Country,’” says Margie Sitton, senior vice president of sales and services of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I live in North County, [and] we have all these little secrets that we should tell people about.”
Read ahead to discover some of Sitton’s local secrets, as well as what makes North County a much sought-after destination. You’ll also see why Pynes is bringing two of his groups back in 2011.
North County 411
San Diego North encompasses an area from the shores of La Jolla in the south to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in the north, which separates San Diego from Orange County. From the coast, the area stretches inland to the border of Temecula. The geographic region is a diverse one that offers many meeting venues, activities and a varied ambience. You can trek in the 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve, take in the crashing waves along the coast or tee off at sprawling, inland golf courses. “It covers the north coastline with wonderful beaches, and it goes inland to the wild animal park and up to the wineries,” Sitton says. “It is the desert, the valley and has mountains—we have it all in this vast area that is North County.”
And while the allure of the Pacific Ocean may draw visitors, the area is also suited for meetings, with a clutch of meetings-friendly properties and a variety of pre- and post-activities without the fast pace of downtown. There are 43 hotels that can accommodate groups of up to 300 on peak (depending on the property), Sitton says. Each city has many unique venues with outdoor space to capitalize on the famous sunny San Diego weather. Plus, Pynes adds, the ease of getting in and out of San Diego is an important factor for his international audience. Most cities in the area can also be accessed in 45 minutes or less from the airport.
Charming and upscale, the coastal city of La Jolla has a handful of meetings hotels and miles of coastline, as well as posh art galleries and boutiques lining Prospect Avenue. It is also home to The University of California, San Diego. Groups can meet at brand-name hotels such as the 252-room Sheraton La Jolla Hotel, with 8,000-plus sq. ft. of meeting space; the 394-room Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, with more than 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; and the 419-room Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine, with 32,000 sq. ft. of function space.
Boutique hotels also abound, with properties including the 210-room Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, which hosted Pynes’ group of 260-plus for the International Congress on Breast Cancer for a week this past July. “La Jolla has a more detached feel, and the Estancia is a great venue—it’s quiet and small,” Pynes says. “It is perfect for a very focused educational or training activity. The staff was helpful and accommodating.”
The Lodge at Torrey Pines is another great option, with 13,000 sq. ft. of function space, 170 guest rooms, a 9,500-square-foot spa, two restaurants and plenty of on-site activities, including the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course.
And if you are interested in a beach event, Sitton lets us in on a little secret: The 98-room La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club has its own beach, which makes planning events on the sand easy. The rules aren’t as strict as municipal beaches, and you don’t have to get permits, she says.
Between hotel meetings, groups can gather at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The aquarium is part of UCSD’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography and showcases the Pacific marine life in more than 60 habitats, in addition to offering distinctive indoor and outdoor venues for up to 1,200 guests. Another unique venue is the institute’s Scripps Seaside Forum, a 16,500-square-foot, LEED-certified conference center. “The Scripps Seaside Forum is right on the water in La Jolla—it is just gorgeous, with ocean views. It is a great place for outdoor events,” Sitton says.
North of La Jolla is Del Mar, a delightful coastal community that was once a secluded retreat for Hollywood’s elite. Del Mar and its surrounding communities of Rancho Sante Fe, Carmel Valley and Fairbanks Ranch makes an ideal stomping ground for both coastal and inland activities.
Event set-up at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad.
For meetings, the recently renovated L’Auberge Del Mar can accommodate groups of up to 300 in 15,500 sq. ft. of event space, often accompanied with terraces and ocean views.
Located inland from La Jolla and near Del Mar in the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, The Grand Del Mar is well-suited for groups, and was a host of one of our Smart Meetings. Italian-inspired décor pervades its 20,000-plus sq. ft. of meeting space and 249 guest rooms. The resort also has on-site trails for nature-based recreation as well as a Tom Fazio-designed golf course and saline swimming pools.
Del Mar is also known for the eponymous racetrack, where attendees can cheer for their favorite horse and convene in a dozen or so venues. The Del Mar Fairgrounds, home to the San Diego County Fair, also welcomes groups with 180,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space, smaller meeting suites for intimate gatherings and O’Brien Hall, with room for up to 6,800 people. “We forget all of the things we can do at the Del Mar Fairgrounds; they have a lot of different buildings,” Sitton says. “We also have these beautiful polo fields in Del Mar for events.”
While you are in town, you should be on the lookout for the green flash, Sitton says. “Locals go to Del Mar Plaza at sunset, hoping to see the green flash—the moment when the sun hits the horizon and flashes a green light across [it]. We have a couple of Green Flash restaurants along the coast. And people ask each other ‘Have you seen the green flash?’ It is something to take a look at, for sure,” Sitton says.
North Coastal & Carlsbad
Carlsbad and its coastal neighbors—Oceanside, Leucadia, Encinitas and La Costa—keep planners’ interests with top-rate venues, golf and attractions such as the kid-centric Legoland amusement park.
Located on 400 coastal acres near Carlsbad, the Green Seal-certified La Costa Resort and Spa offers 100,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, 611 guest rooms and kid-friendly amenities including Kidtopia—great for attendees traveling with the family in tow. La Costa will be undergoing renovations next month that are slated for completion by the end of next year.
Formerly a Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort was reflagged earlier this year and has 329 guest rooms, 78,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, a full-service spa, swimming, tennis, a fitness center and an Arnold Palmer-designed, 18-hole championship golf course.
Outside of the boardroom, groups can meet at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, which offers the Ecke Building, the Larabee House, the Lawn House and the entire gardens for event rentals. Another scenic natural space, The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch offers group tours.
South of Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea is a charismatic little town and a popular surf spot, which prompted the town to erect a statue of a surfer. The community didn’t really take to the open-armed likeness of a wave rider, and locals have since dubbed it the Cardiff Kook and dressed him up in various costumes. “You have to go see what the Kook is wearing. It has become a celebrity,” Sitton says. (Just Google Image Search for “Cardiff Kook” and you will get see his quirky get-ups, such as a circus clown and a surfer being eaten by a shark.)
Escondido & Environs
Moving inland from the coast, rolling hills, lush green landscapes and warmer weather will greet you in Escondido and the surrounding areas. Escondido is the largest city in the region and was established in 1886; it features a historic downtown area with galleries, studios, theaters and museums.
Just south of Escondido, you will find the town of Rancho Bernardo and the Four-Diamond, Four-Star Rancho Bernardo Inn, which is more attractive than ever following a $25-million renovation of the hotel and its 287 guest rooms and suites. After meeting in the inn’s 22 function rooms, meeting-goers will welcome tee times at the resort’s 18-hole championship golf course, which can organize group rates or private golf tournaments.
For a bit of culture, head to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido and take in a variety of performances, from contemporary dance to tribute bands. The center welcomes groups on its 12-acre campus with two theaters, art and education studios, a regional art museum, and a 9,000-square-foot conference center with a ballroom, several meeting rooms and a prefunction foyer.
Rancho Bernardo Inn.
Take a walk on the wild side at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, formerly named Wild Animal Park. The park will accommodate your herd for anything from an off-site lunch to a full-blown conference. Sitton recommends going on a photo safari while on-site. “The animals will come right up to you. You can feed them and pet them. It is very unique,” she says.
San Diegans are slowly becoming known for crafting wine and beer. Wine lovers can head to the Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo, which was established by five Sicilians in 1889 and is now the oldest continuing operating winery in Southern California. It has private tours and tastings, as well as event spaces.
In Escondido, Ferrara Winery is another historic property, which dates back to 1932. It offers five whites and six reds, in addition to all-natural grape juice. In addition, the winery has banquet facilities for up to 100 people. Nearby, Belle Marie Winery welcomes groups for tastings and tours, as well as events in venues such as the Barrel Room for up to 200 guests or the Chateau Cave for up to 180.
Beer lovers can sip on frosty concoctions at Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company, which can host tours for up to 30. Its Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens offers private events for up to 175 people. Green Flash Brewing Co. in Vista offers up signature, award-winning beer, which includes seasonal and barrel-aged beer, and also hosts private events. Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits crafts fishing-themed beer, gin and rum. For a variety of brews, a few local companies offer beer tours, including the Brew Hop and Brewery Tours of San Diego.
More than 20 airlines serve the San Diego International Airport, located 3 miles north of downtown San Diego, 38 miles south of Oceanside and 63 miles south of Temecula. Attendees can also fly into Los Angeles International Airport and drive 90–120 miles to the San Diego North region.