Northern Exposure

Hotels & Destinations

Approximately 325 people attended her February event at Rancho Bernardo Inn Golf Resort & Spa. She lists the resort’s ambi-ence, attention to detail and an “España night”—complete with cigar rollers, flamenco guitar music, paella and special-recipe sangria—as highlights. “The service was the best I’ve experienced in all the years I’ve been doing this,” Boyle says.

The community of Rancho Bernardo, 27 miles from San Diego International Airport and far removed from big city bustle, is at the center of San Diego North. This 2,000-square-mile region stretches 35 miles along the coast from La Jolla to Oceanside. It also reaches inland, past Escondido and the surrounding foothills, toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“We’re more the resort, spa and golf area of San Diego. We have a little more space, plus leisure activities and fabulous beaches,” says Mark Erekson, vice president of sales and marketing for the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau. He lists airport proximity and pleasant year-round weather among the area’s major draws. “The fall is gorgeous. In the spring—March and April especially—the Flower Fields are blooming up near Carlsbad. It just takes your breath away,” he says. “Summertime is our high season, but there are still many options and there’s great golf and beach weather.”

Because local hotels have recently reported more short-term bookings than normal, Erekson says planners can find surprising deals at any time. “Never assume that hotels are full or that you shouldn’t consider a place, especially with the economy as it is. Always call and ask what the options are,” he advises.

Meeting planners are not alone in discovering San Diego North’s magic. The U.S. Open was held here in June, at Torrey Pines Golf Course. Next February, the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California begins in Rancho Bernardo and wraps up in Escondido. Lance Armstrong will participate in the professional cycling event, his first U.S. race in three years. Diverse attractions, beaches, parks and wineries add to this destination’s overall allure.
San Diego County’s northernmost coastal community is Oceanside, a playful beach town known for surfing, sailing and sport fishing. The sunny city has a 1,900-foot wooden pier that overlooks 3.5 miles of white sand beaches. Nearby, the 7-mile San Luis Rey River Bike Trail provides a picturesque introduction to the area. You’ll also find attractions such as the Mission San Luis Rey, the largest of California’s missions, and the California Surf Museum. The Oceanside Transit Center makes getting around more convenient by linking Amtrak trains and local commuter routes.

Just to the south is Carlsbad, home of Legoland plus several posh resorts, recreation-friendly lagoons and intriguing downtown galleries and antique shops. Some 50 acres of roses, poinsettias and Giant Tecolote Ranunculus bloom bright in March, April and May at the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. The city’s McClellan-Palomar Airport provides a direct entry point to north San Diego County.

Encinitas has 11 beaches begging to be explored, and the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve includes more than 300 plant species and 5 miles of hiking trails. Among unique venues at the Quail Botanical Gardens is a secluded deck that overlooks a three-story waterfall.

Though it covers just 2.1 square miles, Del Mar is packed with shopping, recreation and ocean-view res-taurants. There’s also the famous Del Mar Fairgrounds and its historic horse track, which once welcomed celebrity guests Bing Crosby and Lucille Ball and still draws race fans every summer. On Saturdays, local growers peddle produce and flow-ers at the popular Del Mar Farmers Market.

South of Del Mar, past Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and its namesake golf resort, is postcard-perfect La Jolla. The community’s name means “the jewel” in Spanish, and it lives up to that moniker with a sparkling bay and secluded beach coves. The University of California, San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, along with its well-known Birch Aquarium, call La Jolla home. Artists thrive here, as well. San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art has a La Jolla location, and downtown avenues are lined with galleries.

Northeast of La Jolla, the planned community of Rancho Bernardo offers groups a taste of southern California’s best. Golf courses, upscale shopping venues and major properties, including the recently renovated Rancho Bernardo Inn, are tucked within the community’s boundaries. For 119 years, winemakers at the Bernardo Winery have crafted vintages here, as well.

Just north along I-15 in Escondido are cultural and recreational activities enough to please all types of meeting attendees. The 1994 opening of the California Center for the Arts sparked a downtown renaissance, and the center remains a top draw for its visual arts museum, performance stages and on-site conference center. Today, Escondido’s city center also hosts ongoing art walks, a biannual street fair and summer car cruises. Exhibits and outings such as the Kilimanjaro Safari Walk at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park showcase exotic species, and naturalists lead hikes at the 3,058-acre Daley Ranch.

Each spring, the community of Fallbrook goes its own shade of green during the annual Avocado Festival. Pastoral beauty abounds here, where roads wind up orchard-lined hills and city streets retain an Old West vibe. Just east of Camp Pen-dleton Marine Corps Base is the Fallbrook Art Center, a centerpiece of the town’s creative scene.

Vineyard tours and tasting events continue to crop up around Temecula, a bustling inland city 15 miles north-east of Fallbrook. There’s a budding wine industry here, marketed by the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, and the mild southern California climate makes for pleasant hot-air balloon tours, hiking, horse-drawn carriage rides and outdoor markets. Attendees traveling with their families enjoy the Temecula Children’s Museum, while the Pechanga Resort & Casino caters to adult tastes with golf and spa options, live entertainment and an expansive gaming floor.

While downtown San Diego has a large-scale convention center, San Diego North offers an assortment of alternative venues that immerse attendees in local culture.

In Escondido, the California Center for the Arts’ conference facility includes a 9,000-square-foot ballroom, breakout rooms and out-door courtyards, plus a 1,500-seat concert hall. Up to 240 guests can partake in the “Dinner on Stage” event, a dazzling dining ex-perience complete with theatrical lighting and special effects. 

More than 180,000 sq. ft. of exhibit halls, event rooms, luxury suites and outdoor, ocean-view spaces are available at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Construction of a new roof for the 47,250-square-foot Del Mar Arena is scheduled for March 2009 completion. Down the road in La Jolla, venues at the Birch Aquarium overlook the coastline and have a capacity of 1,200 for meetings, receptions and special events.

In San Diego North, you’ll also find luxury resorts that make meetings convenient with conference facilities, dining, recreation and amenities all in one package. Among the newest is The Grand Del Mar, a Mediterranean-inspired getaway that opened in October 2007. The 249-room property, set along the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, boasts a 21,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, four swimming pools, six dining venues and a par-72 golf course. Among the resort’s 20,000 sq. ft. of func-tion space are a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, a salon with indoor and outdoor stone fireplaces, an on-site chapel and private wine cellar dining.

L’Auberge Del Mar reopened last June, after a $26-million renovation that refreshed the property’s 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 120 guest rooms. A 2,000-square-foot outdoor terrace is now available for private gatherings, and the poolside Bleu Bar is ideal for post-event networking. Chef Paul McCabe, called a “rising star of American cuisine” by the James Beard Foundation, heads up the Kitchen 1540 restaurant that opened in November. A new resort spa is scheduled to welcome guests next March.

In La Jolla, a mile from the Torrey Pines Golf Course, the 210-room Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa of-fers meeting facilities certified by the International Association of Conference Centers. A 125-seat theater and 3,920-square-foot ballroom are available at the property’s Executive Learning Center, a collection of venues with the latest technology and amenities. Overall, the 9.5-acre resort offers more than 26,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor function space, as well as a spa, fitness center and four restaurants.

The La Jolla Shores Hotel renovated its coastal-view and beachfront rooms earlier this year, outfitting them with new carpet and furnishings, flat-screen televisions and pillow-top beds. Guests of the 128-room property enjoy complimentary high-speed Internet access, and select event venues have ocean views.

La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad recently opened its new 9,500-square-foot Vista Terrace, an open-air venue ad-jacent to the property’s conference center. The space accommodates 800 guests. In addition, the new Garden Café features two swimming pools, two Jacuzzis, a fire pit and a landscaped lawn fit for croquet. With 100,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space, includ-ing an 18,000-square-foot ballroom, La Costa is among the region’s largest coastal conference facilities. The resort is set on 400 acres and also has twin 18-hole golf courses, 17 tennis courts, a spa with 42 treatment rooms, and 610 guest rooms and suites.

Recent renovations at Rancho Bernardo Inn have positioned the resort among San Diego North’s most sought-after meeting venues. At the heart of the property’s 26,000-square-foot conference center is the new 10,140-square-foot Aragon Ballroom, a stylish space with an ad-jacent gathering area and outdoor garden. The 287 guest rooms have been updated with new linens, couches, chairs and 42-inch flat-screen televisions, and many overlook the resort’s 18 holes of golf. Other resort amenities include a full-service spa and fitness center and the highly rated El Bizcocho restaurant.

Select meeting rooms at The Lodge at Torrey Pines also overlook neighboring greens, and most indoor venues feature adjacent deck or patio space. Guest rooms and suites measure up to 2,000 sq. ft. in size and are styled with nature-inspired décor. The Lodge has earned the AAA Five-Diamond award for six consecutive years.
The AAA Four-Diamond Pala Casino Spa and Resort is preparing for a $100-million restaurant remodel and development project. A new sushi and sake bar, Mexican restaurant and Italian coffee house are planned, and the expanded Pala Terrace Buffet will seat 600 guests upon completion. The 507-room resort, located off I-15 south of Temecula, has 30,000 sq. ft. of function space and accommodates groups of up to 2,000. In addition to a spa and a pool with 12 private cabanas, Pala Casino fea-tures live entertainment along with its gaming attractions.

Gaming and entertainment options abound at resort casinos such as Pala Casino and the nearby Pechanga Resort & Casino, a 522-room property with more than 2,150 slots and games and 40,000 sq. ft. of event space. At Harrah’s Rincon Resort and Casino, blackjack dealers clad in bathing suits work the “bikini pit,” a popular outdoor gaming area.

San Diego’s burgeoning craft beer culture offers spirited alternatives for off-site activities. Green Flash Brewing Company, located between Oceanside and Escondido in Vista, leads group brewery tours and tastings by appointment, and also has an on-site meeting space. Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company books private brewery tours for large groups. Its Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, an indoor-outdoor venue that seats up to 385, serves sustainable and organic fare and local beers. Brewery Tours of San Diego operates custom outings that include tastings and behind-the-scenes access at local breweries.

Several San Diego North operators offer group wine and culinary adventures, as well. The Grape Escape by PRA Destination Management takes guests into Temecula’s vineyards and orchards, where they learn about local history and sample the region’s top wines. Destination Temecula coordinates tours, events and team-building activities for executive re-treats and groups of up to 500. Hands-on winemaking activities, limousine tasting tours and sunset winery dinners are among group options. Where You Want to Be Tours arranges meals at distinctive local restaurants as part of their standard and customized excursions; the company also leads team-building outings and scavenger hunts.

Even the most dedicated meeting attendees might be tempted by San Diego North’s sunny skies, warm breezes and stun-ning vistas. Luckily, venues here capitalize on nature and nice weather with open-air event spaces and imaginative off-site options. Some 35 acres, including a rainforest exhibit, subtropical fruit garden and bamboo grove, provide a colorful back-drop for gatherings at Quail Botanical Gardens. Three buildings are available for private events and groups can gather in the gardens, as well.

Groups of 20 or more are invited to book private tours at The Lavender Fields each May and June, when blooms are at their peak. A lavender labyrinth also is open seasonally. The grounds are located 17 miles north of Escondido.

South of Escondido, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park provides awe-inspiring alternatives to traditional meeting rooms. The largest venue is the Hunte Nairobi Pavilion, which has a 35-foot vaulted ceiling. The Mombasa Island Pavilion has no walls and overlooks the Mombasa Lagoon, as well as the pelicans and flamingos that frequent the waters there. Additional picnic areas and decks allow attendees to meet in view of lions and gazelles, while VIP tours introduce guests to the park’s wonders.

Even Legoland gets in on the nature-themed action with the Sea Life Aquarium that opened in August. The two-story attraction in-corporates 72 Lego models among displays showcasing more than 200 marine species.
Hiking, biking and equestrian trails cross several state and regional parks in north San Diego County; the County of San Diego maintains a comprehensive online list of recreational areas. In addition, several local outfitters rent gear and lead tours for visitors. Among them is La Jolla Bike and Kayak Tours, which operates snorkel-ing, biking and kayaking adventures. Surf Diva offers corporate team-building clinics and catered lunches on the beach in La Jolla.

Here, the great outdoors also includes a collection of great golf courses. The challenge for players? Where to tee off first. In addi-tion to public courses scattered throughout the region, many major resorts feature newsworthy fairways. The course at Rancho Bernardo Inn has been the site of PGA and LPGA tour events. On the heels of this year’s U.S Open, Torrey Pines is gearing up to host the annual Buick Invitational in February. Tom Fazio designed the 18-hole course at the Grand Del Mar, and professional golf instructor Roger Fredericks holds workshops on the greens at La Costa. 

Renee Brincks is a freelance journalist who covers travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. Her recent outlets include Carmel Magazine and Sustainable Industries.