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LA JOLLA, Calif. — At first glance, La Jolla seems merely Malibu meets Beverly Hills. One part beach town. One part trust-fund enclave. Mix, and out pop guys with liposuctioned abs and ladies with severely pulled-back blond (real, frosted, bleached) hair. All orbiting in Lexus SUVs hunting for Armani, Rolex and the other usual high-end retail suspects.

Robb Report, the magazine for millionaires (and the wanna-be wealthy) once crowned the town as the best place to live in America.

But a closer look shows La Jolla (pronounced “la hoya“) to be a far more intriguing stop than the usual west-of-the-freeway suburban seaside pack.

La Jolla has attracted legions of offbeat authors, most notably Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler called La Jolla a haven for old folks, while Tom Wolfe wrote that one of its best beaches was segregated — only the young could be seen on the sand. Gliders circle above the nation’s most famous nude beach. Body surfers (clothed) share the waters with nasty-looking but harmless small leopard sharks (though a possible Great White Shark report was made in August).

New-age guru Deepak Chopra has decamped from downtown to the golf resort at nearby Carlsbad, but La Jolla remains a place where a dozen or so places will clean your aura or unlock your hara.

All this is packed into a gorgeous 20 square miles at the northwest tip of San Diego that’s home to just 35,000 of the metropolis’ 1.2 million residents.

“I love the way the mountains coalesce with the sea,” says Michael DiGruccio, a local. “It’s a beautiful place to live and work.”

The signals that you are someplace apart start at the off-ramp. You know you’ve hit La Jolla when the bland corporate boxes along Interstate 5 suddenly give way to an urban fantasyland. Post-Mod architect Michael Graves’ Hyatt hotel looks like a 1930s radio. The gleaming white Mormon temple resembles a rocket ship ready to blast off into the heavens.

La Jolla has been a San Diego hot spot since the early 19th century. Locals joke that the last real-estate bargain was in 1886 when Frank Botsford, the “father of La Jolla,” sold lots for $1.25 per acre. Today it would top $2 million per acre. The average home price is now $1.2 million.

At the north end is Torrey Pines State Reserve, the 1,700-acre green space with its famous pine trees atop steep sandstone bluffs. Nearby is Torrey Pines Lodge, with a spa offering Clarity Sage, an aroma emitted in its glass-box-like therapy room. For $275, guests can partake of a 140-minute Ayoma Ritual based on 5,000-year-old Indian wellness concepts.

For millions of fans of the little pock-marked ball, Torrey Pines is synonymous with pro golf. Home of the Buick Invitational, the resort features two championship 18-hole courses. Along with the usual sand and water traps, golfers have to deal with the frequent roar of F/A-18 Hornet jets streaking overhead from nearby Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

Just down the hill is the Salk Institute, which from the outside looks like another office complex. But walk into its magnificent main courtyard and you are standing in a shrine of modern architecture created by Louis I. Kahn.

The buildings on either side seem to fold back, as the expanse of white stone stretches toward the sea. It’s a stark, simple and oddly calming space.

Occasionally, visitors will see what looks like a parachutist floating by next door. Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the most popular spots in the country for nonmotorized aircraft. U-shaped paragliders float off the towering sea cliffs. Neophytes can come to ride “tandem” with an experienced flier.

“It’s the only legal way I could think of telling my kids to go jump off a cliff,” says Danny Dominguez, a visitor from El Paso who was treating his 12-, 13- and 15-year-old daughters to $150-apiece tandem flights.

If something goes wrong, it is a long way down to Black’s Beach, the area’s nationally (in)famous nude beach. From high up on the cliffs the folks in the buff are tough to see, though their monochromatic skin tone indicates they are sans swimsuits. The most established nudists have their own club, The Black Beach Bares.

Up on the cliffs, a lifeguard perched on a wooden platform keeps tabs on the goings on, radioing down to a beach patrol below.

“There’s a spot for girls who like boys and one for boys who like boys, though some of the girls who like boys go to the boys-who-like-boys area to get away from the boys who like girls a little too aggressively,” says the lifeguard, who declines to give his name.

Down the hill is the famous Birch Aquarium, essentially the public-outreach arm of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography.

Farther along is La Jolla Shores, the wide sand strand that’s the best beach in the area. At night, bonfires blaze to keep away the chill. Follow Prospect Street, where Dr. Seuss used to walk his dogs, into the heart of La Jolla Village. Girard Avenue is the main artery, filled with shops eager to separate visitors and residents from their savings.

Geisel, who died in La Jolla in 1991, is the most celebrated of La Jolla’s offbeat literary lineage.

He lived in a converted observation tower where he wrote books about the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, Horton the elephant, Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfer and dozens of others.

Mystery writer Raymond Chandler of “Farewell, My Lovely” fame lived in La Jolla off and on for 13 years after World War II, tried to commit suicide here and ultimately died in Scripps Clinic in 1959. His views on the place were mixed. “A nice place for old people and their parents,” he once remarked.

Tom Wolfe had exactly the opposite take in his short story “The Pump House Gang,” whose title characters were surfers at La Jolla’s Windansea Beach.

“This beach is verboten for people practically 50 years old,” Wolfe wrote. “This is a segregated beach. They can look down on Windansea Beach and see nothing but lean tan kids.”

Anne Rice, the author of “Interview with a Vampire,” penned a recent New York Times essay about her beloved New Orleans from her second home in La Jolla.

Not just authors have called La Jolla home. Actors Gregory Peck, Desi Arnaz and Raquel Welch lived here. Quarterback Doug Flutie still does. The long list of the super-wealthy is headed by agribusiness heiress Margaret Anne Cargill, worth a reported $1.5 billion.

Most everyone, famous or not, resident or visitor, eventually makes their way at some point to La Valencia. The “pink palace” hotel has been a local landmark for more than three quarters of a century. The inn’s Whaling Bar is the city’s best place to meet up with friends. Others like the quieter realm of the lounge with its nearly floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“We came down to go to Sea World, but I could just sit here all day,” said Kim Greiner of Santa Clarita.

Across the way is the Hotel Parisi, whose sumptuous suites are laid out according to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese philosophy of harmony. Though it has no spa on the premises, the cool and quiet hotel has a legion of bodywork specialists on call offering a menu of new-age treatments.

Tres Hall, with Holistic Health Practitioners, does an “east-west fusion” massage that rolls shiatsu, Indian Aruyvedic medicine and traditional muscle-release therapy into one hour of kneading fingers and rolling elbows. As he unties muscle knots, he talks about La Jolla lore.

“John Steinbeck wrote about the place in ‘Cannery Row,’ when Doc comes down on an expedition,” Hall says. “Back then it was a lot more like a wilderness around here.”

Ellen Browning Scripps Park, set against the Pacific, is La Jolla’s equivalent of a town green. Locals host family parties on the manicured lawns.

Down in the cove, children play hide and seek in the caves, while snorkelers head out beyond the shallows for a look at bright orange garibaldi fish and the occasional dolphin or lemon shark. La Jolla Underwater Park & Ecological Reserve, established in 1970, is a mecca for snorkelers.

In the park is the “Dr. Seuss tree,” a bent arbor with a shaggy top that supposedly inspired some of Geisel’s illustrations. Dr. Seuss is gone, but the tree remains. So does his quirky spirit in the rich, off-kilter world of La Jolla.

If you go

* Hang your hat: Despite its moneyed pedigree, La Jolla has several chain motels. But if you can handle the price tag, there are several more intriguing options:

The Lodge at Torrey Pines. The Arts and Crafts motif may be only surface-deep, but San Diego’s only AAA five-diamond resort has great golf, rooms and a top spa. Rates start at $350. 11480 N. Torrey Pines Road. (858) 777-6690. www.lodgetorreypines.com.

Hotel Parisi. Chic boutique hotel that offers in-room spa treatments. 1111 Prospect St. (877) 472-7474. Rooms start at $265 (midweek Internet rate). www.hotelparisi.com.

La Valencia. The pink-painted grand dame of La Jolla has been the neighborhood meeting place since 1926. Rooms start at $275. 1132 Prospect St. (800) 451-0772. www.lavalencia.com

Grande Colonial. Charming restored hotel with lower prices than other downtown hotels. Rates start at $219. 910 Prospect St., (800) 826-1278. www.thegrandecolonial.com.

Sea Lodge. Little sister of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, with fewer services but smaller price tag. The family-friendly hotel can arrange picnics and barbecues right on the beach. It’s the best choice for beach lovers. Room rates start at $209 (based on availability). 2000 Spindrift Drive. (800) 237-5211. www.ljbtc.com.

Hyatt Regency La Jolla. One of the signature buildings of La Jolla, it’s far from all of the area’s visitor attractions. Rooms start at $199. 3777 La Jolla Village Drive. (858) 552-1234

* Good eats: La Jolla has some of San Diego’s best — and most expensive — restaurants. Here’s a short list of my favorites:

George’s at the Cove. The battle for La Jolla’s big splurge usually comes down to the venerable Marine Room and George’s. I’ll go with the latter. Some regulars prefer the less formal (and less expensive) Ocean Terrace Bistro at George’s. But the main dining room is the showcase for chef Trey Foshee’s eclectic “seasonally tempered” menu. The food and ocean views regularly place George’s at the top of San Diego eating polls. 1250 Prospect St. (858) 454-4244. www.georgesatthecove.com

Nine-Ten: Excellent “market fresh” fare at the restaurant attached to the Grande Colonial. A favorite street-front hangout of the dog-walking set. 910 Prospect St. (858) 964-5400. www.nine-ten.com.

The Cottage. Come at off-hours or expect a long wait at La Jolla’s bungalow breakfast institution. Dinner reservations only. 7702 Fay Ave. (858) 454-8409. www.cottagelajolla.com.

Porkyland. My favorite cheap eat is this burrito shop where they make their own tortillas. Try the al pastor (pork with spices). 1030 Torrey Pines Road, (858) 459-1708.

Michele Coulon Dessertier. This tiny cafe has killer chocolate nouveau cake, berry frangipani tart and peanut butter Belgian chocolate chip cookies. 7556 Fay Ave., Suite D. (858) 456-5098. www.dessertier.com.

* Shopping: Girard Avenue, Fay Avenue and Prospect Street are lined with all the boutiques your closet and wallet can handle. A couple of offbeat favorites:

Toys, Etc. A toy store right out of the pre-chain store 1960s, with lots of inexpensive fun stuff. 7836 Herschel Ave., La Jolla, (858) 459-5104.

Warwick’s Books. Warwick’s remains vital in the face of competition from the chain stores, hosting frequent author talks. 7812 Girard Ave., (858) 454-0347. www.warwicks.com.

* Attractions: Again, a long list, so just a few of my favorites:

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla. Around since 1950, the museum committed to up-to-the-minute art is downright venerable. 700 Prospect St. (858) 454-3541. www.mcasd.org.

Birch Aquarium. One of the nation’s top aquariums, affiliated with the nearby Scripps Institution for Oceanography. 2300 Expedition Way. (858) 534-FISH (3474). www.aquarium.ucsd.edu.

La Jolla Playhouse. Often innovative theater that mixes new works with classics. 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. (858) 550-1010. www.lajollaplayhouse.com.

Torrey Pines Gliderport. Offers tandem rides for $150 per person. 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, (858) 452-9858. www.flytorrey.com

Holistic Health Practitioners, (858) 551-0241.

* Click on it: www.sandiego.org,the Web site of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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