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A small community, Del Mar is home to about 4,500 inhabitants in a 2-square-mile municipality. The town has adamantly maintained its independence, eschewing incorporation into the city of San Diego. It's one of the most upscale communities in the greater San Diego area, yet Del Mar somehow manages to maintain a casual, small-town ambience that radiates personality and charm. Come summer, the town swells as visitors flock in for the thoroughbred horse-racing season and the county's San Diego Fair.

The history and popularity of Del Mar are linked to the Del Mar Racetrack & Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd. (tel. 858/755-1161 or 858/793-5555; www.sdfair.com). In 1933, actor/crooner Bing Crosby developed the Del Mar Turf Club, enlisting the help of Hollywood celebrity friends including Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Betty Grable, and Bob Hope. Soon the good times were off and running around Del Mar; racing season is mid-July through early September. The expansive complex also hosts San Diego's largest annual event, the San Diego County Fair (mid-June to early July), still referred to by most locals as the Del Mar Fair.

Two excellent beaches flank Del Mar: Torrey Pines State Beach and Del Mar State Beach. Both are wide, well-patrolled strands popular for sunbathing, swimming, and surfing (in marked areas). The sand stretches north to the mouth of the San Dieguito Lagoon, where people bring their dogs for a romp in the sea. Beyond the surf and the turf, the hub of activities for most residents and visitors is Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino del Mar (www.delmarplaza.com), an open-air shopping center with fountains, sculptures, and palazzo-style terraces. It has good restaurants and shops, and wonderful views to the sea, especially at sunset.