Luckily for us a bunch of high school boys decided to skip class that Monday morning and go out to breakfast. How else would we have found the Quail Botanical Gardens?

My husband and I had asked our waitress for directions. She said she'd lived in San Diego all her life and never heard of this alleged attraction. But one of the letter-jacketed youths at the next table overheard our question. He spoke up and gave us directions.

Without his help we never would have found the gardens. As it was we drove by three times before we saw the sign: a demure rectangle sporting the silhouette of a quail. The boy had neglected to mention that the quail sign would be obscured by a jumble of pastel-colored buildings and a hundred other signs about burgers and condos and car lots.

In short, the frontage road to the quail/meditation garden looks like any other street in the bustling county of San Diego.

Bustle is not all bad, of course. The thriving atmosphere is part of what we love about San Diego. The city offers myriad shops and amusement parks and seafood restaurants. And the weather! Whether we are weary of winter or weary of heat, my husband and I find respite in San Diego.

This time, though, after a dozen previous visits, we found ourselves seeking something new. So there we were, headed north from the city, looking for quail in the midst of suburbia. You might say we had decided to forgo the arts and entertainment category this trip, in favor of science and nature.

This turned out to be a wise move. We came home refreshed by the sight of birds and whales and rocky shoreline. We came home refreshed by the smell of eucalyptus. We came home thinking about plankton and sage and stars.

The Palomar Observatory, appropriately enough, sits on top of a mountain. The day we drove to Palomar, we started our trek in sunshine, then drove up into some rain. By late afternoon, as we wound up Highway 6, we were in the middle of a snowstorm.

Snow is a rare event in San Diego County. The highway was soon full of giddy Californians. Any meadow with the slightest bit of slope was awash with kids and inner tubes. We even saw some folks shoveling snow into the back of their pickups. Apparently they were going to try to haul it down the mountain, to deposit in their very own yards.

On a weekday in spring, even when it's not snowing, the Palomar gift shop is closed. The observatory is open, however, and you can climb the stairs for a visit. It's a self-guided tour. You'll read about astronomer George Hale who in 1928, began work on the world's

largest telescope. You can stand next to that 200-inch-in-diameter telescope and look up and pretend the huge dome is slowly opening, pretend you are a character in a science fiction movie, pretend the aliens are out there and headed your way.

Or maybe reality is good enough. This is the telescope that mapped our universe for 40 years. Now, even with larger telescopes in Hawaii and the Andes, Palomar is still used for research and its dome is open approximately 14 nights each year. The observatory is owned by the California Institute of Technology. Students from Cornell and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also do research there. The Hale telescope can be viewed daily from 9:30 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Oh, that Utah could ever possess a science center like this one: The Ruben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center in Balboa Park. Any time you visit you'll see kids laughing as they learn. You'll see grown-ups having as much fun as the kids.

A word of caution: Don't be so intrigued with the main floor displays — the echo tube, the aurora reflector, the resonance rings —that you don't leave yourself enough time to go upstairs to a cool new exhibit called "Faces." It offers four or five different experiments to try — using your own face as the subject matter. (One of the experiments is about digital recognition. Have you read about computers being used at the Olympics to identify terrorists? Here's your chance to play with that technology.)

While the adults study their faces in a computer screen, little kids can play at pancake flipping and cup stacking. Older kids will squeal and bounce about as they dodge meteorites in a virtual reality video game.

The science center opens daily at 9:30 a.m. Closing times vary. Adult admission is $6.50; juniors are $5; with an additional charge for IMAX films. Admission is free the first Tuesday of every month.

You are almost guaranteed to see a whale if you visit San Diego in spring. Beginning in December they pass the city's coastline, headed south to the breeding grounds off Baja. In March they start north again, to the feeding grounds off Alaska. We took the San Diego Harbor Excursion Whale Watch ($23 for adults; $15 for children; 1-800-442-7847; whale sightings guaranteed Dec. 26 through April 1, or you get a rain check). We were there in February. About an hour into the three-hour trip, we caught sight of two stragglers going south.

We followed them at a respectful distance. The naturalists on board had already explained how the whales will surface every six or seven minutes. Sure enough, like clockwork, they'd blow and surface. We followed the whales for an hour. We never saw them breach the water, but time and again we saw a spout and then a long rolling shape. It may not sound dramatic — merely a gray shape among the blue waves. In reality it was thrilling.

Where else can you go to see a mammal this large just living his life? The buffalo are gone from the Plains. Yet here, in this vast rich ocean, this last bountiful habitat, the whales are thriving.

Or at least that is what we thought during the boat ride. A few days later, we visited the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There we had to accept reality. The oceans may not be so bountiful after all.

At the aquarium this spring is a large display about the California gray whale. Visitors are dismayed to learn that an unusually large number of whales died during each of the past two annual migrations. For some reason there were not enough plankton near Alaska and the whales were undernourished when they began their trek.

It appears the whale population has outgrown its feeding grounds. The cause? One theory is that global warming means ocean warming and since plankton prefer cold water, the feeding grounds are failing.

So it is a mixed experience to visit Scripps, where you can't help but despair over the fact that humans may be trashing the ocean. Yet our despair was tempered with joy to be, once again, inside an incredible science museum.

Just as at the Fleet Science Center, the displays at the Birch Aquarium make science accessible. There are dozens of things to touch and play with. Outside, near the tidal pool, is a petting zoo. You can stroke a sea urchin, feel a sea cucumber and the incredibly soft empty egg from a baby shark.

I could have stood at the jellyfish aquarium all day, just watching them pulse, bearing witness to their eerie, translucent beauty.

The aquarium is at 2300 Expedition Way in La Jolla. Exit I-5 at La Jolla Village Drive and turn west toward the ocean.

There are many other ways to enjoy San Diego's natural beauty, of course. We walked on the beach. We rented bikes in Coronado and rode down the Silver Strand, along a narrow spit of land. Highway 75 runs alongside the bike path. But if you look past the highway as you pedal, you can see the ocean the entire time. If you ride far enough, near the end of the bay, you will come to a wetland where you can stop and rest and watch the birds.

It was lovely to see the sandpipers because we never did actually see any quail at the quail gardens. We did see some lovely flora, though — bamboo and cactus and flowering plants from Africa, Central America, the Himalayas and New Zealand. And at the edge of the gardens, along a path leading to an overlook, we saw a few square acres of something called "coastal sage scrub," a piece of what used to be the natural habitat of the quail of San Diego County. This is a small preserve of what is now one of the most endangered habitats in the world.

The Quail Botanical Gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children; 760-436-3036.) They are located at 230 Quail Gardens Drive in Encinitas. You might want to call for directions. Like sage scrub itself, the gardens are hard to find.


E-mail: susan@desnews.com