La Jolla living
On a first visit to San Diego, your unlikely to start with La Jolla, but this tony seaside community, which lies 14-miles to San Diego’s north (technically a part of it), is a fine introduction to west coast living, or at the very least, to life in Southern California – one that is decidedly laid back, and comes with an endless supply of sunshine, or at least the promise of it!
If you can hack the lines, start with brunch at The Cottage (7702 Fay Ave), which offers free coffee and plenty of eye candy as you wait. There are stores aplenty on Prospect St., the main drag in La Jolla, but instead head down any of the steep roads that lead off it, revealing tantalizing views of the Pacific. Walk the winding stretch along the promenade, from La Jolla Cove, past Scripps Park, to the Children’s Pool, and you will be rewarded with breathtaking vistas of a turquoise ocean, pods upon pods of Seals basking in the sunshine, gorgeous wildflowers adorning the bluffs, and all along, a cool breeze in your face. By the end of it, you would surely have forgotten the arduous coast-to-coast flight you just came in on.
Often referred to as an island, Coronado lies across the bay from downtown San Diego, at the head of a peninsula, connected to the mainland by means of a lengthy isthmus. It was founded as a resort community in the late 19th-century, and in the first half of the 20th-century, the US Navy moved in, setting up a massive air station to the north and a training facility for Navy SEALs to the south.
In between all of that military infrastructure lies a significant residential area, dozens of hotels, a lush golf course, a handful of marinas, and at the southwestern tip, the town’s pièce de résistance, Hotel Del Coronado, or simply, The Del! Completed in 1887, and still one of the best known hotels in the United States, the sprawling red and white Victorian masterpiece commands respect, no matter what angle you look at it from. Part luxury resort, part tourist attraction, The Del is one of the largest all-wooden buildings in California, and a National Historic Landmark since ’77. Take a stroll through its immaculately kept courtyard and lobby – all accessible to the general public – and you will see why it so deserves the accolades.
If you happen to stay east of Orange Ave., the main thoroughfare in town, The Del also provides the shortest route to the beach, one that has often been rated the best in the US, and part of the reason we’ve decided to spend a chunk of our time in Coronado…
Across the Big Bay
With only a mile of water separating the two, people often mistake Coronado to be a part of the city of San Diego. But in fact, it isn’t. The quickest way into downtown San Diego is by means of the Coronado Bridge, but if you find yourself without a car, the most convenient way of getting across is by ferry.
The ferries depart from the east side of Coronado, whereas the beach and most of the hotels are on the west, so your best bet is to either cab it to the pier, or rent bicycles (there are plenty of rental locations in town). Better still, just walk the mile plus across! The side streets (A Ave, B Ave, etc) feature rows of tidy single family houses, of similar sizes but varying design, and some of the most well tended front yards your likely to stumble upon in the continental United States!
Once at the ferry plaza, which is a dining and shopping destination in its own right, journey across the Big Bay (ferries depart approximately every hour, with a single ride costing $4.25), and take in sweeping views of the San Diego skyline, Coronado’s naval station, and if your lucky, parallel a naval ship sailing out to sea…
Midway to History
Barring a few noteworthy buildings (the Horton Grand Hotel for one), the Gaslamp Quarter – often touted as San Diego’s historic heart – is more touristy than historic. An hour’s stroll around the landmarked district should suffice, particularly so in the evening, when everything is lit up and looking the part. In the absence of a “local” who could guide you to the “neighbourhood scene”, it is also your best bet if you want to get a flavour of San Diego nightlife.
For a dose of history, and to better understand the city’s long-standing association with the navy, consider a visit to USS Midway, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the US, now a maritime museum, housing over 30 aircraft on its flight deck. Commissioned at the end of WWII, and having served in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm, the 74,000-ton behemoth has seen its fair share of historic events!
To the south of it, and visible from behind a row of choppers, is “Unconditional Surrender”, the famous sculpture based on the iconic photograph taken in Times Square in ’45. Forming the centrepiece of Tuna Harbor Park on the San Diego waterfront, the sculpture is larger than life when viewed closely, but its very location appears to be in deference to the Midway.
The long and short of Balboa
For a cultural fix, probably no city does it better than San Diego’s Balboa Park, offering within its verdant 1200-acres, an array of 16 museums, all housed in exquisite Spanish Colonial buildings; a beautiful Botanical Garden, and of course, the world-famous San Diego Zoo! After having seen them in their natural habitat in Kenya last year, I don’t have the heart to enter a zoo ever again, so that was an easy omission. Within the extensive collection of museums, covering everything from sports to anthropology, it was the Model Railroad Museum that won favour with me – no surprise that!
The obvious attractions aside, there’s plenty else to do while in Balboa Park. If you like live music, and fancy the sound of pipes, head over to Spreckels Organ Pavilion – a short walk south of the Plaza de Panama fountain – to hear recitals on one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, one that dates from 1915! Northeast of the Plaza, just off Park Blvd., is the Spanish Village Arts Center, a wonderfully quaint and colourful collection of working art studios, centred around a charming little courtyard. Even if you don’t go there for the art, it offers a respite from the throngs of park-goers!
Beach Cruiser to the Summit
To the north and west of San Diego Bay lies Point Loma, a hilly peninsula that curves south from the mainland. Like Coronado, it has a large military presence, including a submarine squadron and a training centre for the Marines. At its southernmost tip – about 12-miles from downtown – lies the Cabrillo National Monument, set up to commemorate the landing of the first European expedition (led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo) in 1542, to what eventually became the west coast of the United States. For this reason, the peninsula is often referred to as the point “where California began”!
The last couple of miles leading into the monument is past Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where over 100,000 graves, some of them dating to the late 19th-century, dip towards the ocean, seamlessly blending into the horizon. It is worth pausing along Memorial Drive to take in the stunning scene, and even though signs warn against photography (technically you’re still on military land!) no one’s likely to bother you if you steal a quick shot or two! Easier still, and a lot less conspicuous, if you’re on a bicycle!
Within earshot of the impressive limestone monument is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which, at 462 feet, is also the highest point in the area! Built in 1855, it isn’t nearly as old as Cabrillo’s expedition to San Diego, but it does have an important place in the city’s history – being commissioned soon after California’s admission to the United States!
If you plan on biking there (a highly recommended half-day excursion), a Beach Cruiser is certainly not the bike to rent! Streets in Point Loma can be extremely steep, as I found out the hard way. But once your there, the best views in all of San Diego are yours to savour – Coronado, the Pacific, the downtown skyline, and on a clear day, Tijuana and the Mexican mainland…
With very little public transport to its credit (a couple of trolley lines and scant bus service), San Diego, much like its northern neighbour LA, is very much an automobile-centric city. So, despite your best intentions, you will need a car! And having taken several cabs there, I can assure you, renting a car will be a lot more economical!
Once you have a car, plan for at least another day in the area – 3 is not enough! Take a trip out to Legoland; explore SeaWorld; ride the trolley down to the International Border (the busiest land-border in the world!); and above all, do yourself a favour and eat at Las Cuatro Milpas. It’s everything I would have done, if only I had the extra day 😉
A full set of pics from the San Diego trip can be seen here.