Ahhhh, San Diego. A place I have imagined only in daydreams. The epitome of all things Californian. Endless sunshine. Superb beaches. Laid back and easy going. Year-round perfection. We had arrived and were greeted by . . . what else? Blue skies and gentle breezes. I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to begin soaking it all up. Two weeks of bliss lay ahead—what was I thinking??? It should have been four!
This was our first real taste of the Golden State. Well, not exactly. We had a touch of California a few years back, during our Oregon Tour. We had managed to cross into northern California just long enough to experience the redwoods, but that was rather more like a place apart. Not what I imagined California to actually be. Although this is a state of many looks, the San Diego scene was how I imagined a great deal of the state. Sunny and bright. After weeks of being immersed in a desert landscape, this would be a big switcheroo . . . a different world . . . and we were ready. Luck upon luck . . . good fortune wasn’t being taken for granted . . . we had found the perfect campground to bring our hopes and desires altogether. Mission Bay RV Resort was one perfect campground . . . and we had splurged on a water view site. Oh, wondrous day!
The “resort” itself was nothing special. Actually it was a huge parking lot, having just a few strips of grass dividing some of the rows, with some trees scattered around to help keep the place from looking totally sterile. Its selling point was the location—right on the shoreline of Mission Bay, with a wonderful bike trail that connected to a whole entire network of trails adjacent to the resort. Its location also gave easy access to just about any part of San Diego, being close to (but not within earshot of) a major highway artery. It isn’t a cheap stay, but its assets made it assuredly worthwhile for us. Mission Bay Park is a big asset for San Diego.
This wasn’t always so. In fact, Mission Bay is a relatively new creation. Back in the 1940s, the city of San Diego wanted to diversify its economic base, which was primarily based around the military. To create more of a tourist and recreational center, they looked for land that could be developed for this purpose. Near the outlet of the San Diego River was a tidal marsh that could be utilized with no small efforts through dredging and filling operations. The river was constrained by levees and Mission Bay took shape and became the jewel that the city planners had envisioned.
This fabulous bay lies right smack in the middle of San Diego and is the largest aquatic park of its kind in the country. It has of over 4,600 acres in roughly equal parts land and water. Mission Bay Park boasts 27 miles of shoreline, 19 of which are sandy beaches with eight locations designated as official swimming areas. Encircling it all, with arteries leading out to other high points of San Diego, is the 14-mile paved Mission Bay Bike Path. You can bet your biker bootie that we made good use of this jewel of an asset. We spent many good hours taking this path to a variety of locations. Once on the Ocean Boardwalk, you are able to bike up the coastline to La Jolla, taking in Seal Beach. And maybe a tasty pizza.
Once settled in and quite at home, it was time to hit the high points of this town. With research in hand and options galore, the difficulty lay in the deciding. Which of San Diego’s many assets should be first on our list? For newcomers such as us, we made a good choice . . . get a seat on the Old Town Trolley and see all the town’s attractions (learn some background too while you’re at it) all from the comfort of an open-air bus! Let that trolley roll! You can cover a lot of ground in one afternoon on the trolley. What’s even greater still, at any of its many stops, you’re able to hop off and tour awhile on your own—if you have the inclination. Or stay in your seat and spin entirely around town, all the while listening to your driver give a history presentation. All well-worth the $$$ spent, with no stress in finding parking spaces.
Another way to get to know the many districts that make up San Diego is to take in their Farmer’s Markets. Always set up in the heart of the district, it’s a great way to discover the different personalities of each place. We hit them all, on different days, getting a sense of how each one was different.
Little Italy is adjacent to downtown San Diego, between the historic Gaslamp District and the high-rise buildings. Once home to San Diego’s flourishing tuna fishing industry and generations of Italian families who made their living on the sea, Little Italy is now a lively neighborhood made up of high-rise condos and sophisticated shops. Having an uptown feel to it, set alongside outdoor cafes and Italian trattorias, it’s the largest of the town’s farmers markets and the assortment of offerings reflects that. With lattes in hand, we strolled the booths and soaked up the atmosphere. Pretty impressive.
Hillcrest is a small but affluent neighborhood, known for its “tolerance and acceptance”, its gender diversity, and numerous locally-owned businesses. Just north of Balboa Park, it is one of the older districts, but its age isn’t reflected in the well-kept Craftsman homes and mid-century modern apartments. It might be on a slightly smaller scale than Little Italy’s farmers market, but its offerings were all first class. Plenty of organic produce, eggs included. Artisan cheese, anyone?
And then, there’s Pacific Beach. Now you’re talking laid back, SoCal beach town. The atmosphere is free spirited and very casual. Its farmers market reflects all things fresh and healthy. With a little face-painting and tatooing thrown in. Tie-dyes and long flowing skirts are still in style. Handmade jewelry and artwork for sale. You won’t find farmers markets like this in every town, and it sure was fun to walk through it. The people-watching was a big part of it all!
Now that we had the feel for the lay-out of the land, we thought it was only fitting that we get our bearings from the water . . . water being a big part of the San Diego scene. Down at the marina, you’ll find at least two companies offering one and two-hour cruises of the San Diego Harbor. We opted for the longer one.
Flagship Cruises offered narrated harbor tours several times each day, even a Sunday brunch or a dinner-dance cruise. Nothing so fancy for us . . . we were just interested in the sights. We did, however, opt for the last afternoon cruise, the late light would cast good color over coastline scenes.
First off, you’ll get an all-encompassing view of San Diego, a pretty impressive sight. Who would’ve known that this is our nation’s eighth-largest city, as well as being the state’s second largest? With a backdrop of rugged cliffs, impressive homes are built terraced up the hillsides. On a clear afternoon day sailing on sparkling water, it’s sure something to take in.
We had a good look along the east side of Point Loma all the way down to Cabrillo Nat’l Monument. We saw the Naval Air Station and Sub Base, cruised beneath the Coronado Bridge, and had close-up views of the U.S. Navy base and shipyards. Never a boring moment!
Probably the highlight for us was an up-close and personal look at the Navy’s one-and-only stealth destroyer, the Zumwalt. At a cost of 4 billion $$$ to build (yes, you read it right!), we assumed it was just too valuable to set out to sea. But it’s a one-of-its-kind and state of the art and here we were within a stone’s throw. Cool.
Now that we had the feel of the town, it was time to get down to the details . . . plenty of things were on our lists. With many enticing activities waiting, it seemed the San Diego Zoo topped them all—so it was easily unanimous. A bright and sunny day sealed the deal . . . we were off for a day at the zoo!
Spread out along a canyon, the San Diego Zoo has a lot of ups and downs when walking its pathways. It is one of the largest and most famous zoos in our country, having all kinds of exotic animals and birds. You’re in for a treat not easily forgotten, as well as a day of plenty of exercise. It’s all happening AT THE ZOO!
The flamingos are the first to greet you! They set the stage.
Never a dull moment here at the zoo!
Alas, perhaps its most famous resident—easily one of its most popular—the panda was tucked away in a remote corner of his enclosure, napping the day away. Not one of the more active animals at any given time, still we had hopes for more.
Another day and it was back to the Embarcadero for us. A Spanish word meaning “landing place”, the Embarcadero is where you’ll find much more than the harbor cruise ships. For us (specifically one of us) it held endless delights. Where to go first . . . what to choose . . . don’t try to do it all in one solitary day! He selected the USS Midway to be the first—not much of a surprise to that choice!
One of the US military’s largest ships, the decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier. For the cost of admission, you’ll have a self-guided audio tour to take, helped out along the way by former Midway crewmen (now retired) who willingly answer any questions you might have. Talk about a great experience . . .
And so another day went in San Diego.
A lot of San Diego has to do with water and things that float. I’m not just talking about paddle-boarding either (although there were more than a few of those). You just can’t visit this town without preparing yourself for hours aboard a variety of sailing or floating ocean-going vessels. To Chris’ delight (how did I guess?), we partook of quite a few.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is housed in one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world. The iconic and majestic Star of India is docked on the beautiful waterfront and it’s the main attraction at the museum. But it doesn’t end there . . .
The museum’s collection includes the HMS Surprise, an authentic replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate, the Rose, a 20-gun vessel built in 1757. It was actually used in the filming of Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Chris couldn’t let the opportunity to get the feel of this ship slip by.
But the two boats that truly started his juices to flow were a Soviet submarine, the B-39, which played an integral role in the Cuban missile crisis . . . and an American research submarine, the USS Dolphin, the navy’s last operational diesel-electric deep-diving research and development submarine. Once again, Chris just had to get a hold of those controls.
But before you’re allowed entrance, you must pass a little test of size and agility.
–which we did.
And then you’re allowed to roam free at will and explore every nook and cranny. Which he did.
And that just about topped off
another one of our days
here in San Diego.
Point Loma is a seaside community within the city of San Diego. Geographically, it’s a craggy, sandstone finger that stretches down and protects San Diego bay, bordered on the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, the east by the San Diego Bay, and the north by the San Diego River. In person it’s a scenic and wonderfully remote spot with stunning cliffs and open ocean views, made all the more beautiful by bright rich green vegetation and sapphire blue skies. Together with Coronado Island, the Point Loma peninsula delineates San Diego Bay and separates it from the Pacific Ocean.
Home to the site where the Europeans first set foot on the West Coast, Point Loma is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in San Diego. The peninsula has been described as “where California began”. Today, Point Loma houses two major military bases, a national cemetery, a national monument, and a university, in addition to residential and commercial areas. It’s split up into 5 districts: gorgeous homes in the La Playa area, the Midway or Sports Arena area, Sunset Cliffs, the harbor side and the waterfront urban village of Liberty Station.
Our destination was the southernmost tip of Point Loma, where you’ll find the Cabrillo National Monument. Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to see San Diego Bay, the monument preserves the wild land on a windswept pinnacle with 360-degree panoramic views.
It was September 28th, 1542 when a Spanish fleet led by Cabrillo sailed into the bay. Commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition along the Pacific Coast in search of trade opportunities, or perhaps to find a way to China or a route that connected the Pacific Ocean with Hudson Bay, Cabrillo remained just long enough to name the area San Miguel. About one week later he was making landfall on Santa Catalina Island. For several more weeks he would continue up the coast, reaching the Sonoma area north of San Francisco before autumn storms would force them to turn back, eventually returning to Santa Catalina Island. Cabrillo would meet up with his fate there, dying of gangrene from an infected injury.
The best known landmark on Point Loma is the Old Lighthouse. Perched atop the southern point that creates the entrance of the bay, the small two-story building was completed in 1854, first lit in November of 1855. It was one of the first lighthouses operating on the west coast. At 422 feet above sea level at the entrance of the bay, the seemingly good location for a lighthouse soon proved to be a poor choice, as fog and clouds within the marine layer often obscured the beam for ocean-going vessels. On March 23, 1891, the lighthouse ceased to be used for its original purpose, as a new lighthouse was built nearer sea level on the same southern point. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is now partially open to the public and has been refurbished to its historic 1880s interior. And naturally, it’s listed in the National Register.
Even though much of the southern end of Point Loma is occupied by the navy, the Point is amazingly pristine. It’s just the old lighthouse surrounded by native vegetation overlooking the ocean and the rocky shoreline below the sandy cliffs. Exploring the tide-pools and whale watching are two very popular activities along the beach. And then there’s the bayside view, with its magnificent panorama of San Diego and the naval vessels making for their berths at day’s end. All-in-all, a very beautiful and serene place to savor.
Perhaps saving the best until last, Balboa Park was always on our radar screen. Too large to ignore, too important to pass by, we took it in on several occasions. Each time we came away all the more impressed. It is a magnificent cultural and landscaped complex.
Often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West”, it is the largest urban cultural park in North America, even exceeding New York’s Central Park in size. In addition to natural areas and formal gardens, the park has 17 significant museums, several theaters, one grand outdoor organ (free concerts on Sundays), and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. There is a wide selection of restaurants (both indoors and out), several gift shops and walking trails to take advantage of. It is at once overwhelming and very grand.
Set aside for public recreational use in 1835, little of the land was developed as a city park for many decades. In 1892 a local botanist, Kate Sessions, initiated a project to use part of the land as a horticultural nursery to be used for the public enjoyment. She would later be known as the Mother of Balboa Park.
Then came the plans for holding an international exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, utilizing this city park as the location. Renamed for the Spanish explore Vasco de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean, many of the buildings were constructed for the event. Built in the Spanish Colonial-Revival Style, this highly ornamental style was the first of its kind in our country. Scheduled to last only one year, the 1915 Expo was so popular it was extended another year. More than 3.7 million people took it in during its run.
Twenty years later, San Diego hosted the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition to boost the local economy during the depression. Additional structures and landscaping were added to the park, including the Old Globe Theatre, International Cottages, and Spanish Village, all of which are still in use today.
The Spanish Village was a delight and my fav venue of the park. Unique, colorful and diversified, its atmosphere was a reflection of its purpose. Unique shops painted in bright colors housed under Spanish-tile roofed buildings contain small studios and galleries that encircle a courtyard delineated with an equally colorful patchwork of flagstone blocks. The atmosphere sets the stage for all the creative products you’ll find on display and for sale. It’s stimulating and joyful and is something I’d highly recommend. The assortment of crafts and fine art will amaze you.
I’d be remiss without mentioning two other significant San Diego locations . . . places to stroll and soak up the ambiance under the gentle warmth of a typical day. Old Town State Historic Park is the city’s Spanish-era heart. Many preserved and restored buildings give the picture of its original appearance. Founded around 1820 by demobilized Mexican soldiers who had done their military service at the Presidio, you’ll find old adobe homes, shops and restaurants with outdoor patios. The stores are manned by costumed employees who speak as if you’re actually living at that time.
And then there’s Coronado (sometimes referred to as Coronado Island). Seen from the mainland, many days it appears to be a mirage floating on the mist across the bay. Actually, Coronado is a tied island—connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land—appropriately called the Silver Strand. Whatever its designation, is has one of the best beaches in our country as well as one of our country’s more famous resorts, the Hotel del Coronado (known to locals as simply The Del).
From the beginning, when the land was just overgrown brush inhabited by small animals, the purchasers saw its potential for being a resort community. By 1888 they had built the Hotel Del Coronado and the rest is history. Streetcars connected Coronado to the mainland early in the 1900s, and that helped bring the tourists in. Today, there’s a town of about 20,000 that relies mostly on tourism and the service industry.
The beach is one of Coronado’s strongest assets . . . consistently ranking as one of the best in our country. Thanks to the mica, the sand is sparkling and fine. With a terrific view of the ocean and spectacular sunsets, with classy restaurants and specialty shops, the Del is reminiscent of the Victorian era. In fact, it is the second largest wooden structure in the U.S.–the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon is first. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1977.
And it hasn’t diminished in its grandeur of a bygone time when presidents and royalty, socialites and glamorous celebrities spent time and stayed here. Fortunately for us, it’s not off-limits to the common folk.
If I haven’t lost you by now with my discourse on all the wonderful features San Diego has to offer, with all the attractions to entice you to come, then let me provide one more attribute you can expect to see . . . one that can easily hold itself in comparison with the others. It is a big part of the San Diego scene and without costing a penny, it’s available to all. For us, it was right there at our back door.
Sunsets in San Diego are a big deal, be you a local or a visitor. Once you’ve seen one, you’ll easily be won over.
One late afternoon found us a few miles north, along the coast at La Jolla. After strolling along their downtown streets (we’re talking high-end shops and galleries), we headed over to the ocean drive to experience a different sunset perspective. Once again, the people came . . . along walkways, down on the beach, perched on the coastline rocks. Another serendipitous moment.
In point of fact, San Diego has its own dedicated, singular place set aside for specifically the sunset hour. Just south of the free-spirited, laid back town of Ocean Beach you’ll find Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Stretching along the Pacific Ocean, bordering the western edge of Point Loma, the park encompasses intricately carved coastal bluffs, arches and sea caves. With its rugged coastline and expansive panoramic ocean views, there’s plenty of room to spread out from the multitudes who all come to witness the spectacular sunset (they hope).
last night in San Diego had us strolling the Pacific Beach Boardwalk—another overwhelmingly popular spot. The sunset hour found us at Crystal Pier where crowds had begun congregating. Some 872 feet long, the pier has been a unique landmark of this small beach community since 1927. (It has quaint hotel cottages atop the raised wooden structure). One last colorful sky . . . and then, too soon, it would all be just a memory.
Leaving the SoCal scene behind,
Melinda & Chris