SAN DIEGO - There’s no better proof than this city’s famed Balboa Park that things do get better as they get older. And at 100, America’s most beautiful urban park never looked better.
Opened in 1915 as part of an exhibition to celebrate America’s completion of the Panama Canal — San Diego is the first U.S. port of call for ships after they clear the engineering marvel — the massive 490 hectare (1,200 acre) Garden of Eden is one of the most remarkable green spaces in North America.
However, Balboa Park, named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, is much more than a park. It’s home to 15 museums, spectacular gardens, historic buildings that date back to the 1915 Panama–California Exposition for which it was created, lots of recreational attractions, walking paths and of course its most famous occupant is the world renowned San Diego Zoo.
No wonder Balboa Park is San Diego’s most popular attraction — it gets over 12 million visitors a year.
My intention was to visit only the Zoo upon my arrival at Balboa Park, but I soon got sidetracked by some of the other marvelous attractions the park has to offer, like its award-winning Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Botanical Building, the magnificent Japanese Friendship Garden and the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
No one warned me it would take a month to see just a fraction of what Balboa Park has to offer.
The Rose Garden, not surprisingly, is one of the most popular spots in the city for weddings and with over 1,600 roses of more than 130 varieties spread over three acres, there’s plenty of spots to get the perfect wedding album picture. The garden is spiced with marvellous fragrances and when the roses hit their peak in April and May, there may not be a more beautiful spot in America. Amazingly, the Rose Garden is lovingly cared for by a group of 45 volunteers whose devotion to the garden is truly inspirational.
Above: The gardens and pavilions in Balboa Park are all truly beautiful.
No less beautiful is the Japanese Friendship Garden, which started out as a tea house at the 1915 Exhibition. The garden has grown to over two acres and it attracts those looking for a place to meditate. Its Zen garden, koi (giant gold fish) pond, bonsai exhibit and ceremonial gate bring back memories of my visits to Tokyo’s Imperial Gardens and on weekends people are invited here to learn the art of sushi making, calligraphy and bonsai.
The Botanical Building is one of Balboa Park’s most impressive and was once the largest wood lath structure in the world. Designed by Carleton Winslow, it too dates back to 1915 and displays an impressive collection of palms and other plants.
Other gardens to be enjoyed at Balboa Park include the Alcazar Garden, the Desert Cactus Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Bird Park, George W. Marston House and Gardens, Palm Canyon, and the Zoro Garden.
Since I only have time to visit one of the many museums on site, I choose the one devoted to Air & Space — a good choice as it turns out. The museum is California’s official Air & Space Museum and because of its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, it has access to some of America’s most treasured aviation relics, like a working replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the actual Apollo 9 command module and artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and space pioneers like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Balboa Park, which borders some of San Diego’s most respected neighbourhoods like Bankers Hill, North Park and Golden Hill, is just a great place to escape and enjoy some quiet moments walking in an urban forest that has few equals.
Time passes quickly at Balboa Park and soon I realize I have not left enough time to see all the San Diego Zoo has to offer, so I postpone my visit — a good reason to come back to this spectacular city which offers so much to visitors.
Make sure you stop at the Balboa Park Visitors Centre, located across from the Prado Restaurant, where you’ll get the latest information about attractions at the park. / Balboa Park is open 365 days of the year from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Free guided tours of the park are available. Get a Park Passport and can save 50 per cent on entrance to museums. / To find out more about Balboa Park, go to www.balboapark.org. or to find out about the San Diego Zoo, go to www.sandiegozoo.org/