SAN DIEGO - This was once the Cinderella of California cities — a natural beauty that always stood in the shadows while its state cousins, glitzy Los Angeles and sophisticated San Francisco, got all the attention.
San Diego has stepped out of the shadows to become one of America’s most desired vacation destinations — a Pacific paradise that first time visitors like me quickly fall in love with.
Which explains why my heart pounds and my pulse quickens as the Pacific Coast Highway I’m following passes San Diego’s stunning beaches and brings me closer to a city where the sun shines more the 260 days a year — maybe they should have called it “Sun” Diego.
As I drive, the sun kisses my face, the ocean breeze rustles my hair and I can’t take my eyes off the jaw dropping beauty surrounding me — jagged cliffs drop off into the Pacific surf, thus creating one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world.
Soon, the San Diego skyline comes into view and with the late-day sun bouncing off the glass towers, the whole city looks like a ballroom chandelier.
It’s love at first sight.
Above: The lovely Pacific Coast in San Diego is one of the best in America.
San Diego has transformed itself from a sleepy retirement community made up of naval veterans into a chic world-class city that captivates and excites everyone, especially its youngest residents.
“I came her for school and never left,” says Mariela, the young Spanish woman I meet at a local watering hole in the city’s famed Gaslamp Quarter, a trendy downtown neighbourhood that has become the city’s main entertainment area — dare we say it’s the West Coast version of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Dominated by Victorian buildings, the Gaslamp is home to more than 100 world class restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, designer fashion shops, theatres, concert halls and art galleries and it fills up fast when darkness falls.
“The Quarter is so beautiful at night when all the coloured lights come on,” smiles Mariela, who tells me the Gaslamp’s rooftop bars offer the best night-time views of the San Diego skyline, it’s famed waterfront where mighty warships are anchored — the city is still home to the Pacific Fleet — and neighbouring Coronado Island, home to the legendary Hotel del Coronado.
I tell Mariela I’ll be visiting the San Diego Zoo — the finest in the world — next morning but she suggests I “leave the zoo to later,” and take a harbour tour instead “because you’ll get great views of the city from the water.”
So early next morning I join dozens of other tourists, many of them from mainland China, waiting in line to board a Flagship Harbour Cruise boat for an hour long tour of a harbour where some of the world’s mightiest aircraft carriers and warships — past and present — call home.
Left: The Old Town has some of the best restaurants in San Diego. Right: An army of surfers patrols the beautiful beaches of San Diego.
The tiny Flagship cruiser I board is dwarfed by the USS Midway, the renowned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier which anchored here after being retired. It now serves as a floating museum — complete with vintage aircraft on its massive decks — and attracts plenty of attention from tourists and locals alike.
The Asian passengers onboard the Flagship are awed by the Midway’s size and can’t stop taking pictures of the floating behemoth as our small boat pulls away from the dock. San Diego celebrates its naval history and the Midway is not just a museum, but a monument to the sailors and airmen who have served here in peace and war.
Flagship, the oldest of all the harbour tour companies, offers popular one and two hour tours that cover San Diego’s north and south bays and the one hour sailing I sign up for is narrated by a former U.S. seaman who spices the tour with some amusing anecdotes about his time in the Navy.
Our small vessel slowly floats past the Naval submarine base — cordoned off for security reasons — historic tall ships, and the Naval Air Station North Island where dozens of jet fighters are neatly lined up waiting to take off.
The Chinese are loving every minute of this.
The bay is littered with lots of tiny sailboats and we’re enjoying the salty air splashing against our sun baked faces when suddenly we see a massive ship on the horizon and it’s heading straight for us. The narrator identifies it as the USS Nimitz, the Navy’s oldest and most decorated aircraft carrier, which is sailing into port for some repairs — it can take up to 16 months to refit ships of this size with the latest navigational and military hardware.
After the harbour cruise — an hour well spent — we’re off to see San Diego’s Old Town.
While San Diego is one of the most modern cities in America, its history actually dates back to 1542 when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay and claimed the area for Spain. It took another 200 years before the first mission was established — around 1769 — and the Old Town, now a State Park, features buildings dating from that period. The main square is surrounded by lots of well preserved period buildings — among them San Diego’s first courthouse, an old stable, adobe homes (the Casa de Estudillo, circa 1827, is a National Landmak) and the Colorado House, where Wells Fargo stage coaches once pulled up and deposited new arrivals from the East hoping to find gold in the back hills that surround San Diego.
Left: The USS Midway Museum is a salute to the rich military history in San Diego. Right: An army of surfers patrols the beautiful beaches of San Diego.
Off the Old Town’s main square is lots of restaurants and with the Mexican border just a stone’s throw away, there’s naturally plenty of spicy dishes on the menus.
While diners munch on traditional Mexican fare, they’re entertained by young local dancers dressed in colourful Spanish attire and the performances add a festive flair to the whole Old Town experience.
Remembering the lovely towns and beaches we passed on our drive into San Diego along the Pacific Coast Highway — officially known as Highway 101 — we head north again after our Old Town visit in the direction of La Jolla, an affluent little town often called the “Jewel of San Diego.”
Along the way we pass legendary beaches — Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach — and stop to admire the hundreds of daredevil surfers riding mighty waves until both come crashing ashore.
The main streets of La Jolla are lined with high-end designer shops, famous hotels, art shops and museums, but the biggest draw here is the amazing sunsets that occur each evening. Hundreds of people gather in the town’s rocky cove to watch the sun fall into the Pacific — an amazing site and truly one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world.
After browsing through the art shops — Legends on Prospect Street is our favourite — we secure a table on the terrace of the historic — 85 years old — La Valencia Hotel, a.k.a. the Pink Lady of La Jolla, and have a front row seat as the sun begins its slow decent.
As the sky turns bright orange, we sip a fine wine and enjoy a gourmet meal prepared in the hotel’s famed restaurant, The Med - the seafood dishes created here are some of the best in California.
As the evening comes to a close, we plan our next day’s activity — a visit to beautiful Balboa Park, home to some amazing gardens and where the world famous San Diego Zoo is located — and are already planning our next visit to San Diego because we have truly fallen in love with the most beautiful of all California cities.
Air Canada, WestJet and Rouge offer flights to San Diego from several Canadian cities. / For information on the San Diego zoo: www.sandiegozoo.org / To find out more about the harbour cruises: www.flagshipsd.com / For informaiton on San Diego’s Old Town and its fascinating neighbourhoods: www.sandiego.org / To find out more about there historic La Valencia Hotel or to make a reservation: www.lavalencia.com