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Best of Catherine Poe

San Diego Seduction

27 February 2001

Everything "they" say about San Diego is true. Having been raised in Northern California, I thought it was all hype. The legendary rivalry between the two halves of the state has kept those of us from the Bay Area from even considering the charms of the lower half. In fact, we're downright snooty in our disregard for those unfortunate enough to live in the Los Angeles area. So I was stunned to find myself completely seduced by the allure of San Diego.

Cradled in the arms of two peninsulas and home of preternatural blue skies, shimmering white boats, and graceful palm trees, San Diego has the atmosphere of an American tropical paradise. While it is touted as the second largest city in California at more than a million people, it has the pace and feel of a much smaller place. Yes, the super freeways can zoom you anywhere you want in minutes, but it feels more like a town than a city, whether you're riding the trolleys to the Gaslamp Quarter or sitting on the docks watching the cruise ships head across the Pacific for the Orient.

The place to start is at the harbor, where ships from yachts to destroyers berth. Since Pearl Harbor, this is where the Navy quarters its naval air station and most of its Pacific Operations. If you're fortunate to have a relative in the Navy, get her or him to take you aboard one of the many ships that call San Diego home. If you've been a lukewarm patriot, an hour on one of these battleships will quickly have you showing the flag.

Sky High Bridge

However, if something smaller is to your taste, then you have a wide range of offerings: sunset sails, dinner cruises, whale watching, Catalina Island excursions, harbor tours, and even a chance to take the helm of a schooner. For those of you who get sea sick at the thought of a boat, you can still enjoy the vast harbor that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered in 1542. Just get in your car and head to Mission Bay Park for miles of beaches or cross over to Coronado Island via the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge that soars high over the harbor for two miles. Looking deep into the horizon, don't be surprised if you are unable to tell precisely where sea and sky part company.

Once you're on Coronado Island, you must go see the magnificent red and white Victorian Hotel Del Coronado (1888) that Some Like It Hot made famous. Or was it the other way around? Just be sure to visit this landmark and prowl the grounds that butt up against the sea and you will swear you just saw Marilyn Monroe frolicking in the surf. The hotel is justifiably famous for its pristine condition, hundreds of little cupolas, and period furnishings that will make you think you are in the home of a 19th Century Robber Baron. The prices range from $185 for a single to $495 for two, not bad for a Four Diamond experience (619-435-6611).

Of course, no trip to San Diego is complete without a trip to the world famous zoo in Balboa Park. Noted for its preservation of endangered species both in the animal and plant world, it is also uniquely laid out, dropping down into steep arroyos and then back up to what seem like cliffs.

Walking the zoo will give your legs a real work out, but there are also double-decker buses and skyway trams for a less strenuous overview, including the Gorilla Tropics, Tiger River, Hippo Beach, and the Giant Panda Research station with its two pandas and baby, born just last year. Expect to spend a minimum of three hours and expect to spend at least $16 for general admission. What you decide to add on depends on your stamina and your wallet.

Spanish Ghosts

If you're still game, head over to Old Town, where San Diego originally sprouted after Gaspar de Portola returned to the area in 1769 with Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California Missions, who immediately set up his first church. Today only a few buildings and no church remain from the days of the Spanish landowners. Father Serra later moved Mission de Alcala "out of town" and despite fires and earthquakes, it is still worth a visit, as are all his missions, no matter what your religious persuasion. Old Town itself surrounds the original Plaza and the 1827 adobe Las Casa de Estudillo is still haunted by amiable ghosts. The courthouse, the dentistry, old homes, a smithy, Wells Fargo, and a stable make for an interesting stroll back into history and the little gift shops inside offer some very nice crafts. By this time, if you're like me, you're tired and cranky and more than ready for lunch. You're in luck if you adore good Mexican cooking. Casa de Bandini (619-297-8211) has been on the Plaza since 1829 where it has been the headquarters of Commodore Stockton, home to the Bandini family, a stage coach stop, a hotel, a motel, and now a historic site that houses one of the best Mexican restaurants in the area. A two story, white-washed adobe hacienda built around a patio of fountains and purple bougainvillea, the restaurant will transplant you to another time whether you dine indoors or out. A lunch of chili relleno, tamale, and enchilada verde will cost you $8.95 at lunch, but, of course, you must start with concha de guacamole for $5.25. And there's wine and beer and flan and Mexican coffee. Just don't plan to eat dinner that night.

After such a lunch perhaps it is wise to do some serious strolling in the Gaslamp Quarter in the downtown or visit one of the many museums in Balboa Park from aerospace to model railroad to photographic arts. One of the museums I found challenging is the austerely elegant Museum of Contemporary Art Downtown with its four galleries on two levels and some of the most far-reaching modern art you will ever see. This is cutting edge stuff. The kind that makes you scratch your head and say why? The Museum is an in-your-face kind of place that provokes you to try to understand modern art. I still don't, but, yes, I found it provocative.

Third World

Since you're already at Kettner Blvd. and Broadway, note it, because tomorrow you can catch the trolley here to Tijuana, a jaunt into the Third World. As soon as you cross the border into Mexico, you can't help but notice the ubiquitous haze that obliterates the eternal blue skies of San Diego. Here air pollution is the norm. Suddenly the humongous Mexican flag flapping over the desolate landscape reminds you what happens when government is indifferent to its environment.

If for nothing more than to see the contrast, Tijuana is worth the trip. Would I buy anything there? I didn't. The "bargains" didn't look like bargains to me. The constant pulling and harassing by merchants made shopping an unpleasant experience. However, the pristine drug stores with their immaculate staff in white coats made me understand why many Americans come here to shop for prescription drugs at reasonable prices. Tijuana has all the problems of a border town and none of the sophistication of Mexico City. Still it's worth a detour to see another world.

For a real treat, head north along the coast, following the Pacific Highway to LaJolla, Del Mar, and Solana Beach, little coastal towns that cling to the cliffs or hug the shore. LaJolla is pricey and pretty, with a lovely public park jutting over the sea. It's worth a drive among the pastel mansions that climb the hills to see how the other half lives. And if you are a diver, you can scuba the underwater museum off the rocky coast or if you're more timid like me, you can descend to the Sunny Jim Cave, accessible via a staircase in souvenir shop at 1325 Coast Blvd.

For those of you who have fallen in love with Carmel, Del Mar will remind you of it with its Tudor-style shops and hotels, its low-key charm and its lush foliage. I used it as my base, staying at the Del Mar Carriage Inn (800-451-4515) where a room for $125 got me a kitchen, a Continental breakfast at the door, and tea in the library in the afternoons, all set in faux, but tasteful Tudor decor and surrounded by luxuriant gardens and the requisite California pool. It was only a twenty-minute drive from San Diego and a lovely drive at that.

Seafood and Sunsets

Better yet it was near The Poseidon Restaurant (858-755-9345) on the Coast Blvd. that is a must for any lover of seafood and sunsets. Situated on the beach, facing the ocean, Poseidon, Greek for Neptune, the ruler of the ocean, is perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner. But dinner means entrees such as steamed salmon with caper cream sauce or grilled prawns or swordfish with Creole-pepper garlic aioli. A complete dinner should cost you around $25-$30. But it is the sunset that is priceless. So make reservations for a beach-side table, watch the brown pelicans soar and scan the ocean, lean back, and let the sun do its thing. It will stay emblazoned on your eyeballs for years to come.

With all the wonderful seafood houses and Mexican restaurants in San Diego, no one should ever be hungry for long. You can splurge on fine Continental dining with a panoramic view of the city and harbor at Mister A's (619-239-1377) or relish the fine fish at Sally's (619-687-6080) down by the Marina or dig into a Southwest brunch at Senor Spencer's (619-692-2777) without emptying your wallet. If $125 is too steep a tab for a place to lay your head, there are plenty of more reasonable rooms. Travelodge at Sea World (619-224-31660) starts at $49, Rodeway Inn (619-239-2285) at the zoo starts at $69, and if you want something cozier, try the Balboa Park Inn (619) 298-0823), set in a courtyard of landscaped gardens, starting at $80.

However, no one goes to San Diego to sleep. If you're there in the summer, free concerts in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion draws nightly crowds to the largest organ in the world. By now some of you may be hankering for a little action. Then it's time to head out Interstate 8 to Viejas Casino and Turf Club ( run by one of the 12 tribes of the Kumeyaay Indian Nation. Here you can challenge your skills at Indian Blackjack, Off Track Betting, Poker, Pai Gow Poker, and Bingo. Like most casinos, this one prides itself on its restaurants and entertainment, which can include lessons in line dancing or a Rick Springfield concert. Call the DreamCatcher Calendar (619-220-TIXS) for information and prices. With delis and fast food on the premises, Viejas also offers fine dining at The Grove Steakhouse (800-847-6537) and an array of specialties at the Harvest Buffet from carving stations to creating your own baked potatoes masterpieces.

Just across the road is the Viejas Outlet Center, a mall with a Native American theme and a place to spend your winnings, where shops like Jones of New York to Big Dogs are eager to share in your good luck. But if your wallet is deflated, your spirits needn't be. A free show, actually a spectacular, goes on every night at 7:30, " Splash Tracks, A Musical Journey of Hits." It aims to targets our senses with a symphony of lasers, lights, pyrotechnics and music, insuring that no one can be blue for very long.

If after all of this, your senses need a rest, just head back to the Harbor and sit on the docks for awhile. See if you can tell where the sky and the sea part company. I can't think of a better way to unwind.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.