The Sunset City of San Diego
By Sherri Telenko | March/April 2019
Walking through San Diego’s Balboa Park, I drop a dollar in the gold statue’s basket and he raises his head.Yes, the statue raises his head, shuffles through a stack of framed Shakespearian quotes and then recites: “How far that little candle throws its beams; So, shines a good deed in a naughty world.” It’s from the Merchant of Venice, and I’ve just paid to have my ‘quote’ read from one of several performance artists (mostly musicians) lining the El Prado pedestrian walkway of America’s largest urban cultural park.
A gem in a visit to this shiny southernmost California city, San Diego’s Balboa Park is easily a two-day or more adventure. There’s even a pass for that — the Multi-Day Balboa Park Explorer, valid for up to seven days, gets you into five of the 17 museums, along with eight themed gardens, and even the San Diego Zoo. The world-renown zoo calls the park home.
You can see why you’ll need a couple days.
Balboa Park was first built as the 1915-16 Panama- California Exposition commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal, then used again as the site of the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition. Thanks mostly to the appeal of the ornate Spanish-Renaissance style buildings erected for the original expo, this site evolved into a popular inner-city destination. Gradually, replica permanent structures replaced temporary ones then filled with the city’s prized museums including The San Diego Museum of Art, host to major international touring exhibits.
Gardens. More gardens than you can walk in a day, so select carefully. I’d suggest starting at the 1915 wood lathe Botanical Building filled with thousands of tropical plants. Then, if you’re there Saturday at 10 a.m., join any of the free ‘Offshoot Tours’ about history and desert vegetation or Tuesday and Sunday at 11 a.m. for a Park Ranger Tour exploring architectural and botanical treasures. Or, simply stand on the edge of the viewing deck overlooking the Koi ponds and Zen gardens of the Japanese Friendship Gardens and bask in the serenity, after taking a few photos of course.
Balboa Park is expansive, but parking is free and there’s a free tram service connecting key attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. Yes, that zoo. It’s part of Balboa Park.
San Diego Zoo
You’ve seen the zookeepers on television, heard of this renown conservation facility, since you’re in Babloa Park already, no point in missing this 40-hectare zoo, home to more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals.
At the new Africa Rocks exhibit, see penguins swim with harmless Leopard Sharks and frolic with each other among newly created rocks, crevices and grasslands designed to replicate natural surroundings.
Also enjoying a new more natural home are a troop of baboons once housed within concrete walls of a German zoo. Complex social hierarchies unfold among trees and rocky hills. Mischievous baby baboons scurry between adults engaging in ‘enhancement’ activities designed to keep minds occupied, part of the zoo’s mandate.
Like any zoo that’s about giving the animals expansive enclosures, the park is big and requires a lot of walking. Rest assured there are short cuts: an aerial tram with escalator connecting two continents and a Kangaroo Express bus winding through the exhibits. Pre-arranged private tram tours are available for an extra fee. But there’s more to San Diego than just the zoo.
One advantage of San Diego is the airport is minutes from downtown, hotels and the marina. One disadvantage of San Diego is the airport is minutes from downtown and the sounds of jet engines interrupt conversations, especially out and about at Liberty Station.
Liberty Station, a former navel base, is now an arts district and park, attracting dogs and their families to the central courtyard, hungry diners to the Liberty Public Market — San Diego’s first year-round food hall, and art lovers to any of the 145 artist studios, galleries and dance companies filling what was once a naval barracks and training grounds.
From 1923 to 1997, about two million military men and women trained at the Naval Training Center in San Diego solidifying the city as a ‘navy town.’ After the Cold War, and the closing of NTC, San Diego was left with 45 historical buildings and a central courtyard ripe for repurposing.
Enter the NTC Foundation, a non-profit established to turn the 100-acre area into a creative district housing almost 120 artist galleries open to the public and private ventures like restaurants and the Liberty Public Market. The latter is the first of its kind in the city, surprisingly, because artisan food halls like this are the trend in major cities.
Picture an open arena-like building filled with permanent food vendors (and a pet food and supply shop) of every style, ethnicity and price point. Can’t decide on lunch? No problem. Try empanadas from Parana; noodles from Mama Made Thai; a lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster and end with assorted macaroons from Le Parfait Paris. It’s like eating from food trucks without the wheels.
Prefer a sit-down brunch? Show up early to beat the Sunday crowd at Breakfast Republic (one of several locations in the city) at Liberty Station where you can enjoy flights of speciality coffee, cinnamon roll pancakes, s’mores French toast, and Jurassic pork benedict (or an avocado version for the meat abstaining). There’s almost too much choice.
Liberty Station, a relatively new destination in San Diego, is not far from Shelter Island, home to several moderate to high end hotels, several with boat slips and condo-style accommodations. Shelter Island is not an island, but a peninsula created when the US military dredged the San Diego Bay during World War II.
Originally a sandbank, Shelter Island developed in the 1950s as a site for hotels, restaurants, marinas and public parkland…and Polynesian-themed everything. Tiki bars prevailed, and there’s one original left: Bali Hai Restaurant along Shelter Island Drive. It’s also the location of Kona Kai Resort & Spa with newly added condo-style suites for longer home-like stays.
Across from San Diego Bay, which sees imposing grey Naval ships across its waters daily, Kona Kai Resort has an outdoor pool, tiki bar (of course) and hot tub over-looking Shelter Island Marina filled with privately owned yachts. The resort’s strip of private beach is lined with metal firepits, so each evening guests can grab their s’mores kit ($18) from the room and spend the evening by the water.
What’s a resort without a spa? Kona Kai’s The SpaTerre offers all the services you’ve come to expect including Balinese massage, a treatment geared to pure relaxation and pain relief. Home to live music most nights, Vessel Restaurant overlooks the marina, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner featuring generous portions of grill salmon, seared scallops, and lobster macaroni and cheese countering any perceptions that Californians eat light.
If you go…
Major American airlines — United, American and Delta — fly from Ottawa to San Diego though not direct. Each connect in major hubs such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago. Air Canada flies from Ottawa to San Diego through Toronto or Chicago and West Jet flies Ottawa to San Diego, but with two connections through Toronto and Calgary.
Where to stay
Kona Kai Resort & Spa, 1551 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego, CA. 1 800 566-2524. resortkonakai.com
Where to eat
Born & Raised, 1909 India Street, San Diego. This two- storey steakhouse in Little Italy specializes in table-side cart service — cocktails,Caesar salads, and even seared beef — along with traditional steaks and old-school lobster thermidor. You’ll feel like a 1940s gangster.
Panama 66, located in the sculpture court of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Seasonal sandwiches and salads, truffle oil fries, and local craft beers on tap because San Diego claims to be America’s Craft Beer Capital.
George’s California Modern, 1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla. A little outside San Diego, it’s worth the drive to visit the beaches of La Jolla Cove and watch the sun set. George’s California Modern, is a newly renovated, trendy, high-end experience with experimental menu items and plating. Extra-special is the cocktail list that’s become a book celebrating San Diego’s unique neighbourhoods, of which La Jolla is one.
Breakfast Republic, Liberty Station (and six other locations across San Diego). Here you’ll find creative decadent breakfast combos and pancakes combined with everything you can think of. The brunch spot in the city.
What to do
The San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, hosting a large permanent collection with a special focus on Spanish art and yearly touring exhibits. sdmart.com
The San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego. More than 3700 animals representing 650 species including pandas and elephants who roam a state-of-the- art elephant enclosure climate appropriate. sandiegozoo.org
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. La Jolla Playhouse is home to several original musicals that ended-up on Broadway in New York City, including Canadian favourite Come From Away. Each season includes six shows and coming up in February 2019 is the world premiere of the musical Diana about yes, Princess Diana. lajollaplayhouse.org
Off the beaten path
Believe or not, you can easily walk over the US/Mexico border thanks to a new pedestrian overpass. Park across the street and walk through customs (you’ll need your passport) to Tijuana, Mexico. Why? Join one of Turista Libre (Free Tourist) day-long themed tours with Derrik Chinn aboard a decked-out former school bus and see Tijuana from a different perspective. One of the most popular tours includes a stop at Trump’s prototype border wall. A popular photo op is along the existing brightly painted Tijuana/San Diego wall jetting into the ocean. turistalibre.com