The Surprise of San Diego
The HMS Surprise would be the most famous of all British frigate sailing ships, except for two things: it’s floating in San Diego’s harbor, and, of course, it never existed.
The Surprise is the fictional ship of Captain Jack Aubrey in the popular sea novels by Patrick O’Brian. For the Academy Award-winning film version of the books, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 20th Century Fox spared no expense to re-create an authentic 24-gun frigate from the era of Nelson and Napoleon.
They started with a replica of a British frigate that had originally been launched in Connecticut in 1970 as the HMS Rose. After sailing her through the Panama Canal and down the coast of South America to the Galapagos Islands for the film, the ship eventually ended up at the San Diego Maritime Museum, where it now floats beside an array of historic craft, including the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship.
They make for one of the most attractive maritime settings to be found in any city, and the accompanying museum is wonderful, filled with ship models, paintings and nautical exhibits, as well as a chance to walk the gun deck of the Surprise, which has stills from the film showing her in action.
Also docked here is the Californian, a tall ship replica of the 1848 Revenue Cutter C.W. Lawrence that patrolled the coast of California during the gold rush days. Built for speed, the ship has 7,000 square feet of sails. It still takes people out to sea on educational programs, ranging from a half day to more than a week.
Around San Diego’s Harbor
San Diego’s naturally protected harbor was first discovered in 1542 by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, but it was promptly forgotten for 200 years. It wasn’t until 1769 that Europeans came back to California, when the first of 21 Spanish missions was built here. San Diego remained a small town until World War II, when it became the headquarters for the Pacific Fleet and went into “boom” mode.
Today, it’s the eight largest city in America, a vast area covering 4,500 square miles (the size of Connecticut) with a gigantic tourism industry and sprawling hillsides covered with homes. But it’s also still a place of incredible beauty, and for our purposes, one of the best cities in America for walking and drinking beer.
There are 32 brewpubs and breweries in the San Diego Brewers Guild and many beer connoisseurs (including Men’s Journal) consider this to be one of the nation’s top five beer cities, both for the beer made here and for the citywide appreciation of craft brews.
And for walks? Surprisingly for car-oriented Southern California, San Diego is pedestrian friendly with a variety of walks, many of which can be connected by inexpensive ferries and trolleys. You can stroll one of the most famous urban parks in the world, hang out in a former red light district now pulsating with music clubs, meander along a half dozen gorgeous cliff paths lined with wildflowers, walk barefoot on miles of wild beaches with pelicans and barking sea lions, and visit great little towns filled with art galleries, shops and bookstores.
From the Maritime Museum on San Diego’s waterfront, called the Embarcadero, a great walk starts with a ferry ride ($7 round-trip) to Coronado . Ferries leave once an hour and it takes 20 minutes to cross the harbor with sweeping views of the city, while you sail past cruise ships and aircraft carriers. The ferry docks at Ferry Landing Marketplace, an assortment of tourist shops and restaurants. Breeze on by and walk two blocks west to Orange Avenue for a pleasant 20-minute walk to the Hotel del Coronado.
Built in 1888, the turreted hotel is one of the great inns of the world. Surrounded by flower gardens, it will seem familiar – it’s been in many movies including Some Like it Hot and The Stuntman. There are great walks on the property and beach, and be sure to check out the historic exhibits on the lower level. The lobby is ridiculously dark for California with all dark woods, but in the days before air conditioning, this must have a cool retreat from the sun.
Heading back to the ferry and water taxi dock, Orange Avenue is lined with pleasant homes, palm trees, nice shops, and a great bookstore, Bay Books. After all this walking, the Coronado Brewing Company is a happy stop. They have a terrific IPA and a fun brewery label with a mermaid, tall ship and giant mug of beer.
If you don’t want to walk the mile back to the ferry, there’s a bus from the Coronado – ask at the hotel. The return ferry to San Diego stops at the navy base, during which time you are forbidden from taking photos…. a ridiculous gesture since you can take all the photos of the navy base you want from high above on Point Loma, a navy spy haven which is also a national monument.
Cabrillo National Monument
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to set foot on the west coast of what is now the United States when he landed in San Diego on September 28, 1542. Cabrillo should be as famous as Columbus, but he never got the press he deserved. For one thing, no one knows much about him, not even whether he was Spanish or Portuguese. He had participated with Cortez in the slaughter and conquest of Mexico and because of that, gained the right to explore the west coast of America. In what would become the first of many slights, he landed at San Diego and named it San Miguel – a name that was promptly forgotten by everyone.
So was California. Europeans ignored this beautiful bay for 200 years, leaving it to the original inhabitants, the Kumeyaay Indians. Cabrillo died mysteriously on the voyage and disappeared into history, but his voyage had claimed 800 miles of coastline for Spain. Today, the farthest tip of Point Loma, the peninsular that juts out and protects San Diego bay, is preserved as Cabrillo National Monument. It is a place of wild beauty, cliffs, hiking trails, tidal pools and incredible views.
No one knows what Cabrillo looked like, so perhaps to make up for past slights, he is projected as a handsome dude in a statue overlooking the bay and in a museum with exhibits that tell his story – and the story of the native peoples.
But the most memorable thing in the park is the old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is re-created as it was in 1855 when Robert and Maria Israel lived here. It’s beautiful for an hour, but it would have been a lonely life. Exhibits that tell the story of lighthouses, which date back to the ancient Egyptians. There are great walks on the point, and down below along the cliffs.
On the way in or out, stop on Scott Street at the entrance to Shelter Island. The area is lined with deep-sea fishing charter boats and the famous Point Loma Seafoods, a nice stop for lunch. This is a raw catch fish market, but you can also step up to the counter and order hot or cold seafood, ceviche, crab, fish sandwiches and daily specials, which you can eat outside at tables overlooking the bay. The specials when I was there were salmon from Alaska and oysters from the East Coast, so maybe the seafood is no fresher than anywhere else, but it’s hard to beat the setting with seagulls and bobbing boats.
Balboa is one of the great urban parks of the world with 15 museums, eight gardens, some wild Spanish-Renaissance architecture, fountains, a crazy terrain of canyons and eucalyptus trees, and, of course, the justly famous zoo. It lacks only a great outdoor pub or beer garden, although the Prado Restaurant has a cocktail bar worth viewing. While you could walk to the park from downtown hotels, there’s plenty of free parking and nothing much in between, so you’re better off driving.
The two showcase areas are El Prado and the Zoo. El Prado is a fantasy pedestrian walkway lined with buildings originally built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. There’s really nothing else like it. Many of the buildings house museums that offer something for everyone…from a fun model railroad museum to history, art, photography, nature and science. The only challenge: it’s hard to go in a museum when the weather is so nice and the outdoor setting so wonderful. Come on a Tuesday when alternating museums are free and it’s easy to duck in a couple of them for a look.
The wood lath Botanical Building is also free and has 2,000 tropical plants. But the main attraction is the park itself. Be sure to wander around the formal Alcazar Garden with its Moorish flavor and fountains and the amazing rose garden. Walking Balboa is a blast. No matter how you enter the park, walk across Cabrillo Bridge and come back to see the grand arched entryway.
The San Diego Zoo is a major, full-day time commitment, but you’ll enjoy every minute. The space is huge and hilly. There are moving sidewalks and elevators to help get you around, but study the map carefully to avoid long uphill walks. Even with the map and its clever numbering system, it’s difficult not to get lost in this jungle maze of a facility, where you’ll hear as many wild animal sounds in the trees around you as from the permanent residents. What truly makes the zoo unique is the setting, the wildness of the location, and the huge – yet very visible – homes they have created for their 4,500 animals.
Look for signs for special daily programs when you go in. They’re fun and scheduled at different times. Whether they’re telling you insider info about the “chimp wars” and what monkeys are not getting along with each other, or letting you see rhinos get fed by hand, or providing fascinating facts about giraffes and polar bears, pandas, elephants or flamingos, they add to the experience. The narrated 35-minute bus tour is also a good idea to get oriented, and there are “express” buses you can hop on and off to ease getting around. For food and drink, there are themed restaurants around the park with a selection of appropriate beers.
You can’t go to San Diego without going to the Zoo…the only choice is whether to go to the downtown zoo, or the Wild Animal Park, 35 miles north, which has an 1,800-acre wildlife preserve re-creating the plains of Africa. If you can’t do both, on a first visit, go to the downtown zoo.
Neighborhoods of San Diego
San Diego has three cool downtown neighborhoods, all connected by the bright red trolley system. It really doesn’t matter where you stay in San Diego because a $5 daily pass gives you unlimited rides on the trolley, and it goes everywhere you want. There are some bargain mom & pop motels with free parking along the Pacific Highway that are just a block or two from a trolley station. Staying here is convenient and cheap, but can be noisy at night with trains.
In the daytime, ride the trolley to Old Town, a center of some historic (and some re-created) buildings of San Diego that date back to the 1820s. It’s an odd, frenetic little neighborhood, jumping on the weekends with Mexican restaurants, margarita deals, curio shops selling Mexican blankets and pottery, all mixed with some more upscale dining.
In the center is the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which covers six square blocks with 20 historic buildings. Cars are banned and it’s a quiet retreat from the rest of the area. There’s as much early California history here as you want. It’s entertaining to see a hacienda and dream of an early, peaceful life here. The free Wells Fargo Museum in the old Colorado Hotel is terrific with an authentic stagecoach and exhibits on Black Bart, a California highwayman who robbed 28 stages, always impeccably dressed with a flour sack over his head topped by a derby hat. Stop at El Fandango for a beer or a margarita and some chips in a romantic, Old California setting.
A truly bizarre free museum here is the Mormon Battalion Visitors Center, run by the Mormon Church. Friendly Mormon seniors will greet you by the canon at the entrance and walk you through exhibits that tell the story. In 1846, the U.S. government called for volunteers for the army being raised in the war against Mexico. To help finance his young church, Brigham Young arranged for 500 Mormons to enlist. They marched 2,000 miles, one of the longest marches in military history, from Council Bluffs, Nebraska, across deserts and mountains, arriving in San Diego a week after the war ended. They never fired a shot, but they did build the first road to Southern California. At the end of the tour, there are interactive genealogy kiosks to trace your family history to see if you’re related to any of the Mormon Battalion….or any other Mormons. It’s a little weird, but fun. And the museum exhibits are great.
Swinging Stingaree & Little Italy
By the 1860s, San Diego had grown from the quiet haciendas of Old Town into a bawdy, honky-tonk port with a red light district called “The Stingaree,” filled with saloons, bordellos, gambling halls and opium dens. Wyatt Earp owned a couple of saloons here. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had not improved much and there was talk of demolishing the whole thing, but happily it survived and today the Victorian buildings have been restored and turned into the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s the center of San Diego’s nightlife with more than 100 restaurants, bars and clubs. On a Thursday night in February, there were 14 bars with live music. When the Padres are playing at nearby PETCO Park, the bars can be super packed, but it’s pretty much busy all the time.
Check out the opulent U.S. Grant Hotel celebrating its 100th birthday this year. There’s a nice Yard House across the street for a quick local Stone IPA, if you are not going to make the trek to their way out-of-town brewery. The Tivoli Bar & Grill is the city’s oldest, and one of many haunts of the local hero, former Marshall Earp.
It’s not quite there, but Gaslamp is evolving into a place with a Bourbon Street or 6th Street Austin or Beale Street feel, without the authenticity and crowded with too many chains, but it’s still fun. After you’ve had a couple beers, the nearby Horton Plaza shopping center will make you feel like you’ve walked into an MC Escher drawing.
Less crazy and a better choice for dinner is Little Italy, a real neighborhood with Italian history, classic red-checked tablecloths, shops selling cheese and Chianti, and even a decent British pub, the Princess www.princespub.com. Most of the action is on India Street. It’s only three or four blocks long, but the long lines at the pizza places tell you that you’ve left “chain” country and found the real deal.
The Jewel of La Jolla
This is why people come to San Diego. Although it’s 12 miles from downtown, this upscale village of 40,000 people is actually part of the city, but it’s a world away in atmosphere. There’s a real Mediterranean feel. The town itself is built on a small hill above the sea and has quiet streets lined with art galleries, outdoor cafes, fine dining restaurants and expensive shops. Like most rich communities, they’ve made it difficult to drive in and out of La Jolla village, but that keeps traffic down and the town center is actually peaceful.
At the bottom of a steep hill is the cove that has made La Jolla famous. The deep blue water, surrounded by a rocky shoreline with cliffs that rise to 300 feet is an incredible sight, especially in the midst of a town.
The whole coast here offers great walking opportunities. Follow the sidewalks along the shore heading south, then hop across rocks on a long sandstone shelf with waves crashing and pelicans sailing overhead. Or walk north above Sunny Jim’s Cave on a dirt path along the tops of cliffs covered with wildflowers. The cave is a small admission and worth it for the walk on the rickety staircase alone.
The middle of the cove is The Children’s Pool, a protected seawall that’s been taken over by Harbor seals. It’s amazing to watch them swim in and waddle up on the sand to sleep. Docents are there to give some background. It’s a truly spectacular, one-of-a-kind setting for a city. For a beer, try the Karl Strauss Brewing Company in the village, a local chain with great brews and food …or drink a bit of history at the Whaling Bar and Grille, a one-time hangout of Gregory Peck and author Raymond Chandler.
Up the North Coast to Del Mar
As beautiful as the cliff walks are in La Jolla, they’re better in Del Mar, the next town up the coast. The village is on a busy street and easy to blow by, but stop and poke around. There are some nice shops, a pleasant pub, Bully’s, an upscale supermarket and a nice breakfast stop in Strafford Square, as well, of course, as L’Auberge Del Mar Resort and Spa, an expensive enclave that is easy to ignore.
The chief attraction here is the beach and the cliff walks, where you can stroll south on the cliff top and come back along the beach. You pick up the cliff walk at the village railroad crossing. Go to the sign along the tracks that says “Private Property, No Trespassing,” and, ignoring the sign, keep on walking along the tracks. Everyone does. There are future signs that warn of unstable cliffs, but everyone ignores those too. The cliff path follows the tracks is lined with fields of purple verbena and wonderful coastal views.
You can walk all the way to Torrey Pines State Park, about 2 miles, and save yourself the $10 fee by continuing up into the park. Hike up the paved road for a mile and a 300-foot elevation gain to the high point. Take in the views, see the famous and rare trees, and then if it’s low tide, descend on the Razor Point Trail to the Beach Trail and on down through the cliffs to Flat Rock. From here, you can walk back to Del Mar on the beach between towering cliffs and pounding surf. It’s about 3 miles back to town and a pint at Bully’s.
The Flower Fields
Carlsbad is one of those Disney-like, faux-European villages with English phone booths, flower gardens, and fake Victorian architecture….all mixed with surfers and a Southern California, Beach Boys vibe. It all works, it’s all fun, and both the beach and town are packed with people.
But Carlsbad’s truly unique experience is the Flower Fields – 50-acres of colorful commercially grown Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers. From March to mid-May, there are millions of blossoms at the height of color. Only 1 to 2 percent of the flowers are good enough to be cut for floral shops, the rest are just by-product. But what a by-product, and what an idea to plant them on a hill and let you walk through the blaze of color. It costs $9, but is it worth it for the experience. There are 16 different colors, as well as a rose garden and all sorts of special events and kids activities.
Further up the North Coast
There’s a week’s worth of great day trips from San Diego, all within an hour or so drive. The first grapes ever planted in California were grown in Escondido in the mid-1700s by the early Franciscan brothers. Today, Orfila Vineyards & Winery is still growing grapes on the same dry hills and in the last 10 years they have won more than 1,300 medals. It’s a very pretty setting with a gorgeous building and deck overlooking the vineyards. They offer a self-guided tour and tastings.
Nearby is the San Pasqual Battlefield – the bloodiest battle fought in California during the Mexican War. On December 6, 1846, a force of 100 U.S. troops that had come all the way from Kansas clashed with a small army of Californio men. The U.S. cavalry had only small swords, the Californios had long lances that gave them a great advantage and they tore through the Americans, killing 22 men. It looked bad for the Americans, but their scout, Kit Carson, snuck through enemy lines to San Diego and was able to bring back help.
Escondido is also the site of the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, a full day excursion well worth the trip. Nearby Oceanside is home to the pretty Mission San Luis Rey. Known as the “king of the missions,” it was begun in 1798 and by 1830 it was the largest building in California. There’s a small museum and nice grounds, but if you only have the interest or time to visit one mission, make it the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Beyond the famous swallows that return every year, this is one incredibly beautiful and peaceful place with gardens and fountains that rival any in the country. Admission price includes an audio tour that is very well done and fascinating. The great stone church built here in 1797 collapsed in an earthquake in 1812, killing 42 Indian worshippers. It is still in ruins. The surrounding town is also worth a journey with fun restaurants in a funky historic district around the railroad station.
Just 10 minutes away is beautiful Dana Point with the Ocean Institute and two tall-masted sailing ships. The Brig Pilgrim is a full-size replica of the hide brig that Richard Henry Dana, Jr. sailed aboard and chronicled in his classic, Two Years Before the Mast, one of the great sailing books ever written. It would take 120 days to sail here from Boston to take on a shipload of cowhides for the shoe factories in Massachusetts.
They also have the schooner The Spirit of Dana Point, which goes out on sailing excursions.
For more information on San Diego.
March 22, 2011 @ 5:43 pm
Awesome site! Combines two of my favorite things, exploring new cites and a good pint!
How about tour of smaller cities too, like Columbia, Missouri?
March 24, 2011 @ 8:33 pm
San Diego was one of my absolute favorite vacations! Coronado was one of the most peaceful places I have traveled. My family went to the beach around 6 or 7pm and were the only ones around. It was so relaxing.
The zoo was also quite a memory. I can remember getting in line to see the pandas at least three times. What a treat!