I'm a shy kid who loves attention. I know, it doesn't make sense to me either. Because of this, I haven't had something that resembles a "birthday party" in years. Last year, I decided it was about time to and figured a small trip would perfectly suit a birthday celebration: it's travel, with friends, and beer. But, my work schedule had other plans for me and that itinerary quietly dissipated until this year.
For someone who lives in Los Angeles, there is no closer an option for a major day-trip than San Diego. Just two hours away and connected via beach-towns, the two cities almost feel like the same continuous urban area held together by a small thread that runs along the coast. Despite this, culturally the two cities are very much different. With it's own culture, feel, and sights to see, San Diego felt like the perfect weekend excursion.
And so, on the weekend of my birthday, Chuck, Chris, Cindy, and I set off down the 5 freeway towards the Mexican border. The plan was to go straight through but our stomachs made breakfast a priority. When we saw the Dunkin' Donuts "DD" pop up on Chuck's Waze, we knew we had to indulge in the American donut tradition, rarely found on the west coast, so we selected it and followed the directions. After a few missed turns, we found ourselves driving into Camp Pendleton, the major west coast base for the Marines. Whoops! My favorite part of this detour was Chuck's attempt to class-up our quest for donuts to the entrance guard.
"Hi! We're actually looking for a restaurant."
"Well—actually it's a Dunkin' Donuts."
"Oh. I see. . . . . .Yeah, we have one of those. Up ahead. . . . . .May I see your drivers license please?"
Despite the overwhelming feeling that we shouldn't be there at that moment, the guard simply scanned Chuck's license and let us through. Who knew donuts were a valid excuse to get on a military base?!?
After breakfast and one more stop (a failed attempt to ride Belmont Park's Giant Dipper roller coaster—don't ask), we made it to San Diego!
The San Diego area contains two overlapped curving peninsulas that on a map looks like an elephant over a mushroom (just go with me on this!). Our first stop placed us on the elephant's trunk—The Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma.
Named after Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to sail the coast of California (65 years before the English landed in Jamestown on the east coast), the monument is dedicated to his exploration (though it is not believed that he actually landed here). The Monument, run by the National Park Service, is a random collection of features from natural and human history, including a military cemetery, military history exhibits, the old Point Loma Lighthouse, tide pools, hiking trails, whale watching opportunities, a visitor's center with exhibits on Spanish exploration and San Diego, as well as, as the name says, an actual moment to Cabrillo.
We wandered around the top of the bluffs checking out the monument and lighthouse. Though each stop was simple, the view of the city and the ocean was stunning and it was a perfect day out.
After exploring the areas on top of the bluff, we drove down the hill to check out the tide-pools. Though none of us were prepared to hike up our pants, take off our shoes, and tread around looking for critters, we found the area to be relaxing. The slow crush of the waves provided a soft noise in the air, though evidence of their power could be seen in the cliffs, cracked open and showing the colors of layers formed over millions of years. This backdrop made for some beautiful photos and the occasional part-of-your-world moment.
I think I could speak for the others when I say that the tide pools were one of our favorite stops in San Diego. We would love to go back, bring some lunches, and spend an afternoon there.
The key factor in that last sentence was lunch. Though Point Loma is just 5 miles across the bay from downtown San Diego, it is only accessible by winding residential roads and can take 30 minutes to get to it from town. Once we started to grow hungry, we knew we would have to start back towards the city.
Our choice for lunch was barbecue place and darn it was perfect. Chicken, ribs, fries, mac-salad, and a beer for about $20—a super-fair deal. And it was great food, too.
As a matter of fact, lunch was so perfect that it put us in that comatose state that begs for a nap. So nap it was! We took off for our hotel, checked in, and caught some Zzzzzz's. This birthday was already on the right track!
When we awoke at our hotel, the sun was beginning to set. We knew we weren't quite ready for dinner so we took off for the Hotel Del Coronado, the famous Victorian-era hotel across the bay from downtown San Diego. We were hoping to catch the sun dipping below the horizon but missed the moment by just a few minutes. We saw some photographers who had accomplished this same goal packing-up shop to leave; little did they know, the best evening colors were still to come.
The Hotel Del Coronado was as lovely, luxurious, historic, and relevant as ever. When I plan travel, I book hotels to serve as a base camp for sleep in between all of my vacationing elsewhere. At this hotel, I could see how rich people make the hotel the destination, only occasionally heading out to other sights. It seemed relaxing. It seemed expensive!
After the Hotel, we knew we were ready for dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego's historic downtown area. Like most refurbished historic districts, the Gaslamp Quarter had small streets, was busy, popular with the locals, full of bars and restaurants, and parking was a pain in the butt! But we still loved it.
We strolled around a few streets and finally grabbed a seat at a pub. I was beyond stuffed after my meal but the others wanted some ice cream and so we went to the Ghirardelli soda fountain across the way. Keeping up with my birthday theme of eat, drink, sleep, I was ready to crash again, as were the others.
Back to the hotel it was!
If our first day in San Diego was characterized by beaches, our second day was all about the parks.
Our first stop was Old Town San Diego, a California State Historic Park. Part museum, part mall, part park; Part western culture, part Mexican culture, part Victorian culture; part arts and crafts, part tourist shops, and part tasty treats—Old Town was a perfect blend of all that makes up San Diego's heritage. It was perfectly Californian and a great stop along the way.
We visited early in the morning, as the restaurants and shops were barely opening. The time of day, combined with the fact that this was on Superbowl Sunday, meant there was no one around. At one point, we saw students showing off traditional Mexican dances in front of a completely empty amphitheater. We watched for a bit out of interest and in trying to be polite, but then moved on to shops and lunch. Throw in the old-timey buildings and the place kind of felt like a ghost town.
Of course, a big reason for stopping in Old Town is for the Mexican food. At this point, we're 16 miles from the Mexican border and it the food isn't getting any better than this! We checked the reviews of all the local places and they all came up around the same—they were all praised for being "just like the food in Tijuana" and yet lambasted for a lack of authenticity, complimented on their atmosphere and yet ridiculed for being too touristy. At some point, you just need to close the review app and pick the place that looks pretty and has an affordable menu. Three-dollar margaritas doesn't hurt, either.
The next and final stop on our tour of San Diego was Balboa Park. According to Wikipedia, the land is one of the oldest plots to be set aside specifically for public recreational usage. After the Civil War, it officially became a park but a large variety of the famous structures today were built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Today, these beautiful buildings and their surroundings are home to the San Diego Zoo, many museums, gardens, theaters, sports centers, and general park space. Balboa Park is a terrific, multifunctional public space and quickly became one of my favorite city parks.
After parking near the San Diego archery club facilities (seriously, how Hunger Games), we walked on over to the Japanese Friendship Garden. Chuck and Chris had done quite a bit of research on the gardens and wanted to check them out. The perfectly balanced landscape entrenched on the hillside would have been perfectly serene if not for drumming coming from the WorldBeat Center across the canyon but that kind of added to the experience. Even though areas were off-limits due to expansion, I really enjoyed our stay in the gardens.
When we left the gardens we grabbed some water and tea and then heard organ music, not unlike what you would hear at an old carrousel. We walked over to investigate and found ourselves in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, a massive out-door pipe organ (proudly the second-largest in the world, according to the Spreckles Organ Society). They were just about to begin an "Austrian-themed" performance in honor of the Von Trapps, who would perform after some classical pieces, so we decided to stick around. While we didn't care much for the Von Trapps (yes, they're the great-grandchildren of Von Trapps from the Sound of Music), we enjoyed the airy sounds of a real outdoor pipe organ.
After the Spreckels Organ, we knew we wanted to do a museum. Central to the beautiful park is a lovely mission-style building known as the California Building, complete with the nearly 200 foot tall California Tower. This building is home to the Museum of Man, an anthropological museum with roots back to the original exhibit of the 1915 Exposition.
Advertising interesting exhibits on beer and torture (those are two separate exhibits, I should mention), we were interested and bought tickets to the Museum of Man. Unfortunately, the level of ticket we purchased did not get us access to either exhibit. The rest of the museum was a strange collection of exhibits and information on humanity, culture, and evolution designed to be digestible by children. The museum was full of hardly-working, unnecessarily interactive displays and artifacts that would appear real until a closer inspection would prove them to be replicas.
As lovely as the building was (and as much as I enjoy any form of education on the theory of natural selection), I got the impression that we were not the primary audience for the museum. We spent our stay enjoying quick rests on the benches and occasionally giggling at the depiction of private-parts on the proto-human models.
At the conclusion of our stay in the museum, we realized that the opportunity to beat traffic back to Los Angeles was upon us. As it was Superbowl Sunday, we were hoping to commute during game-time to make the best of the drive. Feeling very proud of what we were able to do and see during our short trip to San Deigo, we returned to the car and played music and Heads Up on the way home.
San Diego is a unique city, both rich in its Spanish and Mexican heritage and yet an undeniably American community for over 100 years, continuing to this day in the form of hipster dive bars and its military presence. It made for a perfectly rich environment, one which I thoroughly enjoyed and intend to go back and visit more. But for this trip, I achieved everything I wanted to—a relaxing mosey about with some people who mean a lot to me!
For more photos of our visit to San Diego, please check out the gallery below!: