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The Perfect “Dry Dock” for Any Relationship
On the second day of an extended weekend celebrating our 29th wedding anniversary, my wife and I were standing on the top deck of a Hornblower dinner cruise. Sure, it was touristy, but this was our first time to San Diego, and it was our anniversary weekend.
As we watched a postcard-perfect sunset, people of all ages were expressing wondrous moments of love in their own individual ways—holding hands, taking pictures, kissing, hugging their children, or simply sitting in quiet companionship.
Taking a moment from the people watching, we turned to look at the sunset playing gently across the San Diego skyline. Just then our ship began passing a series of Naval dry docks, where tired looking military vessels were in the process of being spruced up.
We both laughed out loud—the analogy was just too obvious, and funny: Our “battleship” was in San Diego to get a little sprucing up.
Happily, we knew everything was structurally sound with our vessel, but life has a way of taking its toll on the finest of finishes. All our ship needed was a little renewed love and attention and it would be ready for many more years of cruising.
We couldn’t have picked a better -- nor prettier -- dry dock.
With a mild, Mediterranean-type climate, picturesque bay, broad, welcoming beaches, and refreshing sea breezes, San Diego has abundant natural charms. It also boasts a dynamic historic district and harbor, diverse shopping and world-class dining. Going the extra mile is one-of-a-kind, 1,200-acre Balboa Park, just southeast of downtown, and laid-back Coronado, which used to be an island directly east of the city but is now connected in the south to the mainland and forms the eastern side of San Diego Bay.
We decided to stay two nights in downtown San Diego, next to the Gaslamp Quarter, and three nights on Coronado so we could sample two distinctly different areas. Reluctantly, we left big attractions such as the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Midway aircraft carrier, and most of Balboa Park for another trip. Even so, our introductory weekend to San Diego gave us a good mixture of scenery and activities, from urban to resort, city to beach. The highlights fell nicely into the following four categories: "Fun History," "Just Chillin' -- Shopping and other Activities," "Memorable Meals" and "Most Romantic."
Getting around was easy and fun, either walking, grabbing cabs, or using what every major city now has -- a city trolley tour that allows passengers to get off and on at multiple tourist attractions. In this case, the Old Town Trolley's major stops are at Old Town, harbor/seaport, downtown, Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park and Coronado. To us, it was the fastest and easiest way to get a clear picture of how the metropolitan area is laid out.
So where did we start? Where it all began, of course.
Just northwest of downtown is San Diego Old Town, where the city was born. We were surprised to find a sprawling area that included fascinating Old Town San Diego State Park, filled with 1800s adobe buildings that encircle a green square. Each building is free to enter and has its own pamphlet of historical facts. At La Casa de Estudillo (built in 1827), we found out what it was like to be a prominent early San Diego family, while at the 1868 San Diego Union office we learned about the birth of the city's newspaper.
Cooled by a light breeze and plenty of shade trees, we thoroughly enjoyed strolling in and out of the historical adobe buildings and shopping the numerous little stalls and stores where colorful ceramics and artwork highlight generations of Mexican heritage. In the large open air Fiesta de Reyes, we had a relaxing lunch with great clips and salsa and good sangrias.
To the southeast of downtown, 1,200-acre Balboa Park was created for the 1915 Panama-California World Exposition and expanded for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Today it boasts 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, cultural and recreational activities, formal gardens and the renowned San Diego Zoo.
With limited time (and vowing to return someday), we wandered, awe-struck, through the Jules Verne-ish 1915 Botanical conservatory, strolled down the dramatic El Prado pedestrian walkway with its ornate Spanish-Renaissance style buildings, and actually shopped at the surprisingly good Visitors Center. Along the way we were treated to the haunting sounds of a busker's mournful saxophone that echoed off still reflecting pools.
Travel Article -- Romantic San Diego
Just Chillin' -- Shopping and Other Activities
It's true that shopping is the number one activity of many tourists. For us, shopping is just the excuse for slowing down, strolling, stopping for a snack or coffee, and simply catching up with each other. If we find a few trinkets along the way, great, but that's not the real reason we "shop."
We found San Diego has numerous places to do all the shopping we wanted. At Seaport Village (south of the aircraft carrier Midway), we loved the oceanside boardwalk and watched a fascinating display of concentration by a distinguished looking Asian street performer who balanced rocks on anything and everything. Oh, and by the way, the shops in the complex were surprisingly diverse and interesting, everything from Haberdashery (men's sportswear), to Upstart Crow (bookstore and coffee shop).
On Coronado, we rented bikes near the magnificent Hotel del Coronado (affectionately called the "Del" by locals and the location for Marilyn Monroe's movie, Some Like it Hot ). We had an incredibly fun afternoon pedaling on the seaside promenade that runs in front of the Del and then around the south and east part of Coronado to Ferry Landing Marketplace. We were lucky enough to be riding on a sunny Sunday and found at the Ferry Landing an outdoor jazz band belting out tunes to a highly appreciative crowd who cheered, clapped and danced.
Exercising couldn't get any more fun than the dancing and riding we did that day.
On another day, we took a few hours and got rejuvenated by sitting on the public beach in front of the Del. Sitting on a beach is one of our favorite pastimes that we rarely do anymore, and was heightened by pretending the red-roofed Hotel Del sprawling out behind us was where we were staying!
Eating, or what we call "foraging for food," is one of those critical functions that can make or break any vacation. There are some meals we've had that were so good we still talk about them. San Diego has just added two more to our list.
The first was in the Gaslamp Quarter (4th, 5th and 6th avenues between Broadway and K Street). Joining hordes of other tourists and locals one night, we wandered up and down 4th and 5th checking out the wall-to-wall restaurants. Escape Fish Bar stood out. Comparatively speaking, the entrance was tiny, the outdoor tables looked rickety and the chairs reminded us of ones from high school. But the menu was inspired and creative.
Started only a few years ago by a local fishing family, the restaurant offers such dishes as the Chipotle Coconut Milk Seafood Chowder (lots of fish chunks and real curry heat), while the Tacones (Japanese style seafood tacos) is dressed with roasted pumpkin seed slaw, lime picked jicama and onions, daikon radish sprouts and smoked chili avocado sauce.
While Escape Fish Bar was good because of its individual dishes, the opposite was true for the other memorable meal, where no single menu item stood out, but the entire experience was so wonderful that it made our top list. It was the Sunday brunch at the Hotel del Coronado. Staged in the Crown Room that boasts a see-it-to-believe massive, redwood-beamed ceiling, the brunch has historical ambience, first-rate service and above-average food (don't miss the wall of breads, or the crab claws). While the price is steep ($79.50 per person), the finest compliment we can give is that we -- a couple that speeds through any good meal in half-an-hour -- spent two hours there!
Runners up to those two memorable meals was the harborside's Fish Market Restaurant, where the Dungeness crab louie was incredible, and the French restaurant Mistral (at Loews Coronado Bay Resort), where the salmon and ravioli starters were only topped by the delectable black cherry jam dessert.
As mentioned earlier, while the dinner cruise was very romantic, it didn't take top prize. On Coronado, at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort marina, we discovered something even better: a moonlit ride in an authentic Venetian gondola. Gliding in and out of "canals" that service grand mansions and luxury yachts, we couldn't have picked a better way of peeking in on the lifestyles of the rich.
And as the full moon’s glow rippled across the water, it kissed our gondola and softly illuminated the face of the woman I fell in love all those years ago. As our champagne bubbled happily in our crystal glasses, the gondolier began an Italian ballet that quietly echoed off the dark, still waters.
We raised our glasses to each other…and to San Diego, a memorable dry dock!
Jeff Miller is a Denver-based freelance writer, www.jbmwriter.com
If You Go
When to Go: San Diego has world-class attractions and a generally mild climate that makes it a year round destination.
Old Town Trolley: Daily, 9-5. $36 for boarding and reboarding privileges at 11 stops throughout the metro area. 619-298-8687, www.trolleytours.com/san-diego
Hornblower Dinner Cruise: The nightly three-hour dinner cruise includes a free welcome glass of champagne, three-course meal and DJ with music. Boarding at 7:30 p.m. from Grape Street Pier, 1800 N. Harbor Dr. $84 per person. The company also offers numerous other types of cruises, 1-888-979-6927, www.hornblower.com
Accommodations: The metro area is filled with a wide selection of places to stay, from luxury hotels to intimate B&Bs. Four recommendations:
Downtown San Diego:
1. The classic hotel in the city, the US Grant was built in 1910 and has a good location one block from the
Gaslamp Quarter. $179-$569; 326 Broadway, 619-232-3121, www.usgrant.net.
2. Across the street from the Seaport Village, the Embassy Suites San Diego Bay offers a free, cooked-to-
order breakfast.$149-$299,601PacificHighway,619-239-2400, http://embassysuites3.hilton.com/en/index.html
1 The Hotel del Coronado (aka the Del) is the majestic and grand hotel of Coronado and celebrates its 125th
birthday in 2013; $300-$2,800; 619-435-6611, www.hoteldel.com.
2. If you want a taste of the Del's luxury at reduced rates, try across the street at the Glorietta Bay Hotel, which
was the dream home that Del owner, John Spreckels, built for himself and his family; $209-$700; 619-435-
Restaurants Mentioned: Escape Fish Bar is a modest but creative seafood restaurant with a menu influenced by the Pacific Northwest, Central America and Asia; 619-702-9200, www.escapefishbar.com, Mistral, in the Loews Coronado Bay Resort, is a gourmet, fine dining French restaurant with great views of the bay and the San Diego city skyline; 619-424-4000, www.dineatmistral.com
Coronado Bike Rental: Seven-speed and single-speed bikes are available at PeDel on the grounds of the Hotel del Coronado. Rentals include helmets and locks. Daily, 9:30 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; 619-917-3282, www.hoteldel.com
Gondola Ride: Cruises are available weekdays, 3 p.m. to midnight and weekends 11 a.m. to midnight. Each ride is 50 minutes, includes a blanket and complimentary appetizer or dessert plate. Guests can bring their own beverage and the company will provide free ice buckets, glassware and wine openers. Each gondola can accommodate up to six people. Reservations are required. The Gondola Company, Loews Coronado Bay Resort Marina, 619-429-6317, www.gondolacompany.com
For More Information: 619-236-1212, www.sandiego.org
Hotel Del's Famous Sunday Brunch
An anniversary surprise from
Loews Coronado Bay Resort's
Mistral French Restaurant