Thursday 26 April 2018

San Diego: Some like it hot

San Diego skyline
San Diego skyline
USS Midway

Sophie Gorman

With the best climate in the US, not to mention big-screen friendly hotels and foodie delights, San Diego is more than just a gateway destination, says Sophie Gorman

Mention San Diego and the first thing that most people think of is the city's famous zoo.

The second is the television show filmed here, 'Baywatch' -- those red shorts and yellow lifesavers, not to mention the seemingly endless sandy beaches that David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson cantered along.

Interestingly, what few people first think of is San Diego as a holiday destination in itself. And I was one of those doubters.

Many consider it to be simply a handy gateway, with Disneyland just a 90-minute drive away, LA fewer than three hours up the motorway and Mexico's kaleidoscopic Tijuana barely 15 minutes down the road to the border.

This is particularly curious given that the city is regarded as having the best climate in America, hovering in the early 20 degrees all year round, and those blindingly white beaches are indeed a reality, as I soon discover.

Indeed, if you happen to be ambling along the sands at the right time of the morning, they may also be filled with troops of navy seals performing impressively synchronised workouts.

It is quite the performance to admire, as you sip your frothy cappuccino and contemplate whether a paddle would be too strenuous.

This is due to the fact that the city is home to the largest naval base on the West Coast.

The best vantage point, both for alabaster sands and athletic soldiers, is the small town of Coronado, a short drive but another world from downtown San Diego.

A rarefied place filled with craftsman's houses from the 1930s and 1940s, it is extremely quiet at night, the only soundtrack being the waves crashing against the strand, which makes it the perfect retreat if you seek calm.

There are a couple of streets of cafés and bookshops, the odd swimwear shop, no McDonald's, and one Irish bar that is as quiet as the proverbial mouse after 10pm.

Despite its proximity to the Mexican border, Coronado does not feature much diversity.

The place to stay is the famous Hotel Del Coronado, known simply as The Del. This sprawling hotel complex, easily identifiable by its red shingle roofs, is where one famous local is said to have met her prince charming.

The local in question was one Wallis Simpson, and it is true that she and Edward were there at the same time and it coincided with the start of their romance.

This landmark hotel also served as a backdrop for 'Some Like It Hot' and there are numerous photographs of a giggling Marilyn Monroe posing in front of it and running into the sea.

The Del may not have changed much since Marilyn stayed, but it has a certain enduring elegance.

And to experience it fully, you should indulge in the Sunday brunch overlooking the sea. Yes, it is ridiculously expensive ($80/€61), but it is the equivalent of breakfast, lunch and dinner for at least three days.

Where else can you start with a made-to-order omelette, move on to some braised short ribs, some seared ahi tuna sushi, oysters, a bowl of lobster bisque, a plate of black-truffle mac 'n' cheese, and finally head towards the three dessert stations to design your own cupcake, nibble millefeuille and dip giant strawberries in the chocolate fountain.

I knew it was time to give up after my final (eighth) course was a plate of jelly beans.

After a couple of days resting in Coronado, you might feel the need for loud chatter, for the sheer boldness of jaywalking.

Relocating to the Gaslamp Quarter at the heart of San Diego's downtown, the best place to stay is the iconic US Grant Hotel.

This hotel is perfectly located -- everywhere you would want to visit downtown is at most a short stroll away.

For your reintroduction to nightlife, you could start your evening with a bite and some jazz at Croce's, the restaurant owned by Ingrid Croce, widow of singer Jim Croce, he of 'Bad Bad Leroy Brown' and 'Time in a Bottle'.

This bustling restaurant was one of the first to set up in this district and is at least partially responsible for transforming this area from grotty and seedy to the heart of San Diego's upmarket nightlight. From there, the night is your oyster.

In fact, they do rather fine dining in San Diego, as opposed to fussily formal fine dining.

Searsucker restaurant provides one of those meals so special you would consider travelling long distances for it.

Run by chef/owner Brian Malarkey, a finalist from America's 'Top Chef', this offers a relaxed and warm welcome, with its industrial interiors, exposed lightbulbs and bare bricks. Even the menu reads like a casual bite.

But once the food arrives, you know this is a serious meal, with extraordinarily inventive chefs in the kitchen. The crab cakes Dungeness with Tabasco and goodness knows what else would be worth the return flight on their own.

From the early 1930s up until the late 1970s, San Diego enjoyed the unusual title of the Tuna Capital of the World. More than 40,000 people were employed directly or indirectly by the industry.

Curiously, the one ingredient I don't see on many menus is tuna. Perhaps they suffered tuna fatigue.

'Top Gun' was also partially shot in San Diego, and key scenes between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis were filmed in a surprisingly low-key bar, Kansas City Barbecue, just near the waterfront.

Today, thankfully, the bar remains mainly merchandise-free, apart from one small wall that is something of a shrine.

Instead, you have grizzly locals who are all ex-navy, giant pitchers of beer and a ceiling fan covered in ladies underwear.

It's not subtle, but it is real.

And then, of course, there's the zoo. This is located within the 1,200 acres of Balboa Park, which also plays host to a golf course and a densely concentrated museum quarter.

In many ways, this is quite an old-fashioned zoo, with some small enclosures for the bigger animals. And it is somewhat troubling that they proudly boast about giving their elephants a 'pedicure' every day, which seems to contradict their determination to provide the most natural habitat possible for these magnificent beasts.

But they are constantly expanding their pens and have established an international reputation for their breeding programmes.

One particularly successful example is the Californian Condor. Apparently, there were just 22 of these impressive vultures left in the whole world when the zoo decided upon a very risky strategy and brought all 22 into captivity.

Rather than destroy the species, though, they have now bred more than 400 condors, of which almost 300 have been released back into the wild. The zoo has also introduced a vast new safari section, where animals are free to roam.

Like much of America, visits are breathtakingly expensive in San Diego, particularly if you have a family, but there are ways around this.

It is unlikely that many people pay the full $43 adult entrance fee to the zoo or the whopping $73 charge for Sea World, as there are all kinds of bargains offered by travel websites.

Indeed, if you visit in October, children go free to the zoo for the entire month.

Return another day to the park to explore the museums and galleries themselves, which are almost overwhelming in their quantity.

The thing to do is select a handful that you really want to see and plot your route.

I particularly liked the Museum of Photographic Arts, which has an impressive permanent exhibition, as well as regularly changing ones.

The Natural History Museum is a great visit for children of every age, and they have just opened a major exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the Titanic -- it boasts the biggest 3D screen in California.

In some ways, there is a comforting air of predictability about San Diego. You know exactly what kind of place it is the moment you arrive.

But just when you think it is almost too safe, you stroll down the Prado Avenue at sunset and an extraordinary voice beguiles.

You follow and discover not a rotund Italian opera dame, but rather a wily male creature, singing in a four-octave range, with percussion strapped to his ankles and a violin under his chin.

This unearthly musical marvel turns out to be Thoth and apparently he is a regular, if ever unpredictable, feature on the city's streets.

San Diego can, and will, surprise you.

FIVE THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO

1 Take an afternoon cruise out of the bay. See how many whales you can spot. (flagshipsd.com).

2 Tale a tour around the USS Midway (right), a giant aircraft carrier moored in the bay, now home to a maritime museum (midway.org).

3 Take a drive along the rather breathtaking coast, with pitstops for Californian wine tasting and ice cream.

4 See the town from a Segway. Apparently, the motorised vehicle is the best way to travel and there are special group tours. (segwaypb.com).

5 See pandas. San Diego Zoo is home to three pandas, including Hua Mei, who was born there (sandiegozoo.org).

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