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Stay classy, San Diego - with a Mexican trip to Tijuana thrown in

A trip to San Diego also offers Eleanor Goggin a chance to experience Dia de Muertos in Tijuana

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Celebrations of the Day of the Dead in San Diego. Photo: Matthew Baldwin, courtesy sandiego.org

Celebrations of the Day of the Dead in San Diego. Photo: Matthew Baldwin, courtesy sandiego.org

Try tacos with every conceivable filling

Try tacos with every conceivable filling

Take a sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours

Take a sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours

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Celebrations of the Day of the Dead in San Diego. Photo: Matthew Baldwin, courtesy sandiego.org

They say it's summer all year round in San Diego. So when given the opportunity to visit the South California city to celebrate for Dia de Muertos - the wonderfully lavish Mexican celebration of the dead - I jumped at the chance.

Although Native Americans lived in the area for thousands of years prior to Europeans moving in, it's thought that Juan Roderiguez Cabrillo landed here from Spain in 1542. A military post and a mission were established some 200 years later in 1769 and while all the action was inside the walls of the military post until the early 1800s, residents commenced the building of the old town in the 1820s.

The Mexicans took over the mission in 1834 and the Mexican-American war saw America take control of the area in 1846. California was admitted as a state in 1850.

In the latter part of the 19th Century an investor called William Davis endeavoured to form a city away from the old town and nearer to the sea. He built shops and hotels and laid out a grid system. When his funds ran out another business man called Alonzo Horton took over and despite the protestations of the inhabitants of the old town, established a 'new town' which is now known as 'downtown'.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the early 20th century military and naval bases were established here and the city enjoyed an economic boom. The Mexican border is a mere 30-minute drive away and the Mexican influence is evident throughout the city.

We based ourselves in the newly opened and wonderfully-located Guild Hotel. Built in 1924, the integrity of the building has been maintained throughout. The original ceiling was evident in my very comfortable bedroom. The restaurant is in the original courtyard. What better way to enjoy a meal than with the clear blue sky overhead. Dinner was sublime. Cooked to perfection by chef Justin Vaiciunas, all dishes are given a wonderful title. 'Someone's thin' was the moniker of the beef carpaccio dish, while 'Gluttony' was the handle on the 16oz steak.

I went for 'Crab it up', which consisted of blue crab, cabbage, Nueske bacon and society sauce, followed by 'Elegance', comprising dill poached salmon, meyer lemon cream, brown butter and spring vegetables, and all topped off with a selection of divine desserts to die for.

Breakfast was a reason to get up early. Eggs of your choice accompanied by applewood bacon and chicken apple sausage or parfait French toast with vanilla bean yoghurt, wild berry coulis, Vermont maple syrup and toasted granola to name but a few. Sometimes the descriptions are greater than the event. In this case it was the other way around.

In 1915, the American-Panama Exposition was held in San Diego and as a result the architectural wonder that is Balboa Park was built. It's worth spending a whole day here to explore its wonderful gardens, the 17 museums and the art and craft studios. I did a whistle-stop tour of the main museums and could have spent much longer in all of them.

All the beautiful buildings here were used to house the injured after Pearl Harbour in World War II and returned to the park in 1947. The park is vast and varied and even the buskers are a class above the rest. A violinist who knew how to play. And an elderly gentleman with an impressive selection of Beatles numbers. No screaming Fields of Athenry here.

Although some of the museums are free, most have a charge and a museum pass is the way to go. Balboa Park is also home to San Diego Zoo. It's a great day out with lots of restaurants to choose from.

While the city is vast there is no sense of bustle or crowding. It's a cool and classy city. There are bakeries for dogs. And yappy hours. And dog surfing competitions. It's broken up into very distinct areas.

Another such area is North Park. Named by Forbes magazine as one of America's best hipster areas, it's full of trendy bars, cafes, microbreweries and boutiques. And it was in One Door North where I enjoyed a repast of a burger with caramelised onions, roasted mushrooms, arugula, cheddar and fries, followed by marshmallows roasted over a flame. Very Enid Blyton. The Americans certainly know how to do burgers.

The piece de resistance of the trip was a visit to Mexico with Derrik from Turista Libre. 'Experience Mexico like a local' is its catchphrase. And that's exactly what we did.

We travelled in an old school bus which added greatly to the ambience. Coming from a very calm San Diego, Tijuana was an assault on the senses. Smells, colours and noise all hit you straight away. A long street entirely devoted to flower sellers, followed rather incongruously by a whole street of car body repair shops. No bakeries for dogs here.

I think I have never seen so many pharmacies and dentists anywhere in my life. And sweet shops. Seemingly lots of residents of San Diego and its environs come to Mexico for their dental treatment and pharmaceutical needs.

Derrik took us on a magical mystery tour. Starting with the cemetery where many lie in forgotten graves, we embraced the Dia de Muertos celebrations. At Juan the Soldier's mausoleum, locals come to pray for miracles. It is a stone's throw from the border - and many who are trying to cross illegally come here at night to pray to him for their safe crossing.

Brewing is booming in Tijuana and Norte brewery is well worth a visit. Derrik had organised mezcal (a local spirit) and beer tastings and a local game of 'card' bingo. Much hilarity and competitiveness ensued. And then it was back over the border and a feast of tacos at Puesto at the headquarters at Seaport Village in San Diego.

Mexican food and culture is huge in San Diego and nowhere is this more evident than in Barrio Logan and Chicano Park. The first Mexican settlers arrived here in the late 19th Century. Originally they had access to the sea. This was removed during World War 2. Over the years, the rights of Mexicans were ignored and resentment grew.

The area was then bisected by a freeway in the 1950s furthering the chagrin of the residents. The construction of a park was promised.

In 1970, shock and disbelief spread throughout the community when it was discovered that a parking lot was taking shape in place of the park. Protests ensued. Protesters occupied the land and a park of some eight acres now exists. It's now an area of quirky vintage and craft shops and restaurants and cafes. One place, Barrio Dogg, is a must for a scrumptious hot dog with every sauce and meat variation.

Little Italy on a Saturday morning is awash with visitors to the extensive market and breakfast at Morning Glory is unbeatable for morning cocktails and chorizo and egg scramble. Pure decadence. They even have a Moet et Chandon vending machine.

The 'Old Town' with its original wooden buildings and array of shops, pubs and restaurants is yet another must. Dinner at Tahona, is another wonderful bit of Mexican food.

I loved Liberty station and its quirky shops and food market. On the sight of the former Naval Training Station, classy shops and a market where you purchase the tastiest of food and relax in the garden where a jazz band provides entertainment with older folk breaking into dance was a great way to conclude a trip. I'll definitely be back. I even bought a Beachboys vinyl in Liberty Station as a fitting memory of a wonderful trip to sunny California.

Take Two: Top attractions

Add Mexican spice

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Try tacos with every conceivable filling

Try tacos with every conceivable filling

Try tacos with every conceivable filling

Mexican food is sassy and feisty. San Diego tacos have every filling possible. Microbreweries abound. All very palatable. Maybe too palatable. Mezcal is a spirit akin to poteen, only smoother. Again, too palatable.

Take to the bay

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Take a sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours

Take a sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours

Take a sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours

A two-hour sailing trip around San Diego bay with San Diego Sailing Tours is a great way to see the city's majestic sky line. Bask in the sun with a glass of wine, scanning the sea for dolphins and whales.

Get there

King rooms at the Guide Hotel from $249/€226 per night; theguildhotel.com

British airways flies from Dublin to San Diego via London Heathrow from £410/€485 return

For more info, visit sandiego.org

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent