Imagine waking in your hotel room and throwing open the balcony door — to be greeted by 40 US Navy Seals doing press-ups on the beach.
That’s the scene that greeted me on a recent visit to Coronado in San Diego.
As I rubbed my eyes with glee, I wondered if the jetlag was playing tricks on me.
But no, Coronado is home to the Seals, those of ‘We got Bin Laden fame’, and them performing ‘manoeuvres’ on the shoreline is a common enough sight.
While many Irish holidaymakers are familiar with what Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Florida have to offer, San Diego is one of the west coast’s less well-known spots. But the most southerly US city (12 miles from the Mexican border) has the weather, the scenery and the attractions to take on its better known rivals. Flanked by the sea on one side and low-lying mountains on the other, San Diego is a safe and enjoyable city to visit, easy to navigate, with year-round sunshine. And its proximity to the sea means the mercury never soars past 100F like in Vegas.
Getting there has gotten easier thanks to a direct British Airways flight from London. I was fortunate to enjoy the luxury of BA’s Club World service, whose sleeper seats allowed for a few very pleasant hours shuteye. While an expensive option (fares start from €2,546) it’s an enjoyable and stress-free way to travel long-haul.
Lindbergh Airport’s proximity to downtown means you can be at your chosen hotel in less than 20 minutes after clearing US security. I stayed in Hotel Del Coronado, a 5-star hotel resort in Coronado, an island in the bay of San Diego harbour and accessible to downtown by a rather majestic bridge. Perched on the shores of the Pacific, the hotel has some interesting history. Opened in 1886, the Del, as it is known, claims to have its own resident ghost, has played host to most US presidents and a line-up of Hollywood stars and featured in the classic film Some Like it Hot. Coronado’s quaint 1950s-style feel makes it more sedate than downtown San Diego but it does have great beaches and a relaxed, welcoming air.
In terms of hotels, there is no shortage of choice, with 54,000 hotel rooms in the greater San Diego area, and 15,000 alone downtown. San Diego is a big convention destination and rates shoot up when a crowd of delegates hits town. July is nigh impossible to get a bed since the city hosts Comic-Con International, attracting about 20,000 comic-book enthusiasts and a smattering of stars. The city is also popular with people anxious to escape the summer dustbowl heat of Arizona and Texas, so spring or autumn are better options.
Central to downtown is the historic Gaslamps quarter, a 16-block area home to 40 pubs, dozens of clubs and more than 100 restaurants, to suit most tastes and pockets. One good spot is Cuce’s restaurant and jazz bar with its wide menu and live music offering. Run by owner Ingrid Croce for the last 27 years, the restaurant is a good starting point to soak up the night-time sights and sounds. There are almost a dozen Irish bars with names like The Field and Dublin Square but unless you are desperate for a manufactured taste of ‘back home’, they are best avoided. Head instead to one of the hotspots frequented by the locals like Jimmy Love’s or the Hopping Pig. For food, every taste is catered for, and there is a big Hispanic influence to the cooking. Eating out is relatively cheap but remember to factor in taxes and tipping.
The city is continuously being revamped and Gaslamps is one of its eight distinct neighbourhoods. Old Town, with its colonial Spanish influence, is also worth checking out and a worthwhile trolley tour departs from there.
If you are travelling to San Diego between Dec 26 and mid-April, then whale-watching should be on your to-do list. Special boats offer the chance to watch grey whales as they migrate from the Bering Sea to the Baja California. The law restricts boats from getting too close to the massive mammals so pack your binoculars. A word of warning, the boats encounter fairly large swells so if you don’t have great sea legs it’s probably best to sit this one out. The trip lasts three-and-a-half hours and if you don’t spot whales you can travel out for free on another day.
If you’d prefer a more up-close-and-personal look then head to SeaWorld where the killer whale Shamu is the star attraction. At $73 entrance for adults, it makes for an expensive day out, especially for families, so go early to get maximum value. It has a number of water rides where you will definitely get wet, dedicated areas to watch polar bears, penguins, sea lions, and turtles, a dolphin and bird show, and loads for the kids. In fact San Diego is great for kids, and Legoland and the safari park adjacent to the Zoo also make for excellent days out. While entrance fees are expensive, the facilities on offer are top class.
Given San Diego’s military role it’s not surprising that the USS Midway Museum is one of the big attractions. The aircraft carrier is permanently anchored at San Diego’s waterfront Embaracadero and for anyone with flying ambitions the onboard flight stimulators provide a knuckle-whitening bit of fun (midway.org). Armed with your audio-visual guide allow around two hours to see most of what the ship has to offer. Any Top Gun fans should head to nearby Kansas City BBQ bar, where the scene of Tom ‘Maverick’ Cruise trying to woo Kelly McGillis by singing ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ’ was filmed. The small bar is packed with movie memorabilia and serves up a mighty plate of ribs.
A short walk away is Seaport Village with its collection of shops and harbour-front restaurants which makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll or bit of gift shopping and you can sit and watch the yachts with envy. If you find yourself with a big hole to fill, Buster’s Beach House has an eclectic menu and some cracking beers, and like all San Diego eateries, serves up huge portions.
Just a short taxi ride from downtown is Balboa Park, described as the ‘Smithsonian of the West’, home to 15 museums and the world-famous San Diego zoo. Housing more than 4,000 animals and 6,500 varieties of exotic plants, the zoo is enormous and while a ‘Skifari’ cable car helps you to get an overall view and a three-mile-guided bus tour offers the leisurely way around, it’s hard to see everything in one day. But don’t miss the giant pandas; San Diego is one of only four zoos in the States to have China’s national symbol on show. The advice is to go early in the morning as it’s when the animals are most active and at peak times be prepared to queue just to catch a glimpse of Gao Gao (Big Big) chewing on some bamboo.
It may be hard to find the energy for all 15 of Bilboa Park’s museums. I picked the Museum of Man, Natural History Museum and Museum of Art and then enjoyed a lunch in Prado restaurant, set in a Spanish-Renaissance style pedestrian walkway and with Margaritas to die for.
If you are interested in hitting the surf or topping up your tan, then there is no shortage of great beaches, with over 110km of sunny coastline. The most popular spots are Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, which all offer what you expect from Californian culture, a laid-back attitude, some to-die-for bodies, great surfing and average daily temperatures of 22C.
For the shopaholic out there, San Diego caters just as well as any big US city with Horton Plaza Shopping Mall in downtown San Diego, which has a Macy’s store, and Fashion Valley Mall in the suburbs with all the big-name brands such as Abercombie & Fitch, American Apparel, Gap and Victoria’s Secret. Or for a more upmarket experience, head to la Jolla the luxury neighbourhood, considered the ‘jewel’ of San Diego.
If golf is your swing, Torrey Pines Golf Course hosted the 2008 US Open, and is one of 93 courses in San Diego, while Bill Clinton broke 80 for the first time playing at the Coronado Municipal Golf Course.
And when you have exhausted all the possibilities that San Diego has to offer then hire a car and strike out up the coast.
The scenery is spectacular, particularly at sunset. Anaheim, home of Disneyland, is just one-and-a-half hours’ drive away, Los Angeles is three, and if you are really ready for road the streets of San Francisco can be reached in eight.
Daily service operated by British Airways departs London Heathrow’s T5 at 15.50, arriving in San Diego at 19.05, with fares from Dublin starting at €739 and Cork at €743, inclusive of all taxes www.ba.com
Where to stay
For five-star luxury, Pacific ocean views (Seal sightings not guaranteed!) and fabulous food you can’t beat the Hotel Del Coronado (www.hoteldel.com). Rooms start at $299. For the budget-conscious traveller hotels in and around downtown San Diego start from $59 a night.
Where to eat
The historic Gaslamps Quarter has over 100 restaurants, offering everything from your basic hot dog to fine-dining. Cuce’s restaurant has starters $8-$12 and mains from about $20.www.gaslamp.org. Old Town has some wonderful Mexican restaurants including Café Coyote www.cafecoyoteoldtown.com where mains range from $7-$15.
What to do
San Diego Zoo: Open daily 9-5pm adults $40 and children aged 3-11 $30. (www.sandiegozoo.org)
Whale Watching: Tours depart daily from San Diego Harbour at 9.45am and 1.30pm, $35 for an adult and $17.50 per child. (www.flagshipds.com).
SeaWorld: Open daily 9am-6pm. $73 for adults and $65 per child. (http://seaworldparks.com),
USS Midway Museum: Open daily 10am-5pm, $18 for adults and $10 per child aged 6 plus. (www.midway.org)
Balboa Park: You can pay separately into each of the museums or avail of a passport to Balboa Park which covers them all. Passport to Balboa Park: $49 for adults, $27 for children. Passport/Zoo Combo: $83 for adults, $47 for children. (www.balboapark.org).