California Travelogue Part 4 – San Diego

Public art on display along the waterfront overlooking the bay, San Diego, 2009.

There is possibly no better place to end (or begin!) any tour of California than in San Diego. The southernmost city of the state, perched on the Pacific coast just north of the Mexican border, it is arguably the birthplace of California as we know it.

In 1542 when Portuguese Juan Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay, he claimed the entire area for Spain, usurping the native Kumeyaay people, and paving the way for the settlement of California by Europeans to come; and the rest, as they say, is history.


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Modern San Diego is renowned for its relaxed, eclectic lifestyle, great climate and love affair with the water; providing homes for both America’s Cup sailing and the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In many ways for the visitor it combines the best of both San Francisco’s laid-back vibe and Los Angeles’ great climate and beach life.

Tourist attractions include the famous San Diego Zoo; built like other long-standing attractions in Balboa park on the back of the two World’s Fairs held in 1915 (Panama-California Exposition) and 1935 (California Pacific International Exposition); and more modern attractions like Sea World and the USS Midway, now a museum of Naval Aviation.

City of San Diego from the control tower or ‘island’ of the USS Midway, Museum of Naval Aviation.

The city sits right on the Mexican border; so Tijuana is only a border crossing and a short car ride away for those adventurous and street-smart enough to venture into Mexico.

Giant sailor kisses his sweeheart, overlooking San Diego Bay; bridge to Coronado in the background.

My lasting impression of San Diego is of a glimmering jewel next to the Pacific Ocean: all clean air, sparkling water, and friendly, laid-back people. Of all the places I have visited in California (and indeed in the United States so far), this is the city I could most imagine myself living in.

Star of India Tea Clipper, San Diego Bay.

Stars and Stripes fly, USS Midway, San Diego.

Now I’m no warmonger, and I’m not about to debate the rights and wrongs of American foreign policy (I’m little qualified to do so) – but there is a part of me which has a huge respect and admiration for the men and women of the armed forces; they are often, after all, the people who are left to make the most from least (usually when politics and diplomacy fails, as it often does). San Diego has a long association with both the maritime and aviation; and this association is celebrated and commemorated on the USS Midway, which is moored on the bay right off San Diego city centre, as a permanent floating Museum of Naval Aviation.

Command Tower or ‘Island’ of the USS Midway from the flight deck, San Diego.

Run mainly by ex-Navy volunteers, the carrier which served the United States from 1945 to 1991 – from the tail end of WW2 right up until Desert Storm – offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the men and women who served on board her. The planes and other hardware on display are both awesome and terrible, and the sheer scale of the ship is breathtaking, moored off downtown San Diego like a huge floating multi-storey car park. It is the stories of the volunteers themselves however; from petty officers to fast jet pilots, which make a visit particularly memorable: extraordinary people operating in extraordinary circumstances which are otherwise hard to imagine. The ship also provides an omni-present reminder of, and link to, the modern-day US Navy and Marine Corps which still have a huge presence in and around the city.

F-4 Phantom, USS Midway. San Diego skyscrapers in the background.

WW2 era SNJ Trainer, hangar deck, USS Midway.

Feel the need for speed? F-14 Tomcat, USS Midway.

Huge Capstan, USS Midway. You should see the anchor chain that runs round it!

Flight Deck of Midway is vast. That white paint in the foreground is a number 4 !

Volunteers care for and make the Midway the experience it is today: here a volunteer painstakingly cleans, paints and details a jet engine. He wasn’t too busy to talk to visitors though.

Even if the history of Naval Aviation does not float your boat, there is no better way to get a good view of the city and the bay on which it stands than from the vast flight deck of the Midway.

Across the south of the bay the San Diego-Coronado bridge takes you out to the island of the same name, which boasts some spectacular beaches and some prime real estate including the Hotel del Coronado, a famously luxurious and historic wooden Victorian beach resort which dates back to 1888.

San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride in a tour trolley in rush hour!

But worth it for beaches like this!

Historic Hotel del Coronado – as featured in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

To the north of the bay, just ten or fifteen minutes easy drive from the city centre, is Shelter Island. It’s not often I make specific recommendations about places to stay, but this is an exception. Shelter Island, joined to the mainland by a narrow roadway, sits with the bay at its front and the impressive and picturesque America’s Cup marina at it’s back. With great views of the city and the naval base across the water, and pleasure yachts by the hundred moored around it, it boasts a small community of boatyards and businesses along its miniscule length, including a fabulous resort hotel in the form of Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and Suites. A collection of cabana style rooms and apartments around a swimming pool, with the fabulous marina right outside the restaurant window and the bay just a short walk across the road, Humphrey’s also boasts great entertainment with its summer-long outdoor concerts featuring some great headline acts. Apart from the musical entertainment, Humphreys and indeed the whole of Shelter Island seems so laid back it’s practically horizontal. If you really don’t know where to stay in San Diego, then you won’t go wrong here.

Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn & Suites, Shelter Island – welcome to Paradise!

America’s Cup Harbour, Shelter Island, San Diego.

Working Boat Yard, Shelter Island, San Diego.

Two feathered residents at Humphrey’s by the Bay.

Tiki Art at Humphrey’s by the Bay.

Shelter Island: a great place to watch the world go by across the bay.

Also within easy striking distance of Shelter Island is neighbouring Mission Bay, and Sea World San Diego. You may, as I do, have some reservations about anything wild being kept in captivity; but nevertheless, I couldn’t fail but to be impressed by what I saw on my visit there, and this is probably one of the only accessible ways to see killer whales, dolphins and a whole plethora of other marine life up close and personal. I guess if it serves to educate or conserve in any way, shape or form, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing…

Flamingos at Sea World, San Diego.

Sea World trainer interacts with killer whale, San Diego.

It’s a hard life for a turtle.

It’s perhaps apt that we end our tour of California in the city where it was born. San Diego really is a great place to visit, and I wonder now why I left it so long to do so, often ignoring it in favour of San Francisco or L.A.

I hope these posts might have inspired you to visit California; or even visit again. Personally I feel that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of this great state – there is so much still to see – and it is inevitable that as soon as the opportunity arises again, like the early American pioneers, I will be heading west once more; going to California.

See you on the road.

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