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Three Perfect Days: San Diego

San Diego offers perfect weather, spectacular beaches, tasty waves and a host of top-notch restaurants. There's also a zoo, if you like that sort of thing.

Author Sarah Horne

SOMEWHERE, ETCHED IN THE FAR REACHES OF YOUR MIND, there’s an indelible image of San Diego. In this imagined place, the views are invariably cinematic, sweeping down the coast and over its sandy bluffs to the vast Pacific, where surfers bob in the water, awaiting the perfect wave. In your dreams, it’s a place where the sky is always blue, the freeways glint with expensive cars, and the people are all improbably beautiful. For San Diegans, who are rightly cheerful about their lot in life, this idyll is simply a place called home.

Known for its laid-back spirit, San Diego is a lifestyle mecca without the palpable ambitions of Los Angeles and unfettered by the foggy moodiness encircling San Francisco. Instead it’s a quiet surf town rendered on a grand scale, a place where vestiges of 1920s Americana sleepily coexist with chic beach bars, Mission-style neighborhoods and untamed natural spaces. As locals never tire of pointing out, apparently there’s also a zoo. But please—zoos are for the birds, am I right?

Gaslamp Quarter

DAY ONE The very grown-up 1Ivy Hotel is, at first glance, the sort of luxe urban playpen you’d expect to find in Manhattan or Miami. But step out of the modish lobby, where staff ers rush about, whispering into invisible headsets, and you know you’re in SoCal. “Have a great day!” the muscled doormen boom earnestly and in unison, blinding you with movie-star teeth.

After talking up a visit to the rooftop pool, earpiece-wearing Doorman No. 1 points you to Cafe 222 for breakfast. It’s a short jaunt through the Gaslamp Quarter, a recently gentrifi ed downtown neighborhood peopled with jeans-clad locals walking yellow Labs. At the turn of the last century, this area was a notorious red light district known as “Stingaree” (so named for the fearsome local stingrays), a haven for colorful gamblers like Wyatt Earp, hard-drinking seamen, Chinese opium dealers and the occasional tourist (they rarely escaped without getting stung). One charming local establishment was called The Seven Buckets of Blood. But that history seems pretty remote as you sit down to a calorific plate of corned-beef hash or peanut butter–stuff ed waffles on bright Fiesta Ware. While this gut-busting fare admittedly presents certain dangers, there’s not an Old West outlaw in sight.

Boomer Beach near La
Jolla Cove

Even in crunchy California, the car is still king, and you’ve already arranged a rental. (Bypass the economy model, for heaven’s sake, and get yourself a sweet ride—an Audi A4 convertible should do nicely.) Then dive into the spirit of things with a cruise up to Point Loma, a rugged headland that juts into the Pacific. After winding your way up the hills, park near the 2 Cabrillo National Monument , honoring Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Portuguese explorer who anchored at this spot in 1542 while on a mission for Spain. However dashing Cabrillo may have been, the real draw is the spectacular Pacifi c, fl ecked with sailboats, and the hills of Baja California, Mexico, to the south, best viewed from the lighthouse. Then enjoy a stroll along the winding Bayside Trail, with its fragrant coastal sagebrush and wildflowers. Just mind the rattlesnakes, and try to retain your dignity as power-walking grandmas in organic loungewear speed past you on the steep incline back up the hill.

Cabrillo National Monument

As a reward for your virtuous morning, take a detour to El Zarape, a casual hole in the wall in nearby 3 University Heights, where you’ll snag a bottle of Pacifico and a coveted seat out on the sidewalk. Catch your breath over a plate of no-frills scallop tacos, served unceremoniously on a Styrofoam plate, and watch the neighborhood’s attractive thirtysomethings stroll unhurriedly down Park Boulevard (don’t these people have somewhere to be?). Make your way to the corner of Fifth Avenue and University Avenue, where a delightfully kitschy electric sign—erected in 1940—arches over the street announcing your arrival in 4 Hillcrest. Window shop in the dappled light along Fifth Avenue, where creative types pick up threads at Wear It Again Sam, a vintage boutique, and thumb through literary novels and art monographs at Fifth Avenue Books. Stop in for an Arnold Palmer at Crest Cafe on Robinson.

A dish at
Crescent Heights

As the daylight begins to wane, you head back to the Ivy, where the sundowner scene is hopping at the hotel’s rooftop bar. Order a “Cougar” cocktail—grapefruit juice and Grey Goose—and settle in on your chaise to observe the local mating rituals, which seem to require very small bikinis for the gals and Billabong surf shorts for the guys. In the golden late-afternoon light, your blond server is tanned to precisely the right shade of toasted almond. “Have you checked out the zoo?” she wonders. Smile as you slip into the aquamarine swimming pool, which feels reassuringly like a warm bath.

Sensing you’re as sun-kissed and laid-back as a local, you walk several blocks to dinner at 5 Crescent Heights, a sleek downtown restaurant where chef David McIntyre, who trained at Spago under Wolfgang Puck, serves up light-as-air seafood and a sublime salad of burrata cheese and baby beets. The restaurant embodies cutting-edge California modern, but as you head back to your hotel, casting your eye over the 1915 Mission-style train station, the Santa Fe Depot, you can’t help but remember you’re in a frontier town. Scan the sidewalk hopefully for gold dust.

From top, photographs by Glowcam/eStock
Photo, Joanne Dibona (2), Ramona D’Viola

One Response to “Three Perfect Days: San Diego”

  1. Todd Says:
    June 8th, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    A nicely done overview of San Diego. With one glaring omission.

    San Diego has been at the forefront of the craft beer movement for well over ten years. It is home to over a dozen microbreweries and brewpubs, that have been lauded by both professional beer critic associations (e.g. the Brewer's Association, GABF, et al ) and the beer community on the whole (BeerAdvocate.com, RateBeer.com, et al).

    With that kind of gravitas — and at a superb beer-centric restaurant such as Urban Solace, for example — the author instead makes the overly bland suggestion of “…a glass of local wine”? Without even a token reference to the fine wines of Temecula, no less?


    Todd Bissell,
    Premier Executive Member since 1999
    San Diego, CA