By Lesley Sauls- It has been a long time since I graduated high school in San Diego and a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge, but when I had the opportunity to take my new husband to my old stomping grounds, I leapt at the chance. He was invited to a meeting in “America’s Finest City” over my birthday weekend, a perfect incentive.
I got my first inkling that some things had changed when I peered out my airplane window as we dipped down between city buildings before landing; there were a lot more buildings than I remembered. The airport was bustling and much bigger and brighter than it had been, but we navigated it easily and were soon in our rental car and on our way north to explore the beaches.
A drive up through Mission Beach revealed that the old “Giant Dipper” wooden roller coaster is still in full swing, and the beachgoers were still wandering the boardwalk and soaking up the sun. The neighborhoods were in a bit better shape than they had once been; BMWs had replaced the sandy, beat-up VW vans.
Moving up the coast we dipped into La Jolla and were lucky to find street parking right in the heart of the art galleries we had come to peruse. From Miro prints to Lik photographs, we soaked them all up, and the vintage autos on display at Pacific Sotheby’s were an exotic treat to the eyes. But the biggest reveal happened three miles away atop Mount Soledad.
San Diego’s highest point is where more than 3,500 veterans are memorialized with a large monument. As we walked around the park to take in the spectacular view I was able to point out La Jolla Shores, Scripps Pier and the University of California San Diego campus to my husband. Farther around we saw the Miramar Air Station that had featured in “Top Gun” when it was still a Navy base and then completed our circle with a view of Coronado, Mission Bay, Mexico and the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Shining under Southern California sun or glowing with twinkling lights, the view from Mount Soledad is priceless.
We drove on up the coast to Del Mar, where the Poseidon restaurant on the beach still offers one of the best sunset-view dinners in San Diego. Sunglasses on, we tucked into ceviche and scallops with a slightly chilled glass of Bordeaux Blanc. By the time the sun dipped into the Pacific with light applause from the surrounding tables we were onto our Chilean sea bass and yellowfin tuna, a relaxing end to our delightful day.
We had one more day to play before work began. From our central downtown location we could choose a visit to Seaport Village, a cruise around the harbor or a stroll through Balboa Park. A mutual interest in aviation drew us to the park for a visit to the Air and Space Museum, where we witnessed the evolution of aviation from a 1783 hot-air balloon to a modern GPS satellite with detailed dioramas and histories for each era.
We lunched on sangria and salads under a red umbrella on The Prado’s lush patio before wandering on to visit the Timken Museum of Art, a small gallery with a varied collection. Just beyond the Timken dappled sunlight spills through a century-old lath structure that surrounds thousands of tropical plants, ferns and orchids with a few fountains and benches where we could relax in the cool shade.
Many of the buildings in Balboa Park were built for the 1915 Panama-California and the 1935 California Pacific International Expositions. The detailed Spanish architecture was too beautiful to let go, so the city built up around it, and now the park boasts the world-famous conservation-oriented San Diego Zoo, 16 museums and several cultural organizations within its 1,200 acres of verdant gardens, trails and woodlands. As we walked through the International Cottages, each dedicated to a different country’s culture, geography and history, we could hear notes on the breeze from the Spreckels Organ being played as it has been since 1915.
Not far from Balboa Park is Little Italy, a part of San Diego established by Italian fishing families and now brimming with galleries, nightlife, Italian markets and restaurants that make it the largest Little Italy in the country. As a nod to my Italian step-dad who loved this neighborhood, my husband and I slipped through a densely shelved Italian market into another world where Chianti bottles and plaid tablecloths decorated low-ceilinged rooms. Our waitress brought us a cheesy pizza pie and Pellegrino, and I was almost certain we had been transported straight to Italy.
Crowds may have been denser than I remembered during our two stolen days in San Diego, and there were certainly more buildings and cars, but the energy that makes this this city so wonderful remains intact. San Diego can boast of having the world’s first outdoor electric Christmas lights in 1904 and Lucky Lindy, who flew from here to New York and then on to Paris in 1927. This is a city of history and cultures, artists and pilots, surfers and musicians, scuba divers and hot-air balloonists — an often-overlooked city that never fails to satisfy.
WHEN YOU GO
Mission Beach’s Belmont Park: www.belmontpark.com
Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial: www.sandiego.org
Poseidon on the Beach: www.poseidonrestaurant.com
Balboa Park: www.balboapark.org
Little Italy: www.sandiego.org