We’re sitting on rock-hard sandhills before the Pacific Ocean, or what we think is the Pacific – it’s midnight, and the ocean is but a stretch of black, with a horizon that’s indistinguishable from the sky.
After three days here, this is how my girlfriend, Janae, and I are seeing San Diego’s ocean up close for the first time. Beyond our feet, we see initials-plus-initials carved into the earth. Obviously, chiselling ours would be the perfect way to end the last night of our vacation. But after a minute of attempting to dig out part of the letter “J” with a piece of splintered wood, I realize that a lot of love goes into those messages, more than we have time to give right now. So the next day we leave the city unmarked by us – the reverse of which cannot be said.
In just three days in San Diego, we’ve overwhelmed ourselves with great memories. We’ve admired Petrus Christus’s Death of the Virgin at the Timken Museum of Art, combined fine food and wine with “outlaw” country music at Anthology, brunched with surfers at JRDN Restaurant and fawned over a Mickey Mantle autographed ball on the sixth floor of the Omni Hotel, a place so close to the Padres’ stadium we could watch a game from our balcony. All the while, we completely forgot about the surrounding ocean, and not once caught a glimpse of sunlight.
We arrive on a late May afternoon with expectations of being greeted by Sun Gods in velvet baby-pink sweatsuits and Chihuahuas poking their heads out of said Sun Gods’ matching handbags. After all, we are only 27 kilometres from the Mexican border, and this is Southern California. We learn that, yes, most San Diegans are healthy-looking (the humidity does wonders for the skin, though not for straight hair), without the need for artificial improvements. As for the climatic expectations, it is only 18C, held by an unmovable overcast. As Hamie, our airport driver, puts it: “May, grey. June, gloom.”
“What about September?” I ask.
Barring the two grey, gloomy months, San Diego boasts the second-most desirable weather in America, according to a Pew Research Center survey, with average temperatures of 21C and just 254 millimetres of rain annually. It’s part of what makes this old military town one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
But city quarters such as the Gaslamp district are desirable regardless of weather. Edmonton can learn a lot from San Diego’s downtown. Before the mid-90s it was a barely populated dead zone after 6 p.m. Now the modern Gaslamp boasts a vibrant nightlife, a growing commerce sector and an abundance of rooftop parties. During the day, we have about as many art galleries to choose from as lounges. Granted, some of those lounges are “taco” and “cupcake” lounges, but there’s still a lot. Today, about 30,000 people live downtown; not surprisingly, that number is expected to almost triple by 2030.
Not far away, the Old Town Market and surrounding businesses on San Diego Avenue give us a dose of the Old West and Latino spirit. Colourful, sometimes skeletal, Mexican trinkets line countless wooden gazebos that tuck into alleys and courtyards for blocks. In one monolithic building, Caf Coyote combines these cultural boutiques with authentic Mexican food and parties, for the whole enchilada.
And then there’s La Jolla, a district within city limits that’s so unique it gets its own name on postal addresses. From the patio of our Hotel Parisi Apart penthouse (an extended-stay suite designed for comfort, right down to the ice cream scoop in a drawer), we watch the beach-eyed burghers patrol the upscale shops with shopping bags in tow. From the Parisi, we head to the Roppongi restaurant, where we cook raw morsels of New York steak on a rock heated at 260C. Despite conjuring images of Neanderthal society, Janae and I agree: this is fine living!
But the cultural centre of the city, where all classes and interests meet, is Balboa Park. Nearly four times the size of Hawrelak Park, Balboa – the largest cultural urban park in the U.S. – appears as a big green blotch on a city map. Aside from one of the best zoos in the world, it has an impressive “house of hospitality” called The Prado, a Tony-winning Old Globe theatre and 19 museums with supreme architecture, from the didactic Museum of Man to the heart-stirring Museum of Photographic Arts. How do we possibly manage to fit all that in one day? We don’t. The next day, we make an early exit from Sea World (officially the “Corniest Place on Earth”) to explore more of Balboa. And still, we barely tick anything off our to-do list.
Now do you understand why we forgot about that little thing called the Pacific? Not to underplay the city’s beaches, but there’s a lot of beach in the world. What inland San Diego has to offer, no other city does. So although some ocean-side vitamin D would have turned our hand into a straight flush – a flush is still a great hand.