Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thoughts on San Diego

When I look at my bucket list of places to visit before I die, the United States doesn't have a lot of entries. I would love to go to Ohio, to visit my dear friends, Jason and Jami, but it's not Ohio that calls to me. It's my friends, who I would meet anywhere in the world, if I had the resources to go anywhere whenever I wanted to see friends.

As far as the United States goes, I have already seen most of the places that are on my bucket list: I love New York City and will still go as many times as I can. I love Chicago but have only explored it at night, having only visited it on business and not having time during the day to visit its museums, galleries, and parks. One of my oldest friends, Stu, and I have made plans to get away for a guy's weekend out, and The Windy City is at the top of our list of venues in which to meet.

I've been to Washington, DC, and to Savannah, Georgia, two places that have held my interest. I have now been to the Grand Canyon—with an added bonus of nearby Page—which leaves only a couple of other places that I'd like to visit: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.

When my wife and I were planning our recent vacation, I had three objectives in mind: visit family, take lots of photographs (and I've put a ton of them in the past blog posts), and seek out as much craft beer as I could handle and still enjoy the other two objectives.

DW had a couple of other objectives, as well, including the exploring of Route 66 (we both wish that we had spent more time looking for the original roadway—maybe that's a new bucket list item?) and driving out to the California coast: specifically, San Diego.

"San Diego?" I cried, "What's in San Diego that you want to see?"

"The San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the world," she said.

"Not interested," was my response. I've seen lots of zoos, including the one in Toronto and in the Bronx. The saddest one I've had the misfortune of seeing is the one in Chŏnju, South Korea: the animals lived in miserable environments and the visitors treated them like beasts, feeding them, climbing into their pens for photos (I wished some of those idiots tried climbing into the lions' den).

I don't like zoos and would be perfectly content to never visit one again. And, it seems, my kids agree with me. They had the same response when their mother expressed her desire to go.

"What else is there?" I asked.


"Not interested." Last fall, we visited Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto. It was fabulous, but I've now been there, done that. I'm not a fan of MarineLand, in Niagara Falls, so I think I can strike further aquariums from my must-see list.

"Beaches," she said. "You can take some fabulous sunset shots."

Point to DW.

"There's a beach where sea lions like to go." Again, more photo opportunities.

Another point to DW.

She went online, searching for things to do in San Diego. "There's the USS Midway Museum. It's an aircraft carrier that houses a lot of vintage planes."

I knew that we were already going to visit Pima Air and Space Museum, in Tucson, but she knows my love of aircraft. I have also never been on an aircraft carrier, though I have promised myself to visit the USS Intrepid, in NYC, in a future visit.

Point three to DW.

"Hey, get this: San Diego is apparently the craft-beer capital of the U.S."

Game point. I was sold.

We spent our first night in La Jolla. The next morning, we were still fairly tired from driving all day to get there, plus a fog had rolled in, so we had a leisurely morning in the hotel (swim and a soak in the hot tub) before we packed up and checked out. We explored the La Jolla Tide Pools, walking along the coastline and into the village itself, where we did some shopping (I found my replacement expedition hat at Hats Unlimited), checked out a few art galleries, and had a fabulous lunch at Jose's Court Room. It was there that I came to the conclusion that spicy Mexican food and a high-hopped IPA go hand in hand. I had a Sculpin IPA by Ballast Point Brewing with a chicken enchilada, and it was magical. (More on that in an upcoming Beer O'Clock post.)

After lunch, we explored more of the coastline, including a cave that you access from inside a shop along Coast Boulevard, where it joins with Cave Street. You walk down a long, steep, damp staircase (hold onto the handrail and duck your head) that has been tunnelled under the rock, and you come out into a grotto that has been carved by the ocean waves. It's quite spectacular, but what makes it especially fantastic is that the opening to the cave, looking out into La Jolla Bay, is that the mouth of this cave is shaped like a bearded, pointy-capped gnome.

Do you see it?

Exiting the building, we walked out onto the rocky point, along which hundreds of birds, including pelicans, gulls, and cormorants, perched on the cliffs. Despite the warning sign of unstable cliffs, we ventured out, where we could better see these birds and also get a spectacular view of the bay, with sea kayakers, and the California coastline, with its multi-million-dollar houses.


It's a great view but the stench of bird crap is enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon (thanks, George Carlin!).

Venturing back along the coastline, away from the shops, we found the beach where the sea lions soaked in the sun. You could get right up to them, and some spectators even tried to stroke one (the sea lion protested, loudly, and debated the prospect of attacking the idiot. I don't recommend that you do it). It was a great experience to get so close but, again, the stench is overpowering.

Leaving La Jolla, we drove to the Gaslamp Quarter, where we checked into the hotel where we would spend the next three nights, The Bristol. Admittedly, The Bristol isn't exactly in the Gaslamp Quarter, but rather on the edge, but it's in a great location that allowed us to leave the car in valet parking so that we could walk to most of our destinations.

Those destinations included the USS Midway Museum, which everyone in the family loved. The kids received a booklet that contained some challenging questions: using their audio guide (it's free with admission), they sought out various spots throughout the ship and would have to punch in a code on their device. After listening to the audio, they would write their responses in the booklet. When they answered all the questions, they returned the booklet to the volunteer at the information booth (who was a retired air serviceman): he would verify the answers and, in a ceremony, present the kids with a set of wings that they could pin onto their jackets.

"You have to earn your wings," he explained, as he gave them their booklets. DW and I missed the ceremony because we were 10 minutes late for our rendezvous (we let the kids roam freely, together, while we explored the ship and aircraft at our own pace) and they were too excited to wait. We didn't know that there was a formal ceremony until after it had taken place.

The audio guides are invaluable in learning everything there is to know about the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hanger deck, and about this war ship that participated in the first Gulf War. What I particularly enjoyed was that some of the actual pilots of these planes provided their take on what it was like to fly these planes or about a particular event that happened to them in the plane that you were looking at. Many retired servicemen were around to talk to you, face to face, and answer your questions. 

There is also a well-done film about the battle of Midway and the sinking of the USS Yorktown. While it was obviously a re-enactment, one of the survivors of that battle appears, and tells his story.

The museum is well worth a visit.

Another spot that is a short walk from The Bristol is Richard Walker's Pancake House, home to the German baked pancake. It's a popular breakfast spot that draws a long lineup, so get there early. We also were only a few blocks away from Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which I had planned to visit as soon as DW told me that San Diego was a big craft-beer town. I plan to say much more in an upcoming Beer O'Clock post, but let me say that their food is amazing. My kids found their mac and cheese to be life-altering.

We liked Karl Strauss Brewery so much that we went twice.

We explored more beaches in the area: Coronado (remember the film, "Some Like It Hot"?), Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach, stumbled upon a brewery next to a vintage video game store, and wandered the Gaslamp Quarter for an evening photo walk. Imagine our surprise, as we walked down Fifth Avenue, toward the convention center, to be met with an energized crowd of people, waving Bernie Sanders signs, chanting "Feel the Bern!"

Hotel del Coronado, from "Some Like It Hot."
Ocean Beach
Mission Beach
Gaslamp Quarter
It wasn't hard to absorb the positive energy and be in a cheerful mood, even when a police officer approached me and challenged me about taking a photograph. (More about that, tomorrow.)

The bottom line is that even though San Diego wasn't my choice for this vacation, wasn't a place that I have ever considered visiting, I'm so glad we went. I even wish that we had had more time to explore (we visited the Natural History Museum but didn't have time to thoroughly explore it or the rest of Balboa Park). I had planned to visit more brew pubs (although, I did try lots of craft beer in the three full days that we were there) and take in more of the nightlife.

And while evidence of homeless people was prevalent (more than I've seen in other American cities), I felt safe and I would definitely consider returning.

Hey, Stu: maybe, instead of going for a weekend in Chicago, what do you say to San Diego?

I'll wrap up my final thoughts on our vacation tomorrow.

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