San Diego is the most bohernian of California’s cities. Closest to the Mexican border, it is more American than the Oregon border., the Joshua Tree strewn desert at its back and the surf beaches at its front, boatloads of tourists popping out to see Baja-bound whales as they blow a passing wave.
While other American cities are scrambling around trying to invent neighbourhoods out of urban disarray, San Diego has eight of them compacted together like pierstones.
The two most famous are the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, the East Village, Embarcadero, Cortes Hill, Columbia and Horton plaza all come with their own character (I wonder did Horton inspire Dr Seuss who lived locally?).
The celebration revs into gear for 6pm and continues until 2am, the streets in the Gaslamp Quarter lively and safe as everyone spills out Fifth Avenue and back in search of the perfect beer – the multifarious local brews are a new attraction.
One restaurant sits resplendent amongst them all: Jim Croce’s widow Ingrid has opened a shrine to good food as well as her singer-songwriter husband. Her cookbook is called Thyme in a Bottle.
The night then explodes into multi-faceted action. You can hear Tom Cruise’s lines from Top Gun somewhere behind you on the sidewalk: embarrass yourself, get a beer to put the flames out. Or maybe crash and burn.
The beaches, and there are so many of them, are straight from the surf manual. We made peace with the Pacific on a tour of the coast with Joe Timko, who spent his twenties at Ocean Beach writing the great film script that didn’t happen and then, happily, decided his time would be better spent hosting visitors to this beautiful city.
The coast to the north passes through the beach bum magnet of Ocean Beach, with its long holiday pier reminding you of what pier pressure really is in South California. The shoreline life then does a dolphin leap over one large estuary and then gets really interesting.
La Jolla (pronounced by the locals, with very unhispanic accentuation, Lahoya) is the expensive, Leucadia the pristine, Torrey Pines the golf mecca, Soledad point the view, but for the exotic head for a little further.
Here you find the highest, wildest cliffs and places to laze and spend a little time looking east. And most exotic of all, a stretch of sand below where distant figures are celebrating naturalism. “There is a gay section on this beach,” says Joe, “a couples section, and a section where all the confused people are.”
Back in the city, Balbao Park remains in pristine “hail-the-new-Panama-canal” burst of energy in 1915 condition, (San Diego was supposed to be first port of call of ships heading north).
It now houses an eclectic and spell-binding collection of museums, of which the strangest is the model railway museum. The Prado looks like the cover of that Eagles album, the Californian tower a delicious faux-conquistador construction. And the seafood, beer and wine are great too.
Balbao is the secret weapon of San Diego, not as famous as Legoland or Seaworld or the zoo, but more fascinating than any or all of them.
If you have one attraction to see before BA274 departs for home, it is the USS Midway, home to 4,104 sailors in its 30-year career patrolling the Pacific, where you can see how generations of salts lived, worked and breathed.
Visitors climb to the Barillo National Monument to look back along the bay and city skyline.
On the way back join the queue for fish tacos at Hodads.
The naval base has 135,000 military worker bees moving around it at any time. They fill the nightclubs and bars, the streets by day and if you have sharp eyes, you can see the Navy Seals training in the morning. from one of the stunning rooms across the bridge from the city in the Hotel del Coronado, the largest resort hotel in the world when it opened in 1888.
They say that every week at least one female visitor on the beach is in need of mouth to mouth resuscitation.
San Diego was all about the navy when Top Gun was filmed here 25 years ago and counting. Naval installations, the largest in the world, dominated the economy.
It is a ten minute walk from the dock to Kansas City Barbeque, where the sleazy bar scene in Top Gun was filmed and Tom Cruise romanced Kelly McGillis with their rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.
It looks the same (despite a fire in the interim) and is crammed with chatty locals. A red haired woman down the bar declares she is Irish and starts a competition among the clientele and the fun goes on, a chorus line of wit all along the bar. How could they even fit a camera in here, never mind a crew?
Don’t leave without doing the famous Hotel Del Coronado brunch, probably the only place on the planet you can tuck in to gummy bears and champagne for breakfast.
Flight BA273 to San Diego may be THE most hidden of hidden treasures of Willie Walsh’s trove. It is the only direct route to the Southern Californian destination from Europe. Flight times is 11 hours and you gain eight hours along the way in time difference.
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