Where? San Diego, CA
When? Four days in March 2012
Why? San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, among other things
Airfare United on aircraft formerly known as Continental. Unbeknownst to me when I booked this, I’d be flying 4 days after the UA/CO computer system merger. But it all went without a hitch. I caught the airfare on a bounce, as I usually do, and locked in at $349 going from Boston through Houston. I’m sort of tied to United now that I am earning FF miles for upgrades to China in 2013….
Hotel America’s Best Value Inn Downtown. I was traveling with someone on a different budget than mine, so we cut corners on accommodations. The location of the hotel is good for getting around, but it has no parking lot (on-street only which ended up not being a problem for us) and is directly under the landing path for the airport. I mean, directly. These planes are about 10 seconds from landing, and you’re close enough to floss the pilots’ teeth. The rooms are ok, clean enough and comfortable enough, except for a mold smell in the sink. I’d stay here again if budget were an issue. But my first experience in San Diego was the Hotel del Coronado, and this is some different.
Weather I’d been on some threads here on Fodors before I left where it’d been unseasonally cool/cold before we left. Fortunately, the days we were there were in the high 70s, low 80s during the day with bright blue skies and sun. I was thankful I packed shorts and t-shirts! On the day of our whale watch, it was overcast and cool until lunchtime, but a fleece and yoga pants were all I needed then.
Getting there and around I rented a car (with Budget) for the first time ever. I brought my own GPS which I had preprogrammed with every sight we were going to. Gas was higher than home ($4.89 compared to $3.69) but public transportation would not have gotten us to where we wanted to go in every case. This seemed the best option. Booking with the United credit card through the United site got me a discount and some extra FF miles.
United Chase Credit Card When I booked the flight, I opted to sign up for the United Chase credit card. In addition to a bunch of bonus miles for signing up, I also got perks like free checked baggage and early boarding. I did not have to fight for either privilege. When I checked my bag, the system already knew it was free. Boarding was after all military, disabled/babies and first and business class, and before the general boarding for coach. That was worth it to me to know I’d get overhead space.
Old Town Mexican Café, Old Town San Diego I had eaten here in 2001 on my first trip to San Diego and fantasized since then about the fish tacos. As rarely happens in cases like this, the restaurant lived up to my long-term memory. It looked exactly the same and I had a delicious plate of chicken enchilada, chile rellenos and avocado tostada. The margaritas were a bit weak for my liking, but only $5. Sure it may be touristy, but it was a darn good meal.
Su Casa Mexican Restaurant, La Jolla We found this on our way down the Pacific Coast Highway back to San Diego. I used my iPhone to find “Mexican food in La Jolla” and this came up with some good reviews by locals. It is the sort of place you walk into and realize it’s been around for ages, not really updated, but the locals like it enough to keep returning and keep it in business. I had a plate similar to the one in Old Town. The margaritas here were bigger, stronger and twice the price, but I give Old Town the edge on the food.
Bandar, San Diego I’d never had Persian food before and my traveling companion wanted to try this out. I booked ahead on Open Table. There isn’t much to its décor that screams Persian to me, but the food made up for that. We started with hummus as an appetizer, which was delicious. I had the chicken with black cherry rice. There was enough chicken here to feed an army. I think I ate maybe a third of it. It was marinated in something delicious but light…I could still taste the chicken but it had a nice flavor to it. The rice was good but the cherries made it. I had a triple fudge cake for dessert, which I only managed to eat half of. This was a nice dining experience; I’d return.
The Broken Yolk, San Diego After deciding the free hotel breakfast wasn’t worth it, we sought this out having seen it at one point on either Travel Channel or Food Network. This was well worth the hunt. Both days we went I had the French toast with a scrambled egg on the side. It is fabulous, and I consider myself a French toast connoisseur. There were six half pieces that were thick and perfectly golden brown. The plate comes with crushed strawberries but that seems sacrilegious to me, so I went for the maple syrup. There is endless coffee brought by servers and quick, friendly service. I would return to San Diego just for breakfast….it’s a far cry from my usual Kashi and 100 calorie bagel.
In N Out Burger Yes, it’s a California institution. I tried it in 2001 and loved it, but that was before I discovered Five Guys. Sorry, In N Out, but Five Guys wins the shootout. This burger was so thin it was hardly existent, and I forgot I couldn’t really customize my burger. But the price is better for sure…
San Diego Zoo Our main purpose for visiting San Diego was to see the pandas. Both of us have done the panda volunteer tour in China and I’ve been to see the pandas in Atlanta and DC since I’ve been back from China (only the Memphis pandas left for me in the US!) We arrived at a time of the year which was both a benefit and detriment to us. It was beneficial as panda aficionados because Bai Yun, the female panda, is in estrus. To see her behavior, which is very much a direct contrast to “normal” panda behavior, was fascinating. As it only happens for a few weeks a year, we were lucky to have seen her manic pacing and scent-marking which we’d learned about in China. But with only two public enclosures, and male panda Gao Gao in the other enclosure, that meant we did not get to see their son Yun Zi. Oh well, we’ll have to go back, I suppose!
I’d seen Bai Yun in 2001 along with her first cub (and the first US born cub) Hua Mei. Coincidentally enough, Hua Mei is now living at the base I volunteered at in China and has had 8 cubs herself! I feel old!
The rest of the zoo is just wonderful. I really enjoy photographing animals and watching their behaviors.
The highlight of the day though was the Backstage Pass experience, which we paid extra for. This is a 90-minute small group experience where you get up and close and personal (literally!) with animals from the zoo. We saw a rare owl, a biturong (bear cat), an Arctic wolf, a serval, a cheetah and we hand-fed a rhino, pet a kangaroo and had photo opps with the cheetah, bear cat and serval. It was fabulous, but I love animals and there was probably no way I wouldn’t enjoy this! The staff are friendly and make it a fabulous learning experience. Based on this alone, I would seriously consider doing other experiences at the zoo if I return.
We spent from 9-5 at the zoo, arriving just as they opened and leaving just as they closed, and we still didn’t get to see every animal!
San Diego Safari Park Renting a car to get here was well worth it. We made sure to arrive before it opened so that we could see animals before the heat of the day. What that really mean though was some waiting around for the Africa tram to start up. The first tram doesn’t leave until 10, so we spent the first hour seeing the handful of animals in enclosures between the entrance and the tram (lions, gorillas, some of the Lagoon trail).
I’m an adult and I don’t have kids. But one opinion I formed is that the Safari Park really isn’t for little kids. If they’re in a stroller or under say, 6 years old, this can’t possibly be worth it to them. Most of the animals are so far off out in the exhibits that it seems hard to point them out so that they can enjoy seeing them. Zoos are one thing to experience as a little kid, but this is completely different for the most part. I was surprised by the number of kids in strollers out being pushed on the trails where there was so little for them to actually see. The upside to this is that the animals are in exhibits large enough to be that far away. It was good to see “wild” animals in large, open spaces and get to spy on them interacting in what is a little closer to what would be normal for them in their native environments. We witnessed a buffalo and a wildebeest facing off in a territory dispute, more than few pursuits in the name of mating and a couple intraspecies showdowns over females.
We paid additional to take the Caravan Safari here, which took us off the foot paths and the African tram path right down into the African and Asian exhibits. Here we were able to see the animals much closer, and also hand-feed giraffes and rhinos from the back of our truck. This was another amazing experience. The giraffes are gorgeous and so docile. It was fun having them lick the acacia leaf right out of my hand. The guide on the truck was well-organized, makes sure everyone gets their turn and gets photos they want. She was also a rhino expert so we learned more about rhinos here than I ever expected. Like our special experience at the zoo, this experience was so good that I’d do another when I return. They are well worth the extra we paid for them.
One tip: be well-advised that there is little or no shade once you get out of the entrance/shops/restaurants area. Once you’re out there, you’re out there and it may be hard to find relief from the sun. A hat and sufficient sunscreen must be priority one, even if you like sun, and I do.
Another tip: The restaurants and shops are grossly overpriced, even more so than the Zoo (which I didn’t think was overpriced at all). But there’s nothing nearby the Safari Park where you could eat or pick anything up, so they’ve really got you there.
Last tip: if you’re visiting both the safari park and zoo during your stay, buy the combination pass, which allows you to visit both at a discount off the individual admission fees.
Wine Tasting On the way out of the Safari Park and back toward the interstate, we passed a winery, Orfila, where we stopped to partake in the tasting. For $10 you can taste any 6 of about 15 wines on offer. And you get to keep a winery glass as well. I wasn’t thrilled with their reds but enjoyed their whites very much. I bought only one bottle of what I tasted, as they cannot ship to MA. I packed it in a wine sleeve that I got at the winery and it made it home fine, despite TSA’s tampering with the wine sleeve somewhere along the way….
Whale Watch We opted to take our whale watch with Flagship Harbor Excursions, because they were the only ones that advertised a Birch naturalist on board. Indeed, there was one naturalist who narrated the trip and volunteers from the aquarium walking around and adding color commentary. Having never been that far offshore before, I loaded up on CVS brand Dramamine, just to ensure that breakfast stayed with me. We boarded the ship at 9:15 and set sail around 9:45. The trip through San Diego Bay was pretty placid but once we got out on open water the rolls set in. I picked the spot at the very point of the bow to stand (or rather, plant myself with a death grip on the railing) while we traversed the peaks out toward where they thought whales might be. Now mind you, I have never done a whale watch, which seems odd given that I'm about 4 minutes from Gloucester, MA, the whale watch capital of Massachusetts, but I have seen whale encounters on tv. Let me just say I was more than a tad disappointed. In my head I had visions of whales surging up out of the water and landing with a crash so that I actually had the feeling I was seeing a whale. I was first to spot a spout of water off the bow and yes, that was a whale. I was a bit confounded by how excited the other tourists got by seeing these spouts, which were the only sign we had that we were seeing something. Then the whale might dive under and we'd see a part of its back. And twice the/a whale fluked, which meant we saw tail. But that was it. I sort of felt like the whale (or whales, who knows for sure) was wearing a burqa and tantalizing us with little glimpses of flesh. The naturalist who was narrating our trip really tried to do the after-sell on our way back to shore: "You have just had an amazing experience with three grey whales!!!" Really? You had me fooled. Perhaps others have had better experiences, but for me it was sort of a non-starter.
What was pretty cool though was seeing the harbor seals floating around and lounging on the larger buoys on the way in and out of the bay. And on the way back in, a pair of dolphins raced the boat, swimming right below me at the bow. That was pretty neat to see.
Carlsbad Flower Fields The fields are made up of 50 or so acres of ranunculus, only about 10 acres of which was in full bloom the day we visited. That is a pretty substantial patch of flowers, but bear in mind I've had the mothership of all flower experiences at the Keukenhof in Holland during tulip season, so it was tough to beat that. By now the day had cleared up and was warmer and sunnier, so it was nice still to be outside.
Driving the PCH I love the sun and I love beaches, so the thought of a gorgeous, sunny day driving along the west coast was very appealing. Thankfully the weather cooperated. We drove from Carlsbad back to San Diego along the Pacific Coast Highway. We stopped at a few of the state beaches along the way for the requisite photo opps. We don't have a whole lot of open, long unencumbered beach like that at home so for me (a water sign) it was really relaxing. It would have been nice to either throw the top down or roll all the windows down and crank some tunes, but it was a might bit cool for that. I was ragingly jealous though at all the cyclists I saw enjoying their bike lane the whole way (Fellow Massachusetts cyclists, a bike lane is dedicated space for cyclists on the road. IMAGINE THAT!) I was seriously hungry for a ride outside by the end of the afternoon. I can't imagine riding with that view every day...
Seals in La Jolla Cove By this point I was seriously suffering from the lack of exciting animal experiences today (I mean, really, how does one follow up those experiences at the Zoo and Safari Park, especially if the whales were so disappointing?) so I used the electronic gadgets at hand and managed, somehow, to find the cove in La Jolla where all the seals congregate. That was worth the effort and aggravation and the near arrest for texting/using Suri while driving. These seals just hang out on the rocks right along the sidewalk, barking loudly, fighting for sleeping space and surfing the waves coming on shore. No admission fee, great place for kids!
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