One Traveler's Opinion: San Diego

Old Nov 10th, 2000, 09:34 AM
Neal Sanders
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One Traveler's Opinion: San Diego

A business conference recently took me to San Diego for several days. Considering that it was cold and rainy in Boston, a couple of days in the sun with temperatures in the 70s is always a good thing. A visit across the border is covered separately. Herewith a report.

San Diego is a wonderful place to be in November. The days are bright, the wind is brisk, and the temperatures, which may seem chilly to a native Californian, are a welcome relief to someone coming from the east coast. I was in San Diego for five days, though most of that time was spent in meetings, with the palm trees and hibiscus safely on the other side of plate glass windows. I did visit a few spots and have some notes to share.

This was my first visit to the San Diego Zoo; the “little one” in Balboa Park. There is a “big zoo” northeast of the city, but the one in the city was quite enough for me. I love zoos and have wanted for years to see the famed one here. In my experience, the Bronx Zoo was always the gold standard, a “10” on a scale of one to ten. Going forward, the New York Zoological Society has some serious competition.

The San Diego Zoo is run as two businesses. The first is the straightforward one of breeding rare animals in captivity so as to assure their continued existence in parts of the world where animals rank well down the ladder of importance. The second business is extracting money from the pockets of visitors, and the zoo does both jobs with skills and enthusiasm. Basic entry to the zoo is $18 for adults (an eye-catching amount until you consider that it costs $9 to see “Charlie’s Angels”). Then, there are the add-ons. For example, a package including an aerial tram ride and narrated bus tour is $23. Once inside, the opportunities to spend money are virtually unlimited, with spacious gift shops and snack bars strategically sited around the park. You can buy a koala sweatshirt within sight of the koalas, panda earrings across from the panda exhibit. To me, this is private enterprise at its best, serving a clearly noble cause. I came away with Christmas tree ornaments, for example; some of my companions lugged away their purchases in large sacks.

The San Diego Zoo was one of the first to embrace “natural” exhibits, and there is a major building effort underway to further enhance the animals-in-their-natural-environment feel of the park. The downside is that even with half a dozen vantage points, I couldn’t find some of the tigers, and a lone, lethargic lowland gorilla had to be the visible stand-in for the troop that was advertised. The opportunity to climb stairs through thick, tropical forests was a pleasure, and the resulting encounters (through glass or wires) with unexpected animals made for special treats. The hummingbird house was an especially enjoyable exhibit.

Restaurants: I dined at three memorable restaurants: Laurel just north of downtown, Café Pacifica in Old Town, and the main dining room at the Del Coronado. My evening at Laurel was especially impressive. The cuisine is best described as California French, the restaurant is a modernistic open space with exceptionally high ceilings, the service sleek and professional. The wine list comes in two parts: the “regular” list of about 100 wines, and a “reserve” list several times that size. A request for a Muscat de Beaume de Venise wine for dessert was met with a choice between two of the eight vineyards that produce that little-known wine.

(part 1 of 2)
Old Nov 10th, 2000, 09:40 AM
Neal Sanders
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(part 2)

We dined twice at Café Pacifica in Old Town. The first time was with crossed fingers after we fled Tijuana. I’m not used to being able to walk into very nice restaurants on a Saturday night without a reservation, but the maitre’d found us a table as quickly as though we had reserved two weeks ahead. San Diegans are the better for this state of affairs. The grilled seafood was clearly fresh, the ability to mix and match accompanying salsas was more than a gimmick; it ought to be a diner’s right. Café Pacifica also provided me my first exposure to New Zealand Green Lip mussels. All I can say is, “wow.”

We were told that the Sunday brunch at the Del Coronado is San Diego’s best. It is certainly the city’s most scenic. Held in the gigantic rotunda of a dining room at the classic hotel, we arrived early enough to snag a window table overlooking the ocean. The buffet brunch is not for the faint of heart: $38.50 per person, and to enjoy such a feat without a bottle of Champagne would be to do the idea of brunch a disservice. The food was certainly ample and the service extremely friendly. There were some surprising lapses – few patés and no oysters for example, but to be able to dine so sumptuously while overlooking the hotel’s beautiful gardens giving way to a wide Pacific Ocean beach was to spend a few hours in sublime comfort.

The Del Coronado is a gem of a hotel. If you’ve ever seen the classic film, “Some Like It Hot,” that’s the “Florida” hotel that is as much a star of the film as is Jack Lemmon or Marilyn Monroe. It still looks today like it did in the 1920s, and it is kept to a gleaming state of spit and polish. Dining at the hotel gives you access to the beach beyond, and after brunch we took an hour-long walk along the shore. November, unfortunately, is no time to go for a dip in San Diego. The water is a chilly 55° and the jellyfish washing onto shore were a not-so-subtle reminder that this is a beach for looking, not for swimming.

Finally, our hotel for the duration was the Sheraton San Diego Harbor, a mammoth convention hotel on San Diego harbor, but also hard by the airport. We had a pretty view of a marina from our window, but if you looked off to the right, there was the airport runway system. The hotel has better than a thousand rooms spread out over two sets of buildings. Our room (706) was small, cramped, and decorated without a trace of awareness that this is the subtropics. This was an improvement over a room we inhabited on a previous trip, one of the hotel’s so-called “lagoon rooms” by the pool, which reeked of chlorine. As a hotel catering to conventions, the Sheraton has the magical ability to produce 1300 quite palatable identical lunches simultaneously. The hotel’s dining room, conversely, took an hour and a half to produce two badly overcooked meals, or so I was told by friends who had elected to dine there rather than going out.

We also had the opportunity to explore a few of San Diego's neighborhoods. Old Town is a pleasant strip of bustling restaurants and flower-rich bungalows. I liked the ambience and look forward to exploring this area futher. The "gaslight district" by contrast is nothing more than an area of old warehouses and commercial buildings within walking distance of the San Diego convention center. The restaurants are the usual chain suspects (Spaghetti Warehouse, etc.), the "unifying theme" of clusters of globed lights doesn't make the area any more appealing.
Old Nov 10th, 2000, 09:48 AM
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Neal, please do not promote the San Diego Zoo as a place to visit. "60 Minutes" did an expose on them (and other zoos) some years ago and the result was horrific.

The San Diego Zoo, like other zoos, breeds animals because a baby animal is a big attraction for the crowds. More crowds, more money. But zoo spaces are limited and there is often no room for increased animal populations. "60 Minutes" showed hidden video camera footage of a variety of San Diego Zoo animals, including giraffes, rare antelope and others, being sold at Midwest auctions to the highest bidders.
Many of those animals wound up on "big game" preserves in Texas and other states where cowardly, he-man hunters paid to shoot them and bag big game "trophies." Since the animals had been exposed to human contact since birth, they did not fear them, especially since they associated humans with food, and they were sitting targets for these so-called hunters.

When "60 Minutes" attempted to interview zoo officials, they denied the claims until they were shown video footage of the animals leaving the zoo in cages, being trucked to the Midwest, then sold at auction. They had "no comment" after that.

Please do not support that kind of animal exploitation, cruelty and zoo profit-earning mentality by patronizing the San Diego zoo. Give that $18 admission fee to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals),PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) or you local animal shelter instead.
Old Nov 10th, 2000, 11:42 AM
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1. I find it odd that you enjoyed Old Town and disliked the Gaslamp District. I find Old Town touristy/tacky, while the Gaslamp District has several excellent restaurants and nightclubs. I did notice the area has a quite different look during the daytime, but at night it is a lot of fun. In fact, during a recent visit, we spent two evenings there and enjoyed ourselves immensely. On the other hand, after a stroll through Old Town, the only thing I found worthwhile was the "Tequila Sampler" at Cafe Pacifica.

2. Glad you enjoyed the zoo.

3. San Diego is hardly "subtropical." It's on the edge of a desert.

4. It's not surprising to find a brunch lacking oysters. As the coastal waters rarely get past seventy degrees Fahrenheit, fresh oysters must be flown in; your $38.50 brunch suddenly becomes $50.00.
Old Nov 10th, 2000, 01:16 PM
Neal Sanders
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Animal lover, I, too, saw that report on 60 Minutes, and I hope that it helped change the habits of zoos with "surplus" animals. But I'm also aware that zoos, and particularly zoos such as San Diego's and New York's are the lone hope for keeping alive hundreds of species of animals that are being eradicated around the planet. To that end, I'm glad to pay my $18.50 to get into the zoo, in addition to an annual stipend to organizations that protect the environment (I think the Nature Conservancy spends the highest percentage of its contributions on programs of any such group).

Gary, my take on Old Town came from walking it in one evening from the Mission down to Old Town Avenue, and several blocks on either side of San Diego Avenue trying to find where we had parked our car. I didn't find it at all tacky, and a restaurant as good as Cafe Pacifica is a treasure in any city. To each their own. As to the Gaslight District, it struck me as a case of somebody in a Chamber of Commerce trying to "create an ambience" by installing certain kinds of street furniture. In this case, the proximity to the convention center is a dead giveaway that there ain't no "there" there. We went there originally at the suggestion of the hotel concierge, who recommended an "authentic Japanese restaurant" called Octopuses Garden. Fortunately, the menu was posted outdoors. "Authentic" Japanese restaurants don't offer Caesear salads. That's how we ended up at Cafe Pacifica for a second night.

As to the oysters, I subscribe to the theory that if there's an "R" in the month, it's oyster season. We attended an in-hotel reception the last evening and found a well-stocked supply of the delicacy.
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