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California road trip: 'America's Finest City' filled with nature, culture, sunshine

San Diego’s beaches, museums and history offer travellers lots to see and do

This is the final article in a three-part series where travel writer Kim Pemberton visits three Southern California cities with very different styles: Pasadena, Laguna Beach and San Diego.

I can’t recall ever welcoming a flight cancellation. But that’s how I took the news when my week-long road trip in Southern California got extended in a city nicknamed “America’s Finest City” for good reason.

The beach community of San Diego is steeped in culture and natural beauty and enjoys sunny weather year-round, so having an unexpected extra day with so much still to do was hardly a hardship.

My flight home would be a late departure the next day, which meant I could head out for one last adventure. I opted to check out the Hotel Del Coronado, just across San Diego Bay.

The city of Coronado, just 15 minutes by car from downtown San Diego, developed around the historic beachfront hotel, which was built in 1888.

“It was supposed to be the talk of the western world. People would come out here to escape the cold winters back east and spend a few months here taking in the ocean air, which they felt was therapeutic and restorative,” says Keriann Martin, the hotel’s senior marketing manager.

The classic Victorian Queen Anne-style hotel, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, is perhaps best known as the location of the 1958 film Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

“They did all their exterior scenes here. The interior scenes were done on a sound stage in L.A. and the movie is actually set to be in Florida,” says Martin.

“People would ask why would you do a movie about Florida and set it in San Diego, but no one wants to be in Florida in the summertime, which was when they were filming.”

Martin says the hotel’s history also includes visits by 11 U.S. presidents, beginning with president Benjamin Harrison and ending with George W. Bush.

The hotel was the site of the first state dinner outside the White House, when it was held in the “Crown Room,” by then-president Richard Nixon on Sept. 3, 1970 for Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

Considered an architectural achievement when it was built, the hotel was also where Charles Lindbergh celebrated his successful solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, under the famous crown chandeliers designed by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum.

The author resided at the hotel for months at a time between 1904 and 1910, which was around the time three of the Oz books in the series were written.

“We have a lot of presidential history and Hollywood history. We were a playground for Hollywood celebrities coming down from L.A. — this would be their little retreat,” says Martin, noting San Diego is just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles.

Today the hotel, which originally had just over 300 rooms, has expanded and additional buildings have been added, bringing the total number of rooms to 902.

Even if you don’t stay at The Del, as locals call it, there’s still lots for visitors to enjoy, from its spa, retail stores, and restaurants to holiday experiences like the beachfront skating rink, igloos on the beach and a nightly light show.

This year’s theme is the 1920s, and the lights will shine on the Norfolk Pine, which was the world’s first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree.

Coronado is just one of many distinct neighbourhoods worth visiting in San Diego. Before my bonus day, I spent most of my time in the small upscale community of La Jolla, just a 25-minute drive up the coast from downtown.

La Jolla’s main street (Prospect Street) is lined with shops and restaurants and is just a short walk to the spectacular La Jolla Cove, where you are likely to see plenty of marine life and birds, from pelicans to cormorants.

I was fortunate to be there during sea lion pupping season, typically between May 1 and Oct. 31, when their numbers are too numerous to count and the photo opportunities are endless.

Some of the sea lions basking on the sand and rock formations were so close I didn’t need a long-focus lens to capture their antics.

There was one mother who chose a rock immediately adjacent to the sidewalk, so I spent a good half an hour watching her pup scoot around and over her trying to find just the right spot to hunker down for a snooze.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few swimmers and snorkelers sharing this stretch of the Pacific Ocean with the sea lions, who occasionally scooted out of the water onto the cove’s beach.

I watched the drama on high from the sandstone cliffs, as more than one human parent scooted their own offspring out of possible harm’s way. I watched in awe as I witnessed the same action by a mother sea lion, who came barrelling out of the ocean to retrieve her pup from a gathering crowd.

It’s no surprise to learn La Jolla Cove and Coronado Beach made the top 10 for Tripadvisor’s 2023 Travellers’ Choice Best of the Best Beaches under the United States category.

It was hard to leave, but I didn’t want to miss another highlight of my San Diego trip: a guided tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which was nearby.

Our guide Karla Centeno, the museum’s director of education, explained that the museum was originally a seaside house and in the 1940s, La Jolla artists raised $10,000 to buy it and opened an arts centre.

Subsequent expansions have more than quadrupled its gallery space and provides a more open connection to its coastal setting.

The museum’s art collection includes more than 4,700 works created since the 1950s.

Centeno ends our tour by showing us her favourite piece. Created by Robert Irwin in 1997, it’s called “apertures cut into existing windows.”

“The reason I love this art work so much is it’s a piece we can see, smell and hear. It’s something that draws on all our senses and something as simple as windows,” says Centeno.

As I look out myself through one of the windows, completely open to the outdoors, I have to agree. The spectacular view beyond them is just one of the many reasons San Diego is truly deserving of its nickname “America’s finest city.”


Where to eat

• The newly renovated and expanded Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego has a lovely, outdoor venue, The Kitchen, in the museum’s courtyard garden looking out to the Pacific Ocean. The menu includes both Mexican and Mediterranean dishes, like chilaquiles on the breakfast menu and a lamb burger with tzatziki on the lunch menu.

• Dodo Birds is a friendly neighbourhood eatery with a cool design that includes palm-leaf wallpaper and oversized sconces. It’s a great spot for an early breakfast, since they open at 6 a.m. Besides the wide selection of donuts they are known for, I was able to get your classic California avocado toast, topped with a soft-boiled egg, along with a delicious sea salt mocha espresso. But my favourite part of the restaurant is the fact that it allows dogs, both inside the restaurant and on its small patio.

• For cocktails and appetizers, few do it better than The Marine Room in La Jolla, with its floor-to-ceiling ocean views, comfy seating and creative dishes. Chef Alex Pailles has created a new small-plates menu with delicious bites that give diners a punch of flavour. Some of my favourites were the tasty toast bites of whipped goat cheese, buttered brioche, with pomegranate molasses topped with a mission fig, and the cold soba noodles with smoked kombu mushroom broth. The most substantial and eye-catching item on the menu was the Surf & Turf, serving both plump, hokkaido scallops and kurobuta port belly chunks topped with caviar and bacon whiskey jam.

Where to stay

La Jolla Shores Hotel is a classic Spanish-style hotel with a tiled outdoor fountain and a pool in a garden-like setting. It’s located right on La Jolla Shores beach, one of the best sandy beaches in San Diego, so you have a front-row seat to all the ocean action. I enjoyed sipping a cocktail at sunset from its ground-level outdoor seating area while watching the surfers and kayakers return from their day of fun. It’s also ideally located, just a short drive to the village of La Jolla, the Birch Aquarium and the Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Visit San Diego and Visit California, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.