I first travelled to San Diego, California, as a navy brat in the late sixties with my family. We settled for a two-year stint in the beachside suburb of Coronado, near the huge naval base, in the summer of love. None of us had ever been to America and the culture shock was a huge seismic wave that would leave us all changed forever.
My brother learned to surf; a lifelong commitment that sustains him to this day. My mother embraced the mad ’60s fashion, parties and hectic social life of the naval expat community and my father embraced free love.
Me? Well, I was freed from a conservative Sydney school that insisted on hat, gloves and a uniform skirt that was measured in strict inches above the knee with a ruler. I was released into the local Coronado junior high school where the uniform seemed to be colourful beachwear, cheerleader chic and provocatively short skirts, boys and girls openly held hands and the weekly football and basketball games were the highlight of our social calendar. In other words, heaven for pre-teens. I learnt to drop the Australian accent and adopt a Californian one almost immediately, to pledge allegiance to their flag every morning in class, even though it wasn’t my own and to study Spanish and nuclear energy classes. Anything to fit in.
We were thrown in the deep-end of America at its most colourful; Southern California at a time of huge cultural upheaval- and we loved it. We travelled as a family as much as we could. Road trips in the ‘green hornet’, a lime green Chevy with fins that could have been a spaceship or time machine- and operated as both, taking us to the Grand Canyon, the Highway 1 delights of Carmel and Monterey. We visited Yosemite National Park where I was also sent on a school holiday camp, finding it inhabited by bell and feather-adorned, leather-thong wearing hippies. I was enchanted and indoctrinated. Come on baby, light my fire. Lake Tahoe was where we discovered snow and skiing for the first time, staying in a chalet that was meters deep in snow.
But Coronado was home, separated from San Diego downtown by a long peninsula and car-ferry; the engineering marvel that is the curved bridge now connecting it to the mainland was not yet built.
Coronado has changed relatively little since then; the white sandy beach stretching south to where the iconic Hotel Del Coronado dominates the view, its fantastical, red-roofed turrets and white, wooden, wedding cake- style Victorian architecture still the second-largest such structure in America. The hotel has a rich and colourful history to match. Built in 1888, it was the first commercial building to be lit by electricity, hosted the rich and famous of American society and was made a household name by Marilyn Munroe and Jack Lemon starring in the film Some Like it Hot. In 2019 a $400 million dollar redevelopment and expansion program was commenced.
San Diego, while retaining the famous features we discovered and loved back in the sixties; its laid-back vibe, Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, the naval heritage, Point Loma lookout, the beautiful harbour and pristine golden beaches, has continued to develop and evolve as California’s second-largest (and U.S.’s 8th) city.
Re-discovering it and delving deeper, in late 2019, I was reminded that my beloved city still boasts a year-round climate of warmth and sunshine, the charm and influence of Spanish colonial history and a long list of world-class, big-ticket attractions with a wealth of appeal for Aussie visitors.
Here’s our quick guide to discovering ( or re-discovering) San Diego’s chilled-out charm, when borders open:
Must Sees in San Diego
Get your bearings and visit Cabrillo National Monument on the tip of the peninsula which marks the place where California was discovered in 1542 by Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. A panoramic vantage point from which to view the layout and beauty of the city skyline, San Diego Bay, the Pacific Ocean and on down the coast to Mexico.
Adjacent to downtown, Balboa Park is a 1200-acre green urban oasis that boasts 17 museums covering art and photography to aerospace and natural history, a tranquil Japanese Friendship Garden, examples of Spanish Colonial revivalist and Art Deco architecture and is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
USS Midway Museum
This former US Navy aircraft carrier is now a living interpretative museum, anchored at Navy Pier. Use the interactive aid to hear firsthand stories about the fascinating role of this huge ship, its extensive aircraft and crew in various war and peacetime operations.
The original heart of the first Spanish settlement on the U.S. west coast was a mission and a fort that went on to become San Diego. Visit restored historic buildings from the Spanish Colonial period, shops and restaurants and experience early Mexican – American life as it was during the 1800s.
Immerse yourself in the local flavour and style of the over 100 distinctly different neighbourhoods of this charming city. Try the coastal vibes of Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and funky OB (Ocean Beach); the hispanic culture and landmark Chicano Park murals of Barrio Logan; the Gaslamp Quarter where San Diegans go to party; the foodie delights of Little Italy; the Spanish-Mexican origins of Old Town and the high style of La Jolla.
Must dos in San Diego
Ride or hike some of the spectacular coastline and beaches. Cruise the boardwalk from Pacific Beach- Mission Beach, where you can stop at Belmont Park and ride the ‘Giant Dipper’ historic wooden roller coaster. Visit the hippy-style Ocean Beach Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays for a taste of genuine SoCal diversity and beach culture.
Hike one of the wildest coastlines in the country in Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve and marvel at the paragliders soaring from the cliffs over the beach.
The fish taco is the unofficial signature dish of San Diego. Try them everywhere. Five of the best can be found at Georges at The Cove, Salud!, Surf Taco, Tahona & Oscars Mexican Seafood.
Visit a craft brewery. At last count there are over 180, each offering its own local flavours and brews. Heaven for beer lovers. Or hit San Diego’s many hidden speakeasy bars for some of the newest recipes and coolest cocktails you’ll ever taste.
Play a round of golf at Torrey Pines, the famous coastal course where the U.S. Open was held this year. Channel your inner Tiger Woods; stay at The Lodge at Torrey Pines and dine at the property’s A.R. Valentien restaurant for the best of elegant contemporary Californian cuisine from one of San Diego’s top chefs.
Shop, dine and stay in glamourous and opulent La Jolla; home to celebrities, multi-million-dollar mansions, high-end designer boutiques, art galleries and hotels, with ocean views and coves where you can swim or snorkel in the company of sea lions and their babies.
Places to stay
Fairmont Grand Del Mar
The Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla
The Handlery Hotel
Lafayette Hotel in North Park