23 June 2019
Downtown San Diego is a bustling hive of activity; for me an almost overwhelming sense of busy-ness. Everywhere you look there are vehicles or craft of every description on land, sea and sky. The natural landscape has been almost totally taken over by human endeavour. But there are celebrations of art, creativity and nature popping out to surprise and delight. It is a fascinating place to visit.
I was in San Diego for a conference and had a travel recovery day – just as well because with plane replacement and delays, and rescheduling of connecting flights, I ended up travelling for more than 24 hours. I arrived at my hotel in time to go to bed but was kept awake by someone nearby having a ‘meltdown’. When I called reception I was told that the police were on the way!
So when I woke (not very refreshed) I was looking forward to my day to look around San Diego. I had visited here previously a decade ago and spent a day at the famous San Diego Zoo and taken a day trip down to Mexico (Tijuana and the coast) so this time I decided to explore the city itself. I had found a city tour and confirmed pick up at my hotel for 8.45am.
I was in the hotel lobby from 8.30am and by 8.55 I was getting concerned. I phoned through to the company and was told the driver was on the way; another 15 minutes later, I was told the driver had to do 5 pick ups but not to worry I hadn’t missed my tour; another 15 minutes later no answer but I texted – no response; then another 15 minutes later I was contacted to say that they’d had to cancel the tour. Apparently the driver had had an accident so it wasn’t really their fault but by this stage I was feeling pretty annoyed.
I had heard about the Old Town Trolley Tours which are San Diego’s hop-on hop-off bus equivalent that I have enjoyed in other cities, so I ordered an Uber and set off to Old Town where the tours started. There was a trolley just about to leave so I paid and got the last seat on the bus. The trolley was covered but the sides were mostly open leaving us open to the weather.
My weather app told me to expect 19-23C today but I took a jacket ‘just in case’ and ended up wearing it all day. I discovered later that it was officially June Gloom where the cold ocean absorbed the warmer air leaving it very cloudy and with a cold wind. The grey weather pretty much matched my mood!
Unless I know particular things I want to see in a city, I like to sit on the bus for a full circuit so that I can see what there is to see and then figure out where I want to get off. In this case the full loop took about 2 hours. Although the commentary was interesting, I wasn’t feeling very inspired by the sights (not enhanced much by the grey weather or my jet-lagged and frustrated mood).
On the circuit I had seen a SEAL (a ‘sea and land’ hydra-terra amphibious vehicle) and decided that that would make an interesting alternative to the harbour tour that was to have been part of my cancelled tour. So after a quick break and to pick up a snack and water I hopped back on the trolley to hop off again at the next stop at the Embarcadero where I could purchase a ticket. A SEAL was due to leave in just a few minutes – with me on board wrapped tightly in a provided blanket. This was a great pick-me-up and some blue sky was even trying to find its way through the clouds by the end.
San Diego is a fascinating place: it evolved from a Native American village to a Spanish military outpost and the first permanent European settlement on the west coast of North America, to a territory of Mexico, all before becoming part of the United States. Now San Diego is the largest military complex in the world: with a Navy Recruit Training Centre, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Naval Air Stationer, Submarine Base, Destroyer Repair Facility and even a marine mammal training centre.
The city is positioned in San Diego Bay with several ‘islands’ that are actually part of the mainland. The largest of these is Coronado Island that is connected by a 3.4km bridge (opened in 1969). Other islands such as Harbour Island and Shelter Island merge in so well amongst the various marinas and naval yards that you wouldn’t think them islands at all. The entire edge of the bay seems to be lined with vessels of one sort or another: from the aircraft carrier USS Midway to the Star of India (the world’s oldest active sailing ship) to nuclear submarines to numerous pleasure craft – and everything in between.
San Diego is also home to the third busiest single runway airport in the world – right in the middle of the city!! They estimate that there is a plane taking off or landing every 90 seconds – over 500 flights a day. Because it is in the middle of the city there is a curfew between 11.00pm and 6.30am to allow the local residents to get some sleep. Outside of those hours, it is common to look up to find a jet plane roaring seemingly just metres above your head. They also regularly ‘photo bomb’ any photos you might be taking. The airport also means there is a height restriction on buildings nearby – you definitely wouldn’t want aeroplanes getting any closer to your head than they are now.
Competing with commercial aircraft for the skies above San Diego are various military aircraft. One half of Coronado Island is taken up entirely by a naval air station so there is an endless stream of helicopters and jets passing overhead as well. A helicopter parking lot is also visible amongst the numerous hangars along the shoreline.
Despite the vast amount of air and sea traffic traversing the skies and seas of San Diego bay, a surprising number of wildlife seem to quite happily make the area their home (whales also visit the bay but unfortunately not at this time of year). There are brown pelicans perching on posts and railings in and around the water, joined by black backed gulls, cormorants and even some Snowy Egrets. With perfect adaptation, sea lions have colonised every man-made surface around from buoys to pontoons, as well as anywhere along the coastline that there is a nice warm rock to sit on.
Despite the huge presence of the military and the obviousness of tourism activities, the biggest contributor to the local economy is actually manufacturing with defence, aerospace, and ship building and repairs topping the list. With huge railway yards, oil tanks, and sheds everywhere, San Diego is certainly not the prettiest city (even with its position on the harbour).
San Diego is also an intriguing blend of old and new, industrial and artistic, and of many cultures. Old Town and the GasLamp Quarter date back to the early 1880s and the first European settlement of the area while towering (to the highest limit possible) modern buildings rise from the downtown area, and architecture across the centuries can be seen with Victorian villas and early Kit houses standing alongside multi-million dollar modern mansions and Santa Fe-style houses.
The industrial nature of the city is evident everywhere but it is interspersed with beautiful park areas and amazing sculptures – and there are museums galore. Balboa Park is home to a Botanical Building, Science Centre, Natural History Museum, Museum of Art, Museum of Man, Air and Space Museum, Automotive Museum, and Model Railroad Museum – all housed in beautiful architecture. And of course the world famous San Diego Zoo.
Founding fathers of the city contributed not only to its industry but also to the arts: the Balboa and Spreckels theatres are good examples. John Spreckels also donated an outdoor organ pavilion to the people on the condition that there are free concerts held every Sunday for eternity (and there was certainly one being held today). Today we see the more modern entertainment venues of Petco Park (home to baseball players San Diego Padres) and San Diego Convention Centre (home to Comic-Con which attracts >130,000 people).
For me the perfect illustration of blending of the cultures came together in Little Italy, centred on India Road, and home to the Mexican Consulate. It was a fitting end to my day to find myself a nice little Italian restaurant with a table where I could watch the world go by whilst enjoying some classic Italian fare with a glass of wine.