San Diego Daze

It’s not L.A. or San Francisco. It’s BETTER.

By: Maribeth Mellin

Ladies with Nordstrom bags strung like bracelets up their arms crowded the lobby as I checked in at the Omni San Diego. I mentally added shopping to the ever-growing itinerary for my hometown escape. On this blustery winter weekend I felt the urge to explore a real city, some place like Seattle or San Francisco sans umbrella and wool coat. Relying on local buzz, I decided to drive 10 minutes from home all the way to downtown San Diego and see just how cosmopolitan the nation’s seventh largest city could be.

After all, the readers of Conde Nast Traveler ranked San Diego among the Top 10 U.S. Cities in the November 2004 issue, right up there with New Orleans and San Francisco. Prevention magazine called it one of the Top 12 Best Walking Cities in the U.S. Perhaps there was something to all the recent crowing from civic boosters. According to Joe Timko, of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau: “That old sleepy Navy town image just doesn’t exist anymore. San Diego is becoming the next Miami.”

If hip hotels increase a city’s cachet (as they certainly did in South Beach), San Diego is looking pretty darn cool. There’s already a W at the edge of Little Italy, and Kimpton Hotels will open the stylish Solamar in the East Village in April. A Hard Rock Hotel is in the works for the entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter at the foot of Fifth and Sixth avenues. Starwood Hotels has taken over the historic U.S. Grant Hotel on Broadway and is remaking the 1910 Italian-Renaissance palace to meet the standards of its Luxury Collection. Near Balboa Park, entrepreneur Gordon Hattersley has transformed a historic Queen Anne mansion into the luxurious nine-room Britt Scripps Inn.

Even the big chains have personalized their properties. The new Marriott Gaslamp (the chain’s third downtown San Diego hotel) has a 22nd-story rooftop bar called Altitude, complete with waterfalls. Fireplaces are de rigueur on terraces from the Manchester Grand Hyatt to the San Diego Omni, which also has the distinction of being the only hotel on the West Coast attached by a suspended footbridge to a major-league baseball park. With more than 11,500 hotel rooms, downtown has become a bustling tourism hub. If you’re booking San Diego these days, it pays to steer your clients toward downtown.

The Cruise Connection
Conventioneers and business travelers make up downtown’s core clientele, but a new urban tourist is emerging. San Diego has become an important cruise port with up to four ships a day facing the city skyline from the B Street Terminal. In 2005, at least 140 roundtrip sailings are scheduled between San Diego and Mexico, Hawaii, Alaska and even the South Pacific, and more than 200 cruise ships will come to call. (There were more than 500,000 cruise passengers coming through the city last year, a number that is sure to rise in 2005.) In the spring and fall, four cruise lines will offer short coastline cruises between San Diego and Vancouver. Holland America alone has three ships homeported in San Diego for 2005, offering varied itineraries to Mexico and Hawaii.

“San Diego proved to be such a popular and convenient cruise homeport that it was natural to expand our cruises from the city as our fleet grew,” said Richard D. Meadows, CTC, senior vice president, marketing and sales for HAL.

The line plans to use larger ships for its 2006 San Diego cruises, increasing guest capacity.

Your clients can now easily fly, drive or take the train to San Diego and check out new attractions and neighborhoods before and after their trips.

“There’s a unique convenience to cruising out of San Diego,” said Robert Arends of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The cruise-ship pier is in the center of the downtown waterfront, less than a 10-minute cab ride from the airport. The long, gray USS Midway, centerpiece of the new Aircraft Carrier Museum, floats in San Diego Bay just a few yards from the cruise ship of the day. On the north side of the cruise pier, the 1863 Star of India and the H.M.S. Surprise, the replica of an 18th-century British warship from the hit film “Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World” make up part of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

The Gaslamp Quarter is just a few blocks inland from the cruise pier. Heck, a client could even take in a game at nearby Petco Park, San Diego’s downtown baseball field, before sailing off to Acapulco or Honolulu. Plus there are a wide variety of pre- and post-cruise excursions available from the cruise lines themselves (see sidebar).

Night in the City
Downtown San Diego has become a popular destination for those who love to walk and they always find something new to explore. I was delighted to approach downtown on foot during my recent urban expedition though I do wish I hadn’t worn two-inch-high heels.

Timko had said I wouldn’t recognize the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, where the East Village neighborhood is emerging. This area, long ignored by developers, is experiencing a building boom, thanks largely to the smash-hit opening of Petco Park in April. Over 16 acres of prime downtown property were razed and restored to create the open-air ballpark near San Diego Bay. The brick 1909 Western Metal Supply Company building was preserved and houses the San Diego Padres Team Store and party suites.

Lauded by architects and sports fans alike, Petco Park has spurred downtown development to new heights, quite literally. High-rise towers with million-dollar condos are rising on streets around the ballpark, restaurants and shops will soon follow, along with the long-awaited new central library. Oceanaire, a unique supper club that looks something like the inside of a retro cruise liner, has opened at the corner of Fourth and J not far from the park. Other high-end restaurants are in the works.

“In the next year or two you’re going to see incredible growth in that area,” Timko said. For now, however, the Gaslamp Quarter remains the hub of downtown’s nightlife scene, the place to see and be seen. Its influence has spread far beyond the original 16-block historical district’s boundaries, and the neighborhood now has more than 90 restaurants, a 15-theater moviehouse and countless chic clubs and boutiques.

I joined the crush of weekend revelers browsing through Urban Outfitters and the Quicksilver Boardriders Club. BAck outside, the aromas of Mexican, Persian and Italian cooking made my taste buds quiver. I kept wandering farther into the Cuban Cigar factory, past the newest hookah bar and finally, after many detours, I reached the Nordstrom’s in Horton Plaza. The store’s famed semi-annual sale was in full swing, and soon, I too collected an array of shopping bags.

As a reward for all my efforts, I claimed a barstool (the wait for a table was too long) at Monsoon, a new Indian restaurant on Fourth Avenue that was such a success the owner took over a failed restaurant next door. By the time I’d finished my curry and beer, long queues were forming in front of hip clubs. Bands warmed up at On Broadway, an ultra-chic club and Fourth and B, downtown’s hottest concert venue (which is in for some stiff competition when the House of Blues opens nearby this spring). For many, the night was just beginning.

Ethnic Chic
Your clients could easily spend an entire weekend in the Gaslamp, but they’d be missing San Diego’s hottest new neighborhoods.

Little Italy, one of the oldest ethnic settlements in San Diego, is now the most interesting and vibrant residential center in downtown. Developers began razing old houses and office buildings just north of Broadway, less than five years ago. Now young urban professionals are snatching up condos in multicolored tiered buildings with views of the airport and waterfront. India and Kettner streets are lined with residences, artists’ studios and chic cafes.

“We have just a great neighborhood and it’s coming of age better than anyone ever hoped for or expected,” said Tom DiZinno, secretary of the Little Italy Association. “We’ve maintained our dignity and uniqueness as an urban village, and the diversity is amazing.” Locals still order their pepperoni pizzas from Filippi’s (in business since 1949) and pick up fresh cannolis at Solunto’s Baking Company. But these days diners are just as likely to grab a table at Indigo Grill for Chef Deborah Scott’s spicy multicultural cuisine or nibble a grilled veggie pannini in the back courtyard at Cafe Zucchero. Voyage, a cozy French bistro, is gaining rave reviews, and an Argentinean steakhouse is about to open.

San Diego’s hottest new nightclub has taken over an old dry cleaner’s building on India Street. The club is called Airport (though you won’t see a sign outside saying so). Pink and green lights cast a glow over the retro interior, where waitresses in vintage airline uniforms serve cocktails in a Jetsons’ decor.

Art happenings are held in warehouses and galleries here as well. The neighborhood will host San Diego’s largest arts celebration, Art Walk, April 23-24. More than 70,000 visitors participated in the free event in 2004, joining performance artists in impromptu street theater, drawing elaborate chalk murals on the sidewalks and more.

On the Waterfront
Lest one forget, downtown’s greatest attribute is its setting on the shores of San Diego Bay. The waterfront, now called the Marina District, is a favored hangout for locals and tourists alike. Mornings are a great time to walk the Embarcadero, a pedestrian walkway along Harbor Drive from the western edge of Little Italy to the East Village. The Embarcadero runs south past the Aircraft Carrier Museum and the hulking gray Midway. Since opening in June 2004, the Midway has attracted more than 500,000 guests, far exceeding its boosters’ predictions. It’s almost as popular as nearby Seaport Village, a dining and shopping complex opened as the waterfront’s main attraction in 1980.

There are big plans for this area as well, including a new children’s museum and a 28-story complex for KUSI-TV. So far, city planners are keeping their hands off Embarcadero Marina Park at the south end of the Embarcadero, where fishermen still dangle their lines from a municipal pier and office workers picnic on lush green lawns. Make sure your clients check out this part of downtown San Diego: It’s one of the places that makes San Diego so special.

“Most destinations have either a downtown or a resort area, but our city combines the two,” Timko said.

Not bad for a sleepy Navy town. Who needs L.A., Seattle or San Francisco? From now on, I’ll happily get my urban fix in my hometown downtown the hippest city on the West Coast.


Cruise passengers bound for San Diego may have a hard time choosing among the many different shore excursions available in this tourist mecca. A pre- or post-cruise stay is definitely a good idea, if your clients have the time. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular shore excursions:

The San Diego Zoo, Sea World Adventure Park and San Diego Wild Animal Park Safari are the town’s “signature attractions,” and the hottest tickets in town for cruise passengers traveling with kids.

Narrated Harbor Cruises and Whale Watching Adventures are also top choices, and provide a great way to see the city’s burgeoning skyline in more detail than from the cruise ship.

A Visit to Old Town provides a taste of early California history, along with quaint shops and authentic Mexican food.

Shopping/Sightseeing in nearby La Jolla offers trendy art galleries, pricey boutiques and gorgeous cliffside scenery.

Open-Air Trolley Rides to explore Seaport Village, Horton Plaza, the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park and Coronado Island are popular year-round, thanks to San Diego’s world-famous moderate climate.

Cycling Tours of the waterfront, Shelter Island and Coronado Island are a great option for those interested in getting a little exercise before splurging on cruise ship calories.

Golfing Trips to local courses, such as the Riverwalk Golf Club in Mission Valley provide an afternoon duffer’s delight.


Want to really wow your culturally inclined clients? Get them theater tickets the night before the cruise. There’s sure to be an exciting show playing at one of the many theaters in town; it might even be Broadway-bound. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” starring John Lithgow, played at the Old Globe in Balboa Park before heading to Broadway, as did “The Full Monty.” Jack O’Brien, the Globe’s Artistic Director, won a 2003 Tony for directing the hit “Hairspray” in New York, and immediately followed his success with a 2004 Tony for his direction of “Henry IV” at Lincoln Center. Upcoming shows include works by George Bernard Shaw, Kenneth Lonergan (he wrote the Oscar-nominated film “You Can Count on Me”) and, of course, the indomitable Mr. Shakespeare, whose “Macbeth” is one of three plays scheduled for the 2005 Summer Shakespeare Series.

The La Jolla Playhouse is in the limelight as well. It took local productions of “A Walk in the Woods” and The Who’s “Tommy” to Broadway. Artistic director Des McAnuff has also been awarded two Tonys. The Playhouse’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center opened in 2005, adding the Potiker Theatre to the Playhouse’s compound of three theaters and various workshop spaces.

Serious theater buffs should study the What’s New section of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site and the calendar published by the San Diego Performing Arts League. Your clients can easily catch a show at the last minute and save money by checking out the selection of same-day, half-priced tickets at ArtsTix at Horton Plaza.

The La Jolla Playhouse

The Old Globe

San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau

ArtsTix at Horton Plaza

San Diego Performing Arts League


Britt Scripps Inn
Owner Gordon Hattersley III poured $6 million into a Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion to create his version of a luscious boutique inn. The faithful restoration bows to modern times with plasma-screen TVs, 1,000-thread-count sheets and wireless Internet, but the furnishings are pure 19th century though beds were widened and lengthened to fit 21st-century physiques. The nine rooms have different themes, from Gothic to Garden, with enough intriguing details to dazzle a design diva. Count on spotting stars from the nearby Old Globe and reclusive celebrities. Rates from $299 per night; 10 percent commission.

Omni San Diego
With rooms overlooking Petco Park and a suspension bridge connecting the hotel to the stands, the Omni is a baseball fan’s dream come true. John Moores, owner of the San Diego Padres, has a penthouse above the 511-room hotel; his collection of baseball memorabilia decorates hallways near the fitness center and meeting rooms. The Convention Center is across the street and the Gaslamp Quarter practically begins at the front door. Rates from $329; 10 percent commission.

W San Diego
Heated sand warms cold tootsies at the W’s rooftop Beach bar; martinis get the after-work crowd glowing in the lobby Living Room. Popular with weekending Angelinos and Zonies (from Arizona), the W buzzes with electronic music and high-energy chatter. Guests in the 259 rooms slip past the lines of eager partygoers at the front door and retire to blue and white quarters, some with window seats facing the bay. Rates from $399; 10 percent commission.

The buzz is already intense, though the latest creation from Kimpton Hotels won’t open until April. Located a block from Petco Park in an area that once was home to downtown’s struggling artists, the Solamar promises to present an “art lies within” theme with its espresso brown, cosmopolitan pink and aquarium blue decor. Multi-colored up-lit palm trees and multiple fire pits will add the requisite beach motif. Rates from $199; 10 percent commission.

San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter Hotel
Not your standard Marriott, the Gaslamp Hotel has a rooftop bar called Altitude and 306 plush rooms, some with views into Petco Park. The hotel opened in January; Altitude is scheduled to take off sometime in April. Meanwhile, the hotel’s restaurant Soleil@K (pronounced So-lay at K) is creating buzz with its street-scene view and Mediterranean cuisine. Expect a full house once baseball season begins. Rates from $360; 10 percent commission.

Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter Hotel
The ceilings are so high in the Hilton’s Enclave Tower that the rooms feel like artists’ lofts successful artists, that is. When it opened in 2000, the Hilton was the trendiest hotel in the neighborhood. Though the competition is far more intense these days, the 298 rooms are often booked solid with business travelers and vacationers. The cozy lobby bar with its blazing fireplace is a peaceful retreat. Rates from $199; 10 percent commission.