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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
|CHECKING OUT THE PRE- AND POST-OPTIONS|
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
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
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.
WHO NEEDS TINSEL TOWN?
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
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
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
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.