Surfin’ USA: Say hello to San Diego

Surfin’ USA: Say hello to San Diego

“Paddle, paddle, paddle,” says Whitney. “That’s great. Now press up on your hands and toes, and pop up on to your feet.” I leap forward, and land left-foot first in the middle of my surfboard. Perfect.

If only it was that easy once you’re actually in the sea. What seemed relatively simple on the beach’s firm golden sand is another matter when the board is scudding over the waves. Most of my attempts to “pop up” end with a faceful of foam. But the sun is shining brightly and the ocean is warm, so it’s all part of the fun. And on the few occasions that I do make it upright, the sensation is exhilarating – and I have my own one-woman cheerleading squad in the shape of Whitney, whooping in support.

Surf Diva’s motto is that the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun, and this easy, breezy attitude means the surf school’s lessons are wildly popular with children and adults.

The school is based on the long, sandy beach at La Jolla, a well-heeled coastal resort 20 minutes from Downtown, and the Surf Diva motto translates rather well for the whole of San Diego. This sunny, laid-back city just wants its visitors to have fun. There’s no pressure to see an exhausting list of sights, but there’s a whole host of things to do, whether you’re on the lookout for family fun, beachside pursuits or city slicking.

San Diego is set to welcome a greater influx of visitors from the UK when British Airways relaunches a daily direct flight from Heathrow in June. The flight will last 11 hours and the Boeing 777 offers Club World, World Traveller Plus and World Traveller cabins.

Previously, many Brits have tended to explore the stretch of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but now they will have the chance to easily extend their reach down to San Diego. It’s California’s most southerly city, sitting 120 miles down the coast from LA, but only 15 miles north of Tijuana, and Mexican influences can be seen in cuisine and architecture.

It’s a destination of districts, with each area offering something different, from the world-class museums and exhibitions of Balboa Park, to the buzzing bars of the Gaslamp Quarter.


The centre of San Diego is manageably sized and easy to navigate once you get a handle on the usual US grid system. An easy way to get around is the Old Town Trolley, which loops around the main hotspots, allowing tourists to jump on and off as they please.

The Gaslamp Quarter is the dining and nightlife centre – a strip a couple of blocks wide and 16 long is home to more than 100 restaurants and 40 nightclubs and bars. There are plenty of grand Victorian buildings, in keeping with the old-style street lights that give the area its name.

If the Padres are playing in Petco Park, the baseball stadium at the Gaslamp’s southern end, clients without tickets should head for the rooftop bars of the Hotel Indigo and the Marriott Gaslamp Quarter, which have views over the field.

At the north end of Gaslamp, Horton Plaza is a five-storey shopping centre with 130 stores, including Stateside favourites such as Macy’s, Nordstrom and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego
Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego

East of Gaslamp is the up-and-coming East Village. Visitors will find trendy bars and restaurants, including the charming Cafe Chloe, which serves a Californian take on French bistro eating.

West of Gaslamp is the waterfront, with the cruise ship terminal, a large convention centre, and two museums providing the main focus for tourists. The city has a massive naval presence, and the USS Midway Museum is the quickest way to get a military flavour. Once aboard the hulking aircraft carrier, visitors can get up close to jet fighters, visit the bridge and the engine room and even loop the loop on the Strike Fighter flight simulator.

North of Gaslamp is Balboa Park, one of the most important addresses for tourists to remember. Rather conveniently, San Diego has taken many of its headline sights and museums, and built them all together within a large landscaped park. These include the brilliant San Diego Zoo – one of the world’s best – a number of art museums, a natural history museum, a space and science centre, a car museum and a sports museum. Pick a couple and spend the day there.

Further north is Old Town, the site of the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast and the city’s Hispanic heart between 1821 and 1872, when Mexico gained independence from Spain and took over the area. The five-hectare site is slightly cartoonish in nature, with Mexican restaurants, margarita bars and themed gift shops in among the museums and original wood and adobe buildings.

The beaches

San Diego’s most beautiful city beach is on the peninsula of Coronado. Always referred to as an island, Coronado sits across the bay from Downtown and can be reached over the huge, arching bridge, or by ferry. It’s a quiet spot, with some quaint old houses. Recommend clients visit for a day and start with brunch at the delicious cafe-bakery Tartine and spend some time on the wide, white, family-friendly expanse of sand.

Behind the beach is the Hotel Del Coronado, one of America’s earliest and best known resort hotels. Clients may recognise the white clapperboard and pointed roofs of the hotel from the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot, which was filmed here in 1959. If clients don’t have time to stay in the famous Hotel Del, book them in for a treatment at the spa. The therapists are excellent, and there’s a private seafront pool with comfortable loungers and great amenities.

Moving north up the coast, Ocean Beach is known as San Diego’s hippy beach, with family-owned and independent shops rather than chain stores. Above this, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are where the party is to be found, popular with students and young sun-worshippers. Mission Beach is home to SeaWorld San Diego, where guests can watch trained killer whales, manatees, seals, dolphins and penguins perform, and enjoy behind-the-scenes animal encounters and water rides.

North again is La Jolla. This upscale neighbourhood really is stunning, with picture-perfect beaches suiting families and surfers and a central village of upmarket shops, destination restaurants and a fine Contemporary Art Museum.

Tried and tested: San Diego hotels

La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club

La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, San DiegoA sprawling, Hacienda-style property, the La Jolla resort sits on a private beach. It’s a paradise for families, with studio rooms and suites available that include kitchen and living room facilities. The beachfront rooms offer stunning sunset views, and direct access to the beach where every evening families gather for barbecues – the hotel provides all the equipment.

There’s a pool, gym, and 12 tennis courts, plus two restaurants. The Marine Room is renowned for its exquisite seafood and amazing location – the waves break right over the glazed front of the restaurant. It’s worth a visit, even if clients are staying elsewhere. Recommend the tasting menu – it’s worth the $50 price tag. Rooms start at about $250.

Borrego Valley Inn

Borrego Valley Inn, San DiegoThe low-rise, sandy coloured buildings of Borrego Valley blend into the desert scenery, so guests feel at one with the landscape. There are just 15 rooms, done out in Southwestern style with Saltillo-tiled floors, Native American pictures and private patios, with their own sun loungers and a lemon tree. Rooms face each other across a courtyard filled with fountains and desert flora, and there are two swimming pools.

It’s the ultimate place to relax, sunbathing in the day and stargazing at night. The owners, Rich and Gwenn, are welcoming hosts who will help and advise with any activities, from desert tours, golf or cycling to spa treatments or restaurant recommendations. Buffet breakfasts are home-made and delicious. Rooms start at $205 plus tax.

Rooftop bar, Hotel Indigo, San DiegoHotel Indigo

The Indigo is a funky design hotel located on the outskirts of the Gaslamp Quarter, so it’s really convenient for downtown sightseeing. The 210 rooms have hardwood floors, bright bedspreads and large-scale graphic prints on the walls.

The open-plan lobby is home to the lounge, bar, and dining area for breakfast, but in the evenings head for the bar on ninth floor, which overlooks the nearby Petco Park baseball stadium. Room start at $189.


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