Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Way To Go, San Diego

   The platitudinous response to San Diego is Sea World, the Zoo, Old Town and the Gaslamp Quarter. Coming away after my longest stay here I have other notable memories. As the plane mounts skyward the living Google stretch of topography shows you so much more.
   From the beaches to the mountains it is a city blessed by its lack of density. The mesas, canyons and arroyos mean there is no endless plain of ticky-tacky development. The cityscape is vertically varied with its heights and depths. The coastline offers everything from easy access beaches with smooth walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading and skateboarding paths to towering cliffs of sandstone and mud where the rich seem to be engaging in the brinkmanship of real estate poker with sumptuous developments precariously close to the edge. The vegetation enriched by its decorative imports (palms are not a native species here) and nourished by the scarce commodity of water is semi-desert to cultivated. Fresh produce is abundant in the travelling street markets that show up one day a week in a neighbourhood parking lot and move on to the next.  Choose from the sweetest of grapes to fresh picked strawberries, plucots (new to me), green, white and yellow beans, organic breads and pickles. Vendors are friendly and know their regulars. It’s a city that gets on with its life without fuss and a camaraderie rare in the US.
   It’s relatively easy to get about. Public transport is well organised with trolleys, buses and trains for which you can buy a $5 all day ticket. Good value. Drivers are generally laid back. One rarely hears a horn blown in anger or with bravado. Cyclists have lanes on many city streets and convenient racks on the front of buses.
   My plane tracks back eastwards out of the Pacific. I can see the brown kelp beds off Point Loma, the magnificent stretch of beaches from Mission Bay up to La Jolla and to the south the spread-eagled harbour with the military airfield and the Coronado hotel on the island made famous by the Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe comedy. Further off lie the cloud-shrouded mountains of Mexico, the border only ten miles from the city centre.
Take a walk to the Cabrillo Monument celebrating the discoverer of the city on the heights of Point Loma. On my day there I was lucky to have sparkling clear views of Tijuana, on its inclined plain above the border, and a further ten miles down the coast of Baja beyond. Below the point the sailing ship used in the film Master and Commander was bending to a gentle breeze. A flotilla of dinghies fought each other for the lead in their race like demented white-winged moths in slow motion. It was Veterans Day weekend and as many families were visiting the graves of their loved ones interred beneath the lawns of the military cemetery as were trekking through the lighthouse or exploring the tidal pools below.
The equilibrium between the conservative military presence here and the radical surf ideal is curious. Each culture goes its own merry way, not without some crossover. Likewise one can set a thriving art scene against the scientific research of the universities and the bio-tech businesses, the latter now sadly downsized. There are also racially, religiously and sexually diverse communities where tolerance is practiced if not always entirely upheld.
   This is not a black and white city. It is intriguing to see the burgeoning Asian American community dominating the demographic at UCSD while latinos are a dynamic presence at SDSU. The overall mix of the city is true to the American spirit of welcoming all. This is what makes San Diego tick, the 21st century melting pot.
   The city is not without its problems, of course. Housing is prohibitively expensive, a shock to the system for anyone moving here from the American hinterland. I was based for my stay in North Park, a community of small artisanal houses slowly gentrifying into a neighbourhood to rival the adjoining South Park. The streets are wide, designed in the nuke phobia of the 1950s to accommodate tanks and tractors to clear the anticipated rubble.  
   As the name suggests it is adjacent to San Diego’s Central Park, Balboa Park. This rises from the flats of downtown to the heights on its eastern edge with hills aplenty. There is even room for a municipal golf course in the centre of the city here. Sports activities range from walking, jogging and cycling (including a velodrome) to tennis, swimming, association football, and baseball. A collection of museums that would do many other cities proud lies within the park limits, including arts, science, ethnic and the military. For local or visitor alike there is plenty to do, places to go, people to see, events in which one can participate.
If one is a true masochist one can support the two local professional teams, the Chargers in football or the Padres in baseball. Appropriately ironic names, perhaps, the former full of unfulfilled ambition, all offence, no defence, the latter without a prayer. It seemed strange to see Raider fans more in evidence and certainly more vociferous than their Charger counterparts at the Qualcomm Stadium where true to type San Diego lost their “local” Californian derby by giving up a key interception in the dying seconds.
   But why pay to watch professionals lose when you can go out and be active yourself? This seems to be the San Diego way. The beaches offer first class surfing for all, especially when the Santa Ana is blowing offshore. It’s deceptively cold so wet suits are de rigueur. And the further north one moves to the outskirts of the city the better the waves. I meditated in the tranquil gardens on the cliffside at the Golden Lotus Temple designed by Paramahansa Yoganananda before taking to the line up at Swami’s beach at Encinitas. I sipped a schooner of Natural while watching the surf school newbies return from a session at Mission Beach as the sun fell down the sky behind lifeguard station 19.
   At night the Gaslamp Quarter comes into its own with the bars, pubs and clubs. My friend Monique, a gorgeous redhead from Mexicali, who works in the downmarket Hooters, led me on to the dance floor at various watering holes. I thought Onyx had the best vibe, more latin than the others we visited. For eats I rated George on the Cove at La Jolla, my favourite, for lunch on the upper deck looking down on the pelicans, seals and sea kayaks. And a big shout for Aaron, a great bartender there, who really knows his wines. I have become addicted to fish tacos, that Baja specialty, now seemingly ubiquitous. And there is nothing like the challenge of an enormous plate of pancakes with fruit and the bottomless coffee cup at The Mission on University Avenue, rated in the top 25 breakfast experiences in the country.
   Way to be, San Diego! I will be back.

No comments:

Post a Comment