Once-sleepy seaside town of San Diego beckons visitors to its varied landscapes


September 29, 1991|By Dave G. Houser

San Diego reminds one of the old Spanish proverb: "The lands of the sun expand the soul."

Bathed in sunshine 75 percent of the time, bothered by less than 10 inches of rain a year and blessed with average temperatures like a proverbial day in June, the city provides the radiant sort of environment that is, indeed, good for the soul. And soothing to mind and body as well.

But there's more than a balmy climate behind the meteoric growth of California's first civilian settlement to its current ranking as America's sixth largest city. Nor is sunshine all it takes to satisfy the city's 35 million annual visitors.

Already one of the world's most visited destinations, San Diego will see its popularity peak during the first five months of 1992 when it hosts the 28th defense of the America's Cup. Yachting's premier event and one of the classics of international sport, America's Cup '92 will focus the spotlight of world attention on San Diego Bay from January to May when a final week of match races decides the winner of the prestigious cup. Spectators will find plenty to see and do during lulls in the action.

Together with its surrounding county, San Diego occupies a Connecticut-size chunk of real estate that forms the southwestern corner of the continental United States and is as varied a parcel of landscape as any in the world. In a matter of hours, you can journey from broad, sandy beaches up and over craggy mountain peaks and down again to sun-drenched desert.

Situated 120 freeway miles south of Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a collection of communities hidden in canyons and gathered on small shoulders of land that shrug down to the sea. As a result, it hardly seems as large as it is, home of 1.1 million in the city and 2.5 million countywide. Thanks to its compact downtown district and well-planned network of freeways that remain surprisingly unclogged during all but peak rush hours, it's an easy city to explore.

Add a -- of history as the birthplace of California, the fascination of a foreign border only minutes away, a host of quality visitor attractions, a broad range of accommodations and restaurants and a mind-boggling calendar of sports and recreational activities, and it's easy to see why this once-sleepy seaside town has blossomed as California's most popular year-round vacation destination.

Mirror-bright office buildings, luxury condos and hotel towers have risen like beanstalks to fill out the city's skyline. Full-scale redevelopment of historic Gaslamp Quarter, covering 38 acres in the heart of downtown, has cut a swath through porno shops, honky-tonks and tattoo parlors that once hindered development and made city streets unsafe at night.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk into bayside projects, resulting in one of the most stunning waterfronts to be found anywhere. A new $165 million convention center, with its tensile fabric roof resembling billowing sails, fronts the bay like a giant cruise ship. The sparkling centerpiece of this downtown renaissance, however, is Horton Plaza, an avant-garde 11.5-acre shopping, restaurant and entertainment complex, ideally situated to serve as a focal point for urban forays.

Forget everything you know about ordinary shopping malls, because Horton Plaza transcends its genre in a whimsical, multilevel, open-air, pastel-hued concoction of ramps, escalators, rambling paths, bridges, towers, piazzas, sculptures, fountains and live greenery.

For a study in contrasts and a remarkable architectural adventure, combine your visit to Horton Plaza with a stroll through the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter. Here, you can walk along wide brick sidewalks graced by period street lamps, trees and benches as you survey more than 100 Victorian buildings restored to their original splendor and converted into a galaxy of shops, galleries, pubs and restaurants.

Any downtown visit eventually leads to the harbor -- where the city embraces its bay and presents its finest profile. The best way to see it is on a harbor excursion. A variety of vessels dock at the foot of Broadway, providing leisurely cruises around the 22-square-mile harbor. Try the turn-of-the-century, 151-foot schooner Invader for a most interesting harbor tour.

A lovely landscaped boardwalk runs along the cityside of the harbor, anchored by neatly manicured Marina Embarcadero Park. This verdant 22-acre promenade is flanked on one side by Seaport Village shopping and entertainment complex, designed in the manner of an early California seaport, and on the other by the new San Diego Convention Center and the soaring twin glass towers of the 1,355-room Marriott Hotel & Marina.

While you're by the bay, consider a visit to Coronado. Almost an island, this exclusive community is connected to the mainland only by the graceful San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and by a long, narrow sandspit called the Silver Strand.

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