by Brian Sands, New Orleans, Louisiana
Survived Sugar Bowl, Superbowl and Mardi Gras? Ready for a brief break from
New Orleans before St. Patrick's Day, French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest
kick in? Consider going west-to San Diego, land of sun, surf and mellow times.
Nestled on a Pacific Ocean bay, San Diego enjoys near-perfect weather year round. (A few weeks of cloudy weather has everybody complaining.) Daytimes are warm, evenings are cool but not unpleasant-and humidity is not an issue.
Fortunately, despite its size, San Diego has not given in to over-development. Aside from a small downtown area, few homes or buildings are so large that they detract from the city's magnificent vistas. It's managed to retain its original resort town atmosphere without giving in to the tackiness that one usually finds in such places. Call it upscale south-of-the-border.
If you plan to go, try to arrive on a Friday when the Park Manor has its weekly cocktail party. This will serve as a nice introduction to the San Diego scene. From 5:00 to 9:00, dozens and dozens of men (and a few women) ride the little elevator to the rooftop sun deck and patio. Upon arrival, conviviality prevails as the entire spectrum of gay "types" congregates there. And for once, a hotel's brochure doesn't exaggerate when it trumpets the "sweeping view of San Diego's Downtown, Harbor and Balboa Park"-it is fabulous. The Park Manor Suites is located at 525 Spruce Street at Sixth Avenue.
Unless your gay-dar is completely broken, you'll soon realize that Hillcrest is San Diego's gay neighborhood. It's a fun place to stroll around. Check out its wide range of shops and boutiques, particularly Babette Schwarz, a local fixture known not only for his charming store but also as a doyen of the local drag scene.
I munched my way through Hillcrest one afternoon starting at the Baja Grill where they were featuring yummy fish tacos. Giving in to temptation at the Candy Depot, I filled up a bag with all sorts of chocolate de-lights. Finally, I discovered David's Place, a non-profit coffeehouse run by PWAs that benefits local AIDS organizations. Good java, good cause.
Though spread out by New Orleans standards, the bar scene concentrates in Hillcrest and the adjacent North Park area. Numbers is a pretty cool neighborhood bar. Kickers, in the same building as Hamburger Mary's, plays country & western music and has a dance floor for two-stepping. The leather crowd heads to Pecs-the bartenders there are real gentlemen.
San Diego's two most popular places hold forth in the 1000 block of University Avenue. Flicks' video bar attracts fun, friendly guys. Even on a Sunday night, it's a happening place. From Flicks, just a short walk takes you to Rich's, the city's big dance club.
As always when we travel away from the Big Easy, it's bad enough when they cry out "Last call" but in San Diego, starting about 1:45 am, busboys walk around and practically take glasses and bottles out of your hand. The nerve! If you don't want to go home, then go to Wolf's, a leather bar, which continues serving non-alcoholic drinks till 4:00 am.
Or do as many S'Diego boys do and head to the baths. You may have to wait a few minutes to get one of Club San Diego's 300 lockers or 52 private rooms but it's worth it. With lots of marines and sailors hanging out, it's a chance to have fun and do something for your country at the same time.
Of course, there's much more to San Diego than just Hillcrest. In addition to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park features the buildings originally built for the 1935 Exposition. They now house a variety of museums including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Man, a science museum complete with an IMAX theater, a sports museum, a photography museum and a folk art museum currently exhibiting works from Morocco. Nearby are a botanical building, a large cactus garden and an outdoor pipe organ that gives regular recitals. Bring a picnic lunch and spend the day there.
A must-see is Coronado Island, home to the Hotel del Coronado (known locally as "The Del") which put San Diego on the map in the 1920's. Elegant in a leisurely way, presidents and princes have stayed there as well as a few ghosts. Nancy, of Coronado Touring, does a wonderful guided stroll of the area. From the John Spreckels Mansion (he basically built San Diego), past the Duchess of Windsor's cottage and the home where Frank L. Baum wrote "The Wizard of Oz," Nancy combines oodles of knowledge with a camp sensibility. Listen as she refers to the Duke of Windsor as "Princey-poo." At $6.00 per person, it's well worth it. (619.435.5892/5993)
Old Town offers a vision of what life was like when San Diego was in its infant days. Surrounded by a posh shopping/residential district, the historic portion's buildings have been converted into mini-museums. There's a Wells Fargo museum, one of coaches and buggies, and a tiny dentistry "museumette." You can go through the perfectly preserved home of one of the early affluent families, and see what a restaurant looked like in the Pony Express days. My favorite, though, was the small, 125-year-old schoolhouse, crammed full of memorabilia, that's still used today for classes on local history.
For more outdoorsy things to do, visit Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma. Beautiful panoramas of the Pacific Ocean allow grandiose views of nature, while the tide pools there enable you to see water creatures and critters up close. At Point Loma, there are helpful Park Rangers to answer any questions.
January through March is the ideal time to take a whale-watching trip. Don't expect Sea World-they're not there to perform for you. It's still pretty exciting, though, to see the tail fin emerge from the water. Along the way, you're also likely to see sea lions, pelicans and other marine animals. Hornblower Yachts offers a 3 1/2 hour cruise for $17-the captain did a great job of getting as close to the whales as he possibly could.
One hopes one doesn't see beached whales at Black's Beach, the local clothing optional, mostly gay beach. There are two ways to get to it from the parking lot. One involves steps and a trek along the straight beach. The second butch-er way takes you down a fairly steep cliff. It's do-able but not for the faint of heart and certainly leave the high-heeled shoes at home. If your thighs ache the next day, this may be the reason why. Better to go in the summer when the water's warm, school's out and the scenery's at its most resplendent.
After filling your eyes, you may want to fill your stomach. Trattoria Mamma Anna, downtown at 644 Fifth Avenue, is an old-fashioned Italian restaurant where the food's delicious and the portions are huge. For a more sophisticated setting, try Laurel, one of San Diego's top dining establishments, located on the street of its name. Their butternut squash ravioli is superb, but so was everything else including the service. Across the street from Laurel, A Taste of Viet Nam recently opened. With excellent food and a helpful staff, it deserves to be a success.
In addition to the aforementioned museums, San Diego has various other cultural offerings. The Old Globe Theater and La Jolla Playhouse each put on a variety of plays and musicals, the Globe throughout the year and La Jolla from May through October. These are two of the top regional theaters in the country.
San Diego Opera presents five productions each year between January and May. A recent "Carmen" was traditional to a fault. Despite generally good singing and Richard Bonynge's impressive conducting it never fully ignited with passion. The premiere of a new opera in March, however, promises an important event. "The Conquistador" tells the true story of Don Luis de Carvajal, founder of Monterrey, who was imprisoned by the Mexican Inquisition when his Jewish ancestry was revealed.
San Diego is not a wild place. It's not a 24-hour city. There's not a party going on there all or even most of the time. But with all that it does have to offer, that can be just fine. Sometimes.