image: Sailboats at the Shelter Island yacht harbor in San Diego.
Sailboats at the Shelter Island yacht harbor in San Diego.

Photograph © Philip Schermeister

San Diego
By Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr.

This California city is what the Golden State is all about: a long history and a modern outlook, lots of sun and leisurely fun.

My two little boys and I wade into a watercolor painting. It's a California seascape—a wide, white beach in the warm light of late afternoon. A jade ocean with gentle waves foams on a stretch of white sand. The children kneel in the shallows with pails and shovels, their brown hair shining with golden highlights. In the background, daubs of color—red umbrellas, a yellow kayak—complete the picture.

Now I'm up to my neck in the blue-green wash of the sea. A swell rolls toward me and my 11-year-old, Graham. We turn and swim for all we're worth, until the wave takes hold and plunges us toward shore. As we ride, I turn my head and see his delighted face beside me. And I remember my own father, more than 40 years ago, teaching me to bodysurf on a California beach. That white strand lies back around a far-off bend in my soul's coastline, yet the picture has suddenly come back, as fresh as wet paint.

To native Californians like us, the Golden State my dad loved makes a promise that matters: of natural beauty and easygoing friendliness, of cultural diversity and economic growth. As I explored San Diego, I found that promise fulfilled. And I found a place where my sons, fifth-generation Californians, might gain a deeper sense of their heritage under the sun.

Exhibit A: a setting something like paradise—miles of beaches and one of the world's great Mediterranean climates, with an annual average temperature of 70°F. The weather is a gift; it says, "Isn't it great to be alive?" It warms you with optimism and makes you want to go outdoors like the locals—jogging on the sand, picnicking in Balboa Park, watching tigers at the zoo, listening to mariachis leaning against adobe walls in Old Town, strumming their guitars.

Exhibit B: This sun-dazzled city boasts the greatest concentration of museums west of the Mississippi, two Tony-award-winning theaters, and an enticing array of arts festivals. In San Diego, the ancient Roman ideal, "a sound mind in a sound body," is more than just a motto.

And Exhibit C: a venerable history that began around 1542, when Europeans first set foot on the West Coast of the future United States (78 years, in fact, before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). In 1769, Franciscan father Junípero Serra built the Mission San Diego de Alcalá here; it was the first of 21 that eventually looped through the state.

San Diego is not an easy city to navigate. it sprawls across 320 square miles of hills, canyons, and scalloped shoreline. Neighborhoods are laced together in true California fashion—by freeways. Driving from one place to another, I routinely missed my exit, ending up in intriguing, but distant, quarters of the city.

To gain a better sense of the place, I climbed up to a bluff at Point Loma, overlooking San Diego Bay. From this aerial perspective, I could begin to grasp the layout of the city. Just southeast across a channel from Point Loma I saw North Island U.S. Naval Air Station, where military jets scream into the sky and ships that qualify as floating cities dock along Carrier Row. The base is part of Coronado, a curved peninsula with handsome houses and a broad beach—the same place where my boys and I would body surf. Past Coronado, cranes and docks fringe the city waterfront. Cruise ships pause en route to Mexico, only 17 miles south, and white sails dot the water just beyond the yacht marinas.

Inland from the waterfront rises a cluster of skyscrapers that represents the growing city's future. America's seventh largest city, San Diego is booming as a tourist hub, year-round sports playground, university community, convention center, military complex, and focal point of biomedical research. On the skyline, the One America Plaza building juts up like a huge Phillips-head screwdriver; it's a city landmark, and the subject of a lot of comments that its designer, Helmut Jahn, would probably rather forget.

North of downtown lies the 1,100-acre swath of greenery and culture called Balboa Park, with more than a dozen museums and the famous San Diego Zoo. Just beyond, Old Town clusters around a historic Mexican plaza. Farther north along the coast spreads a 4,600-acre aquatic park called Mission Bay, home to Sea World and that famous leaping leviathan, Shamu the killer whale. Finally comes the seaside village of La Jolla, an old-money town where grand homes perch above rocky coves and film stars rub elbows with surfers.

What to visit first?

As a schoolgirl in West Los Angeles, my wife, Merry, had to construct a model of one of Father Serra's missions. She carved hers out of Ivory soap. So we took our cue from that quintessentially California memory.

From a distance, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá shines white on a hill northeast of downtown, but up close, worn clay tiles and rounded adobe walls soften that image. Palm trees, cactuses, and a venerable old olive tree set off the chapel and its five-bell campanile. Inside the museum I saw original mission records in Junípero Serra's own handwriting and felt the friar would be pleased that the mission still celebrates Mass every Sunday.

On a plain below the mission's original site, six miles east of Presidio Park, San Diego's first community took root. Old Town sprouted during the Mexican period, after independence from Spain in 1821, and grew into an American commercial hub after California joined the Union in 1850.

Late one day we strolled around the 13-acre historic area, where old adobe and wood buildings surround a grassy plaza. Pepper trees quivered in the breeze; hummingbirds darted at flowers. We peeked into the San Diego Union's first newspaper office, an 1851 wood structure that was prefabricated in Maine and shipped all the way around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. At the Seeley Stables we admired a stagecoach, buckboard, and fancy saddles. But what interested us most—since we live in a California adobe house ourselves—was La Casa de Estudillo. Built in 1829 by the last commandant of the Presidio, a Spanish military fort on the same site, the 13 thick-walled rooms of the adobe residence are connected by a veranda wrapped around a central patio. Pictures show earlier times, when the sala, or living room, was filled with heavy wooden furniture, and the family chapel gleamed with silver crosses. I gave a sigh for a lost romantic era, the days of the Californios, who conquered a raw frontier but wore lace cuffs and spoke elegant Spanish. In their tradition of warm hospitality, a traveler could journey from San Diego to San Francisco and never want for a meal or a roof. Perhaps that was when California's tradition of friendliness began.

In memory of the gracious lifestyle of the Californios, Merry and I dined at an 1829 hacienda, La Casa de Bandini. In the courtyard, vines climbed adobe walls to a wooden balcony. A fountain splashed. We sipped margaritas and enjoyed award-winning enchiladas suizas and chiles rellenos.

Later we joined a throng of people strolling in the nearby Bazaar del Mundo, a patio complex of shops and restaurants. This corner of Old Town is a hot spot, especially on weekends. A fiesta mood filled the air, colorful lights twinkled, and shoppers browsed among wares that ranged from Mexican silver jewelry to fiery chile peppers. Mariachis strummed their guitars and sang old songs to lovers under the moonlit sky.

The house looks ordinary enough: two stories of red brick, blue shutters, white trim. But at this 1857 residence on the edge of Old Town, strange occurrences have been observed so constantly for so long that the U.S. Department of Commerce certifies the Whaley House as officially haunted.

If your nose picks up the scent of a Havana cigar or old-fashioned perfume, you've just smelled a ghost—either Thomas Whaley or his wife, Anna, both dead for more than 80 years. One morning we stood in the hallway of their house with one of its directors, Gary Beck. Off in the nearby parlor we could see a spinet piano, portraits, clocks ticking as though the family still lived here. Another chamber, which once served as the county courtroom, displayed a rare life mask of Abraham Lincoln. The past was a palpable presence.

"You never know when something's going to happen," said Gary. "I saw a kind of swirling ball trying to materialize upstairs. It was witnessed by lots of people. A green swirling puff. You could make out an arm sometimes; it was definitely a woman." Another time a ladies' group touring the kitchen watched wide-eyed as teacups whirled in their saucers, just as if someone had turned them. But no one was there.

How to explain such occurrences? "We forget that in those times people might walk every day past the room where they were born," mused Gary, "or the room where a child died of scarlet fever. Those kinds of memories are always with us. Maybe the bricks hold some of them too."

Old Town was displaced as San Diego's business hub by a downtown district that has recently had its "spirits raised" as well. The Gaslamp Quarter first boomed in the late 1800s as new Victorian commercial buildings lined the streets. But the area soon was invaded by houses of ill repute and gambling halls, three of them operated by legendary lawman Wyatt Earp. Businesses moved out; the neighborhood went to seed. By the early 1980s historic buildings were threatened with demolition. But a citizens' preservation campaign led to the creation of a 16-block national historic district. Like many urban renewal zones, it has a split personality: Trendy Italian restaurants stand near adult theaters, art galleries next to pawn shops.

Nighttime is the right time to enjoy the charms of the Gaslamp Quarter. Horse-drawn carriages clatter along the old streets. Lights wink, and tempting restaurant aromas fill the air. We looked inside Johnny M's 801, a 1907 tavern with a mahogany bar and a huge stained-glass dome. We also saw the Louis Bank of Commerce of 1888, built of sturdy granite with ornate twin towers. It once housed an infamous brothel run by a fortune-teller whose girls dyed their dresses to match the colors of the doors to their rooms.

Not far from the Gaslamp Quarter lies the city waterfront. By day, sunlight flashes on the bay, and harbor cruise boats scoot across the unruffled green water, past channel buoys where California sea lions loll like sunbathers on swim rafts. Anchored to the south we could see the U.S.S. Kittyhawk—at more than 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide, one of the world's largest conventionally powered aircraft carriers. There's enough room aboard for 5,700 crew and 75 airplanes.

More human in scale, the 1863 Star of India stood docked at harborside, sails unfurled. The sleek black merchantman sailed around the world 21 times and is the oldest active square-rigged vessel still afloat, having survived collision, cyclone, ice, and mutiny. The ship is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum, whose exhibits fill a nearby 1898 ferryboat with things nautical, from models of Spanish galleons to early outboard motors. In the ferry's pilot house my sons turned the wooden wheel and read the signs above it for the ship's controls. "Left rudder, right rudder." Pretty basic. The old days were simpler days, and it was nice to visit them.

The cultural heart of San Diego is Balboa Park. A wooded retreat from the city, it's a landscape of shaggy eucalyptus trees, green lawns, and bright flower beds. The gardens set off an assortment of fantastic Spanish Colonial Revival and mission-style buildings lined up along an avenue named El Prado; all this elegant architecture, with its sculptured windows and colorful tiles, seems to have wafted here magically from Spain. In fact, the buildings are left over from world expositions held in 1915 and 1935 to show San Diego's best face to the world. They still do.

My first stop was the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, where an exhibit of beads displays wonderful variations on a simple theme. There are amber beads, glowing like honey, from Romania, Sicily, and the Baltic, a cone-shaped hat of white beads from Nigeria, decorated Plains Indian moccasins, and turn-of-the-century European purses sheathed in tiny seed beads of fine glass.

Next I wandered into the cool, shuttered galleries of the San Diego Museum of Art, where El Greco's art (Baroque Spanish) shares space with David Hockney's (contemporary American). This is serious art, with much to appreciate. Yet the beadwork at the Mingei spoke just as eloquently of the limitless creativity of humankind.

At the Natural History Museum, small dinosaur skeletons are arranged as if in a running pack, like a scene from Jurassic Park. My last stop in the park was the California Building, with its dome of blue and yellow tiles. Inside, at the Museum of Man, I stared into the hairy face of a model of a Cro-Magnon ancestor.

San Diego prides itself on its lively arts, too. I took Graham to the Old Globe's open-air Lowell Davies Festival Theater in Balboa Park for a production of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors. Right before the play started, an actor in a panda costume popped through a trap door in the stage floor and scratched his head as if to say, "How did I get over here?" (The San Diego Zoo is right next to the theater.) It was perfect fun for a summer evening.

Saved for last was the zoo, a world-famous institution that, more than 80 years ago, was one of the first to display animals in naturalistic habitats free of cage bars. Today it is a leader in the breeding of endangered species. About 4,000 mammals, reptiles, and birds live in a subtropical garden covering a hundred hilly acres.

On the mist-shrouded Tiger River trail we wound through stands of bamboo, orchids, and fragrant jasmine. Yellow-eyed alligators glared in a realm of streams and fallen trees. Great exhibit—but no tigers. Suddenly a striped jungle cat materialized in the grass. It loped toward us and lapped up a leisurely drink from a stream. Standing only inches away, we could see droplets of water on its whiskers. Then the rangy beast bounded across a log to join a second tiger—which whirled in a blur of fangs and snarls, a horrifying sound, even through the exhibit's thick glass.

Another day eight-year-old Lachie and I headed 30 miles north of the zoo to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Established in 1972 to further the zoo's captive breeding program, the vast park in the San Pasqual Valley allows 4,000 animals to roam freely. We boarded a tram and glided over sun-scorched hills and dusty plains into "East Africa." Here giraffes, rhinoceroses, antelopes, and other animals forage for food, raise their young, and do pretty much whatever they do in the wild—well, except for being messily devoured, since the park separates the meat-eaters from the vegetarians. However, we did see scavenging turkey vultures, which our tram guide called "nature's garbage disposals. They're always eating things way past the expiration date!"

We spent our last day in San Diego just hanging around our hotel. And who wouldn't? The Hotel del Coronado dates back to 1888; the grand Victorian seaside resort-painted white, with red cupolas and towers-is said to have inspired neighbor L. Frank Baum's design of the Emerald City of Oz.

In the lobby we stepped into a portrait of yesteryear. Walls shone with polished wood. Chandeliers glittered. An early Otis birdcage elevator rose to five floors of rooms that have housed 14 U.S. presidents, the Duke of Windsor, and such movie stars as Marilyn Monroe, who filmed scenes from Some Like It Hot here in 1958.

In front of the hotel, the beach stretched wide and almost impossibly white. We laid out blue towels and raised a red umbrella. And suddenly there I was—back to the time when my father brought our family here to "the Del." I was about the same age as my sons. Then, as now, the summer days were as rich with dreams and possibilities as an artist's palette.

Out in the water, my sons rode the surf on one side of me; I felt my father riding on the other—and I seemed to meet the past and future at once. In a sense, that's what San Diego offers, too—a portrait of the past, a glimpse of the growing future-all rendered with a vision that's still full of the sunny promise of California.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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