It was mid-January – dull, dreary and cold. My husband and I were looking forward to a romantic week away in San Diego, California where the weather promises nothing but sunshine. The song goes, “Seems it never rains in Southern California”. It turned out to be a lie. Though we were met with glorious sunshine upon arrival, within 24 hours the skies opened up and for the next six days it poured off and on. What do you do when the weather outside is frightful? In San Diego the locals stay inside. The beaches, usually filled with sun worshippers are deserted.
We had planned a romantic gondola ride on the canals of the Coronado Cays, complete with champagne and a gondolier serenading us with an Italian love song. Thanks to the stormy weather that didn’t happen. After a quick flip through Eyewitness Travel’s Top 10, San Diego guide book, we opted for a water-related activity of a different sort. The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla provides a stunning view that at least fulfilled some part of my “romantic” criteria. Usually packed with visitors, we had the place to ourselves and didn’t have to jostle for position as we marvelled at the amazing sea creatures. Just outside the building three tide pools teemed with life. A knowledgeable (though lonely) attendant encouraged us to roll up our sleeves and dip our hands into the water to get touchy, feely with the inhabitants. I had no idea a sea cucumber was so soft, it felt like velvet. What a thrill. I felt like a little kid (in a good way) again.
The La Valencia Hotel is touted as one of the most romantic places on the California coast. Rain or shine, what is more romantic than a hotel steeped in history? Opened in 1926, this exquisite old lady sits perched atop La Jolla Cove, just steps from miles of scenic coastline. The Mediterranean inspired architecture and décor, with achingly beautiful courtyards, hand painted murals and exquisite Spanish mosaics, set in lush tropical gardens evoke lots of old-world charm. It’s no surprise that La Valencia is often chosen by brides and grooms for their special day.
The hotel’s Whaling Bar & Grill, opened in the early 1950’s, has the ambiance of an old seaside pub with lots of dark mahogany paneling, red leather and private booths. The Mediterranean-inspired appetizers were yummy, especially the hummus, a dip made of chickpea purée seasoned with tahini (sesame seed paste), olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice.
For breakfast we opted for The Living Room Cafe, a quirky coffee house just down the street. This place is filled with furniture that might have come from your great-grandmother’s attic…old, stuffed, comfortable and eclectic. Every morning, just like the locals, we couldn’t resist the fresh fruit, granola and yoghurt. And the coffee? Well, it was superb.
Raining or not, world-famous San Diego Zoo, is a must-see, as much for the animals as for the plants. With more than a million plants on a total of 1,900 acres (770 hectares), the grounds are recognized as a world-class botanical garden. In fact, the plants are worth more than the animals. The rain let up just enough for us to enjoy the 40-minute guided bus tour through the grounds. I had my heart set on seeing the Pandas, but they were hiding from the weather too.
The zoo is in the middle of a Balboa Park, spanning 1,200 acres of lush, beautifully landscaped grounds. The Japanese Friendship Garden originated as a teahouse during the 1915 –16 Panama-California Exposition. The Garden’s winding paths take you to a Zen garden for meditation, an exhibit house, koi pond, bonsai exhibit, ceremonial gate, and a Fujidana (wisteria arbor). It was sublime.
Nestled between palm trees and gorgeous gardens, the ornate Spanish Colonial buildings house many of the park’s fifteen museums. The park is the largest of its kind in the United States, offering tons of cultural and recreation options for kids and adults alike.
Because of the weather we sought out attractions that we might otherwise have missed seeing, including California’s first church, the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Founded in 1769, the bells of the white-washed, Spanish style adobe building dominate the landscape. We learned that bells were extremely important in the mission days when they were used as clocks signifying the time to eat, pray, work or play. Nowadays all five bells are rung in unison only once a year on the birthday of the mission. The Mission today is an active Catholic Parish in the Diocese of San Diego.
Across the road from the Mission at McGregor’s Grill and Ale House I enjoyed the best hamburger ever. At the bar owner Ian Linekin takes your order personally and relays it to the kitchen. The genuine hospitality offered here made the food taste even better. On a vacation, these are the kinds of experiences that put you in a holiday mood. Dare I even say a romantic mood?