San Diego: The Convention City in the Sun

Photography by the authors

The medical profession keeps our city, San Diego, busy. The next few months are typical: Cardiac surgeons are coming our way, then pediatric sports physicians in early March, then 17,000 members of the American Academy of Dermatology (finally tourists actually arriving with sunscreen!), then a convention for critical care radiologists followed by groups of OB-GYNs and GI endoscopists.

These doctors will find a lot to see in town from the area around the Convention Center to the once run-down — and now gentrified — Gaslamp Quarter. San Diego’s assets are well covered in travel guides. The zoo, Balboa Park, the beaches, Seaport Village and Old Town.

Old Town has its problems at the moment because the state tourism people felt this popular attraction was too full of Mexican color and giving visitors the wrong impression. San Diego in 1850 was said to be austere and should be shown as such. As a result Old Town was wiped clean of any charm. The locals responded by staying away. The issues are being addressed but slowly as tends to happen when government is involved.

However, amongst our other celebrated attractions is one of the best zoos in world, its animals enjoying arguably the best climate in the country, and a city park about to celebrate a century.

A mural at the Cruise Terminal reminds locals that tourists have been coming for a long time to our Maritime Museum, our Aerospace Museum and to our zoo. What would insiders suggest that’s worth doing? What comes with cautions?

Well, our hotels may be waterfront, but except for some in Coronado, they don’t have beaches. Furthermore, we don’t have the Gulf Stream to warm our beaches and though it will be pleasantly warm in March for the dermatologists the water may be colder than expected.

Convention hotels dominate the downtown scene. Southern California is the land of the automobile where people will take their car 100 yards to pick up a newspaper, but conventioneers can get around downtown easily on foot, perhaps leaving any question of a car rental until after the medical meeting itself.

The two Embarcadero Parks beyond the waterfront offer a pleasant walk; there is always something going on there and Seaport Village, with its rather pricey souvenirs, lies next door near the USS Midway aircraft carrier, which opened as a naval aviation museum in 2004. San Diego is justifiably proud of its naval connections. Don’t miss a rather funky tribute to the famous sailor-nurse kiss in New York City on V-J Day. It rises up above a gesture thanking Bob Hope for how he entertained his nation’s service personnel.

Little Italy is an easy walk north about 10 short blocks. It dates back to the tuna fishing period of the 1920s that brought 6,000 hardworking Italian families to San Diego. Interstate 5 almost gutted the community. It has recovered from its decline and is a vibrant community now with great restaurants that easily hold their own with the expensive dining places in the Gaslamp Quarter. The residents are fiercely proud and every time a Hollywood Italian earns another Oscar up go the flags and placards.

You can’t walk to Coronado but you can take a ferry over to explore the famous Del Coronado Hotel or visit it as part of an On Off Old Town trolley ride. Those rides are popular in just about every major city for a reason: they offer a relatively inexpensive and very convenient way of exploring a city. The trolley tours can be so busy in summer that visitors compete for seats. The website says prepayment by credit card “guarantees your spot on this tour.”

The shopping center at Horton Plaza is an easy walk from the convention center but a visit to the upscale shops in La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya) requires a cab or a car rental. You can leave behind the few Victorian buildings in downtown San Diego to discover the avant garde architecture of the Salk Clinic. If you are driving be aware of the La Jolla bottleneck at rush hour in the evening.

La Jolla’s parking problem — to a degree — is helped by the few garaging places in town, but you could spend your day looking for street parking. They mark tires with chalk and ticket enthusiastically. The pelicans in our photograph must be the only locals who don’t have a parking problem. Note behind the metal bench there are white lines for angled parking yet the curb is painted red!

Locals have this love-hate affair with La Jolla. It is truly beautiful but gives the impression of being a bit “stuck up.” The Whaling Bar at the beautiful La Valencia hotel, for example, once refused admission to Robert Redford because he was wearing shorts!

That said, visit La Jolla and join all those who loved it so much at first sight they moved to San Diego.

Before you consider renting a car and taking a few days at the end of a convention to check out some part of Southern California, you may want some suggestions for a simple lunch near the Convention Center. You’ll make your own choices for dinner in the Gaslamp area; it’s very competitive especially at Happy Hour and they expect you to study the menu and ask questions. Many of the coffee shops are open only until 2 p.m.

Our favorite restaurant is Grand Central at 500 West Broadway: great salads, friendly staff with almost no turnover so the busboys wait for a waiter job opening, the way professional waiters have to do in Europe. Six blocks east is St Tropez at 926 Broadway Circle, one of four in different locations in town, but if you wanted a quick, clean, great Mexican restaurant, we think Baja Fresh at 145 Broadway is the best of any of the chain Mexican restaurants in Southern California. The Nordstrom store at 324 Horton Plaza also has an excellent reasonably priced restaurant.

The highways around San Diego run well except during rush hour. Interstate 5 runs along the coast initially and Interstate 15 more easterly. The interstates run south as well to Mexico, but the days when residents might promote a brief visit to Baja California for visitors are long gone. Tijuana and points south are not considered safe, which has created problems for San Diego’s cruise industry.

Out of town
We have two post-convention suggestions: Consider Carlsbad, a coastal city 35 miles to the north for a couple of days, especially if you’re with children. Carlsbad is home to Legoland, whose admission prices have now reached the obscene cost of $62 for a day ticket for children ages 3 to 12! All Wendy’s restaurants, however, are sponsoring free kid’s admissions for every adult ticket bought through March 30. Pick up the coupon at Wendy’s and, if the restaurant you’re favoring doesn’t have any coupons left, go to another Wendy’s — they are all over town.

The Carlsbad Inn is an old-fashioned, non-smoking, reasonably priced AAA Three Diamond condominium hotel right in downtown Carlsbad. This is a fun town, with a long spa and artesian well history and several excellent restaurants within two blocks. Carlsbad has an interesting Museum of Making Music and a fascinating Gemological Institute of America where visitors can arrange a visit.

Laguna Beach lays a mere 38 miles farther north. It is an unusual mixture of a former 1913 funky artists’ colony now allied to upscale art galleries, refined restaurants and expensive boutiques. The constants beyond that are, of course, the wonderful weather, the snazzy shore line and the surf.

The first art gallery in town became the Laguna Art Museum, and a fun gathering of artists drifted into the incredible Festival of the Arts Pageant of the Masters that draws volunteers from all over the world to recreate classical and contemporary paintings.

If parking was bad in La Jolla, it is impossible in Laguna Beach. We stayed at the recently opened The Retreat in Laguna a group of eight former ocean cottages upgraded by the new owner, motivational speaker and wellness expert Lloyd Charton. The Retreat offers a much more personal stay than a hotel. It has individual extras like room spa services and private beachside fitness training. All units (Charton calls them “villas”) have stone fireplaces, granite kitchens, access to barbecue grills, free parking, WiFi and laundry — and an ocean view so enticing you may spend all your time on your balcony.

Except you will have to leave your privileged parking and drive south down a half dozen blocks to the restaurant Charton recommends: the French 75 Bistro at 1464 South Coast Highway. There, with the Wisdom of the Ages, we arrive half an hour early so we can spend the time looking for parking. And not noticing it offers valet parking!

The1928 cottage was built by the French family. The son of the original owner, Dr. French is apparently a retired family physician. The house became a B&B inn then a restaurant 14 years ago. It recently changed hands. It gets mixed reviews at the site OpenTable.

Our visit was wonderful. The filet mignon was priced at $28, the salmon was $24 as was the beef stroganoff; the ambiance was old world and the presentation delightful. It was a Thursday night in early February and the place was crowded.

“Because of the menu, our trained chef — and the staff!” our waiter told us. “We feel we offer family priced food — we have to do that because the restaurants are very competitive in town — but we have the edge of classic French food. Yet this is not the hardy farm style where everything goes into the pot.”

We’ll come back and we’ll use valet parking next time!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.