When I was a kid, visiting SeaWorld was my family’s top priority when we traveled to San Diego, California. Wearing matching aqua blue Disneyland hats – we were on a theme-park-a-thon – my sister and I marveled at the splashy shows, clamoring for a soggy seat in Shamu’s splash zone (your greatest excitement at age 10). Fast forward a few years; now I find myself gaining the same “splash zone” excitement way outside theme park gates, in San Diego’s it neighborhoods, cool hotels, and foodie finds. Here’s how I suggest sampling California’s South coast for 48-hours, sans Shamu.
First things first: start with a swell stay. Parked between marinas and a residential neighborhood along a busy street in Point Loma, The Pearl Hotel is a compact throwback recalling its groovy 1959 beginnings. Primped and primed to its original glory with a few extras like locally roasted Moto Coffee available each morning in the midcentury lobby, a central swimming pool accented by succulents and butterfly chairs begs you to lounge about and stay awhile (which I did).
In an appropriate ode to the sea-misted surroundings, The Pearl has a lifeguard stand and complimentary guest-use cruiser bikes stationed out front. This is an apt reminder that San Diego and sand go together like surf and turf. Beelining for the bikes, my trusty travel partner (aka the hubs) and I took the cruisers out to sample the shore. Five minutes later we were peddling beside boats bobbing in San Diego’s deep-water harbor at Shoreline Park, where we parked ourselves to sip our morning Moto coffees.
Beach No. 1 whet our appetites for two things: breakfast and more of the city’s sandy stretches, so we cycled back and drove into downtown on a donut mission. It was 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. There was already a line out the door at Donut Bar, a standing-room-only shop stuffed with staff and infinite trays of deep-fried dough. Wondering why everyone was walking out with boxes stacked head-high, the lady ahead of me in line told me they run out every day around 1 or 2 p.m. If you want to get your top picks, you’ve got to go early.
We sampled a trio of treats: crème brûlée, Snickers, and the crobar, San Diego’s version of the donut-croissant hybrid craze started in New York City in 2013. For the record, the 20-minute wait was worth it, but as I bit into my crobar, I thought to myself, “Who stuffs their face with donuts and then goes to the beach?” Fail. Apparently, I do.
Beach No. 2 took us to Pacific Beach’s sea-swept shores where we spent the second part of our morning wishing our surfing skills were good enough for the swell, and attempting to “walk off” the donuts as the water lapped over our feet.
When I travel, I go to great lengths to discover a city’s sweet spot, researching in the realm of a doctoral candidate for edited emeralds in the rough. Then I put my itinerary into play, and leave time for the all-important happenstance: people, places, or things my research failed to foresee. San Diego’s serendipity was Underbelly, an open-air beer and ramen joint I spotted while feasting on cicchetti – Milan’s version of happy hour (buy a drink, get a complimentary chef-prepared spread) – in lively Little Italy at Monello.
Viewfinder Tip: To experience a short stay to the fullest, research a little before you go, and leave part of your stay to chance.
There was no lounging around on day two of our 48-hour stint in San Diego. In the morning, we checked out the up-and-coming North Park neighborhood and got a jump on the day at Coffee and Tea Collective, a stark space serving a complex cup of joe. Browsing the hood, we proceeded to spend (in every sense) a good portion of the afternoon in Pigment – my carry-on luggage was bursting with purchases – a collection of flora, fauna, and furniture of the organic variety.
The last evening we toasted the town’s cosmo-coastal-cool at Great Maple, one of the city’s raved-about restaurants. Once a tired diner, the now streamlined space tossed in teal, wooden accents, and dusts of gold serves comfort food like pie, as well as global faves like Moules Frites, using locally sourced Carlsbad mussels. Satisfied in so many ways, my husband and I spontaneously clinked our glasses to 48 hours of splash zone experiences – version 2.0 – in San Diego.
What are your first priorities when you only have 48 hours in a city?