By Lauren Viera
RISMEDIA, May 30, 2008-(MCT)-Once upon a time, San Diego was known primarily for its pandas. The San Diego Zoo, one of the largest in the world, was lent two giant pandas from China in 1987, and Americans went gaga: The gentle, black and white beasts drew nearly 2 million visitors during their 200-day stay, and subsequent panda loans yielded the zoo’s renowned Giant Panda Research Station.
Back then, the city was a playground for families with young children. Between the zoo and its Wild Animal Park, SeaWorld and the 15 museums in the city’s massive Balboa Park, this town was ruled by kids gone wild. The 1999 addition of Legoland California only strengthened its draw as a family vacation destination.
And yet somehow, under the radar, San Diego has become surprisingly hip.
In the last two years, this city of 1.2 million has opened half a dozen multimillion-dollar hotels, including a Hard Rock Hotel and the ritzy Ivy Hotel; another five-star luxury condo-hotel, the Setai San Diego, is slated to launch this fall.
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa put his name on a restaurant here last November; the tony Gaslamp Quarter has welcomed a bevy of new, upper-crust dining rooms and clubs; and classic, white-tablecloth seafood eateries continue to thrive among the locals.
The newly opened LUX Art Institute is catching the eye of national press, and the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course in nearby La Jolla was chosen to host the 2008 U.S. Open next month.
As for the ocean, the beach and the year-round sunny climes, they’re practically icing on the cake.
Check-in at the swanky, mod Ivy Hotel (619-814-1000; www.ivyhotel.com) and the pampering begins the minute you walk in the boldly decorated lobby. Opened last January in the Gaslamp Quarter-known for its restaurants, galleries and boutiques-the Ivy is all about its guests: Personal “butlers” are on hand 24 hours a day to assist with everything from navigating the flatscreen TV to serving complimentary welcome cocktails; Ivy-logoed water bottles are left in the cup-holders of cars upon their return from the valet; evening snack, turn-down service, morning newspapers and high-end body products come standard. All things considered, prices aren’t nearly as bad as you’d expect for this kind of luxury (rooms start at $249).
If personal butlers aren’t your thing, The Sofia Hotel (800-826-0009; www.thesofiahotel.com), a few blocks northwest, is quaint and pretty, and more than suffices for a comfortable weekend’s stay. Newly renovated rooms (starting at $159) are tiny but well designed; amenities include a full-service spa and 24-hour yoga studio.
No matter where you stay, venturing out to dinner is a must. Vagabond Kitchen (619-255-1035; www.vagabondkitchen.com) serves eclectic cuisine inspired by world travel _ such as black African sea bass in corn husk, Caribbean style ($19.50) and coq au vin ($17.50)-with a wine list to match. Skip dessert: You’re going to want to turn in early tonight. The Ivy’s beds are worth it, and there’s a lot on the agenda tomorrow.
Begin with breakfast three short blocks east of the Ivy at Cafe Chloe (619-232-3242; www.cafechloe.com) a Francophile’s dream in warm brown tones accented with marble bistro tables. Homemade hot chocolate ($3.50, and the word delicious hardly does it justice) is served as it was meant to be served: in sippable bowls; croissants and pain au chocolate ($2-$2.50) are perfectly flaky, and steel-cut oatmeal is topped with bananas brulee ($8.50).
Shopping is big in San Diego, so hop to it. Cruise through the massive, almost tropical Balboa Park up to the corner of University and Fifth Avenues: the gateway to the Hillcrest neighborhood, where trendy boutiques and cool cafes rule. The adjacent North Park is a bit more upscale: fewer record stores, more galleries. Don’t miss Kate Ross (619-501-6318; www.shopkateross.com) a shoe boutique that doubles as an art gallery; and Heaven Sent Desserts (619-793-4758; www.heavensentdesserts.net) whose line runs out the door nightly.
Presuming it’s nice out, it’s time to get on the water … at least figuratively speaking.
Established in 1963, Point Loma Seafoods (619-223-1109; www.pointlomaseafoods.com) is a deli-counter style takeout joint with bayfront dining. It’s loud, crowded, cheap and good. San Diegans crave the chowder ($2.74), fish sandwich ($7.38) and the “best tartar sauce in San Diego,” as one local put it, six cups of the stuff in front of her as a testament.
At dusk, head downtown to PETCO Park to root for the Padres. Night games start at 7:05 p.m., and same-day lawn seats at the pedestrian-friendly stadium’s Park at the Park are a mere $7 ($5 in advance) and have a keen, green view of the outfield.
Afterward, try to beat the crowd heading two blocks west to the Fleetwood (619-702-7700; www.thefleetwood.com), where the signature Fleetwood Ale is on tap and decent pub fare is served till the wee hours.
Take the after-party around the bend of the San Diego Bay to The Pearl Hotel (877-732-7573; www.thepearlsd.com), a renovated vintage-modern motor lodge with inventive signature cocktails and $79 rooms after midnight, just in case you need to crash.
Hands-down the biggest servings in town weigh down the farm tables at local favorite Hash House a go go (619-298-4646; www.hashhouseagogo.com), whose bevy of homestyle scrambles, omeletes and griddle entrees (average $15) are enough to keep you going straight through to dinner.
Fill `er up, hop in the car and hit the road: The stretch of highway from the Ocean Beach neighborhood up to the coastal community of La Jolla, just north of the city limits, is particularly scenic. Continue north to the valley east of Encinitas, home to the brand new LUX Art Institute (760-436-6611; www.luxartinstitute.com; admission $10), which opened six months ago. The building, which sits like a monument on a hillside overlooking the San Elijo Lagoon, houses artists-in-residence year-round.
On the way back, make a stop at the Lodge at Torrey Pines (858-453-4420; www.lodgetorreypines.com), overlooking the Pacific Ocean and its namesake state reserve and golf course, which hosts the 2008 U.S. Open. Catch the sunset from the lounge adjacent to the lobby, where arts-and-crafts architectural flourishes and cozy stone fireplaces add to the ambience.
Dinner is casual but elegant at Thee Bungalow (619-224-2884; www.theebungalow.com) which has been a local establishment for 30 years but looks only mildly dated. Roasted duck ($24.95) is the special here, but everything is rich and wonderful. Across the street is the tiny 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro (619-223-2700; www.thethirdcorner.com), where by-the-glass reds, whites and blushes are served till 1:30 a.m.
For one last look at the San Diego twilight, take in an al fresco flick at Cinema Under the Stars (619-295-4221; www.topspresents.com; admission $12.50 and up) in Mission Hills. Classic films are screened in a cabana-like setting at 8:30 p.m., so you can still get your 40 winks before flying home.
When in San Diego…
Rent a car. This is California, and everybody drives everywhere.
Dress down. SoCal is laid back and casual; flip-flops are acceptable footwear at most venues.
Don’t forget your sunglasses. It’s bright here most every day of the year, and everything is open-air-even the mall.
© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.