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  • Writer's pictureDes & Sandie Nichols


Updated: Aug 16, 2023

San Diego is a city easy to fall in love with. It entices you, seductively lying back on the edge of the Pacific under azure blue skies, bathed in Californian sunshine, warmly welcoming and fabulously fascinating.

Everything is so close and yet not packed in. You can walk the city, visit a battleship, have lunch in one of the amazing restaurants, do the zoo and still have time to catch sunset on the beach. Not that you would want to move that fast; much better to take it easy, as the song goes, and move at the San Diego pace. And the people are actually very nice, normal almost. Even the drivers. Twice yesterday we were let into the main line of traffic when pulling out onto the highway. Now there's a first after driving over 13,000 miles in America where it seems the whole idea of driving is NOT to let anyone change lanes.   

Chula Vista Marina

San Diego was quickly given a new pronunciation - from day one, in all references, it became 'SANDIE GO'. One day it was Sandie Go Zoo, next Sandie Go Beach and often Sandie Go Wine Bar.

This city started out as a luckless frontier town just a few miles from the Mexico border. For this has been called "the birthplace of California", the first site on the West Coast settled by Europeans. The Spanish explorers came here in the mid 1500s, and 200 hundred years later the Fort Presidio of San Diego was established, the first settlement by Europeans in what was to become the state of California. The St Augustine of the West. In 1821, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, it became part of the Mexican territory and rapidly fell into decay, with the population declining to around 100. Soon though, the brave and ambitious Americans saw the enormous commercial possibilities of the coastal town and so grabbed it in the 1846 war with Mexico. The state of California was formed soon after,  getting its star on the flag in 1860. When the railroad arrived in 1878, the area was truly opened up as an Aladdin's Cave - and the genie was let out of the bottle. Soon settlers were coming in their droves from the sophisticated east, by train, wagon or even by sea via the long voyage round Cape Horn. The California boom had exploded.  As a result, San Diego became a cosmopolitan hub, a far cry from the grubby frontier town it had been,  blossoming with worldly color, culture and prosperity.


We struggle with the concept of zoos. Seeing individual animals behind fences for our amusement, patronizingly and pathetically trapped in theatrical sets that mimic 'home', is as disturbing as it is anachronistic. They are a legacy of the Victorian freak-show circus days and, although the kids might like to see lions and elephants in cages, it is extremely hard for us grown-ups to justify.

So we set off to the world-famous San Diego zoo with apprehension. However, it must be admitted, they do it bloody well. It is vast, and beautifully planted, with a deep valley running through it from one end to the other. Paths meander gently through the woodland while the animal internees lie motionless (and mostly asleep) in large enclosures that are spread out along the way. Even the polar bears, who truly should never, ever be in captivity, seem peacefully resigned and relaxed, lying in the sun (unlike that barbaric tank they are condemned to at the appalling SeaWorld). Each area has a geographical theme and is planted with trees, shrubs and flowers from the relevant in the world. The zoo deserves its considerable reputation.


A few miles north of the urban downtown is Old Town, the site of the first settlement in California. This is an exceptional place to visit, a small congregation of beautifully preserved houses, cafés and stores manned by helpful costumed assistants. America does these things so well. It manages to capture the real feel of how things were 150 years ago without falling into the trap of over-sentimentality and glitz. The Old Town was were it all began, the heart, lungs and soul of San Diego before the ships arrived, at which point the hubbub of the sea traders at the docks became the new focus and took the life-blood out of the neighborhood which was inland and far from navigable water. There is one main street and a couple more either side, each lined with the original buildings. The wonderful thing is that the shops are not dusty old roped-off museums but actually sell things just like they used to, and even the staff get into the act with their 19th century attire.  In the front of the streetside Mexican restaurants, señoras in old-fashioned dress make the tacos and tortillas in front of the passing throng. 

The Whaley House in the oldest home and another place worth a worth a visit. The old pioneer owners even built a courtroom and a mini theatre in it.

At the end of the road, the few cars meet a T-junction and have to turn right or left but tourists can walk straight on, to the old village green, which is still surrounded by original buildings. It is both breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating, from the Las Casa de Estudillo adobe home (a large courtyard home with each room recreated as it was and a garden to match) to a collection of haunting Victorian mansions in the nearby park. We especially loved perusing the gravestones at the tiny local cemetery and reading about the demise of an Indian they called Jesus. Some boy that Jesus...

One thing we did not love so much was the Mormon Battalion house. We walked into the reconstructed hacienda building to be confronted on entry by a bevy of rather pretty young girls in long 19th century dresses, standing or sitting expectantly in pairs, ready to pounce. They appeared to be marshaled by a similarly dressed but older and more severe matriarch. Two, both from Taiwan, quickly engaged with us and persuasively got us to sit on a bench facing a wall on which were five black and white photos of early settlers. They then proceeded to give us an automated, over-rehearsed spiel, interchanging their lines from one to the other with a passing nod of the head as a cue. Suddenly the photos burst into life and started talking. The girls began to interchange words with the now-moving, chatting characters who faithfully responded in return. When this routine was over, we, just the two of us, were lured into a mock-up barn through a door at the rear. We were invited to sit on a faux fallen tree trunk in front of a triptych of 60" tv screens. The lights went down and the film started, with the girls perching themself against the wall to our right, unnervingly watching not the film but our every reaction. The movie was about persecuted Mormon settlers setting off from the east in their wagons, trying to find a safe refuge in which to live.  This was a truly expensive and professional production, worthy of Hollywood. Suddenly, when one of the young handsome Mormon heroes started playing a jig on a fiddle, the girls jumped up, smiling broadly, and gave us hinged spoons encouraging us to start 'happy clapping', or 'Loony Spooning' as we later called it. That was enough for us. We could see us being enrolled into the Latter Day Saints and shipped off to Salt Lake City in a trice so we politely made our excuses and asked for the exit. The girls were crestfallen and their eyes looked like they were about to burst into tears. Weird in the extreme.

Outside the bizarre Mormon Battalion Museum

Mansion in the Old Town 

In the courtyard of the Casa de Estullido, where once bears were pitted against bulls as barbaric entertainment for the locals

There is no better way to end the day in San Diego then heading down to the Gaslamp Quarter. This is the rejuvenated downtown gathering place for all the young and trendy and is packed with classy bars and top-end restaurants worthy of New York or London - there is even a Nobu here. Don't miss a drink in the sumptuous Salt & Whiskey bar at the fabulous Horton Grand Hotel in Island Avenue.

 The Horton Grand

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