Bristol vs the world

A travel (and sometimes fashion) blog about exploring Bristol and the rest of the world, one post at a time.

Tag: san diego

Ghosts, cowboys and cocktails: Old Town San Diego

Whaley House. Photo credit: About.com

Cowboys and the Wild West conjure up three thoughts for me: John Wayne, Frontierland and the Hotel Cheyenne at Disneyland Paris, and the Will Smith song. None of these, as you’ve probably noted, are real. The thought that pioneers once road dusty streets in chaps and spurs is one of those that I still can’t get my head around having actually happened.

But Old Town State Historic Park, San Diego proves that such a world isn’t just confined to Westerns and theme parks. What you actually discover is somewhere that mixes its history with fun attractions and good booze (this having been a Mexican settlement, Tequila and Corona feature highly on menus). Though some might argue that these are one and the same.

Some of the scenery, Old Town San Diego

Considered the birthplace of California, the Old Town was colonised by the Spanish in the late 18th century.* And while only seven buildings from the original old town actually remain – the rest fell victim to a fire in 1872 and were reconstructed in the 1960’s – it still provides a sense of history. Even as someone who equates the Wild West with fiction, I could picture how the bustling town might have felt 150, 200 years ago.

Although some of the buildings in Old Town have been turned into commercial premises, many more have been dedicated to recreating life in the 1800’s. Mason Street School is California’s first public schoolhouse, La Casa de Machado y Stewart contains commonly-used artifacts from the period and The Seeley Stables museums is a must-visit for anyone interested in the transport of the period.

One of the less desirable aspects of life in Old Town San Diego

One of the attractions we visited was Whaley House, located off the main plaza at 2476 San Diego Avenue. We were drawn to it because of the claim that, according to America’s Most Haunted television programme, it is the most haunted house in the United States. Admittedly we weren’t actually expecting to see any ghosts (it was broad daylight and full of tourists), or even Woman in Black** levels of fear. But we did expect something a little spooky, or at least a bit of a laugh. The closest we came to a ghost, however, were the shapes produced by a combination of reflections and light in the glass barriers they conveniently happen to have erected between all the displays (cynical, us?).

‘Ghostly’ reflections, Whaley House, Old Town San Diego

This said, it was an interesting piece of history. For adults (or anyone old enough to spot the old glass trick), it’s probably not quite worth the entrance fee ($6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children aged 3-12). Families, however, should stop by – they provide lots of history about the house and the lives of those who live here and all the ones I noticed seemed to be enjoying the mix of history and potential frights! Make sure children speak to the staff too – not only did they appear very knowledgeable about the house, but they also seemed more than willing to share their own encounters with the house’s alleged spectres.

I would also be tempted to take the night tour to see if that provided a few more scares, though the ticket prices do rise to $10 for adults and $5 for children for these.

Our final stop was Café Coyote, a little down the road from Whaley House. There is no shortage of bars and restaurants in the Old Town serving Mexican food, most offering ridiculously cheap deals on Tacos in off-peak hours. Having not done our research (I know, I know) we lucked out with our snap choice of Café Coyote. Friendly service (waiters offering to take photos of the two of us on seeing my camera on the table), good atmosphere even in the off-peak mid-afternoon, and, more importantly my cocktail was strong while remaining flavoursome. There’s plenty of choice on the drinks menu too, with a wide variety of Margaritas and more varieties of tequila on offer than I knew existed! Though you’d expect nothing less from one of just two certified tequila houses in the United States.

Although I can’t comment on the food other the obligatory free chips ‘n’ dips (very good, in case you were wondering!), that looked appetising too and most of the reviews on TripAdvisor suggest that it tastes pretty good too. Not to mention that it’s been named Best Mexican Restaurant every year from 2005-2011 except 2007 (though Best Mexican Restaurant where isn’t specified…). They also have ‘Taco Tuesdays’, with the food on offer for $2 from 3.30pm – for that price, you can’t really go wrong!

Cocktails & Corona aplenty at Café Coyote, Old Town San Diego (Photo Credits: San Diego Blog

 

Is Old Town worth a trip? Those without children and/or a keen interest in history will probably find that they spend as much time in a bar as they do exploring the town, but it’s still an interesting excursion and the bars provide a nice setting to while away a few hours (despite the mariachi band!). I definitely preferred the setting to the other tourist hotspot for drinking, the Gaslamp Quarter in central San Diego.

Families should aside a good amount of time to explore Old Town. There’s lots to be learned here, and plenty of well-kept spaces and attractions to be explored (also, children are less likely to be cynical about some of the park’s less authentic aspects!). Before you visit, check out the area’s website: including information on special events and walking tours, it will make sure you manage to pack as much of the park as into your day as possible.

Old Town might not come at you all guns blazing and it’s no wild ride (sorry..!). But whether you’re into cowboys or coronas, the past or the present, Old Town San Diego will provide something here to entertain you.

*Actually, according to Frommer’s, it wasn’t officially American until 1842; until then it was Mexico’s informal capital of California.

**The play. Not the film. But only because I haven’t seen the film (yet) so can’t judge.

Wild times at San Diego Zoo

The first thing you should know about San Diego Zoo is that Anchorman wasn’t filmed here. That was some zoo in Los Angeles, two hours away. So if you’re planning on seeing the infamous bear pit I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Believe me, I know.

The second thing you should know is that this place is incredibly, almost inconceivably big.

Admittedly big could mean a lot of things. It’s how I feel about myself after eating half a packet of McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. It’s the person taking up 3/4 of two seats on the standing-room-only train to London. It’s Patrick Deuel, the half-tonne man who at one point, hadn’t left his bed for seven years and could only be weighed on a livestock scale.

San Diego zoo is the half-tonne man of zoos. It’s not quite the biggest in the world, but Patrick Deuel (somewhat disturbingly) is not the heaviest man to have lived either. He’s just one of the more famous thanks to the Channel 4 documentary.* Similarly, San Diego zoo is, according to Touropia, ‘just’ the sixth largest zoo (in terms of size + species numbers) in the World. But, like Deuel, it’s also one of the more better-known (probably). This is possibly because of its on-screen five minutes of Fame (Marcel’s home in Friends, Anchorman – allegedly, a mention in Madagascar), and possibly because it’s incredible. And unlike humans, where being (one of) the biggest isn’t necessarily a good thing, San Diego Zoo demonstrates where the phrase ‘bigger is better’ may have originated.

At 100 acres, San Diego Zoo is the same size as Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and it does have something of an air of theme park about it. It’s 3,700+ animals across 650 species are housed in one of eight zones: Africa Rocks, Elephant Odyssey, Outback, Urban Jungle, Asian Passage, Panda Canyon, Polar Rim and Discovery Outpost. In these areas are further trails of animal ‘types’, including monkeys, bears and tigers. However that’s where the similarities end: unlike in a theme park, it doesn’t feel like people are putting on a slightly fake-feeling ‘show’ for you. The animals seem lively and happy (a nice change from so many zoos), the keepers around them experts in their field and happy to share that expertise.

Another thing that makes San Diego Zoo stand out from many others I’ve visited is how lush it is. Being such a tropical climate, it’s suited to growing a variety of plants – including a number of rare species (for example, 16 types of Eucalyptus plants to feed its koalas). As a result, the landscape feels a lot more natural – less theme-park-like – and many of the enclosures really are quite breathtaking. Similarly, the zoo – billed as one of the most progressive in the world – pioneered cageless enclosures. At the time, I don’t think this is something I picked up on exactly. But I know I felt closer to the animals than in many zoos I’ve visited, and I also felt less like they were hemmed in. The whole park felt more open and welcoming, both for guests and visitors, and the lack (though not complete lack, I don’t think) of wires almost certainly had something to do with that.

But is San Diego’s size a hindrance if you’re a one-time guest? After all, for the $42 entry fee you don’t want to either like you’re rushing round to make the most of it, or as if you can’t make the most of it at all.

Personally I’d say no. Aided with suncream, comfortable shoes and a day to take it all in, the zoo is manageable entirely on foot for most adults. If you’ve got children or less able-bodied companions (excuse the phrase), there is a cable car, though it only covers one route. You could also hop on the bus, whose route covers about 70% of the park and has five stops.

However if you can walk I’d recommend. Firstly, it enables you to enjoy the exhibits at your leisure, spending time taking in the animals which can lead to some unforgettable experiences. For example, we spent a long time at the monkey enclosure, watching a relatively newborn monkey. Still clearly intrigued by people he seemed to want to play and interact with us from the other side of the enclosure. He then went on to play with his baby toys, seemingly putting on a show. We were enamoured! He’ll be grown now but I can imagine his offspring would be well worth looking out for. For me, though, it’s these ‘up close’, ‘right time, right place’ experiences which make the really special and unique – and it’s easier to have these when you’re walking at your own pace and can get up close to the animals, rather than taking them in from a bus. (Though I don’t believe you can see the monkeys properly from a bus anyway – but you know what I mean!)

The second benefit of walking is that it makes the day feel less like a mission (or so I’d imagine – we avoided the buses). Instead you discover each exhibit as it creeps up on you. For similar reasons, I’d recommend avoiding the map unless you’re trying to find a particular exhibit or have less than a day to explore. The zoo may be big, but it’s not that big and, more importantly, it’s also well signposted. As a result even without a map to check constantly, you’re likely to stumble across everything eventually. I definitely felt more relaxed when we put the map away and just roamed where our feet took us.

My other top tip would be to invest in those ginormous refillable cups (and bring water if you want it). You may think that they’re a con, but we refilled ours at least once. The zoo is hot, walking is thirsty work, and you’re going to be here all day. They’re also a pretty cute souvenir. Having lugged ours back to the UK, they now make an excellent toothbrush and pen holder (one of each, not both at the same time).

If all the walking does get the better of you, the park has plenty of solutions. Firstly, there are the footsie-wootsies, contraptions which will ‘relax, rejuvenate and revive’ you for just 25 cents.

A slightly more expensive, but probably better long-term, solution are the numerous dining outlets around the zoo. Each has a unique theme, from Italian at the Treehouse Café to Pan Asian at Canyon Cafe. The ultimate experience is Albert’s. Named after one of the zoo’s most famous gorilla residents, this full-service restaurant offers alfresco (and not-afresco) fine dining with a view of the Lost Forest and a waterfall.

Being on more of a budget (in terms of time and money), we found ourselves at the Sabertooth Grill, which features ingredients sourced from local farms. OK, so it didn’t make my list of favourite San Diego meals (Those were all on Coronado), but my grilled chicken sandwich was still tasty, filling and much better than I would have expected from a zoo. Besides, being able to watch elephants play in the nearby enclosure makes up for any imperfections (or perhaps I should say lack-of-perfection, as there was nothing really wrong with it) in the food.

So, San Diego zoo is a perfectly pleasant day out. But when it costs $42pp ($32pp for 3-11 year olds) and a whole day of your holiday, is San Diego zoo really worth it? Is it really better than other zoos out there, or are you paying for a name?

In my opinion, it’s an absolute must from your time in San Diego, unless you hate all animals. I’ve not experienced a better-looking zoo with such a wide variety of species and animals before. The staff were also exceptional. This was undeniably one of the highlights of my trip to San Diego. When the terms ‘bigger is better’ and ‘big is beautiful’ were coined, the person speaking had probably experienced San Diego zoo.

*In case you’re interested, Patrick Deuel is just the seventh heaviest person to have lived. The heaviest according to Wikipedia, was Jon Brower Munich, who out-weighed Patrick by 21 stone, topping the scales at a cool 100.

Food Friday: Clayton’s, Coronado

 Clayton’s Coffee Shop (Picture Credits: Mojo Pages, http://cache.mojopages.com/images/review/5927171/claytons-coffee-shop1243225678.jpg)

With a minimalist white exterior, Clayton’s Coffee Shop is be pretty easy to miss. But bypassing this gem would be a huge mistake. Don’t just assume it’s your standard coffee shop – Clayton’s, a relic from the 50’s, is more of an old school diner than Starbucks. Round stools circle the main bar where you can watch staff prepare delicious milkshakes. On one side a glass cabinet displays mouthwatering pies. Behind the counter is a old-fashioned till (the tall kind where you have to punch numbers in manually), which towers over most of the servers. Don’t fancy the bar? Chose one of the red pleather booths that circles the exterior of this relatively small and cosy establishment, that comes complete with buzzing atmosphere and soundtrack of The Beatles and Little Richard chosen by customers via the tabletop jukeboxes for the cost of a few cents.

This whetting your appetite? I haven’t even got to the incredible food! We visited for breakfast; John chose the waffles with berries, while I had French toast with maple syrup. Both were full of flavour and the portions sizes were more than generous (let’s just say we felt a little bit self-conscious of our stomachs when we hit the beach later that morning!). Later in the week we made a return visit for late-night milkshakes (chocolate brownie for me, strawberry for John), a highly recommended alternative to finishing your night in a bar! You can also get main meals here, which the reviews on TripAdvisor suggest are equally as tasty. And it’s great value too – at the time of visiting, all menu items were under $9.

For a well-priced, great tasting food in a genuinely friendly atmosphere, Clayton’s cannot be beaten. And judging by TripAdvisor and the clientele we encountered there, the locals agree – a sure sign that this is a must-visit venue. Just make sure you’re there at a reasonable hour; we got seated immediately at between 10 and 11, but it’s a small place and queues were building soon afterwards. (You probably won’t encounter this problem if you go for a late night milkshake, mind.) Though if you do encounter a queue, it’s well worth waiting in it; Clayton’s was probably my favourite eating experience in California.

Coronado, California

Say Goodbye to Hollywood – Coronado is the new film set of California.


Coronado Beach

Forget self help books – it seems chick lit has been the guiding force in my life. Marian Keyes’ The Other Side of the Story is to blame for me wanting to go into publishing – even when I later found out that the literary agent with a sports car is not exactly a true reflection on the industry. And it was because of The California Club by Belinda Jones that I found myself looking at Coronado for the ‘beach’ portion of our dual-centered holiday to California (the other ‘centre’ was San Francisco – more to come on that!). Partly set on the island, the book made Coronado seem like an idyllic destination for a beach holiday: all sea, sun, and and surfers. And fortunately Jones’ book turned out to be a little (lot) more realistic than Keyes’!*

That said, it seems quite fitting that I first came across Coronado in fiction. There is something a little bit unreal about the ‘island’ (it’s an island in name only, connected to the mainland by a slither of land). The setting is straight from a film set with an almost ‘if Disney were to open a beach resort it would be something like this’ feeling. Pastel coloured houses are adorned by pleated, semicircular American flags. Away from the main road, streets seem almost devoid of cars. Surfers and lifeguards say ‘dude’ and ‘man’.

And that’s just the beginning. Our favourite eatery on the island was Clayton’s Coffee Shop, a diner and relic of the 1950’s (reviewed in more depth here). Our B&B, The Cherokee Lodge, was so-called because of the roses that adorned its perfect garden (also complete with flagpole sporting the Stars & Stripes). Even getting onto the island is an unreal experience. As you ascend to the top of Coronado Bridge, the road almost appears to disappear from underneath the vehicle. During one memorable bus trip one of our fellow bus passengers was so captivated by the experience that he actually stood up in some kind of salutation as we reached the bridge’s peak. Though I suspect he may have been drinking.

But if most of Coronado is a film set then the actors must live in the eye-popping mansions that line the beachfront. One of which boasted an RV that looked like it had more floor space than my house!

The Cherokee Lodge. And the garden’s not even in full bloom yet!

And then there’s the incredible (apparently the second best in the States), where wet sand genuinely sparkles in the right light and plants line the edges, giving it a natural feel. Besides its appearance, there are two reasons that Coronado Beach is unlike many others. Firstly, because – due to its vast width and length – there is plenty of space for everyone, even when we were there in June. We never felt uncomfortably close to anyone around us – definitely nothing like the sardine-tin like beaches you often see representing tourist spots. Though it’s advisable to avoid the area in front of the Hotel del Coronado as the majority of beachfront hotels are situated at this end, making this part of the beach feel more crowded and, well, touristy. A five-ten minute walk away not only provides more space, but also to a taste of (enviable) local life on the island. From surfing schools for pre-teens to families meeting to lunch to groups of friends singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar; these tasters of how locals live life remind you that you’re not actually on a film set. Just be warned – occasionally you’ll find yourself sharing the beach with some of its less desirable inhabitants. One day we can down to the warning ‘Lots of jellyfish: shuffle feet’.

The second reason that Coronado Beach is unique? Every so often you get treated to the sight of an army jet coming into to land, the cockpit so close that you can almost make out the expression on the pilot’s face. Although we knew that half of the island was an army base, we hadn’t expected to get quite so close to the action!

The said, this is about as close to ‘action’ as you’re likely to get on Coronado. Compact and picturesque, it is the perfect location to take in at a leisurely pace, either on foot or by bicycle (bikes can be hired from either end of the island, at Holland’s Bicycles, Bikes and Beyond or the excellently named Wheel Fun Rentals). The marina provides some good photo opportunities, while halfway up Orange Avenue we found Spreckel’s Park the perfect place to stop for a picnic bought for a local supermarket. The park also has a play area to entertain any kids (big or little) you may be travelling with, while in the summer a series of concerts provide a more grown up form of entertainment on Sunday evenings. If you’re really desperate for an adrenalin hit but don’t feel like joining the runners and surfers, then you could always try hunting for the ghost of Kate Morgan, said to have haunted Hotel del Coronado since 1892. Legend has it that nobody’s quite sure whether she committed suicide or was murdered.

Even if ghosts aren’t your thing, the ‘Hotel Del’ is worth investigating (or, if you have the money, staying in) – not only is it a landmark on the island, but its oak-panelled reception and extravagant chandeliers are a sight worth seeing as you imagine the days when the likes of Marilyn Monroe were guests here. Oh, and it’s also one of the settings for The California Club – so if, like me, you were drawn to the island thanks to Belinda Jones, you’ll be able to put a face to the setting and see that it’s as perfect as the book describes!

It’s also worth making a stop in the Babcock Bar for a drink. It might not be cheap – on average a beer is $7, wine sits between $8.50 and $14 for a glass, and cocktails come in at $12.50+, but the Key Lime Pie cocktail in particular is worth saving for and savouring (Graham crackers around the rim of the glass!). Sat with our drinks overlooking the ocean (it’s ground floor, but you can still see the beach), the bar’s ukulele player/singer provided the perfect soundtrack to the evening.

The ‘Hotel Del’ from the beach

All of this sounding a little too laid back? The bright lights of San Diego are within easy reach. You could hire a car to get around the area, but the good public transport systems in both Coronado and San Diego make this unnecessary. Instead, you can get a bus or ferry, both of which will take you into central San Diego. From either drop-off point it is easy to either get further public transport or walk to your final destination. Some suggestions for these can be found here. But fun as San Diego is, I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy coming back to the calm and quiet of Coronado, and the feeling of really getting away from the ‘real world’.

Would I fly 11 hours from Britain just to go to Coronado and San Diego? Probably not – it’s just that bit too expensive and a bit far away. But if you’re in California then it’s definitely worth a visit. Situated just two hours from Los Angeles and easily accessible with new direct flight routes from London, it’s a feasible destination to either start or end a roadtrip down Route 101. We also found it to be the perfect compliment to San Francisco on our dual centred holiday, with flights between the two very quick and cheap. (Oh, and for what it’s worth, most Californians told us we’d done the right thing by choosing San Diego and Coronado over Los Angeles. Though seeing as most of these locals were either from San Diego or San Francisco (the latter of which allegedly has a bit of a rivallry with LA) then they might not be the most trustworthy of sources.)

If you want bars, clubs and action, you’re probably better off making Coronado a day trip and staying in central San Diego. But if you want a relaxing, escapist holiday and beautiful beaches then Coronado comes highly recommended.

Coronado Bay Bridge. Photo: Yuni, WikiSpaces, Bridge Notes

*That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read The Other Side of the Story. All of Keyes’ books are pretty awesome. Just, um, take it with a pinch of salt.