Adjoining the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean, surrounded by hills, and with a real tourist vibe, San Diego, California, epitomises the American Dream.
Ian Player loved to tell the story of how he once sold white rhino to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, sealing the deal not with a contract, but with a handshake.
When he got home, many were appalled, but the deal went through. A plaque, in front of a statue of a rhino, then commemorated this gentlemen’s agreement stating, “A deal done on a handshake.”
During a recent visit to San Diego, the first place I headed for was the San Diego zoo in Balboa Park, where a tidal wave of visitors were waiting to enter.
Connecting with the zoo authorities, I explained this story.
They looked blank. Eventually it emerged I should have been looking for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (the Wild Animal Park’s new name) near Escondido, some distance out of town.
Time was of the essence, and we have rhinos roaming freely (though for how long, given the scourge of rhino poaching, I wondered). Shelving that depressing thought, I set out to enjoy my short time in this lovely city. Seeing as I was already in Balboa Park (which I had reached on foot from Little Italy where I was staying), this seemed a good place to start.
Be aware that the area around here is hilly but the views over the city and harbour are worth the effort.
Balboa is reached via a couple of viaducts. A stroll down Pedestrian Mall takes the visitor to the central Plaza de Panama, with impressive Spanish-style buildings and the California Bell Tower.
You can walk around the park, or take the free tram.
There are a host of attractions, some free, some require an entrance fee. During my visit, one of the most fascinating exhibitions in the Museum of Man dealt with cannibals.
An intriguing flyer said cannibals took many unexpected forms – they had been European and American sailors, European kings and queens, American colonists, accident survivors, and posed the question, “Are you one?”
The popular botanical garden is under glass; the Old Globe theatre stages many plays; natural history, auto, and aerospace museums are enlightening.
These are just some attractions and one can easily spend the entire day at the park, though if you also want to take in the San Diego zoo, you might require two days.
For those interested in picking up mementos, Spanish Village offers dozens of small art outlets.
Award-winning photos of San Diego scenery, California museums, and European courtyards, along with vibrant impressions of gardens, beckoned.
Any thought of opening my purse were banished when mentally doing the dollar exchange rate.
The San Diego Firehouse Museum, in Little Italy and located in the city’s oldest fire station, with equipment dating back through the decades is fascinating, but be sure to check the hours of opening.
The Gaslamp Quarter with wonderful original street lighting, which occupies several blocks between Broadway and Harbour Drive, 3rd and 6th avenues, was already in party mode at 5pm.
Many San Diego residents, as well as tourists, gather here after work.
The restaurants and bars all offer specials, but the shops can be more pricey than those with a less famous address.
Gaslamp is a good place to walk and just absorb the atmosphere.
Back in Little Italy, the Tivoli Bar and Grill, which claims to be the oldest pub in the city, was also jumping.
The visitor is spoilt for choice: a sunset hot-air balloon adventure; kayaking to the seven caves along the coastline; renting a boat, bike, jet ski, quadbike or Segway; joining a Haunted San Diego tour.
The local tram system, a great way to get about, offers special tickets. Combine it with a walk in different areas to get a feel for the city and how the locals live.
That is not to say everyone is rich and happy. San Diego has its share of the homeless, many of them veterans who came home from wars in the Middle East, unable to adapt to a country which they feel has turned its back on them and not given them the support and jobs they needed after their trauma.
On a lighter note, a walk along the harbour front is a great way to start the day – I did this for two hours before joining my cruise ship.
The sun sparkled off the blue ocean, everyone was smiling (even if sweaty from exercise). What more can one ask for?