It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon in December. While happy hour may be revving up in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, at Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach there is a steady stream of surfers arriving on this happy hour. On go the wet suits. Under their arms go the boards. They evaluate the waves from afar. Some remark about the cool wind. Then they make their way down the sandy cliff and sprint into the water, one by one.
Night fall is early this time of year. As the pink sun drops down and fades away, there are still plenty of surfers in the ocean. Others are half-naked outside their car or van in the 50 degree chilly evening, drying off. Their faces are flushed pink like the sun. This is not a scene from the Beach Boy’s Surfin Safari. They range in age from what looks like 18 to 48. One calls out to the other, “some people are shoveling snow today.” To which the response is, “I’ve never done that and never will.”
Southern California is a special place. The surfers are one snapshot of what makes San Diego matchless. Embracing natural and locally grown healthy food is just another way that California sets the table.
Just a ten-minute drive up the 25 mph narrow winding Sunset Cliffs Boulevard is People’s Co-Op. Recommended by a former San Diego resident as a “must go,” a Gaslamp Quarter front desk clerk agrees it’s his favorite place to eat. On the second floor balcony is a vegan dining area. In the refrigerator section is pad thai, thai slaw, cashew hummus, tofu strips, peanut pasta, quinoa pudding, pineapple and blueberry cobbler, and plenty of fruit and veggie drinks. The hot food deli offers dishes such as garlic lemon seitan, mushroom stroganoff and millet spinach casserole made with both tamari and tahini. Israeli Japanese: a perfect blend for California. The deli also has eggless whole grain bagels and agave sweetened blackberry muffins. Dinner shouldn’t set you back more than five or six bucks, unless you “Texas size” your selections.
About four blocks up the street is Peace Pies. This is an all vegan, all raw, all gluten free and sugar-free shop which specializes in, guess what? Pies. Pies to die for, like chocolate, apple crunch or persimmon cheesecake. Crusts are made with a date nut base and agave and fruit are the natural sweeteners. Beyond the exceptional creamy and sweet healthy dessert options are pizzas and tostadas and other traditional lunch and snack food, sans dairy, gluten or meat. Cheese is cleverly substituted with cauliflower crumbles on the tostada. The corn shell is replaced by a multi-grain alternative that is tasty, crunchy and healthy. Remember, no wheat, no butter, no cooking. If you can’t fathom how they make these treats without the staples, Peace Pies sells their own cookbooks with these and many other savory and sweet dishes included.
Not that you have to be a vegan to love animals, but watching the puffer fish and eels at The Birch Aquarium at Scripps may make people think twice before they bite into sushi. This world class aquarium was established in 1915, another indicator that this part of the country is fascinated with marine life and the Pacific Ocean. The Birch is ultra modern today, having been redesigned and opened in 1992. Strolling through the “Hall of Fishes” gives you the sense of what a deep sea scuba diver must feel to be surrounded by psychedelic colors and the constant ebb and flow emanating from the fish, anemones and live coral. There is even a “nursery” where you can see the newest residents. During this visit, the baby sea horses were Disney-esque.
Although there is an ample indoor educational interactive area as well as an outdoor petting zoo where children are allowed to touch the coral, the seaweed and the starfish that are in several tide pools, the Birch is not just for kids. Run by the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the aquarium also features an outstanding explanation of our environment and the effects of global warming. The Birch has an adequate café and gift shop, but something that sets it apart from most is its location. It’s set on a cliff with a spectacular view. There is also a breathtaking scenic route from Birch to La Jolla Village through the Scripps campus and residential neighborhoods. Ignore MapQuest. Ask a local.
The spirit of San Diego isn’t only visible in the food and water. Balboa Park has always been a magnet for locals and tourists. Many of the historic buildings and parks were built the same time that the original aquarium opened, in 1915 for a Panama-California exposition that coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal. Twenty years later it was the site of another international fair at which time the Old Globe Theatre was built here.
Balboa is right in the middle of the city, stretching across more than a thousand acres. This is the site of the ever popular San Diego Zoo and a diverse offering of museums like the Museum of Man, Mingei International Museum for folk art and the Museum of Photographic Art. Crossing over the park is the Skyfari™ aerial tram. For those that may have a fear of hanging on a wire in a bucket, on the other side of the park is a magnificent walkway that crosses over the highway with beautiful views of the city on both sides.
For two nights every year, it seems as if the entire city of San Diego pours into the park for December Nights. This is a free festival where all the museums stay open, with no admission charge, until 10 p.m. This year, there were several free performances of the Nutcracker at the Casa del Prado Theater, and if ballet isn’t your favorite, or if you’re with strollers or dogs, you can enjoy dance or musical performances from one of the many stages set up throughout the park. Of course there are plenty of food and beverage stands and arts and craft kiosks throughout.
This year, there were an estimated 325,000 guests between the two nights. No pushing. No shoving. No shouting. No over-imbibing. Just people wanting to take advantage of the free entertainment and museums, enjoy the park, soak up some culture, and enjoy the company of friends and family. There was a spirit of laid back enjoyment throughout. Even amongst those that had to search for more than an hour for a parking spot. As one visitor from Los Angeles commented, “it would never be like this in Los Angeles. And look at the people – they are dressed normal here.” Well, maybe not normal for a snowbird. On this cool but comfortable evening in San Diego many locals were wearing their winter jackets, and a few even sported gloves. This may be a part of the spirit of San Diego. Nothing’s going to stop the fun.
Photo credit by cliff1066™