Whirligigs spinning in the sea breeze
Purple Jacaranda bush and beach
Crystal Pier and cottages
Little Italy sign
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A San Diego beach sunset
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Come for the zoo, stay for the food, the culture, the history… the beach

Go for the zoo, stay for the food, the culture, the history…and the beach

After being relegated to land-locked Colorado for two-plus years, cabin fever got the better of us. We yearned to see an ocean and hear the roar of the surf. Our taste buds were itching for a jolt of some new culinary experiences.

Friends suggested San Diego for our week getaway. We can’t thank them enough.

We found incredible diversity, authentic cuisine, and icy-cold mezcal Margaritas…complete with a lively soundtrack of mariachis serenading us with Mexican favourites. And as Cliff had never been to the world-famous, virtually cage-free, hundred-acre San Diego Zoo, everything pointed to the easy two-hour plane trip to this most Southern California city on the Pacific.

We selected a hotel totally at random in a district called Old Town, one of the many interesting sounding quarters, and got lucky. Apparently, Old Town lived up to its moniker, as it was the perfect historical and charming location for our stay. Known as The Birthplace of California, Old Town was the first place settled by the Spanish in the late 1700s. By the beginning of the twentieth century, large numbers of ranch farmers from neighbouring Mexico had migrated north and made their homes in Old Town. Many of the buildings still standing were built in the 1800s and early 1900s. All appear to be in remarkably good shape. Especially impressive is the Cosmopolitan Hotel, our first choice as a place to stay. We didn’t book because, true to their past, they had no TVs. Smart travellers, not spoiled and narrow-minded as we, didn’t care. All ten rooms were occupied. That’ll teach us.

Authentic Mexican architecture, design, decor, and food fill the area. We dined at the lavishly tiled La Casa de las Reyes on shrimp ceviche, chicken quesadillas and huevos rancheros and two too many mega margaritas.

We allotted just half a day to the iconic Zoo, one of, if not the most highly regarded zoos in the world. As you can see, it wasn’t nearly enough. First of all, it’s enormous. So big in fact, that double-decker zoo buses (complete with their knowledgeable running commentary) slowly ferry visitors around the undulating paths, past koi ponds, mini-jungles and forests and scores of animal habitats. This gives everyone a chance to pick out their favourites for up close and personal visits when they return on foot.

The zoo is situated in the upper quarter of the marvellous Balboa Park. You need your walking shoes, as there is plenty to see and do here, including half a dozen excellent museums (air-and-space, automotive, modern art, natural history, miniature railroad, photography) plus a concert hall, the world’s largest outdoor organ and fine dining in stunning settings. My seafood paella in the Spanish restaurant, Prado, was as good as Madrid’s, and Cliff’s lobster ravioli was an excellent rendition. Instead of our signature Negronis, we went Spanish all the way with a bottle of their best Malbec.

The city’s sizable district of Little Italy, home to Italian immigrants, is festooned with Italian flags and banners honouring notables with Italian roots. We saw such well-known names and faces from De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Pirandello, Sophia Loren, and Leonardo de Vinci. We are great fans of all things Italian — the art, the music, the food, the wine. We were delighted to have found a smaller, less touristy spot, and our choice couldn’t have had better. Our authentically delicious seafood risotto and pasta primavera brought us back to the aromas and tastes of Trastevere in Rome. It was so nostalgic sitting outdoors under the umbrellas sipping our Sangiovese. Too far from home to pick up a Sicilian salami or some parmigiana from Modena, but we could breathe in their intoxicating smells in the wonderful Italian delicatessens that dot the neighbourhood.

Text by Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran