Generously endowed with a wealth of cultural draws, as you'd expect from any self-respecting big city, San Diego's crown of temptations is overlaid with that infectiously carefree SoCal spirit.
It's been a few years since I was last in town and I was awestruck by how the Waterfront district is in a state of grand-scale transformation. Beautiful new pedestrian-centric and bike-friendly promenades wrap their way around the waterfront, bracketed by meticulously maintained gardens, while a forest of ultra-contemporary glass buildings backdrop proceedings. The USS Midway continues to hold high court, swooned over for its rich military history and the 29 restored aircraft parked up on its deck.
After savouring the world's most visited ship museum, I tootled along the bustling waterfront to the equally enthralling Maritime Museum. From sailing ships to submarines, this is a nautical headrush that underscores San Diego's proud legacy as a commercial seaport. The collection's towering jewel is the Star of India, which was built in 1863 and made 21 trips around the world in the late 1800s – including various voyages to New Zealand, carrying immigrants from England. Saved from the scrap yard and painstakingly restored, the windjammer is the oldest active iron sailing ship in the world. The recently constructed San Salvador is a detailed historic replica of the original ship first sailed into San Diego Bay by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo back in 1542.
As an incurable plane-spotter, I was transfixed by the roll call of aircraft touching down and taking off from San Diego Airport. This waterfront vantage point is a lip-smacker for av-fans. The airport is just ten minutes from downtown – true to San Diego's oh-so-effortless urban spirit. Feeling peckish? You can't beat a pulled pork sandwich from Carnitas' Snack Shack. From the waterfront, I struck out down Broadway into the heart of the city, passing some of the old theatre dames like the Spreckels Theatre and the Balboa Theatre.
They're housed in the city's historic district, better known as the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block blockbuster of charming architecture, independent shopping and jam-packed with exciting eateries and bars. Feeling suitably envious that I had so little time to graze from its greatness, here's a few fleeting tips. Stuff yourself stupid on Spanish tapas at Café Sevilla, enjoy Greek fusion at Meze, Volcano Rabbit is the place to head for divine street tacos and wash it all down at Tivoli, the oldest bar in town. As a history-hound, I also staked out San Diego's oldest wooden house, which is home to the Gaslamp's Historical Foundation. This prefab saltbox-style house was built in Maine in 1850 and shipped around Cape Horn before being assembled in town.
The gilded lungs of the city were soon calling. Balboa Park is not just a natural wonderland on the edge of the city centre, but the USA's largest urban cultural park, spanning 1200 acres, beckons as an architectural and cultural masterpiece as well. Established in 1868, it's the grandeur of the architectural confections and follies that first had me drawing deep breaths. Had I been spirited away to Seville? A riot of Spanish Renaissance Colonial-style architecture is the prevailing theme. The show-stoppers include the ornately domed California Tower with its trademark blue and yellow tiles, the 1500-foot Cabrillo Bridge and the soothing redwood-lath Botanical Building nestled around a sprawling lily pond.
One of the largest wood lath structures in the world, it's remarkable to encounter a vast open-air conservatory, thronging with thousands of exotic plants, built with no glass.
Then there's Alcazar Garden, for the ultimate Seville-like experience. You may feel like royalty here as you rest on the benches by the artfully tiled fountains, feasting your eyes on the luscious landscaping. Inspired by the gardens surrounding the Alcazar Castle, its seasonally shifting colour palette is best exemplified by the flower beds, filled with 7,000 annuals.
Bursting with no fewer than 17 museums, Balboa Park's cultural credentials are off-the-charts. Spoilt for choice, I settled on the free-to-enter Timken Museum of Art to admire some old masters, like Rubens, Rembrandt and Cezanne; the Natural History Museum and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. The latter is a gob-stopper, where scaled-down replicas of California's rail lines, towns and landscapes have been impeccably created with masterly attention to detail. Opening next year is the 18th museum, a brand new mecca for pop culture, with the Comic-Con Museum set to celebrate comics, popular art, film and television.
Comic-Con was founded in San Diego nearly fifty years ago so its very apt this cult-like passion will be bestowed its own exhibit space at Balboa Park. Before you leave, check out another old faithful of Balboa Park, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Dedicated over a century ago by the sugar magnates, John and Adolph Spreckels, this is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Take a seat in the vast pavilion and hear this mighty instrument's 4518 pipes in full flight at the free Sunday concert, held at 2pm. Balboa Park's lusty development gave rise to the foundation of the adjoining San Diego Zoo in 1916.
Constantly rated as one of the world's best zoos, if you're travelling with kids, this expansive tropical garden and its 4000 resident animals should be on the check-list. Other family-friendly favourites include SeaWorld and Legoland California.
Another indelible San Diego experience is the multi-sensory delights of Old Town, the first official Spanish settlement in California, developed from 1769. The six square blocks on the site of San Diego's original pueblo are the heart of Old Town, where some original adobes remain, although many buildings are reconstructions after a fire razed much of the area in 1872. For a spot of lunch, I called into Café Coyote, widely considered San Diego's best Mexican restaurant. Nearing its 30th anniversary, this signature restaurant is revered for its certified tequila ambassadors, the wine equivalent of sommeliers.
San Diego sells more tequila than anywhere else in the world and Café Coyote's tequila menu spans 100 varieties. Their signature offering is the frosty Grande Margarita. Order up Fajitas Fiesta – fresh bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions sautéed with your choice of chicken, beef, veggies, or shrimp that comes sizzling to your table. Burn it all off with a thigh-burning stroll up Presidio Hill, that rises above the Old Town, for dreamy views across the Bay.
Less than a year old, the InterContinental San Diego rises above the revitalised Waterfront district, a celebration of boutique and ultra-contemporary freshness. Splurge out on a panoramic water view corner king room for superlative views. Vistal is the hotel's feature restaurant, featuring an eclectic blend of cuisine influenced by the Baja Peninsula, the Pacific Islands and Mediterranean fishing villages. The locally sourced menu includes blue prawns with purple sweet potato gnocchi and roasted poblano, gold spotted bass with yam greens and lobster-coconut broth and local abalone with smoked onion sabayon and uni. It's a supreme dining experience and they do a great line of craft cocktails. www.intercontinentalsandiego.com
For more trip tips on exploring California and beyond, head to the official site.
Now in its 90th year of continuous service, I flew to the USA with Hawaiian Airlines. Flights depart Auckland late evening, landing in Honolulu by mid-morning, ideal for onward connecting flights to the mainland. All fares and classes include excellent meals and beverages, on-demand seat-back entertainment and a generous 64kg free checked baggage allowance. (2 bags x 32kg per piece.) Hawaiian Airlines flies onward from Honolulu to 13 U.S mainland destinations, including San Diego. Book directly at HawaiianAirlines.co.nz.