San Diego, Calif.
Languishing lazily by the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Los Angeles and Tijuana, lies one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Imagine a town where the daytime temperature always hovers around 70 degrees F., where nights are always cool and comfortable, where the shore is lined with white-sand beaches backed up by luxury hotels and charming bed-and-breakfast pensions, where wildlife reigns supreme in super zoos and theme parks - and which lies only 15 miles away from colorful Mexico.Skip to next paragraph
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San Diego is now the country's eighth-largest city and the second-largest in California. No wonder. I found it to be one of the most livable - and vacationable - cities I have ever visited in the United States. And for good reason - a relaxed pace, 70 miles of marvelous beachfront, comfortable living spaces, a wealth of recreational facilities, a growing number of cultural opportunities, and many Navy-oriented industries.
I meandered down from Los Angeles by Amtrak. The 21/2-hour, $16.75 one-way ride (you might want to take the 25-minute flight back) started from L.A.'s mission-style Union Station, where in bygone days newly signed Hollywood starlets used to arrive from the East Coast to be met by bored press agents. The first hour of this early morning coastal train ride (the dining car serves stand-up or take-to-your-seat breakfasts) moves passengers through the ugly industrial outskirts of Los Angeles. But soon the ugliness gives way to such charming towns as San Juan Capistrano, the cliffs and beaches of ex-President Nixon's San Clemente, and the breakfast-on-the-beach circles at La Jolla. The train hugs the coast, and as it nears San Diego, it chugs over the rolling San Diego hills.
As I left the train (it stops on a track far out from the platform), a blonde surfer-type redcap came dashing over to hoist my bags onto her cart. In seconds I was in a taxi on my way to a turreted, cupola-capped gingerbread castle on San Diego's Coronado Peninsula: the famous Victorian Del Coronado Hotel, known to locals as ''the Del.''
Opened in 1888, the Del Coronado has been designated a National Historical Landmark by the US Department of the Interior. Although much of it has been modernized and updated with private bathrooms, glassed-in beach-front towers, and an Olympic-size swimming pool, its public rooms remain essentially as they were when it served as the summer home of some of America's wealthiest families. I remember scenes from Marilyn Monroe's picture ''Some Like It Hot,'' which was shot at the Del.
Prices range from $68 single or double for a room without a view in the old main building to $175 for an ocean-front, poolside room, with lots of prices in between for varying degrees of comfort and view. I advise looking over the room before accepting it - your decision should depend to a great extent upon how much time you will be spending in the room and how much time you will be spending in the Del's wood-paneled lobby-lounge, its many restaurants and ocean-view cafe, its chic shopping mall, its tennis courts and swimming pool, and its marvelous surf beach.
Since I was in San Diego for only two days, I decided to make the hotel my dining headquarters. Besides a low-priced deli in the mall, there is a gourmet restaurant in the hotel, the Prince of Wales Grille, which cost me around $30 for a dinner of prosciutto and melon, filet mignon, and chocolate mousse. However, I much preferred the ambiance of the Crown Room, an enormous pegged sugar-pine-ceiling room with no visible supports capable of seating 1,000 people. A $17 full-course rack-of-lamb dinner proved to be a bargain, if not exactly of gourmet quality.
But my greatest pleasure in the hotel came from an old Victorian habit of mine - leisurely lounging in the huge wood-paneled lobby, watching the old caged elevator ascend and descend, imagining the comings and goings of the Vanderbilts , the Astors, and the Tiffanys who used to vacation here. Not to mention the Duke of Wales, who reportedly first met Wallis Simpson at the Del.
A short taxi ride (be forewarned: since the Del is on a peninsula and there is a $1.20 bridge toll each time you enter, taxi rides to the center of town may be as high as $10) from the Del Coronado, located in Balboa Park, is the world-famous San Diego Zoo. One visit, and you will understand why its reputation is worldwide. One of the world's best and best-kept collections of animals, this 100-acre menagerie features everything from koalas to Komodo dragons. And, because of San Diego's subtropical climate, the zoo is also a botanical garden filled with exotic, colorful plants.
Entrance fee is $4.95, which entitles you to everything but the bus tour ($2. 25) and the spectacular Skyfari (75 cents), which affords visitors a panoramic view of the whole complex from a height of 170 feet. If you are wary of ski lifts, you may shy away from this, but in any event, take the bus tour. Be sure to stay in the lower section of the bus, unless you are willing to sit in the sun.