Travel: The discreet charm of San Diego

With its great climate and culture, Jennifer Turnball wonders why California's third city isn't better known

San Diego must be one of America's best-kept secrets, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Very few Europeans would put it at the top of their list of places to visit and yet it has a climate unrivalled by Florida and a location to surpass Los Angeles. It also has a diversity of culture and sights to match Washington, New York, San Francisco, or any of the other "great" cities.

When to go

With an almost perfect climate - the average temperature in summer is 75C-80C, in winter around 65C - San Diego is an all-year-round resort and an ideal retreat for winter sun. The added advantages of a winter break are cheaper flights and fewer people. January and February can be wet, but early spring is good as the State Parks, a couple of hours out of the city, burst into colour as the desert blooms.

Getting there

British Airways flies direct to San Diego from Gatwick (tel: 0345 222111). Return fares in November are from pounds 245 plus tax pounds 49.50, while United (tel: 0845 844 4777) offers round-trips to San Diego via San Francisco, from pounds 268 including tax.

Where to stay

The Marriott Hotel at Seaport Village (tel: 001 619 234 1500) has a great location, its twin curving towers looking out over the marina and bay. Rooms range from $164-$300 (pounds 100-pounds 190) plus tax.

The Holiday Inn (tel: 001 619 232 3861) at the Embarcadero has an equally good location looking over the bay. Daily harbour excursions and dinner- dancing cruises embark from just outside the hotel. Rooms are from $169.

The Radisson Hotel offers the best value for money in the big-hotel league, situated in the city centre. Reservations can be made in London (tel: 0181-878 3500) and a super-saver rate, based on two sharing, is $139 plus tax, subject to availability.

Quality Inn Suites (tel: 001 619 696 0911) offers a more modest though perfectly adequate style of accommodation within walking distance of the Gaslamp Quarter and three blocks from the San Diego Trolley. Rooms are $89 plus tax, which includes breakfast.

The Harbor Travelodge on Pacific Highway downtown (tel: 001 619 233 0398) offers the basics three blocks from the local bus service and the San Diego Trolley. Rooms cost $45 during the week, $49 at the weekend, plus tax.

What to see and do

A cultural city with many theatres, San Diego also has more than 90 museums. Transportation around the city is by the San Diego Trolley and bus. Fares are based on the number of stops covered and start as low as $1, rising to $4 for the trip to Tijuana in Mexico. Old Town Trolley Tours (not to be confused with the San Diego Trolley) provides a commentary on the history of San Diego and this is an ideal way to get an overall view of the city. Tickets can be purchased at any trolley stop and are $24 for adults and $16 for children.

The top attraction has to be the world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. Set in 100 subtropical acres, it's home to one of the few baby pandas to be born recently in captivity. Admission, including a bus tour and the aerial tramway, is $24 for adults, $16 for children, otherwise standard admission is $16 for adults, $7 for children. For those also wishing to go to Sea World and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, with more than 2,500 animals, a three-for-one pass can be purchased for $73.95 for adults and $50.95 for children.

Balboa Park is made up of a magnificent collection of buildings, museums, gardens and a centre for the performing arts. Admission to museums is priced individually but there is a $21 pass to cover 11 museums.

Downtown San Diego includes the Victorian-style Gaslamp Quarter, along with Horton Plaza and Seaport Village next to the marina, all of which are stops on the Trolley Tour.

Harbor Cruises from Embarcadero offers excursions that allow visitors to see one of the world's most sheltered harbours, as well as the famous Hotel del Coronado, where Marilyn Monroe cavorted with Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.

Food and drink

Seafood is a speciality of the area, notably in Anthony's Fish Grotto (tel: 232 5103), opposite the Holiday Inn, one of the most frequented fish eateries in town, with panoramic views over the harbour and reasonable prices. Main courses vary from $8-$16. Reservations are necessary.

Fidels at Solana Beach (tel: 755 5292) offers Mexican cuisine in a friendly atmosphere. Main courses start at $6.

The Edgewater Grill at Seaport Village (tel: 232 7581) on the waterfront and serves everything from pasta to seafood. Starters from $8-$20. The margaritas are recommended.

Nightlife

The Gaslamp Quarter is the home of nightlife in the city. Croce's Jazz Bar has live jazz in the Victorian-style bar and Croce's Top Hat Bar and Grill (tel: 233 4355) has live R'n'B nightly with an ambience reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter. The Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town has nightly performances of flamenco dancing.

Out of town

No trip to San Diego would be complete without a trip across the border to Tijuana in Mexico. The Trolley goes to the border and a bus takes you into Tijuana where you can sample bullfighting and jai alai, a type of pelota. But shopping is the main reason for a visit. Silver jewellery is a good buy, as well as crafts and duty-free alcohol.

Deals and packages

Virgin California (tel: 01293 617 181) offers the best deal - seven nights, including car hire, flight and hotel (until 13 December), from pounds 569 per person based on two sharing. Epsom Worldchoice (tel: 01372 726363) has seven nights with flights, hotel, breakfast and car hire from pounds 660 per person.

Further information

For a pack on California, including San Diego, send a pounds 2 cheque or postal order for p&p to ABC California, PO Box 35, Abingdon, Oxford OX14 4SP.

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