San Diego is a military town, and that’s why my then-Marine Corps officer husband and I lived there some years ago. Its most famous military installation in the 1980s and 1990s was NAS Miramar, where the movie Top Gun was set. The F-14s really did come in right over the I-15 freeway as they prepared to land. Every once in a while, we’d be moving slowly on the freeway and a jet would pass right over the car. When a jet jock would power the afterburners a little too soon after takeoff, the walls of my office (I worked off Miramar Rd.) would shake as if there’d been an earthquake, and any phone conversation would come to an abrupt halt for a few moments.
(Yes, we visited the Miramar Officers’ Club, which figures prominently in the movie; yes, the bar looked the same as in Top Gun but the infamous ladies’ room did not; and yes, guys showed up late at night in their flight suits to help them pick up women, despite the fact that a jet hadn’t been heard for hours.)
NAS Miramar is now MCAS Miramar: Marine Corps instead of Navy. But you can still drive by and feel like Tom “Maverick” Cruise on his motorcycle, marveling at the big birds.
If the ocean’s your thing, there are plenty of beaches. The beach towns each have a different vibe. Some, like Pacific Beach, are funky, casual surfer-type scenes. La Jolla draws lots of surfers, windsurfers, and parasailers amidst its ritzy homes and super-upscale shopping and dining scene. Del Mar, where we’ll be for the Adequan/USDF National Symposium, is home to the famous Del Mar Racetrack and also has lots of pricey oceanview homes.
If you’re hoping to take a dip, be warned: The Pacific Ocean is cold. Don’t fall for the California beach-scene movie and TV portrayals. There’s a reason the surfers wear wet suits.
I’m not much of a zoo person, but the San Diego Zoo is world-famous for good reason. It’s huge, lush, and remains one of the city’s top attractions. The only thing that can outshine it, wild-animal-wise, is the even huger and more “naturalized” San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which isn’t in San Diego at all but in Escondido, northeast of the city. The Safari Park is home to many rare species, and conservation efforts are a big part of the park’s role. Tour the park via monorail “safari” and you’ll see animals in natural settings, the enclosures barely noticeable. This is a day trip and highly worth the time.
If you’re a classic-movie buff or a fan of gorgeous historic buildings, don’t miss the Hotel del Coronado, on Coronado Island. The iconic white structure with its red roof and turrets, now a national historic landmark, was immortalized in the comedy Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. The “Hotel Del” is swanky, picturesque, and filled with photos from the movie and its filming. Lots of VIPs have stayed here. Go at sunset and have a drink while you enjoy the ambiance and the ocean views.
Old Town San Diego, "birthplace of California," is San Diego’s historic district. Visit and learn about Mexican-American culture and early settlers and architecture. Today it’s touristy, with lots of shops and restaurants—many Mexican, of course. Some of the eateries are more authentic than others. If you want a taste of the real thing, seek out a Rubio's. Now a chain, Rubio’s is the “home of the fish taco,” an Ensenada, Mexico, specialty discovered by a surfer and imported to the US. Authentic fish tacos are battered white fish, served on a corn tortilla with shredded cabbage, a squeeze of fresh lime, a mild white sauce, and salsa and/or guacamole to taste. Delicious!
And the horses? There are plenty of them. Some of the most sumptuous farms (and the priciest real estate) are located in Rancho Santa Fe, which is east of Del Mar (go east on Via de la Valle and you’ll run smack into it). Fairbanks Ranch, an über-tony enclave in Rancho Santa Fe, was once the ranch of movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The site of the 1984 Olympic eventing cross-country course, it’s now a community of staggeringly huge homes and equestrian facilities that royalty would be proud to own.
This is just a sampling of what San Diego has to offer. Bienvenidos!