San Diego waterfront packed with fun

by Cary Ordway

It would be hard to find a more vibrant and varied getaway than a trip to the San Diego waterfront – in one quick overnight stay we saw sea life in the wild, toured historic ships, enjoyed "living history" re-enactments, dined in one of the state’s most trendy entertainment districts, luxuriated San Diego waterfronta top-of-the-line downtown hotel and marveled at some of the most powerful ships and airplanes of the U.S. Navy.

If you don’t have much time to spend, but want to pack your getaway with memorable experiences, the San Diego waterfront should be right at the top of your list.

Of course most people will spend more than a night once they’ve driven down to California’s southern-most city and this area will offer up more than enough fascinating experiences to last for an extended vacation. The consistently sunny weather and beaches, as well as a great selection of San Diego hotels, usually are enough to convince most vacationers this is a good place to be.

But a "quickie" to San Diego also has its rewards and may be more in line with the dwindling vacation allowances we see today as companies push harder for productivity. If it’s just a short time that you have available, a great place to target is the San Diego waterfront and Gaslamp District – it’s all within close proximity and the area offers a high concentration of fun visitor attractions that, for the most part, are cheap and easy.

We headquartered at the new Omni Hotel which was built in conjunction with the city’s new Petco Park and opened in April 2004. It goes without saying that the Omni would be the perfect location to stay while you’re in town for a Padres game – the ballpark is right next door and even connected by a skybridge – but it’s also an excellent choice to take full advantage of the city's historic Gaslamp District, the 14-square-block area that has been dressed up to become the heart of San Diego’s nightlife.

The gleaming new Omni represents the San Diego harbor cruisebest in downtown hotels – our spacious suite was like a home away from home with the most stylish of modern décor and furnishings, warm tones, a big comfortable king bed, a handy desk and seating area, and an oversize bath area, which seems to be a trend in modern hotel layouts. Out the picture windows we had a 13th story view of the Coronado Bridge and San Diego’s South Bay. This could have been one of those accommodations we would be content to just lounge around all weekend in a bathrobe but, with San Diego right outside, we were anxious to begin exploring.

The Omni is at the southern tip of the Gaslamp District so with just a little walking we quickly came upon dozens of dining opportunities – literally all types of cuisine, each restaurant offering a twist to bring people in the door. Options here run the gamut from the messy ribs at Dick’s Last Resort to the impeccable presentations offered at George’s on Fifth, from exquisite Persian cuisine at Bandar to the bar food at Moose McGillycuddy’s. Sidewalk cafes are big in the Gaslamp District – even on this Thursday night the streets were alive with groups of party people, X and Y generation couples and even many families. The best place to observe all of this was from our table right out on the sidewalk, where we enjoyed scrumptious Mexican food prepared by La Fiesta.

Fashion boutiques, trendy stores and, yes, a few tacky tourist shops are interspersed between the restaurants and nightclubs. Many of the ornate historical buildings have been refurbished and, just to keep things interesting, the merchants in the Gaslamp District bring out re-enactors dressed in period garb to help explain the history of the Gaslamp District. As we strolled through the Gaslamp Quarter, groups of costumed re-enactors were positioned on several of the street corners where each of the actors assumed the role of a historic San Diego citizen. Staying in character, the re-enactors then dispensed a good measure of local history while staging a kind of mini-play for fascinated visitors.

The energy of the Gaslamp Quarter is undeniable and Gaslamp actorsstaying in a downtown hotel allows the visitor to take full advantage of the nightlife – no worries about driving home, no concern about even driving from club to club. The Gaslamp Quarter is all right there within easy walking distance and, even late at night, seems remarkably safe for visitors.

Following our restful night’s sleep, the next morning’s activities began with a visit to the San Diego Maritime Museum down on the waterfront. The Omni is several blocks from this part of the waterfront so we drove – but parking on the waterfront is plentiful and reasonably priced. For those interested in things nautical, this part of the waterfront will make you feel like a kid in a candy store. Among other historic vessels on display, the Maritime Museum includes a 1962 Soviet submarine, the 1863-vintage Star of India — one of the world’s oldest working ships – the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley, and the H.M.S. Surprise, a replica of an 18th Century Royal Navy frigate that was used in the filming of the movie Master and Commander – the Far Side of the World.

Visitors can stroll through each of these ships and view historic displays, photos and information panels that help give one a sense of how everyday life really was on board one of these historic vessels. The submarine is cramped beyond imagination and actually requires some physical dexterity just to walk through it. The H.M.S. Surprise features many exhibits relating the ship to its use in the movie and will be especially entertaining for anyone who has seen Master and Commander. With the largest interior space, the Berkeley offers even more variety of exhibits based on the history of maritime activity and how these vessels do what they do. The Star of India can be toured at the dock and, periodically, the ship will take visitors sailing.

Maritime history of another sort is featured in the new USS Midway museum, also located along this general part of the waterfront. Just visiting an aircraft carrier, for one thing, is a treat unto itself. But in the Midway’s case, there is a 47-year history that is good to keep San Diego Omni Hotel roomin the back of your mind as you get a real sense of what it’s like to live and work on an aircraft carrier.

The Midway was the world’s largest warship when it was launched in 1945 and remained so for more than a decade. Named for the famous Battle of Midway, the carrier did not actually see service in that battle, but did serve in combat during the Vietnam War and was one of six carriers sent to fight Iraq during Desert Storm. Visitors get a good up-close look at the living and working conditions on board the Midway. Up on the Flight Deck, visitors see aircraft and the systems that help pilots bring their aircraft in to land on a "postage stamp" in pitching seas. People who actually lived and worked on the USS Midway offer talks on many aspects of the ship.

This emphasis on the military didn’t end with our tour of the USS Midway. Next it was time to take a harbor cruise on the 150-foot Adventure Hornblower, where we were treated to some great views of sea lions and other sea life and where we again got a close-up look at U.S. Navy firepower. The captain on our cruise boat told us that our one-hour cruise was the best he’d had all week – it included a great view of the USS Shilo ("the most powerful warship on the planet") as well as a nuclear submarine returning to base. Sprinkle in a military jet or helicopter buzzing by every now and then and you could not forget the importance of the U.S. military in San Diego.


Where: San Diego is about 125 miles south of Los Angeles and easily reached by freeway. In addition, there are excellent air and rail connections. It's perfect for a Southern California vacation.

What: San Diego’s downtown/waterfront area is an amazing collection of activities and attractions all relatively close to one another and blessed with the nation’s best weather.

When: Any time of year. The city's climate is sunny and comfortable year-round with the possible exception of May and June, which sometimes are more overcast – but still quite comfortable. Be sure to check out vacation packages and travel deals which generally are better in the shoulder seasons.

Why: A great getaway for a night, or for an extended Southern California vacation.

How: To book a room at the new Omni Hotel San Diego, call 800-THE-OMNI or visit For a complete list of San Diego hotels, please click here.

Other Destinations: If a Southern California beach city is your idea of a great California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

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