As if San Diego needed to give visitors any more reasons to visit what many people already consider paradise, the Port of San Diego has begun sprucing up portions of the waterfront that will make this part of the city look like one big bayside theme park.
Don't look for thrill rides – unless maybe you want to rent a speed boat or jet skis – but rather think of the new improvements as adding to what already is an extensive waterfront playground. Seaport Village already gives visitors a fun collection of shops and restaurants with panoramic views of the bay. Now a new 105-foot wide esplanade will adorn the waterfront and will feature plazas, gardens, shade pavilions and a promenade perfect for strolling, jogging or cycling along the waterfront.
It's called the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan and its set for completion in the fall of 2013. Additionally the Old San Diego Police Station, located in the same general waterfront area, will be transformed into a new multi-purpose shopping center. Vacant for the past 25 years, the Old Police Station will have restaurants, specialty retail stores, public markets and entertainment facilities – all while maintaining its unique Spanish architecture.
Of course there is no need to wait until these projects are completed to visit the San Diego waterfront. On a recent visit we were reminded of just how fun it is to spend time down on the water, enjoying what is really an ideal place to play tourist for a day or a weekend. Even though we live close to San Diego, a trip to the San Diego waterfront is like getting on a plane and visiting someplace that takes your mind completely off work or anything else that may be consuming your thoughts.
It helps if you plan to spend a night or two at one of the waterfront hotels in San Diego, and there are many good ones that provide easy access to the waterfront. On this particular trip we stayed at the Embassy Suites San Diego Bay, a well-designed hotel located across the street from the Old San Diego Police Station and just between two popular attractions, Seaport Village and the USS Midway.
You know that feeling when you arrive at your beachfront hotel in Hawaii, Florida or the Caribbean? There's that rush of excitement that comes when you see the water and all the vacationers exploring the nearby attractions, the sun's warm glow making it ever-so-urgent that you jump out of your traveling attire and into a bathing suit or swimming pool. Arriving at the Embassy Suites San Diego we felt that same excitement. We always do when visiting the San Diego waterfront – it's that kind of place.
Most of the suites at the Embassy Suites San Diego have been recently updated with new color schemes, furniture flat-screen TV's and other conveniences. We've always had a good experience at Embassy Suites, probably because we like the extra room that comes with a suite and, in this case, because it was ideal for our family of two adults and two kids.
When you're traveling with kids, it's also important to save money on meals whenever you can and a huge advantage of the Embassy Suites is the hot breakfast served each morning – including cooked-to-order omelets – and the snacks and refreshments served in the late afternoon. These are all included in your room price and many adults will want to know that the alcoholic beverages are also included at no charge – even quality brands of liquor.
This Embassy Suites has the rooms on four sides of the building while, in the middle, is a 12-story atrium with plants, walkways and seating areas throughout the ground floor of the atrium. Glass elevators shuttle passengers to their respective floors. When guests converge for the buffet-style hot breakfast, the atmosphere almost resembles what you find on a cruise liner as guests assemble for a lunch or midnight buffet.
The views from the Embassy Suites are spectacular – our 11th floor suite gave us an incredible view of the San Diego waterfront, Seaport Village and the nearby USS Midway. The kids didn't spend much time looking at the views, though – they couldn't wait to swim in the hotel's impressive indoor pool. Near the pool are state-of-the-art exercise facilities for Mom and Dad.
Close to Embassy Suites and other waterfront hotels such as the Manchester Hyatt and San Diego Marriott is Seaport Village, which we think captures the spirit of San Diego perfectly. This waterfront shopping area is 14 acres altogether with numerous restaurants and more than 50 one-of-a-kind shops.
For those husbands who might not be inclined to spend much time in a shopping complex, rest assured that Seaport Village is much more than that. The main walkway through Seaport Village follows the water and offers plenty of sights to keep things interesting. On any given day you might see luxurious pleasure yachts trolling the bayfront, or you can often see a mammoth Navy vessel entering or leaving the bay. Kayakers and small pleasure craft ply these waters while you can see every type of boat from the tiny Coronado taxi to America's Cup racing boats. On occasion we've seen historic tall-masted sailing ships staging a re-creation of a battle at sea.
Seaport Village is an excellent vantage point for anything you want to observe on the bay, but it also has its own entertainment such as live bands on Sundays and an assortment of street musicians, magicians and artists all vying for attention on what is usually a gorgeous sunny San Diego day. Altogether there are four miles of meandering cobblestone pathways at Seaport Village and hours of exploration ahead of you, depending on just how much you want to see.
It's a short walk north along the waterfront to the USS Midway, a must-see for anyone visiting San Diego for the first time. This is Nirvana for military and aviation buffs, but it's also a fascinating experience for anyone who wonders what it's like on a real aircraft carrier. The ship allows access to nearly all areas and on the flight deck are dozens of vintage aircraft of various shapes and sizes. Docents are on board to explain how everything worked on the Midway and usually they have quite a story to tell because they were actually sailors or aviators on the ship when it was on active duty.
There are plenty of other things to see and do right on the waterfront, but on our most recent trip we got in our car and took a 10-minute drive to Balboa Park where, at the Museum of Natural History, they were putting on a limited-run exhibit Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. Running through Sept. 9, 2012, this is a rare chance to see an extensive collection of artifacts raised from the Titanic, preserved and put on display with complete descriptions and context.
This is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage from England when it was just a few hundred miles from the North American coast. It was the world's largest ship at that time and it sank after colliding with an iceberg, claiming more than 1,500 lives. This new exhibit showcases 200 artifacts brought up from the wreck of the Titanic.
When you enter the exhibit you are given a ticket with a specific passenger's name and, for the purposes of your visit, you now become that person, a real passenger who traveled on the Titanic. You then take the ticket to an authentically dressed ticket taker who will share with you a few more details about who you are and welcome you on board. At the end of your visit you will learn whether you have died in the sinking, or whether you were rescued.
The exhibit combines display cases with the artifacts enclosed in glass with large photos on the walls and room-size dioramas depicting how certain rooms on the Titanic would have looked. A dining room, two staterooms, the engine room and other locations are depicted. Furnishings for these rooms are accurate replicas of the time period and these life-size exhibits help you put yourself on the Titanic that fateful night.
But the star of the show is the collection of artifacts – many of them small or trivial items, but several larger items such as cookware, stateroom furnishings and other items. It is sobering -- almost eerie -- to view something right in front of you that was once on the Titanic six miles below the North Atlantic sea.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: San Diego waterfront is the heart of the city and especially popular with tourists.
WHEN: Any time of year. San Diego is said to have the best year-round weather in the country.
WHY: A getaway to the San Diego waterfront is a complete change of scene and is ideal for those seeing a sunny waterfront getaway with lots of interesting attractions nearby.
HOW: For more information on the San Diego waterfront, visit www.thebigbay.com. For information on the Embassy Suites San Diego Bay - Downtown, go to embassysuites3.hilton.com/en/hotels/california/embassy-suites-san-diego-bay-downtown-SANDNES/index.html or phone 619-239-2400.
WHERE: San Diego waterfront is an easy walk from downtown San Diego, and the improvements are being made in the area between Seaport Village and the USS Midway.
Photos: Seaport Village; Embassy Suites is on edge of downtown facing the waterfront; headlines from Titanic disaster; view from 11th floor of Embassy Suites San Diego
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.