Those looking for a sunny seaside getaway complete with Big City attractions could hardly do better than a trip to San Diego, a long-time favorite among travelers of all ages. With dependable weather, a vibrant waterfront and many excellent choices for lodging, the city consistently ranks at or near the top of U.S. vacation destinations.
The mega hotels along San Diego Bay are situated in one of the best, most centrally located visitor areas you'll find in any of California's major cities. Not only do they look out on the water and gorgeous Coronado Island, but they also are just a five-minute walk from the Gaslamp District where sidewalk cafes, interesting shops, busy nightspots and historic architecture all combine to offer the visitor a feast for the senses.
There are several excellent hotels in this area but, on our most recent trip to the city, we booked a two-room suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a four-star urban resort that is a fixture on the San Diego skyline. On previous visits we've cast glances skyward at the hotel's two towers (33 and 40 stories), always wondering what it would be like to stay at the top of the city so close to the San Diego waterfront. We finally got our answer – and it was just as exhilarating as we imagined it would be.
Just as in any real estate, the key variable for a hotel is location – and the Manchester Grand Hyatt has one of the best. From our 20th floor suite we opened the curtains to a southwest view of Coronado Island, San Diego Harbor, the gleaming waterfront area near the city's Convention and Visitor Center, a major boat marina and, just below, a fun grouping of shops and restaurants known as Seaport Village. With a view like that, we just kept our curtains open all the time – well, almost all the time. Directly below us on the hotel property we could see the hotel's spa deck and lap pool, and, on the east side of the property, the roof-top tennis courts and other sports areas. The first impression was this was like one of those giant cruise ships – everything you need was right here within walking distance. With 1,625 guest rooms altogether, that comparison is not far off the mark.
Another thing re-enforcing that impression was the grandiose nature of everything at the hotel, starting with the main lobby with its ultra-high ceilings and ornate architecture – more like Union Station than a typical hotel lobby. Stroll through the hotel and you encounter numerous shops and restaurants – not just knick-knack shops, but places that sell the finest clothing and ultra-expensive artwork and sculptures. There's a little bit of Las Vegas in this hotel with all of its opulence, and that's one of the reasons you would choose this hotel: to do something that is bigger, grander, more spectacular than those things you do in your everyday life.
We found our suite to be as welcoming as you might expect with plenty of deluxe amenities such as both wireless and wired internet, a 25-inch TV with cable programming in each room, luxury bath products and beds that were among the most comfortable we've experienced in a hotel room. But with so much to do in this part of San Diego, we really only spent a few evening hours in our room – the rest of the time it was off to enjoy the sights and experiences.
One of those is a stroll through Seaport Village, a colorful well-designed mini-town along the San Diego waterfront where you can stroll along the waterfront or enjoy a coffee and pastry in the Village Café, or a draft beer in the waterfront pizza place, or have a Greek lunch nearby. The specialty shops here are diverse and packed to the rafters with interesting items, many of them perfect for San Diego souvenirs.
Just a few blocks away is the Gaslamp District, where you'll find 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 Gaslamp Tavern. Sidewalk cafes are big in the Gaslamp District – every night of the week, the streets are alive with groups of party people, X and Y generation couples and even many families. The best place to observe all of this is from a table right out on the sidewalk.
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 occasionally bring out re-enactors dressed in period garb to help explain the history of the Gaslamp District.
For our dinner, we already had some idea of where we wanted to go. For some time we'd been meaning to visit the Kansas City Barbecue, site of the filming for the Top Gun movie with Tom Cruise. Who can forget the famous scene with "Goose" and "Maverick" at the piano singing Great Balls of Fire? Just so happens the restaurant where that was filmed is just across the street from the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
We waited a little too long to visit, however – the restaurant was gutted by fire a couple of years ago and re-opened for business in November 2008. The piano from the movie survived the fire, but much of the Top Gun memorabilia and building interior had to be replaced so it's not exactly like sitting in THE place where the movie was filmed. But it was close to it, and the fire hasn't slowed the owners down from promoting the bar as the Top Gun bar. It's a fun atmosphere and the wait staff is top-notch – but, alas, the food is just average.
Another fun thing to do on the waterfront is to rent a small boat from the Seaforth Boat Rentals Downtown, located on the docks between the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the San Diego Marriott Hotel. With boating experience, we were able to take out a 26-foot Searay power boat - but no experience at all is required for any of the smaller power boats which are generally between 16 and 21 feet.
Seaforth caters to a lot of families who find these power boats are an easy way to take the kids out on the water to see the San Diego sights. For us, this was no-muss, no-fuss boating. The Seaforth dock attendant did take a few minutes to go over the boat with us to make certain we were familiar with the controls, gauges, engine and other features of the boat - but 15 minutes of that and we were ready to cruise the bay.
And what a bay it is. Just motoring out from the dock, the San Diego skyline all of sudden took on entirely new picture-postcard look. Downtown buildings glistened in the morning sun and the clear blue sky reminded us why we enjoy San Diego so much.
When you're in San Diego, be sure to visit the USS Midway - or the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum as it now is officially known. 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. Today, the museum is both fun and educational.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Manchester Grand Hyatt is on the San Diego waterfront and is one of several fine hotels that offer great views and close proximity to both the water and the city's Gaslamp District.
WHAT: This kind of getaway is the kind you can go back and do several times because there is so much to see and do in downtown San Diego.
WHEN: San Diego is a year-round destination with what many believe is the most ideal climate in the country. The waterfront area will usually be in the 70's in summer and the 60's in winter – and very seldom does it rain or even get cloudy.
WHY: Probably more fun per square mile than anyplace in California.
Photos, from top: walkers enjoy waterfront near USS Midway; one of Manchester Grand Hyatt's towers stands sentry over the waterfront; view from the 20th floor of the Manchester Grand Hyatt; Gaslamp District has dozens of restaurants and pubs
Photos by CARY and SANDI ORDWAY