And then it was time to go home. A Los Angeles departure via the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, a seemingly endless long flight aboard the comfortable Airbus of Emirates, an overnight stay in the hotel at Dubai International Airport, another long flight down to Cape Town, and being welcomed home by Chantelle and the girls.
Honestly, I have no idea why I put off sorting through and posting all the content from my USA work trip for over two years now, but I think that I was simply overwhelmed by just how much content I had managed to generate over the course of ten short days. This was after all a work trip, but somehow ended up being the most fantastic tourist adventure as well (which I can only thank my two US colleagues Johann and Carl ever so much for).
Anaheim, Disneyland, NACUFS ’16, Angel Stadium, The Queen Mary, Venice Beach, Disney California Adventure Park, San Diego, Sabre Springs, La Jolla, The Torrey Pines Gliderport, Del Mar, Cabrillo National Monument, USS Midway, Embarcadero, Shogun Kobe, Old Town Trolley Tours, Old Town San Diego, Hotel Del Coronado, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo – I mean, what more could one ask for?
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All in all USA #2016 was an absolute personal delight, and I hope that maybe some of all this personal record keeping might just be a spark of travel inspiration for you in the future. Happy travels.
The San Diego Zoo is an iconic, award-winning, world famous zoo. Established in 1916, situated in the mesmerizing Balboa Park and home to over 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies, the zoo is also known for having one of the largest zoological membership associations in the world – almost a half million people! It was also the primary pioneer in the concept of open-air, cageless zoo exhibits (that simulate natural animal habitats) – much like you would find in our very own National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, aka Pretoria Zoo.
Having originally grown out of the abandoned exotic animal exhibitions of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, these days the San Diego Zoo sprawls across an area covering 40 hectares (about half of Pretoria Zoo’s size) of Balboa Park, and is jam packed with the most remarkable, carefully crafted and maintained enclosures, exhibits, walkways and gardens.
As an addition to exploring the park on foot, the zoo also offers a pretty neat, open air guided bus tour that traverses about 75% of the park, as well the Skyfari – an overhead gondola lift that gives you an aerial view of the park down below.
The exhibits are all designed around particular habitats, which then groups together animals that tend to be found side-by-side in the wild, usually alongside with that habitat’s native plant life. For example, there were the gorillas in an African rain forest, polar bears in the Arctic taiga and tundra, and elephants and giraffes on dusty African plains.
Massive free-flight aviaries are littered about, and on top of all that, the zoo also maintains its grounds as an arboretum, with a botanical collection that includes more than 700,000 exotic plants!
The animals, the crafted environment, all of it just comes together to form an absolutely breathtaking zoo experience, a place where you can happily spend pretty much an entire day (which essentially I did) moving through the various habitats and exploring all the nooks and crannies of this wondrous zoo.
So a quick rundown of the current exhibits then: Monkey Trails and Forest Tales (monkeys and other animals from the rainforests of Asia and Africa), Owens Aviary and Scripps Aviary (tropical and local birdlife), Panda Canyon (pandas, takins and snow leopards from China), Urban Jungle (giraffes, gazelles, cheetahs and Indian rhinos), Polar Bear Plunge (polar bears, reindeer and foxes of the Arctic), Discovery Output (lizards, snakes, turtles and frogs), Ituri Forest (okapi, duikers and hippos from the rainforests of central Africa), Elephant Odyssey (elephants, lions and jaguars), Gorilla Tropics (gorillas!), Absolutely Apes (orangutans and siamangs), Sun Bear Forest (Bornean sun bears, macaques and silvery lutung monkeys), Tiger Rivers (tigers and gharials of Malaysia), Outback (koalas, wombats and tasmanian devils), and the newly opened African Rocks – which unfortunately was still being built when I was there but which is a massive new addition to the zoo, featuring a variety of distinct African biospheres and the animals that they contain.
While not a massive fan of zoos or aviaries in general, I do understand the need for zoos and enjoy zoos which are really well put together – and in that regard the well financed San Diego definitely does not disappoint. Everything is colourful, the grounds are immaculate, the animals are all well looked after, and as a bonus, I saw loads of creatures that I would almost assuredly never encounter back here in South Africa.
A thoroughly enjoyable visit then, and just as it had been with my visit to Disneyland, I kind of really wished that I had my girls with me in order to show them around this remarkable space!
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(Remember how I said that my phone was charging hence the distinct lack of photos of Balboa Park in general? Yeah well, I took a LOT of photos in the zoo!)
San Diego’s Balboa Park is just an absolutely amazing attraction. Honestly, even if you had a month dedicated to exploring every nook and cranny of this world of wonder, it still wouldn’t be enough. Home to 16 museums, 17 recognized gardens, a host of theaters and other attractions, and of course 1 world famous zoo, Balboa Park stands tall as something that any other city in the world would proudly to lay claim to.
Spanning a massive 1,200 acres of land, the rectangular-shaped Balboa Park was established in 1868 (then sized at 1,400 acres and known as “City Park”), marking San Diego as having been the second city in the United States to dedicate such a large park for public use (following New York City’s 1858 establishment of Central Park).
Originally a scrub-filled mesa, Balboa Park sat for 20 years without any formal landscaping or development taking place – it was only once botanist, horticulturalist and landscape architect Kate Sessions became involved that the park’s real beautification started.
This was accelerated in 1903 and once a city tax was levied in 1905, water systems, paths, and roads started to make their appearance, and in 1910 (with the prestigious 1915 Panama-California Exposition looming large for surprise host city San Diego) City Park was renamed to the more memorable Balboa Park – chosen in honour of Spanish-born Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean.
The 1915-16 exposition itself (which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal), as well as the later 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, provided a major impetus for the creation of the Park as it appears today. Many of the cultural institutions as well as stunning Spanish-Renaissance style architecture were introduced as part of these expos.
In terms of museums, Balboa Park simply can’t be beat, housing the likes of the Mingei International Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Art Institute, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Natural History Museum, Timken Museum of Art, and keeping with San Diego’s strong ties to the U.S. Navy, the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center.
Then there is an as ridiculously long list of named gardens also to be found in Balboa Park, like the Alcazar Garden, Australian Garden, Botanical Building, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve, Marston House Garden, Lily Pond, Palm Canyon, Trees for Health Garden, Veterans Memorial Garden, Zoro Garden, and the Japanese Friendship Garden.
As if that is already not enough natural beauty, history and culture to take in, Balboa Park further ups the ante with attractions like the vintage Balboa Park Carousel, Balboa Park Miniature Railroad, Balboa Stadium, Casa del Prado (home of San Diego Youth Symphony), House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Mineral and Gem Society, Spanish Village Art Center, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Starlight Bowl, and the WorldBeat Cultural Center.
Then there is of course the world famous San Diego Zoo. (Which I naturally spent WAY too much time wandering about in!)
Johann and I started and ended our tour of San Diego aboard the excellent Old Town Trolley Tours bus in Balboa Park, but due entirely to time constraints, I sadly only got the smallest of tastes of this remarkable wonderland. Also, my phone was busy charging, meaning that instead of the usual gigantic image gallery that I should be posting here, this is all I have in my photos folder:
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As I mentioned at the start of the post – you probably need at least a month to do this amazing creation justice in terms of exploring all of the cultural and historic riches on offer, and that said, honestly, it really isn’t that hard to understand just why Balboa Park is by far San Diego’s largest tourist attraction.
Continuing the day’s San Diego exploration aboard the Old Town Trolley Tours buses, we next crossed over the magnificent San Diego-Coronado Bridge and headed into the small resort city of Coronado, literally a stone’s throw across the bay from San Diego. Our goal? To catch a glimpse of the iconic Hotel del Coronado!
Opened in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado (otherwise known as The Del or Hotel Del) is one of the few surviving examples of an American architectural genre: the wooden Victorian beach resort. When it originally opened it was the largest resort hotel in the world, and is in fact still the second largest wooden structure in the United States.
The hotel has received many awards and sparking ratings over its lifetime, and as such has hosted presidents, royalty, and celebrities, not to mention feature in numerous movies and books.
(Interestingly enough, it also introduced the world’s first electrically lit, outdoor living Christmas tree in 1904, having been one of the earliest buildings in the San Diego area to adopt the newly introduced technology of electricity).
The hotel is then very much as what you would expect it to be – very grand indeed. There is beautiful intricate woodwork everywhere, the place is awash with visitors and tourists alike, there is indoor shopping to be had, lawn and gardens to enjoy, the brilliant white sandy beach right out in front, and of course a sense of history that completely permeates the venue.
As such, given the hot weather, Johann and I naturally opted to grab a refreshingly cold beer from the sun deck, catch our breath and people watch.
Honestly, it is pretty easy to see just why this getaway is as popular as what it is.
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Hopping back on the bus, we got to learn a bit more about Coronado itself thanks to our knowledgeable guide, before heading back over the bridge and on towards our final stop, San Diego’s brilliant Balboa Park.
Historically home to the Kumeyaay people, then visited by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542 (and claimed for Spain), then settled in 1821 through the establishment of the Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcalá (1769), then incorporated into Mexico (1821), and then finally part of the United States (1848) – basically put, San Diego has a fair bit of history behind it.
Our first hop off from the entertaining Old Town Trolley Tours Bus was in Old Town itself, or more specifically, in the Old Town San Diego Historic Park – a state protected historical park that commemorates the early days of the town of San Diego. Established in 1969 (and as of 2006 the most visited state park in California), Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is home to many historic buildings that date back to a period between 1820 and 1870.
(In case you are wondering, up until the 1860s, the Old Town area was the heart of San Diego, before it was all but abandoned in favour of concentrating activities at the site of present-day Downtown San Diego, primarily to be closer to the water and thus trade routes.)
The park preserves and recreates Old Town as it existed during the Mexican and early American periods, with five original adobes forming the heart of the complex – one of which being the Casa de Estudillo, which built in 1827 is one of the oldest surviving examples of Spanish architecture in California. It is also considered one of the finest houses in Mexican California.
Other historic buildings include a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, San Diego’s first newspaper office, a cigar and pipe store, houses and gardens, and a stable with a carriage collection.
In addition to all the period dress and demonstrations taking place, the park is filled with all manner of restaurants, shops and museums, with many skilled artisans setting up shop and applying their trade here.
In other words, the perfect tourist attraction.
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Johann and I spent a fair bit of time popping our heads in most of the museums on offer, before hopping back on the bus as it headed up through Downtown San Diego on its way over to the impressive Coronado Bridge…
San Diego is a magnificent city. The history, the weather, the landscape – it is impossible to visit and not come back loving it. It is the second largest city in California, the eighth largest in the United States of America, and boasts a population of over 4,9 million people. The city is know for its mild year-round climate, natural deep-water harbour, multitude of beaches, long association with the United States Navy (the deep water harbour, remember), and these days, its role as somewhat of a healthcare and biotechnology development center.
Oh, and it happens to also host the world’s best Comic-con too.
One of the best ways of getting an overall look at the city, its history and layout is to jump on one of the many distinctive green and orange Old Town Trolley Tours’ hop on hop off busses, which is exactly what Johann and I did for my third day in the city.
The San Diego branch of Old Town Trolley Tours launched in 1989, and its (rather large) fleet of busses continuously operate on a 40 km loop that moves through 10 neighbourhoods with 10 destination stops.
We caught our first bus in the gorgeous Balboa Park, with our tour operator/driver being a an extremely enjoyable and amicable ex-policeman with a lot of great local stories to blend in with all the San Diego information being fed to us as we drove through Little Italy, headed towards the Old Town Market.
After a hop off and a bit of exploration there, we jumped back on a bus, this time heading down to the Embarcadero Marina, then Seaport Village and the Marriott Marquis and Marina. On to the Horton Plaza Park, through the revived Gaslamp Quarter, past the East Convention Center, Petco Park and Hilton Bayfront, and then over the bridge into Coronado.
After a nice refreshing drink and a bit of an exploration of the iconic Hotel del Coronado, we stepped back on a bus and rode it all the way up to our starting point back at Balboa Park.
Honestly, the entire experience was lovely. The entertaining guides were great with their local knowledge and the trip itself turned out to be a great way to see a large swathe of the city which I might not have otherwise had the chance to.
It genuinely is a pretty good way to get introduced to San Diego, and as such is a pretty easy recommendation for anyone visiting the “America’s finest City”.
As for the rest of the day? Well I was going to spend it at the zoo of course!
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(Oh, and if your teenage years were in the 90’s like me, then it is worth knowing that San Diego was also responsible for delivering to us both Tony Hawk and blink-182. An all important factoid if ever there was one!)
Following our day of exploring the USS Midway and the Cabrillo National Monument, Johann thought it a good idea to cap off the evening with an entertaining supper at the local Shogun Kobe. I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
If you are not familiar with the name, essentially the Shogun group of restaurants (established in 1980 in Pasadena by founder Bruce Kanenobu) are fashioned very much after the more famous Benihana group of American restaurants (which we’ve all seen on old TV and in 80’s movies), all of which are basically (heavily) Japanese themed restaurants that specialize in producing Japanese-inspired cuisine – the big drawcard being that the food is prepared by an entertaining, kitchen implement swishing chef on Teppanyaki grill right in front of you.
It is delightfully cheesy, a little silly, and honestly quite a lot of fun.
Our chef on the evening was quite entertaining, skillfully flipping, dicing and flicking ingredients all over the place, with appropriate spurts of flames and coloured lights making an appearance every so often. Us diners all sat enthralled, the Western-style teppanyaki food (Americans would never take to authentic Japanese flavours) was surprisingly delicious, and the house wine not too horrible.
So, a pretty good evening out then in other words.
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It is a pity then that the whole teppanyaki experience isn’t widely found in South Africa at all – I honestly believe that it could be a bit of a hit with family diners.
It is kind of sad that Anthony’s Fish Grotto, which had faithfully been serving customers along San Diego’s Embarcadero for 70 years, eventually lost the bid to renew its licence, meaning that when February 2017 rolled around, that familiar waterfront sight was now no more. That said, I’m pleased to report that I did actually get a chance to grab some fish and chips from this iconic San Diego eatery while it was still in its original location!
The Embarcadero (Spanish for “landing place”) is the area along the San Diego harbour on the east side of San Diego Bay. Administered by the Port of San Diego, the Embarcadero is home to the San Diego cruise ship terminal, the USS Midway museum ship (which we just visited!), the San Diego Maritime Museum (which includes the iconic Star of India – a full-rigged iron windjammer ship – and several other historic vessels floating in its collection), the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), the Downtown Waterfront Park, and various restaurants and shops dotted along Seaport Village.
So basically lots to see, pretty much everywhere that you look.
Then of course there is the gorgeous, clean skyline of San Diego itself, and thanks to the time of year that we found ourselves there, the bustle associated with everyone busy frantically setting up for nearby Comic-Con.
Not a bad place pull up a chair and people watch in other words.
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Oh, and pleasingly the fish and chips were rather nice.
Following Johann’s and my stroll around the Cabrillo National Monument park, we next headed down to San Diego’s harbour district, with our sights firmly set on what was without a doubt the highlight of #USA2016 for me – a visit aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum.
Growing up I had an absolute fascination with military planes, spending hours sketching them, reading about them, building model kits of them – so essentially (thanks to the cornucopia of naval fighters on display) this was literally like walking into a little slice of heaven for me!
Decommissioned in the 1990’s, the USS Midway holds the distinction of being one of the United States of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers (1945-1992), having seen action in Vietnam, served in the western Pacific and played a part in Operation Desert Storm.
Now permanently moored at San Diego’s Navy Pier, the USS Midway is a dedicated museum ship, allowing you to explore (with the help of extensive audio guides) both inside and out, whilst also housing an extensive collection of exhibits that cover everything from the crew’s sleeping quarters to the primary flight control on the bridge.
My favourite part is of course the fact that the USS Midway is home to an extensive range of naval fighter planes, with a collection that includes all the iconic American fighters and support planes stretching all the way back to World War II.
Basically, Hornet, Phantom, Intruder, Dauntless, Corsair, Avenger, Panther – they literally have them all!
The whole experience was further enhanced by the fact that the ship is teeming with volunteer veterans, eager to impart their knowledge and point out facets that you might have missed or skimmed over. Heck, we even sat through a little session on the flightdeck where we were taken through the process of how they land fighters on the ship. (Incredibly interesting, though probably not a skill that I’ll ever need to master! :D)
It is a truly wonderful experience for anyone with even the slightest of interest in military matters and I seriously have no idea as to just how many hours I dragged Johann along with me as we wandered about the aircraft carrier – but I know that given the chance, I could easily spend the entire day there!
Well, well worth the price of admission.
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It is no wonder then that the USS Midway is ranked as being the most popular naval warship museum in the whole of the United States!