Making a mad dash through the Edmonton International Airport, we caught our first connecting flight to Calgary. Aside from minimal rest we managed on the planes, it was a blur of a morning that started at 4:30am and didn’t stop until four and a half hours later when we boarded the flight that would take us to San Diego. Needless to say, we were a little bit exhausted as we landed in the golden state. But, as soon as we walked out into the bright sunshine, it was like all of our troubles melted away.
I always like to share my adventures with all of you when I get back. It’s my hope that what I experienced will inspire others to visit and explore things they may otherwise have not, or that my writings and pictures will remind people (in a good way) of their own past vacations.
So, without further ado, here’s a day-by-day recap of the trip that my friend and I took at the beginning of February!
Arriving in San Diego before noon, and, having no real plans for the day, we took the shuttle from the airport to the Thrifty/Dollar Rent A Car lot by Harbor Island to pick up our rental vehicle for the week. Despite the rep’s best efforts to talk us into spending extra on a convertible, we stuck with our economy car. The uphill challenged Chevy Spark would be our transportation for the next six full days. Once we drove off the lot, we headed to Little Italy where were were staying in the adorably charming Hotel Vyvant. A small boutique hotel, we occupied one of 23 rooms in the two-storey building. Our two bedroom deluxe suite with kitchenette could have accommodated up to six people with the three double beds that were fit inside. The bathroom was also quite spacious. Compared to the rest of the hotel, the room felt like it could have used a little sprucing up, but it was clean, which was the most important thing. They also provided free bottled water and Wi-Fi. Plus, the included kitchenette housed a small refrigerator and microwave as well as a Keurig machine. For one night, it was more than I could have asked for.
Once we freshened up, we needed to fill our starving bellies. Pinpointing a place just a few blocks away, we wandered in the direction we thought we should go, and, while we didn’t find what we were looking for, Underbelly appeared in our midst. Bustling with people during the lunch rush, it beckoned us inside where we ordered at the till and then planted ourselves at the bar. The casual-cool atmosphere with a bar lined by taps was made even better by the food. My friend ordered the vegetable ramen which combined a variety of succulent mushrooms with asparagus and noodles. The flavour, enhanced by truffle oil, was delicious. I sprung for the tuna tataki and the trio tartar. The albacore tuna tataki was seared just right, giving it the perfect texture. Marinating in a ponzu sauce and accompanied by garlic and daikon sprouts, it was a light dish. My starch came from the trio tartar, which were plated as three squares of steamed rice, each individually topped with hamachi, spicy tuna and salmon and drizzled with sesame oil. Out of the three types of fish, my favourite was probably the hamachi. While I usually like spicy tuna, this one had a lot of kick to it – more than expected – so I would have preferred something a little more subtle.
After lunch, we had planned to stop by the cheese shop that we had spotted across the street. We thought we could pick something up for a wine and cheese supper to be had outside on the adorable patio space of our hotel. Alas, the store wasn’t open, so we continued a couple of blocks down to the waterfront where we walked along the boardwalk and took in views of the Maritime Museum, navy ship and tour boats.
Eventually, we headed back to our hotel where we picked up our car and headed to La Jolla as we were told we could find basking sea lions in the cove. As we ambled towards the beach, we came across the fabulous Bobboi Gelato. Sampling a number of unique flavours, I ended up with a piccolo size (small) cup with a pineapple & basil and goat cheese & grape combination. It was wonderfully refreshing. The rocky beach was tranquil and provided a gorgeous vista of the deep blue water. A quick perusal of the shops in the area landed us at Warwick’s, the country’s oldest family-owned and operated bookstore. My favourite find there: whimsical necklaces with kaleidoscope pendants.
On this particular trip, we decided to get most of our shopping out of the way at the beginning. Instead of going to the outlet mall, we actually ventured to Fashion Valley where they had an Anthropologie store. Honestly, with the Canadian dollar having dropped in value recently, we were inclined to buy a lot less, so we really made a point of being more selective.
Our first day was completed with a return to Little Italy where we ended up at the fantastic Prepkitchen for dinner. The steak tartar was amazing and the squid ink cappellini was incredibly rich with a nice cream sauce that was both savoury and ever-so-slightly tart. Their bartender, Simon, was stellar as well. He conversed with the two of us throughout the night and, before we left, he made us a whole list of recommendations for food and drinks in the city.
The next morning we awoke early to take advantage of Hotel Vyvant’s provided breakfast before checking out. A lovely spread of Bread & Cie pastries, granola, Greek yogurt, juice and coffee, I was impressed. It was simple, but everything was yummy.
Probably our most relaxing day out of the whole trip, we headed back towards the waterfront where we boarded a 9:30 Flagship Cruises (tickets purchased through Groupon) boat for a three and a half hour whale watching tour with fantastic guides and volunteers from Birch Aquarium. As we departed from the dock and moved past the shoreline, the clear views turned cloudy and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a dense fog. The most memorable image was seeing a solo fisherman in a small open boat being engulfed by the mist. Perseverance paid off though. About an hour before we turned around, the blue sky and sunshine broke through and we observed a small pod of juvenile grey whales diving under and breaching the surface of the water. We even saw a couple of dolphins and some more sea lions.
Leaving the water behind (and a few chilly/windy moments), we took advantage of the time we had to stop for lunch in North Park. Carnitas’ Snack Shack was one of the many places Simon the bartender suggested to us, and he didn’t disappoint. Literally a “shack,” we ordered at the window. When we turned the corner to the side of the shack, I was surprised to see the ample amount of outdoor seating. Our triple threat pork sandwiches were truly a threat to our health, but it was a holiday and we didn’t care. Stacked with pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini relish and shack aioli, it was piled high. My only qualm is that the pulled pork is placed at the bottom and the sauce caused the bun to fall apart, which made it a bit difficult to consume. In fact, my friend ended up eating hers with a fork and knife.
As soon as we devoured our meals, we got back into the car and drove to the Hyatt Place San Diego/Vista-Carlsbad where we decided to stay the night because of its proximity to the Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido. The hotel staff could have been a bit friendlier, but rooms were good. Extremely spacious and quiet, I would stay there again if I had plans in the vicinity.
The second big event of the day was our 6pm tour of the Stone Brewery. Arriving quite early, we browsed the gift shop and had a pint in the bistro and gardens before being led away by an indoctrination specialist. For $3, we got to learn about the brewing process and then sample four of their brews. The glass used was ours to take home as a souvenir. Sitting on their outdoor patio underneath the stars while we had dinner afterwards was lovely. Sharing duck tacos, brussels sprouts and mac ‘n beer cheese, I felt full to the brim quickly. It was well worth the visit though.
Deciding to take the scenic route on the way to Los Angeles, we followed along the I-5 until we were able to get onto the CA-1, which allows us views of the coast. It was double the time, but it was interesting to see all the beach towns and their differences as we passed by each of them. Four hours later, we successfully made it Santa Monica where we had lunch at The Albright on the pier. My buttery lobster roll was awesome. It tasted super fresh and the flavours were pleasantly subtle.
When we were done eating, we strolled the pier, which is actually smaller than I expected, and then we descended the stairs to the beach where we dipped our feet in the water and kept our eyes peeled for sand dollars. The sound of the water and the waves hitting our feet and legs as we continued down a stretch of beach was so relaxing. I could have stayed there for longer, but we wanted to get into L.A. while it was still relatively light out.
Our initial stop was our hotel in Burbank. Tangerine Hotel, an upgraded little motel with free parking, in the studio area was really cute. Staff were so nice, making sure to point out their complementary coffee/drink machine and the fact that they bring in breakfast pastries from Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in the mornings. We quickly freshened up once we were assigned a room and then we jetted off to Hollywood Boulevard, so my friend could see the hand and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre as well as the stars on the Walk of Fame. Since that was a quick detour, we ended up back inside Hollywood & Highland Center for dinner at Cho Oishi. The sushi there was good. Although, compared to what we had during the remainder of our trip, it didn’t really compare.
The cap to our evening was a visit to the Griffith Observatory. A stark white building, it shines even in the darkness. Free to enter, we walked around the exhibits and onto the roof for a wide view of the valley below and a dark, shadowy inkling of where the Hollywood sign was located (why don’t they spotlight the iconic sign at night?). Unfortunately, there was quite a long line-up for a look through the telescope. It would have been really cool, but we didn’t feel like waiting, so we skipped it.
This was our most relaxing morning. Even though we still woke up relatively early, we didn’t need to be anywhere until 12:30pm, so we caught up on our emails and played with our tablet apps until we had to leave the hotel. Months after obtaining my pass through Conan O’Brien‘s 1iota ticketing site, we were finally going to see a taping of his show. Just a few minutes away by car, we drove to Gate 8 at Warner Bros. Studio where we parked and then lined up in the cordoned off area on the main floor of the parkade. The organizers recently decided to tighten up the whole process by starting check-in later in the day and, while the line was half full by the time we arrived, it was a quick wait. I’d say we were in and out within 15 minutes – going through security, getting our hand stamped, trading our pass for tickets, wristbands and a number, and having our photo taken – before we were allowed to leave for lunch.
Since we only had a couple of hours until we needed to return to Warner Bros. for the show, we decided to venture over to Universal CityWalk where we ended up at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (Make Beer, Not War). Turns out this restaurant is San Diego based, so it’s funny we tried it in L.A., but it was great to soak in the sunshine on their patio. The tree hugger mac and cheese was decently portioned and yummy, and the Windansea Wheat brew on tap was refreshing. If you’re going to spend a short amount of time at CityWalk between the hours of 11am to 3pm on weekdays, do choose to valet park. If you make a purchase and get your ticket validated by that store/restaurant/cinema, your first two hours are only $2. Plus, the valet service offers free drinks, such as bottled water, coffee or hot chocolate, while you wait for you car.
When we returned to the parkade at Warner Bros., the waiting area was packed with excited people. A small portable souvenir stand was open for business, so we took a gander and I couldn’t resist buying a shirt where Conan was depicted as a bird. Soon after, they started calling up numbers in groups of ten and leading each pack towards the stage. I’d say that whole process took about a half an hour, but they did have a giant basket of mini chocolate bars to hand out to people as all of us entered the set. Once we were all seated, a guy came to warm up the crowd and explain the whole filming process and what was expected of us. Then, right at 4:30, the whole production started and didn’t stop until an hour later. It was so much fun. Guests Jeff Bridges, Lily Collins and Slash with Myles Kennedy were great. The biggest surprise to me was what Jeff Bridges is like in person. He was incredibly laid back; he even led us in an “omming” session where he conducted Conan, Andy Richter, the band and the audience to meditate together. Being that this was my first experience of a taping, I’m sure this is something I’ll never forget. I’d love to go back to L.A. to see someone else’s show, like Jimmy Kimmel Live, or attend a taping of a sitcom.
To finish off our L.A. adventure, we thought we should check out The Grove where the pretty people hang out. Dinner was had at Umami Burger where sides must be ordered separately. The truffle burger was so juicy and flavourful though, and the ketchup with truffle oil was a stellar dip for our cinnamon dusted sweet potato fries. Those calories were minimally worked off with a quick walk around the Farmers Market, and then quickly gained back and then some with dessert from the Sprinkles Cupcakes window. I’d like to thank the lady in line behind us who kept asking her daughter what the phrase of the day was because I then found it on Twitter for all of us to use and, when spoken to the employee, we each received a free cupcake! I opted for two flavours, one lemon and one banana.
With a detour to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills where we just did a quick pass through (all the stores were closed for the evening), we then made our way back to our hotel where we crawled in bed with cups of Stone Brewing Co. beer and watched the episode of Conan O’Brien that we were at (trying to spot ourselves in the split second shots of the crowd). Seeing it on TV was great. Being in the studio during the live taping was one thing, but getting to view the final product was neat, too. Very little was edited out, if anything at all, but the close-up shots of Conan and Andy that we didn’t catch on set had me cracking up in the confines of our room. That’s the magic of film for you!
The following day we turned our car south and headed back to San Diego via the I-5. On the way, we sang along to top 40 hits and oldies on the radio and kept an eye out for different state license plates.
Our one stop was in El Cajon for the tour of the Taylor Guitars factory. Highly automated compared to other luthiers, they’ve found ways to make guitars that are consistent in quality and sound while maintaining beautiful craftsmanship. I wouldn’t have known about the free tour, which is offered every weekday at 1pm, if I hadn’t found the suggestion listed on the back of the fantastic San Diego explore series map from AMA. It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the trip. The information shared by the guide was interesting, and getting to peek at each step of the manufacturing process was cool. All visitors were also invited to test out the guitars hanging in the showroom, so there were a bunch of musicians each sitting on their own stool strumming and singing away.
Knowing we’d need dessert later in the evening, we thought one last Sprinkles Cupcakes run was in order. There was a shop in La Jolla, so we popped in to pick up a couple of cupcakes each. This time I chose the chai latte and the pumpkin flavours. Alas, there was no phrase of the day!
Then we headed to Inn at the Park where the check-in was lightning quick. The only thing that was disappointing was that the price of the stay didn’t include free Wi-Fi; we had to pay extra for that on a daily basis. The only good thing is that the cost of use included two devices, so both my friend and I were able to use the internet. Our two bedroom suite was pretty and super spacious, and, if we were going to be there for an extended stay, the full kitchen would have come in really handy.
When we were home planning this trip, I made an effort to search for a list of the city’s best restaurants and came across San Diego Magazine‘s 2014 compilation. Since the two of us love sushi so much, I wanted to see if we could make it to Azuki, which was the critic’s pick for best sushi. Luckily the restaurant was only a couple of minutes away by car from our home base. Upon entering, I noticed and loved that in the main dining room they were playing Jiro Dreams of Sushi on a wall screen. How appropriate. Although we didn’t have a reservation, they managed to seat us at a table in their cozy enclosed patio space. We even made it in time to order the albacore tuna tataki off of the happy hour menu. The fish was so fresh, and the dish wasn’t overly adorned, which was good because it allowed the fish to be the star. After some deliberation over my main meal, I selected the By the Border and Spicy Scallop rolls. Oh man! It was as if the entire thing, rice included, just melted away in your mouth. As I was eating those, my friend was enjoying the salmon special, which includes five different types of salmon sushi. She liked it so much that I was convinced I needed an order of my own. In all seriousness, this was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had. It was also our most extravagantly priced meal of the trip – four dishes each and a cocktail and I paid about $75 CDN – but it was well worth it. I have absolutely no regrets. It’s on my wishlist to go there again.
The evening’s entertainment led us to Valley View Casino Center (truly one of the dumpiest arenas I’ve been to) to see Aziz Ansari: Live! I guess a special recording of his performance in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is being released on Netflix next month, but I’m glad that I went to the actual show. It was hilarious and everything Aziz brought up – mostly dating and relationships – had that ring of truth to it. One of his biggest jokes still makes me smile every time I think about it. We were even treated to an unexpected, yet very welcome additional set by opener Ron Funches who I knew of from the show Undateable. He has, literally, the most adorable man giggle.
A damp cold and heavy fog thwarted our plan to find a drinking hole with a good view after the show. Instead, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.
Honestly, I’m not sure why I didn’t heed the warnings from reviewers who had stayed at Inn at the Park. As great as the actual accommodations are, the hotel is now part of Wyndham’s timeshare program, so they usually try to talk all short-term guests into attending a presentation. They sucker you into it with the promise of incentives. Since we love free things, they succeeded in getting us to sign up. Our session was only supposed to be 90 minutes and we were supposed to be shuttled back to the hotel by 10:30am, but, despite our constant reminders to the sales representative and his manager, and the fact that we were given a “faster” presentation, we didn’t get out of there until 11am. We actually missed a walking tour that we had already purchased tickets for, so we were a bit livid when we left in an Uber car that they had to pay for to get us back to the Inn because their shuttle driver was nowhere nearby.
The only plus side to that situation was that we did receive a $100 AMEX gift card and two San Diego Zoo passes for putting up with them. Those incentives essentially covered any costs associated with the last day of our trip. I also convinced the manager at the hotel to reimburse us the money we spent on the walking tour (since it was the fault of the presenters that we didn’t make it back in time), so, at the very least, I didn’t lose out monetarily.
With that behind us, we drove to Balboa Park where we had a speedy lunch in the lounge of The Prado. We had heard that the restaurant was beautiful, and, while the smoked salmon flatbread was great, the lounge felt a little chaotic. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, so it was extremely busy and we didn’t have the time to wait for a table in the main dining room or for the patio. All things considered, the couple that we did share one of the raised tables with were visiting California for their anniversary, and they were lovely to talk to. That was one of my favourite things about this trip: the friendly nature of the people we were lucky to come into contact with.
No first trip to San Diego is complete without a visit to the zoo. Countless people told us that it requires at least a full day, maybe even two, to get through the entirety of the habitats. However, the website, which we checked the evening prior, suggested a minimum of three to four hours to take in the 100 acre zone and its 3,700 animals. That’s basically all the time we had, so we pulled up the map and made a plan to ensure that we wouldn’t miss the animals that we really wanted to see. Starting on the east side of the zoo, we worked our way through by following the various paths. Being a weekend afternoon, the zoo was packed with families, making it a bit harder to maneuver around certain exhibits, but we managed to check off everything on our list of must sees and then some. My top picks were the out-like-a-light koala bears and the happy looking giant pandas. They’re just so darn cute.
With daylight still on the horizon, we made a quick stop at the Botanical Building since it is a famous San Diego sight. The structure is visibly in need of repair, but it is beautiful and the accompanying pond provides a tranquil spot even when surrounded by the buzz of other tourists. Too bad the interior was closed for tours by the time we got there, otherwise it would have been nice to see as well.
A friend of ours suggested that we go to Sushi Ota to eat at some point on our trip, so that’s what we did for dinner. I didn’t realize until now that this restaurant was selected as the readers’ choice for best sushi in that same San Diego Magazine article mentioned earlier. We lucked out that a large party had a few no-shows, so, without a booking, the hostess managed to accommodate us (only for a little over an hour until the next reservation arrived). Another great restaurant where the fish tasted freshly caught, I felt spoiled with amazing food this holiday.
Before going back to our hotel, we made an attempt to stop for drinks at C Level on Harbor Island. One of the great Birch Aquarium volunteers from the whale watching tour earlier in the week recommended it because the views of the water and San Diego skyline are so pretty. The wait for an actual table was over an hour long, so we looked into the bar area, but everyone was packed in like sardines, so we gave up on that idea. Instead, we returned to our hotel, popping into the 7-11 across the street first to pick up a couple of beers. We grabbed glasses from our room and our last cupcakes, taking them to the rooftop patio where we chatted away and made friends with two couples from northern Los Angeles who had offered us amazingly good home smoked cheddar cheese.
As usual, we fit in a lot of things on this trip, but it never really felt like we were overdoing it. And, we understood that we could spend more time somewhere if we felt like it was worth it.
On a quick note, Californian architecture blows me away, too. Many of the buildings are somewhat understated, but they’re also very distinct. They’re just simply stylish, and I think the look fits in with the state’s culture and its inhabitants.
For a couple of people who assumed all there would be to do in San Diego was the zoo and Sea World, we were proven wrong. Between the two cities, San Diego seemed more laid back – traffic was better, the people came across as friendlier and it didn’t feel as hyped up – and was preferred to Los Angeles, which was fun, but didn’t feel like it required a longer stay (unless it was to see more late night talk show or sitcom tapings). The more Cali residents we spoke to, the more we we realized how much there actually is to occupy your visit. There were a number of museums located in Balboa Park that we didn’t even have a chance to set foot in. We barely broke the surface and I left thinking another trip to San Diego and along the coast must be in my future.
Watch where you park in California. They do have quite a bit of street parking available, but you should make sure to read the signs. Some are very specific and it would be a shame to get a ticket for parking in a spot that is available every day except Tuesday because of street cleaning.
If you intend to do anything, take into account added time for travel. Traffic is unpredictable.
Should you take the highway and you have more than two people in the car, go for the car pool lane. There’s a chance it’ll still get backed up, but it tends to flow more freely than the others. Just be aware of when you have to exit because it’s not necessarily the easiest to get through to the far right through four or five lanes.
Definitely get a GPS for your car. You’ll be thankful for the direction.
There are a lot of things that you can do in California that are inexpensive (also a lot that’s not). See what’s available and plan accordingly. Don’t overbook things if you’re not sure you can actually make it.