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San Diego: Big times on the Big Bay

Courtesy San Diego CVB

On Sept. 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led three Spanish ships past hills covered with sage scrub and a 400-foot promontory into “un puerto cerrado y muy beuno,” “a closed and very good port.”

Nearly 468 years later, I stood atop that promontory on a brilliant, sunny Southern California day beside a large stone statue of Cabrillo and looked down at his very good port — today’s San Diego Bay.

The view from Cabrillo National Monument is stunning: the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean; speedy jets, mammoth cargo planes and whirling helicopters taking off from the flat expanse of the Naval Air Station North Island across the bay; the mountains of Mexico to the south; the skyline of modern-day San Diego in the distance; and the shoreline along the bay, known locally as the Big Bay, lined with marinas, hotels, resorts, retail developments, floating museums, restaurants, cruise ships, commercial terminals and aircraft carriers.

“The thing here [at Cabrillo National Monument] is the spectacular views,” said Joe Timko, director of public relations for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is where California was discovered.”

I had joined six other travel writers and editors on a three-day late-January visit sponsored by the CVB and the Unified Port of San Diego to expose us to the Big Bay’s enticements.

“We call it the Big Bay so people will know what we are talking about. It’s where the big ships come in,” said Rita Vandergaw, director of marketing for the port. “It’s part of a branding campaign that started about six years ago.”

Although I had previously visited some parts of San Diego that front the bay, I discovered during a packed itinerary that the name Big Bay applies to more than just the large ships that visit this well-protected harbor.

Ferry to dinner
After checking into the year-old Hilton Bayfront Hotel, our group met for the first time in the lobby with Timko and his assistant, Stephenie Medina. They walked us to the nearby dock, where we took a water taxi across the bay to Coronado Ferry Landing for dinner at Candelas on the Bay, an upscale Mexican restaurant with sweeping views through large floor-to-ceiling windows of the San Diego skyline.

Courtesy San Diego CVB

The ride across the water after dark was brisk and reminded us that although San Diego’s weather is temperate year-round, never too hot or too cold, it does get cool in the evenings, especially in the winter. Groups visiting during that time should bring layers, including light sweaters and jackets.

Coronado Ferry Landing is a retail and entertainment complex with distinctive shops and stores in addition to its waterfront restaurants set amid tree-lined walkways, palms and ponds.

Forest of masts
The next morning, we sampled another charming retail and dining development on the other side of the bay as we ate breakfast at Buster’s Beach House and Longboard Bar, with its surfer decor, in Seaport Village. This time the view out the windows was some of the thousands of private boats that dock at the 20 marinas around the bay. A later drive along Harbor Drive, which parallels the bay, led past a forest of bobbing sailboat masts.

Seaport Village is a 14-acre complex modeled after an early-20th-century California seaport with winding cobblestone streets, ponds, fountains, Southern California landscaping and an 1895 carousel. There are four restaurants and 13 sidewalk cafes and more than 50 eclectic specialty shops, where you can purchase anything from international flags, environmental marine art, personalized wooden toys, luggage and jewelry to surfer clothing for the beach.

Seaport Village offers custom group packages with meal vouchers, VIP shopping passes and gift certificates.

From Seaport Village, we took a scenic walk along the waterfront Embarcadero to the aircraft carrier USS Midway, our first exposure to the rich military history of the San Diego area.

San Diego’s relationship with the military stems from 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world. When the fleet couldn’t dock in San Diego because the harbor was too shallow, local officials vowed to deepen the harbor and actively seek the military.

Military might
Today, San Diego has one of the largest military complexes in the world, with 11 Navy, Marine and Coast Guard installations, including Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the Naval Air Station North Island, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the Naval Station San Diego. Many can be seen on tours of the bay, which also include a submarine base, the impressive carrier row and an unusual base where dolphins are trained to detect underwater explosives.

After its service in the Navy from the end of World War II through the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the Midway was brought to San Diego in June 2004 as a floating museum. A dedicated cadre of volunteers restored the ship and continue to maintain and renovate it.

“When we got it in ’04, it was empty. We had to clean it up and find and restore the equipment,” said the Midway’s public affairs officer, Joe Ciokon, who gave us a tour. “It has been a raging success since it got here. We get more than 900,000 visitors a year, and it is booked for special events into 2014.”

Groups can get docent-led tours or wear audio headsets for individual tours that include sound bites from some of the more than 220,000 men who served on the ship during its 47 years of active duty.

With a full complement, the Midway would have had from 4,500 to 4,800 crew on board and weighed 75,000 tons. By comparison, the modern-day 24-story-tall USS Ronald Reagan, the largest carrier in the world, has a crew of 6,000 and weighs 110,000 tons.

The Ronald Reagan, which is based in San Diego, was in dock for refurbishment at the time of our visit and was berthed just a few hundred yards across the bay from the Midway in an interesting juxtaposition of the new and old.

Our tour of the Midway began on the hangar deck, one of its 14 decks, where the ship’s planes were serviced. The deck has several restored planes, simulators and jet cockpits and a glass hatch in the floor that lets you look down several decks to a jet engine with a simulated crewman making repairs.

Our abbreviated tour also took us to the four-and-a-half-acre flight deck, where a number of other restored planes are parked. All have flown from an aircraft carrier.

The regular tour also includes the berth area where the sailors lived, the engine room, the bridge and “Main Street,” where the offices, dining area, medical facilities, post office and chaplain were located.

Different ships
A short walk down the Embarcadero took us to the San Diego Maritime Museum for a look at different kinds of ships. “We have seven ships to show you,” said Gary Shephard, a retired CBS and ABC network newsman who is a volunteer guide at the museum.

The first of the four we visited was the Star of India. “It is the oldest sailing ship in the entire world that still sails,” said Shephard. “It is taken out every year on its birthday.

“It was built in 1863 in England. This was in the water when Abraham Lincoln was in the White House. It has been around the world 20 times.”

The lower deck, which is reached by steep, ladderlike stairs, has displays that depict the crowded conditions for the up to 400 passengers at a time who were taken to New Zealand aboard the ship to help populate the island.

Next was the HMS Surprise, a replica of an 18th-century British frigate that was used in the filming of the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The tour includes displays of costumes worn in the movie and the small captain’s cabin where Crowe, as Capt. Jack Aubrey, played the cello.

The tour of the B-39, a Cold War-era Soviet submarine, requires you to pass through several small openings where you have to stoop and go through one leg at a time. There is as a sample opening at the foot of the gangway for you to determine if you want to try the potentially claustrophobic experience.

Our final stop was a quick look at the Berkeley, a large ferry that operated between San Francisco and Oakland from 1898 to 1958. Although we didn’t get to tour them, the museum also has an American submarine, a 1904 steam yacht and the schooner California, the state’s official tall ship, a replica of a revenue cutter that patrolled the coast during the gold rush.

The museum also offers 45-minute narrated cruises of the bay on its restored 1914 pilot boat.
After lunch next door at Anthony’s Fish Grotto on the Bay, a family-owned seafood restaurant that has been a San Diego institution for more than 60 years, we boarded a Hornblower Cruises ship for a three-and-a-half-hour whale-watching cruise.

San Diego is ideally situated for viewing the annual 12,000-mile roundtrip migration of gray whales between their Alaskan summer feeding grounds and their winter breeding grounds in the warm waters off Baja California. The whales, which can weigh from 20 to 45 tons and reach 50 feet in length, stay close to the shore as they pass Point Loma and the San Diego Bay from mid-December to early April.

“The migration is the reason we have a whale-watching season in San Diego,” said the ship’s captain. “They are a coastal species, which is one reason we are such a good candidate for whale watching. They swim in dependable patterns and are not underwater as long as some of the others [whale species].”

He advised us to keep a sharp lookout for the traditional sign of a whale sighting, a plume of air and water blown up to 15 feet in the air when the whale is ready to surface.

“You find them the old-fashioned way — use your eyes,” he said.

Wildlife require patience, and they don’t always adhere to human schedules, so despite the whales’ dependable migration patterns and peak travel times, the first few hours of the cruise brought only an occasional plume and a quick peek at a barnacle-covered back — not even a tail fin for our efforts

Dolphins by the dozen
Then, the captain spotted a pod of dolphins. What a marvelous and unusual sight as hundreds of playful dolphins jumped in and out of the water, surrounding the boat on both sides and running alongside it.

As we were heading for home, and the captain was apologizing for the lack of whales, he spotted another rare sight — two gray whales frolicking in the water off the port (right) side of the vessel. We had several good sightings as the whales came up frequently — one even turned on its side to show a dorsal fin, another rare sight.

A docent from the San Diego Natural History Museum who was on board explained that gray whales are solitary creatures and rarely seen in pairs.

After a quick break at the hotel, it was off to the Top of the Market at the Fish Market for another fine-dining experience with a view of the bay.

The next morning, breakfast was on the bay aboard the Red Rooster III on Shelter Island, where we enjoyed a continental breakfast while talking with the captain, Andy Cates, about San Diego’s strong sport-fishing industry.

“This is the most advanced sport-fishing fleet,” said Cates. “The shore support is probably what makes it possible.”

Catherine Miller, a public relations representative for the Sport Fishing Association, said fishing excursions are booked through the association at three landings on the bay, where there are more than 70 boats during peak season. That frees the captains to focus on catching fish and not booking business.

The sport-fishing fleet offers a variety of trips, from half- and full-day trips to multiday excursions. The Red Rooster III, for example, can carry from 21 to 31 people for 16 days at a time in its 16 rooms.

We headed from Shelter Island to Cabrillo National Monument and our spectacular view of the area. The monument has a visitor center with exhibits and films about the park and Cabrillo’s voyage, which went as far north as San Francisco, and his mysterious death on the trip.

The site, the most southwesterly spot in the contiguous United States, is also where the Old Point Loma Lighthouse operated from 1855 to 1891. The lightkeeper’s quarters have been restored and furnished to show how the lightkeepers lived; the quarters include a cozy parlor with a picture made from shells above the fireplace mantel, a kerosene table lamp and a deck of playing cards spread out on the kitchen table.

For the optional afternoon activity, four of us, along with Timko, headed to Chula Vista Nature Center on the South Bay. The center is part of the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few remaining salt marsh wetlands on the Pacific coast.

“We want to teach the importance of coastal wetlands — 90 percent have been developed,” said Charles Gailband, curator of animals.

We checked out the hawk, the owl and the buzzards along Raptor Row and the majestic eagles at Eagle Mesa; walked through the enclosed shorebird exhibit and past the burrowing owl exhibit; and watched excited schoolchildren crowd around the 4,500-gallon shark and stingray pool.

The center also has walking paths and viewing platforms to look for the abundant wildlife in the area.

On our final evening, Timko took us on a scenic drive across the curving, 2.2-mile-long Coronado Bridge, which towers 248 feet above the bay at its apex; through the charming town of Coronado, where no two houses can be alike by ordinance; past the historic Hotel del Coronado; and down a portion of the Silver Strand, an 11-mile-long stretch of shell-covered beach that connects Coronado to Imperial Beach.

Our destination was the Loews Coronado Bay Resort and Spa, where an unexpected treat awaited us: a 16-passenger gondola with cheese and champagne.

The gondola, one of eight in the 44-passenger fleet, took us on a relaxing one-hour cruise through Coronado Cays, an upscale residential area on waterways that flow directly into the bay, as the gondolier sang, and the sun set over the bay.

A final meal at the resort’s upscale Mistral restaurant, with its combination of northern Italian and southern French cuisine, was a tasty conclusion to our trip.

San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau
(619) 232-3101

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