At the end of Crystal Pier along San Diego's Pacific Beach, a pod of dolphins surfaces near surfers waiting on boards that rise and fall with the swell. A set comes in, and the first wave surges through the pilings, sending tremors up to the pier that cause it to shimmy and shake.
The surfers paddle hard to catch the wave, and as the face builds, the sun turns it a glassy jade, revealing the dolphins as luminous silhouettes within the rolling wall.
Nine hundred feet away at the foot of the pier, Ocean Front Walk, the strand that links the city's beach neighborhoods, is rocking and rolling too. It's a Sunday in August, and this boardless boardwalk is approaching Times Square density, hardly a surprise in a city where life is so famously lived in the sun, the sand, and the ocean.
We all know San Diego, right? Endless summer and endless tourist attractions: the zoo, Shamu, and all that coastline too. But summer in San Diego isn't just about the beach.
The opening of the San Diego Padres' new ballpark has helped reinvigorate downtown, which bustles with clubs and restaurants. And few cities anywhere in the world can boast of an urban oasis with the architectural and botanical grandeur of Balboa Park.
Cool waves, baseball, and a touch of Europe too. Welcome to summer, San Diego-style.
San Diego plays ball
Petco Park is buzzing as legendary Astros pitcher Roger Clemens gets ready to face the Padres' young ace, Jake Peavy. Fans arrive by light rail or walk to the ballpark past the Victorian buildings of the Gaslamp Quarter and the onetime warehouses of downtown's East Village neighborhood.
At Petco, the city is as much a part of the ballpark as the ballpark is of the city, a Southern California take on the retro baseball stadium trend. Swaying palm trees cast shadows on the park's sandstone face as cool breezes blow in from San Diego Bay. The century-old brick Western Metal Supply Company building forms a section along the left-field line, and families picnic in the grassy area beyond the centerfield fence known as "the park in the park." Here kids play spirited Wiffle Ball on a tiny diamond, and toddlers frolic in a sandy play area that bumps up against the warning track.
From the grandstands behind the plate, fans look toward the skyline, where cranes hover over the city as luxury buildings promising field views begin their rise. While the ballpark is the most impressive symbol of the changes downtown, the area is also being transformed by a seemingly endless number of residential projects.
Somewhere beneath all that construction, the tables at Cafe Chloe in the East Village are filling up. With its chocolate brown and white interior and Man Ray photographs on the walls, this is the kind of neighborhood bistro that every neighborhood should have. It's simple and elegant, a perfect complement to the French-inspired creations of chef Katie Grebow.
"Just a little place for the community," says Alison McGrath of the restaurant that she and her husband, John Clute, opened after moving back to San Diego from San Francisco. "No one was doing a true European-style cafe. This is a place where you can nurse your coffee and work on your laptop. It's really egalitarian. We get people from 8 to 80. Artists and working-class folks. Grandmas for tea. And hot young couples heading for Gaslamp clubs."
With its late-19th-century buildings, the Gaslamp may be a National Historic District, but Colonial Williamsburg it's not. Unlike Cafe Chloe, many Gaslamp restaurants and clubs ― with their waterfalls, cabanas, $20 covers, and firepits ― have the production values of summer blockbusters.
And there are nights when the Gaslamp positively hums as flocks of 20-somethings, locals sampling the latest restaurants, and wide-eyed tourists become part of a good-time tableau. The revelry isn't restricted to the streets, though. The Altitude Sky Bar perches on the 22nd floor, and as beautiful as its design and many of its patrons may be, nothing can rival the twilight view: down into the ballpark, across the bay to Coronado and out to Point Loma, and south into Mexico.
A city built around a park
Inside San Diego is a separate city, quieter, lusher, more exotic. Cross Cabrillo Bridge ― a 1,500-foot, seven-arch span ― into Balboa Park, and you feel less like you've entered a standard American city park than some outpost of empire. Looking like the San Diego raj, lawn bowlers in their crisp whites stand out sharply against the brilliant hue of the bowling green. A dense forest of eucalyptus fills the air with an aromatic blast. And all around is a botanical fantasy-land of themed gardens ― Japanese, replicas of formal designs from Spanish palaces, and thickets of cactus from around the world.
At the heart of the park is El Prado, the promenade of Spanish Colonial architecture built for the 1915 world's fair, the Panama-California Exposition. The bell tower and the Moorish tile dome of the fair's California Building contrast vividly with the San Diego sky. But grand as El Prado may be, Balboa Park ― like the beach ― is above all a place where San Diego lives.
A Buddha-like bulldog riding in a red Radio Flyer wagon is wheeled beneath arcaded walkways and past façades thick with saints, martyrs, explorers, and goddesses. Flamenco music lures passersby as a guitarist plays beside a lily pond, and beneath the sweeping white colonnade of the park's organ pavilion, a man stands before the sea of empty seats, singing arias in a sweet tenor. For himself and anyone who pauses to listen.
In addition to El Prado, the other great gift of the 1915 fair is the San Diego Zoo; the exposition's modest animal exhibits grew into what many consider the world's finest zoo. It's best known for marquee animals rarely seen in the United States, such as koalas and giant pandas. Three pandas have been born in the past two years. The zoo's current box office sensation is the panda cub Su Lin, who draws long lines of people hoping to watch her chomp on bamboo leaves.
To be honest, Su Lin seems to spend hours napping invisibly among the foliage. So as you wander the zoo's landscaped paths, give the other animals their due. Flocks of pink flamingos pose poolside like starlets awaiting their big break. Thick and ungainly on land, hippos reveal unexpected grace when you glimpse them (as you can here) underwater. They don't actually swim, but instead tiptoe along the bottom with the delicacy of a prima ballerina en pointe - that is to say, a 3-ton dancer sans tutu.
Then there are Bornean bearded pigs. What's in a name? Exactly that: These are large tropical pigs with wild, bristly ZZ Top beards, animals so glorious in their ugliness that they seem destined to star in their own Pixar feature.
Along the San Diego sea
It's late afternoon, and the crowds along Pacific Beach have thinned, but the beach party isn't over just yet. The more motivated play touch football in the sand while summer-climatic expatriates from Arizona mix drinks on the patios of vacation rentals.
San Diego has its more sedate and natural beaches, but the boardwalk's nearly 4-mile stretch south from Pacific Beach through Mission Beach is decidedly urban, a hybrid of the Jersey Shore, Venice Beach, and the malecones of Latin America.
Balboa Park may be classical and operatic, the ballpark all-American. The beach, however, is the classic songs of summer come alive, even at post-punk Taang Records, a seaside music label and store, where all the young dudes watch the pretty California girls go by.
Timeless as the beach can be, something also marks the scene as distinctly of San Diego. There's an old Tom Petty song, Louisiana Rain, which begins on this boardwalk, along the shores of what he called "the San Diego Sea." Geographic accuracy aside, that phrase captures San Diego's feeling of separateness, hemmed in as it is by the Mexican border, the Pacific, and the mountains to the east. This may be Southern California, but it is definitely not Los Angeles: The water is warmer, and the air is balmier, sweetened by a margarita of a breeze that blends the ocean, desert, and a splash of the tropics.
At the end of Crystal Pier, the view extends across the waves to where Mexico's Islas Los Coronados ride the horizon. The Coronados are just shadows as the sun drifts lazily toward the sea. The sandstone cliffs on the far north end of the beach begin to fire and glow. There's a noticeable pause and hush as everyone takes a break to check out the sunset. Because sometimes you just know that you're in the right place at the right time. And San Diego in summer is summer as it was meant to be.