Summer, San Diego-style

With beaches, baseball, and a recharged downtown, the sunny city makes an ideal August getaway

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  • San Diego biking

    Beachside biking

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.

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