San Diego Trip

27-31 January 2015

San Diego is one of my favorite cities in the United States. Although I've only been able to visit three times as of this writing, the laid-back attitude of the people and the gorgeous oceanside environment paired together with all of the amenities of a major modern city have made San Diego one of my favorite places to travel. I have to start by mentioning the weather in San Diego, which is nothing less than a delight. The local climate is characterized by warm, dry summers and mild winters, with temperatures rarely getting much above 75 degrees or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (a range of about 25 to 10 degrees Celsius). Add in the seaside breezes coming in off the ocean and the consistently sunny skies, and the locals are treated to something not far away from paradise. There's no bad time of the year to visit San Diego, and a multitude of attractions between the city's museums and historic buildings and its world-famous zoo to draw travelers there. By the way, did you know that San Diego is one of the ten largest cities in the USA? It was eighth-largest with 5 million people living in the greater metropolitan area at time of writing, and continuing to get larger still as one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

I was in San Diego on this occasion for a work trip. I had started a job working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (part of the US federal government) only four weeks earlier, and I was lucky enough to be sent off to a work conference with the American Medical Association almost immediately. The AMA hosts three of these conferences each year, and I've been to many more of them in the years since this initial trip. I had basically no idea what I was doing at the time and therefore largely observed and tried to learn as much as possible. The event was being held at the Westin San Diego, a hotel and conference center located in the middle of the downtown. It was a very nice, if slightly generic, place to be staying for the next few days. I had been spending my nights in youth hostels on my past trips and this was a huge upgrade over my own personal travels. I took these pictures at the Westin, including a look at the bland conference room where I spent most of my time on the trip.

These AMA conferences are work meetings in the true sense of the term, starting at 7:00 AM most days and running straight through with only a short break for lunch until 5:00 or 6:00 PM. The only time that I ever get for sightseeing on these trips is on the day of arrival, and I had specifically asked for an early flight to give myself as much time as possible on the day before the work conference started. Fortunately the Westin San Diego gave me a great starting point to walk around the downtown, and these pictures were taken as I headed towards the waterfront on Broadway Street. A number of the buildings here were historic in nature, such as the Santa Fe train depot (still in operation as a working building). Towering above these older buildings were the steel and glass structures of modern office buildings, which stretched off into the distance as far as I could see.

I was headed for the waterfront to view some of the ships on display there. San Diego is a major deepwater port city and includes the largest shipbuilding manufacturing center on the Pacific coast. It's also the home of the largest naval fleet in the world and central command for the United States Navy's Pacific fleet. Before coming across any modern ships, however, the first vessels that I saw were a series of older ships from the 19th and 20th centuries. There was an old steam-powered ferryboat named the Berkeley that had operated as part of the San Francisco ferry system until 1958. It was now a floating museum dedicated to local maritime history. There were other wooden ships that dated from an even earlier era, the HMS Surprise and the Star of India. The Star of India is the more famous of the two ships, a commercial ship launched in 1863 that circumnavigated the globe 21 times before it was finally retired following World War II. It's also now a history museum, albeit one that occasionally still sails on short voyages. Behind the wooden ships was what looked to be a Soviet submarine, although I couldn't find any more information on it. The underwater sub looked out of place docked next to these older, more elegant sailing vessels.

The first major attraction that I visited on the day was the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that has been turned into a museum. The Midway was commissioned in 1945 shortly following the end of World War II, and it took part in every American armed conflict that followed up through the first Gulf War, before finally being decomissioned from active service in 1992. My initial impression while walking up to the carrier was simply to be struck by its enormous size. The Midway stretches for 1000 feet (300 meters) in length from bow to stern, while standing roughly as tall as a ten story building. It dwarfed the cars parked in the lot next to it, making them look like a child's set of toys. This was the largest ship in the world when it was first built and held that record from 1945-1955; yes, this is one of the many modern ships to be larger than the famous Titanic. I purchased an entrance ticket and spent the next hour exploring the decks of the warship.

There was a large open space on the deck immediately below the top of the carrier; as a non-sailor, I'm afraid that I don't know the exact terminology to use for this place. This was where the planes would have been stored between flights when the carrier was on active duty, with the planes raised up to the top flight deck for the actual takeoff. The big open space had been converted over to museum usage, with various informational displays, a small stage for public speakers, and even a little cafeteria where visitors could purchase snacks. I picked up the audio tour and headed off to do some exploring. The first location of interest on the tour contained the anchor and chains for the carrier in the stern of the ship. They were predictably massive in size to hold the humongous carrier in place, and were operated by machine engine when the carrier was in use. These chains were much too heavy for the sailors to haul them around manually. They made for some pretty cool images.

Much of the space on the carrier was taken up with living quarters for the crew, and the tour guided visitors through a sample of these areas. The first two pictures were taken from an area where the enlisted men (i.e. the rank and file sailors) were quartered, and these bunks were spartan to say the least. Each sailor was entitled to only six cubic feet of space in what the informational signs described as a "coffin locker". There was basically enough room to sleep and keep a very small number of personal items, and that was it. This couldn't have been very pleasant for the enlisted men and women, especially if the Midway happened to be traveling through rough seas at the time. The third picture was taken from an area holding the officers quarters, and they were considerably nicer, with much more room to sleep and some actual storage space for personal belongings. I liked the display of the tiny little library, although that may or may not have actually held books when the ship was in service. A little over 4000 people were stationed on the carrier when it was on active duty, crammed into these quarters like sardines. I tried to capture the narrow hallways and low ceilings that characterized living spaces on the Midway. Space is always at a premium on any seagoing vessel, even one as large as this.

Other parts of the ship held some of its working functions. The room pictured at the top with the yellow seats was a briefing room where pilots were given their orders before launching on missions. Again, this was a real carrier that took part in a dozen different wars or peacekeeping missions, and some of the pilots stationed on the Midway didn't come back from those missions. In recognition of this, the insignia of all of the flight squadrons that had been stationed on the Midway are kept in a tribute on the wall. Elsewhere, visitors were also able to walk through the engine room and see some of the giant machinery used to power the ship and keep it moving. This was one of many places throughout the tour where former crew of the Midway were on hand to answer questions and explain more about the history of the ship. The engine room was also the source of the worst accident in the Midway's history, an explosion that killed three crew members in 1990 and led to a minor political incident at the time.

Finally, I finished up the tour by going up to the top flight deck itself. There were a number of retired planes on display here as well, and the deck therefore served as a bit of a flight museum of the four decades that the Midway was in service. There were examples here of everything from the old propellor-based planes of World War II to modern jet engine fighters to several different kinds of helicopter. The audio tour had information about how the ship's catapult helped to launch these planes into the air from the often-pitching deck of the carrier. It's still amazing to me that this sort of thing is possible at all, much less that people had figured out how to do it as far back as the 1930s when computers essentially didn't exist. The flight deck of the Midway also provided excellent views looking out at San Diego's sheltered harbor in one direction and the skyscrapers of the downtown in the other direction. The only disappointment was that the tour didn't grant access to the communications tower overlooking the flight deck, which would have been fun to see. Otherwise, it was an excellent museum and highly recommended for anyone visiting San Diego.

From the Midway, I continued walking south along the waterfront. This led me through an area known as Embarcadero Marine Park, a series of walking paths running through a bunch of small boutique stores and cafes. There weren't too many people around given that this was a Tuesday afternoon in late January, but the place would likely be bustling with shoppers on the weekends. My walk also took me past one of the many marinas in San Diego where there were hundreds of boats at rest, and the convention center on the south side of the downtown. San Diego has hosted a number of different events there over the years, most famously Comic-Con which is held on an annual basis, as well as the one-time event of the 1996 Republic National Convention. I'd have to say that Comic-Con was a lot more successful between those two.

Right next to the convention center was the home of San Diego's professional baseball team, the Padres. I crossed over the railroad tracks (taking a cool shot of the downtown through a fence in the process) and walked around the baseball stadium, Petco Park. The Padres opened this stadium in 2004 and it played host to the All Star Game in 2016. The most notable feature of Petco Park is located in the left field corner, where the historic Western Metal Supply Co. building was saved and incorporated into the design of the ballpark. It's a little tricky to see in my pictures because they were taken from the outfield, but part of the left field wall of the stadium is literally made up of an old brick building that the stadium was constructed around. This is an awesome local touch and it helps Petco Park to stand out from a bunch of other similar stadiums. With this being January on the calendar the Padres were not hosting any games, and I had to be content with seeing the stadium alone. It was configured for some kind of dirt bike event as far as I could tell, which looked really weird in a baseball stadium.

Petco Park is officially located on Tony Gwynn Drive and there's a statue of him outside the ballpark, so it should come as no great surprise to hear that Tony Gwynn is by far the most famous player in Padres history. Although Gwynn is one of the most beloved baseball players in recent history, his career (heavy on singles with few extra base hits and few walks) has not held up nearly as well to modern baseball analytics. This may be one of the reasons why the Padres have not seen much success as a team and have been a bit of a punching bag for their more successful rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. The two time that the Padres made the World Series, in 1984 and 1998, they were badly beaten by the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, although the 1998 Yankees were a historically dominant juggernaut that won 114 games and it wasn't really a surprise that they crushed the overmatched Padres. This is a franchise that has no rivalry at all with my Baltimore Orioles, and I'd love to see them go on a nice run and be competitive for a change.

After leaving Petco Park, I took a lengthy walk north about a dozen city blocks to Balboa Park. This is the big public park area for the city of San Diego, and it plays host to most of the city's museums as well as the famous San Diego Zoo. The light was already fading as evening descended, and there would be no time to visit the zoo on this trip. Instead, I walked past a number of the museums which were themselves shutting down for the night, such as the Air and Space Museum and the Hall of Champions Sports Museum. I wandered into an open space named Spreckles Organ and Pavilion, an outdoor theatre with an organ constructed for the 1915 California-Panama Exhibition. This early 20th century architecture was noticeably different from the Spanish Colonial style that was common elsewhere in San Diego, instead using the white marble and thin columns of Italian Renaissance design. While the outdoor theatre was deserted on this night, it's a place that plays host to various civic events in the summer months.

A continued walk through Balboa Park led me to the featured area in its center, the cluster of buildings known as the California Quadrangle. This was the center of the California-Panama Exhibition held in the early 20th century, and the buildings were afterwards turned into museums and art institutes for the city of San Diego. The Spanish Colonial style of architecture was on full display here, and the central Plaza de Panama where I snapped these pictures looked like it could have been lifted out of Mexico City. It was early evening by this point and strands of lights had been turned on throughout the park, lending a merry yellow glow to these images. It made me wish that I could come back here during the day and explore some of the museums, which ranged from the San Diego Museum of Art to the Museum of Man to multiple different historic theatres.

These pictures were taken as I approached the California Tower. This building greets visitors at the western entrance to the Plaza de Panama, and it was constructed at a somewhat later date from the oldest structures in 1946. The domed building next to it is not a church as it first appears, but rather the Museum of Man, a cultural anthropology museum that traces human civilization through the ages. Everything was shut up tight for the night, and I took a moment to appreciate the intricate sculptures that had gone into the exterior of the building. It was a beautiful sight lit up here against the growing darkness of evening.

There was only one problem: I had to get back to downtown San Diego once again, and that was a pretty good haul. I took this picture from the Cabrillo Bridge looking back towards the city center and it showed how far I still had to go. Now the obvious solution would be to hop on a ride-sharing application, except that this was early 2015 and those services were only just starting to come into general use. I didn't even think about it and spent the next hour walking back into San Diego proper once again. At least it was all downhill, as Balboa Park sits on elevated ground looking over the rest of San Diego.

I finished up the night by taking a few pictures of the district known as the Gaslamp Quarter. This is the area immediately to the south of the downtown, surrounding Petco Park and a short walk away from the hotel where I was staying. The Gaslamp Quarter is a historic landmark district full of preserved or restored buildings, one of those urban renewal projects from the 1980s and 1990s that saved a rundown portion of the city and repurposed it for new use. Today the Gaslamp Quarter is full of trendy stores and restaurants and it's one of the most desirable places to live in San Diego. The whole place was bursting with light on this evening, full of pedestrians still out and about on the streets. If I'd had more free time available on this work trip, and if I'd had some friends along with me, this is the place where I would have gone to get a good meal.

This first day in San Diego was the only time that I had available for sightseeing, and I only scratched the surface of what the city had to offer. I'd been hoping to catch a bus and visit some of the city's beaches in the evenings of the conference, only to find out that the American Medical Association work conferences never end early, and almost always run late. There would be no such opportunities on this trip. I would be back three years later in 2018 for the same work conference, at which time I visited the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park and had a chance to see giraffes and rhinos up close. This is a beautiful city with lots of stuff to see, and a great place to bring a family. Not to mention, you'll almost never have a bad weather day since the climate is so nice. I highly encourage anyone reading to visit.