Talking Travel Rediscovering America Suzanne Wright Southern California on Foot

San Diego Downtown Skyline, Jim Blank


Southern California on Foot
by Suzanne Wright

I am contrary by nature. So, while in Southern California, which is the home of the original hotrod and has the nation’s most enduring car culture, I decided to buck tradition and visit two of the golden state’s most walkable cities, San Diego and Santa Monica.

And so I did so with a smile on my face and a pair of sturdy shoes on my feet.

“Walking is also an ambulation of mind.” — Gretel Ehrlich


The following courtesy of
the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau

A vintage carrousel

Art plus architecture

An art deco hotel

A street performer

The ferris wheel

The following courtesy of
the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau

San Diego Museum of Man, Jeff Greenberg

Gaslamp Quarter, Brett Shoaf

Hotel del Coronado. Jim Blank

Mingei International Museum,
Balboa Park, Bob Yarbrough


Santa Monica on Foot

When I arrived in Los Angeles, Avis gave me a lemon yellow car to drive, perfect for finding in a crowded parking lot. However, I couldn’t wait to park it. What I really wanted to do was see Southern California; pedestrian-friendly, progressive Santa Monica to be exact — but on foot. Therefore I spent three days exploring this fun city, and getting a perspective quite different from the one you get from behind a steering wheel.

I alternated my time between two sister hotels: Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar, located next door to each other on the splendid Pacific Ocean. Both are Leading Hotels of the World members, and, like siblings, sport similarities (great service, posh rooms), as well as differences.

Cape Cod-style Shutters is favored by celebrities and is cheekier; the door tag has an option, “Sssh…I am becoming one with my minibar.” On the nightstand, was a witty reference to the beach: fresh strawberries set on brown sugar on a silver plate; there was also a rubber whale perched on the bathtub. As I leafed through the catalog of Shutters “beach style living” items, I savored tangy lemon ricotta pancakes. A fire crackled in the lobby fireplace each night.

Casa del Mar is more European in feeling owing to its 1926 Mediterranean architecture and its more continental clientele. The grand entry staircase leads to a sweeping lobby that morphs into a splendid, oceanfront bar and dining room, all extremely popular during Fourth of July festivities. My high-floor room had a similarly spectacular view of the expanse of wide beach below and the same layout as Shutters — which is to say, large and exceedingly comfortable. Casa del Mar is a bit more proper, but it is not without its own clever touches: the mini bar in the bathroom featured Zen cards and Murad face products, which are also used in the spa. Because of high winds I had to reschedule my deep-tissue massage from a poolside cabana to a room indoors. No matter, Gigi was great.

Walk out the door of either hotel and in five minutes you’re at the Pier, which dates back to 1912. Once rundown, it has been lovingly restored into a wholesome, beachfront arcade with a quarter-mile jetty extending 1,600 feet into the ocean. There you find an aquarium, lavish carousel, skeeball, a five-story roller coaster and a solar-powered Ferris wheel, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, including the brave beachcombers who are shivering in the waning late afternoon sun, as the gusts kick up. Did I say it was July?

Another 10 minutes brings you to the Third Street Promenade, a collection of shops (mostly of the chain variety), theaters (I counted three) and restaurants. The whole area is restricted to walkers only — no cars allowed. Let’s here it for foot power! I enjoyed the street performers (musicians mostly, but the occasional break dancer and mime), the vendor who blew bubbles as tourists walked by (was that exceedingly slim tall blond woman a movie star?) and the whiff of marijuana on one corner.

To give my feet a rest, I hopped the Tides Shuttle and headed over to historic Main Street for a mere twenty five cents. On Main Street, I shopped with mostly locals, bought a cute pair of red Brazilian surf sandals and ate at Urth Caffe, which makes a memorable sour cherry pie. The (same) effusive bus driver says “welcome back” when I board to return to the hotel. I’m a regular after a day.

Everywhere you look in Santa Monica, females of all ages are poured into their jeans, spilling out of their tops and teetering on their stilettos. (How do these hard bodies stay so hard with donut shops on seemingly every corner in Southern California?)

I hoof it over in flat sandals to the Border Grill, rewarding myself with a margarita made with fresh lime that gets my salivary glands going. The tuna ceviche is a tumble of fresh textures and flavors including chilies, ginger, lime and onions. The green corn tamales are agreeably sweet, the plantain empanadas are smoky, the chicken panuchos a succession of layered contrasts. The flourless chocolate cake with sour cream topping is worth the calories, denim be damned. I stroll down the street (it’s after 10 p.m.) but the place is humming with activity. Although I am sated, I wander into Leonidas chocolates for the frothy pineapple creams.

I wish we all could be California girls.

If You Go

While most of the Los Angeles area requires a vehicle, concentrated, seaside Santa Monica doesn’t. Log onto or call 800-544-5319 for a vacation planner. Other than the June gloom (a local term for the fog and smog that mar views in early summer), the weather is great year round.

San Diego on Foot

I hear him before I see him: “Save yourself a foot massage later!” I get a glimpse of the fellow who has shouted out this warning: a long-haired, smiling blonde man in his 40s. He’s referring to my hurried gait in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. Seems I’m hoofing it a little too fast in this laid-back city.

Some would say you can’t see the nation’s seventh largest city without a car. But, with a little ingenuity and a great public transportation system, I can take in quite a lot of it without wheels, thank you very much.

It helps that I’ve checked into the Gaslamp Hilton, since the San Diego trolley and the Coaster share tracks behind the hotel. The historic Gaslamp Quarter is the city’s biggest dining and nightlife destination, the restored center of downtown with numerous Victorian era buildings. Once the red-light district known as Stingaree, where Wyatt Earp once ran three gambling halls, it spreads over 16 blocks.

Banish all thoughts you have of the stodgy chain—this is not your typical business hotel. Upgrade to a room in The Enclave, which has its own separate entrance and elevator. More a city apartment than a hotel room, lots of sunny light courtesy of the floor-to-ceiling windows drenches the bedroom and sitting area. The bed is fluffed with a down comforter and pillows and the marble bathroom is suitably luxe. The public spaces, including the bar area, are like a hipster’s living room and at night there’s a fire pit where you can lounge with a cocktail. A bench at the front entrance reads: Sit/Sleep/Heal.

Founded by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, San Diego, the birthplace of California, has the best weather in the nation, hands-down — a remarkable 71 degrees year round. The vibrant downtown is in full resurgence, yet for all its dynamism, there’s a certain warmth the streets emanate, among both residents and visitors, that other California pedestrian-friendly cities lack.

The first thing I do is head down to the waterfront, an easy 15-minute walk under a remarkably blue, smog-free sky. I visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a collection of historic ships you can walk aboard and explore. It’s hard to say which is more impressive: the 1863 Star of India, the world’s oldest active tall ship or the replica of the 18th century Navy frigate, the H.M.S Surprise that had a starring role in the movie Master & Commander. Pedicabs, pedaled by thick-calfed men and women, ply the sidewalks in front of the water, so I hail one for the ride back to the hotel.

I’ve been told that Croce’s, run by Ingrid, the wife of late singer Jim Croce, is the heart of the Gaslamp, so I am having dinner at an outdoor table where I can people watch. Open since 1973, the restaurant is really an entertainment emporium, with live jazz and R&B nightly. The cuisine is eclectic and hearty: red pear salad with bleu cheese and grilled pork chop with a rich brandied cherry demi-glace. Afterwards a friend takes me to a secret spot that even some locals don’t know about: the roof of the St. James Hotel. We order drinks from the mahogany bar downstairs (which once belonged to Joan Crawford) and carry them up to a panoramic view of the twinkling night city. I can see and hear sounds from the impressive new Padres baseball stadium, PETCO Park.

It’s been years since I have been here, and on my last visit I stayed in posh La Jolla. To reacquaint myself with the area, I take a Historic Tours of America city excursion, which is how I plan to see some of the more far-flung city destinations for the bargain price of $30 (less than a daily car rental). Curly, the driver, hands me a day planner which lists the stops I can get off at, including Old Town, Balboa Park and Coronado Island. The open-car trolley features his good-humored live narration. I smell coffees as we pass a factory of beans.

Often dubbed the “Smithsonian of the West,” Balboa Park features 15 museums (there are 90 city-wide). The country’s largest urban cultural park, it was the site of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition and covers 1,200 acres of garden and features, among other things, several Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, an award-winning theater and the world’s largest pipe organ. I decide to take in the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Mingei International Museum. My favorite was the Mingei, with two floors of changing Asian art exhibitions and a marvelous gift shop. The free red tram, had I decided to go, would deposit me at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Instead, I had a late lunch at The Prado, with its eye-popping décor (Frisbee-shaped blown glass caught in antler horns) and snappy food (a Pisco sour, the national drink of Chile and Peru and a chopped chicken salad with chicken, mango, cabbage and snow peas).

Perhaps the last bastion of urban redevelopment in the San Diego is the East Village, which is the next neighborhood over from the Gaslamp. The buzz has been positive about Café Chloe, a stylish European-style bistro run by a husband and wife and named after their daughter. There are no reservations, but I luck out and snag the sole two-top table on the très petit patio. I sip a viogonier (there are 25 wines by the glass) to the soothing sound of the gurgling fountain behind me. I browse the tiny retail area with candles, books and teas. The short menu features one of my favorite brasserie dishes, steak and frites, done to near perfection. Reluctant to trade the cool night air for crowded, noisy clubs, I stroll the Gaslamp, which has come alive after 9 p.m., .

On my final morning, before I take a $10 cab to the airport (which is so close to downtown I could almost walk to it), I walk over to Café 222. This quirky local joint has national chops: its pumpkin waffle has been featured in Gourmet and on The Food Network. I’ve brought two friends and we tuck into Joe’s special frittata with spinach, potatoes, peepers and peanut butter and banana stuffed French toast. With meals like this, it’s a good thing I’m walking.

If You Go

San Diego is a great destination any time of year.