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snowbird destinations

The Snowbird Destinations series features six U.S. cities that Canadian retirees might enjoy as a winter retreat, whether travelling for a week or an entire season. Following our series preview, the first stops were Taos, N.M.  and Key West, Fla. Stories on the other destinations will follow in the coming weeks.

Not many North American cities can claim year-round perfect weather. Otherwise pleasant climates are blemished by high humidity, sweltering summers or bone-chilling winters. Then there’s San Diego. This Southern California city can legitimately lay claim to that near-perfect weather title: San Diego boasts 300 days of sun a year, low humidity and temperatures that rarely dip below 18 or above 28.

San Diego’s marvellous weather is a definite draw for Canadian snowbirds looking for a respite from the wintertime blues. But whether they’re sojourning for a week or exploring the city for a month or two, visitors soon discover that the “birthplace of California” has much more to offer beyond ample sunshine and clear blue skies.

In San Diego, history has a beating heart. Though the city has its share of the new – ultramodern high-rises and boutique hotels – the best of San Diego is in the places that are most deeply steeped in the city’s fascinating history. From the sun-kissed elegance of a Victorian beach resort to the nooks and crannies of a 1945 aircraft carrier and the mariachis and margaritas of the Old Town, San Diego offers a vacation destination that will stimulate your mind while it warms your cold Canadian toes.

(Hotel del Coronado)

When it comes to accommodation for shorter stays, you can do no better than the famous Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay, easily accessible from the city centre by the Coronado Bridge. First opened in 1888, the iconic white-and-red buildings of The Del form one of the last wooden beach resorts left in the United States, a bastion of old-school luxury located on a white-sand private beach dotted with palm trees. (Beautiful beaches are plentiful in San Diego and area, with many of the best located on Coronado.)

The resort has played host to presidents and movie stars over the years – it even served as the set for comedy classic Some Like It Hot – and although it’s gone through several renovations and upgrades, the vibe is still wonderfully vintage. The lobby is richly decorated, with high ceilings, dark wood panelling, a massive, glowing chandelier and a filigreed brass cage elevator run by an attendant. Should you choose not to leave the grounds, The Del is like a mini-village, with several restaurants, a spa and more than a dozen shops on the lower levels. You can sip cocktails at the beachside bar while gazing into a tabletop of flaming glass, or take a stroll along the ocean at sunset. You might be able to spot the twinkling lights of U.S. Navy SEALs doing training exercises in the distance.

If you find The Del a little above your budget, across the street is the elegant, more affordable Glorietta Bay Inn. It’s also a heritage building, originally the home of entrepreneur John D. Spreckels, one of San Diego’s founding fathers. The 1908 mansion retains many period details, such as its grand marble staircase, copper-clad glass doors, original lighting fixtures and old photos of the Spreckels family. If you look closely at the original plaster cherubs in the music room’s ornate corners, they all have different faces, representing each of the Spreckels grandchildren.

(Shelley White)

San Diego is a Navy town, and you can subtly feel that influence everywhere you go. On the way to Cabrillo National Monument in the city’s Point Loma district, you pass by two major Navy bases and a national cemetery, lined with row upon row of pristine, white military gravestones. At the monument site, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo – the first European to set foot on North America’s West Coast in 1542 – is canonized in a huge white statue overlooking the water. It’s a beautiful location, offering up stunning views of Coronado and the San Diego harbour, but the nearby interpretive centre does dial down the glory by noting how the arrival of the Spanish decimated the area’s native people through disease and violence.

Many of San Diego’s most interesting attractions are on the water, including the Maritime Museum, where you can check out historic vessels such as the iron-hulled 1863 Star of India or the HMS Surprise – a replica 19th century tall ship (built in Lunenberg, N.S.), that has been used in movies such as Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean. But whether you are a military history enthusiast or not, a visit to the USS Midway in the bay is not to be missed.

This circa-1945 aircraft carrier is more than three football fields long, and so massive that it’s easy to forget you are actually on the water. While exploring the vessel, take advantage of the great audio tour, which gives you in-depth info about the aircraft on board and the labyrinth of rooms below deck. (Costumed mannequins are cleverly – sometimes eerily – placed throughout to give you a snapshot of what life would have been below deck: in the galley, the engine room, “officer’s country,” sick bay and more.) Just don’t forget to take off your headphones now and again to chat with the many yellow-capped tour staff members throughout the vessel. Most are Navy veterans who are happy to share their own wartime experiences. For those looking for a jolt, the Midway also has simulators so you can get a feeling of what it might be like to fly in a military plane.

The USS Midway. (Shelley White)

Just down the road on North Harbour Drive is Anthony’s Fish Grotto, a choice spot for seafood lovers craving lunch. First opened in 1946, this restaurant offers a lovely view of the water, plus all the fish, shrimp, scallops and lobster you could ask for. Try the succulent Dungeness crab or the salmon Reuben (which is odd, but delicious), capped off with Anthony’s phenomenal house-made chocolate mousse.

Another “must” spot for tourists is San Diego’s Old Town, the site of the first Spanish settlement in California. It’s a mix of historic and reconstructed buildings that house exhibits about the state’s earliest settlers and businesses (including 1857’s notoriously haunted Whaley House). The area is an interesting amalgamation of San Diego’s cultural influences – European, Mexican and Native American – with shopping and restaurants reflecting each of those influences. Casa Guadalajara is colourful and loud, with tasty Mexican dishes and mariachi bands. Next door at the Bazaar Del Mundo, you’ll find a carefully curated shop filled with vividly coloured, glassware, pottery and paper flowers made on-site by friendly artisans. In the Old Town’s many small shops, you’ll find elegant vintage clothing and Native American jewellery, plus a “jerky and root beer” joint where you can chug down a fizzy root beer float.

If you have more time to experience San Diego, two of the most interesting neighbourhoods to explore are Little Italy and Gastown. Little Italy is the hip part of town – a cool mix of old-school Italian joints and juice bars, with lots of sidewalk patios for dining and people-watching. Restaurants range from primo Italian food at places such as Bencotto Italian Kitchen and Davanti Enoteca to grass-fed burgers and romaine-kale Caesar salads at trendy Burger Lounge. Every Saturday, there’s a fabulous farmer’s market at the intersection of India and Columbia streets where you can buy fresh produce, artisanal food products, unique clothing and jewellery.

Farmers' market, Little Italy (Annie Pearson/San

When it comes to accommodation, in Little Italy you’ll find everything from bed and breakfasts for quickie stays to apartments and condos that offer longer-term options. La Pensione is a sleek boutique hotel in the heart of Little Italy with a charming inner courtyard and a cute resident dog named Penny – not the right choice for anyone seeking peace and quiet but definitely well-located to explore.

The centrally located Gaslamp Quarter is perhaps San Diego’s most popular shopping and restaurant zone, a lively part of the city featuring beautifully restored Victorian buildings mixed with towering skyscrapers. There’s an outdoor mall, Horton Plaza, filled with all the major U.S. retailers, but you’ll find plenty of interesting shops and restos simply by strolling the Gaslamp’s sidewalks. (Be prepared for the crowds on weekends though.)

You’ll find all the big hotels here – Westin, Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham – but for a truly memorable stay, book a few nights in a legacy suite at the U.S. Grant, a beautifully restored 1910 luxury hotel. Trendy restaurants include BiCE for Italian and Searsucker for creative American fare (think elevated meatloaf and duck fat fries). But take note: When it comes to nighttime entertainment, the Gaslamp district is the go-to spot to revel into the night, so after dark, things can get a little wild.

For an evening out that’s a bit more low-key, Croce’s Park West is well worth the drive to the affluent Banker’s Hill district. This stylish resto presents live music most nights, mostly folk and jazz. (We were lucky enough to catch impeccable Latin jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos one Saturday evening.) Croce’s has a retro vibe, with comfy banquette seating in red velvet, brocade armchairs and portraits of jazz greats on the walls. The owners, dynamic duo Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, have taken great pains to create a live music mecca with acoustic baffling and cork floors, resulting in top-notch sound.

Just remember that unlike most big cities on the East Coast, you won’t find taxis roaming the streets in San Diego. Be sure to call a cab well before you need it, or rent a car and take advantage of the valet service available at most establishments.

Lastly, Balboa Park makes for another nice day trip. It’s the home of the famous San Diego Zoo, plus more than a dozen fine museums, from fine art to anthropology to air and space. There is a convenient free trolley to shuttle you between each building. Break up your day with a stroll through the park, and finish up with a chic dinner at The Prado restaurant – vibrant decor, inventive fare and a killer “tres leches” cake for dessert.

Shelley White was a guest of San Diego Tourism. It did review or endorse this article before publication.