The huge, silver sheathed, double decker Surfliner train lurched out of LA’s Union Station with a deceptively gentle shudder. Sprawled in a huge, business class seat on the upper deck, I savoured the space and comfort, and pondered the advantages of paying a little extra for the upgrade.
The scenery wasn’t one of them. At least not for the first hour. The train rumbled ominously through a vast hinterland of scrub, burnt out cars, ragged, random graffiti and urban decay. Huge chimneys reared against the sky, blighting the sunny January day with belching clouds of smoke that clawed at the heavens like poisonous, grubby fingers.
And then, it changed. As completely and dramatically as if someone had switched channels without me seeing it. Suddenly, there were long, rolling swathes of sand drummed by the steely blue rollers of the Pacific. Spanish style towns; villages and haciendas wreathed in swathes of gorgeous, vibrant hibiscus. Date palms and small knots of tiny people, draped across the promenades and walkways as the Surfliner rolled south.
There was no finer time or place to enjoy the complimentary mini bottle of Sutter Creek Zinfandel that comes with being in business class. It somehow never tastes better than in California. There was also free coffee, tea and pastries laid out at the end of the coach.
Three hours on a train have never passed so pleasurably, or seemingly so quickly. But journey’s end found me breaking into an unstoppable grin, as the Surfliner shuddered to a halt at Santa Fe station, in downtown San Diego.
San Diego flaunts around seventy miles of sun kissed beaches, all of them garnished with the best, year round temperatures anywhere on the mainland USA. Situated just eight miles from the Mexican border at infamous Tijuana, it is also the southernmost city on the continent. Yet these are just a few of San Diego’s prime bragging points.
The city is very Spanish accented, open and lush. Balboa Park alone can occupy you for a full day. Here you’ll find a dazzling, ornately sculpted array of incredible, colonial style buildings, churches and museums. There are vast, lush botanical gardens almost awash with flora, fauna and cacti or every kind, colour and texture imaginable. Birds of every species, size and colour screech and caw in the mid day sun.The whole place is a magnificent, sublimely mellow, audio visual assault on the senses.
But the city is far more than just it’s gorgeous green lung. The Gaslight District has a whole series of restored blocks of Victorian style architecture, gentrified and converted into shops, restaurants and some fabulous sidewalk bars and cafes, in an area easily reached on foot from both the railway station and Balboa Park. It’s a cool, mellow place to chill out and make the fun, dreamy transition from late afternoon to early evening. I cannot think of anything similar anywhere in the continental USA. It has a magical, unique vibe all it’s own.
I fell in love with ‘PB’ at first sight. It seems to go on forever, curving north and south in what could be called a kind of slow, dreamy smile. Surfers breasted the surging, gunmetal tinted rollers, their outlines black against a slowly reddening sky. The sand itself, brushed by the same gently falling sun, had a kind of sharp caramel hue. Lovers walked their dogs along it as the greedy sea lunged towards their feet. From somewhere behind me, a busker was rasping out old Creedence Clearwater Revival stuff for all he was worth.
I made my way to Lahaina, grabbed a Longboard beer (another recommendation from a friendly local), and drank in a fabulous, slowly fading sunset as if it were the finest wine. It unfolded like a series of stunning drum rolls before finally giving up the ghost, and sagging into the waiting arms of the Pacific.
These are just a few snapshots of a city that I have come to love very much. San Diego is hugely under rated, yet it has wonderful people, fabulous architecture and a simple, friendly feel good factor that elevates it way above many far more pretentious places.