Basking in the sun of San Diego’s southern point, Ben Stubbs begins to understand the magic of ‘America’s finest city’.
Down the Interstate 5 freeway from Los Angeles, the urban sprawl is unending. The beachside communities of Orange County are bustling and full of tourists. We descend on San Diego and drive as far south as we can along the peninsula beside the hooked Coronado Bridge to the beach community of Coronado, which is nestled between Point Loma and Mexico. Behind us are boutique beer bars, theatres, coffee houses and nail salons. Coronado is quaint and manicured, though this wasn’t always so.
In 1867, Alonzo Horton was a man of vision. Suffering with tuberculosis and seemingly on the way out, he wanted to find a place in the sun to live out his days. He’d heard about the potential of a place of Spanish missions to the south of his San Francisco home, called “San Diego”, so he took a ship down the Pacific Coast and when he spied the dusty, waterless plains covered in rabbits, a shallow harbour and a few decaying buildings he promptly fell in love and bought the surrounding 324 hectares for a total of $US265. Horton dredged the bay to allow ships to drop anchor and began to entice sailors and businessmen looking for opportunities to make a quick buck with the potential of the city on the border. Horton’s plan worked, and in 1885 a piano maker and a railroad promoter by the names of Babcock and Storey arrived and bought the Coronado Peninsula for $110,000, and soon after they began construction on the Hotel del Coronado.
This is where our San Diego history tour starts as we begin to understand the story of “America’s finest city”, as it is often called.
I am on the Coronado walking tour with local historian Nancy Cobb. We start in the grounds of the “Del”, as it is known here. It was built by 300 Chinese labourers, an architect from Indiana who’d never built a hotel, let alone a wooden Victorian beach resort with red turrets, and the two entrepreneurs Babcock and Storey, who were anticipating the rush from the railway that never came to town. The hotel was, at the time, the largest in the world, and the sprawling complex of 750 rooms covered more than three hectares.
We walk to the reading room of the Glorietta Bay Inn across the road. This grand old place of marble staircases and wooden floors was once the home of John D. Spreckels, the entrepreneur who is credited with much of San Diego’s success. He took over ownership of the “Del” in 1892.
From the Glorietta Bay Inn we walk through a stand of Norfolk pines, brought here by Kate Sessions, who was the horticulturist for the city. In the 19th century, San Diego was a barren desert so every tree, plant and blade of grass had to be imported. Sessions acquired specimens from sailors who had travelled around the world, including those who had been to Australia. We pass a spiked dragon tree, from the Canary Islands, which also featured in Marilyn Monroe’s film Some Like It Hot, which was shot around the Hotel Del in 1958.
Nancy takes us for a walk along Coronado Beach. This was named the best beach in the US in 2012. From the glinting sand we see Baja in Mexico to our south and the military bases of San Diego to the north. Our walk takes us past the enormous houses of the wealthy and to Star Circle, where Nancy takes us across the park to the edge of a modest yellow cottage. This was L. Frank Baum’s house while he was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s even suggested (by many locals, anyway) that his Emerald City was based on the manicured beauty of Coronado.
As darkness begins to fall, I head over the arched Coronado Bridge to downtown San Diego to continue my history tour. I’m spending an evening with So Diego Tours on its Brothels, Bites and Booze visit to the Gaslamp Quarter, the refurbished district that is full of restaurants, theatres, pubs and clubs. Once the potential of San Diego was realised as a port and later as the jumping-off point for Tijuana during Prohibition days, it became a centre for all things best kept under the table, at least according to our guide for the evening, Deborah Hayman.
“This used to be like modern Las Vegas. What happened in San Diego stayed in San Diego,” she says as we note the former spot for the “First and Last Chance Saloon”, now the Toscana restaurant. At its peak there were 120 brothels and 350 hookers working the streets of the Gaslamp, Deborah tells us. “We’re going to be spending lots of time on the corners of the Gaslamp Quarter tonight,” she says. “No relation to the old profession here, though.”
Back then, San Diego was known as a “stingray” town because a night out with the women of the red-light district would sting more than a stingray barb. We stop at 5th and J streets, at the Grand Pacific Inn and Suites. This has been here since 1880 and it was the first women’s health centre in San Diego.
Our first food stop is Bolillo Tortas. We share dishes of rice milk, stuffed jalapenos, corn on the cob and pinto bean soup to represent the Mexican history of the area.
Next is the Brooklyn Hotel, where famous lawman Wyatt Earp lived for seven years while he managed 21 gambling and dance halls in the city.
After the talk of wine and women it’s time to stop for a tipple of San Diego beer; the boutique-brewery industry has boomed here, and at Rock Bottom we’re given a five-beer taster. This is in homage to the craft-brewing industry, for which San Diego has been named the boutique-beer capital of the US.
Prohibition hit the city hard, and it allowed Tijuana to begin its relationship with San Diego as a place of excess. There are still many underground pubs here that are literally under the trapdoors of the Gaslamp Quarter as a tribute to the 1920s.
The re-imagining of the Gaslamp Quarter in the 1980s and ’90s was a huge success after it had become one of the more decrepit parts of the city. The streets are booming with Friday night revellers celebrating at some of the more than 200 restaurants, bars and clubs in the area. The police lights mix with the flashing neon of the strip. We walk between the people and bicycle taxis to Vin De Syrah and a late-night cabaret show, and it seems as if the night is just beginning in San Diego.
So what happened to Alonzo Horton’s dream? Well, there’s still no fresh water or railway, and they’re still dredging the bay – though if you ask the 3 million San Diegans who now call this “rabbit town” home, it seems Horton was certainly on to something.
Ben Stubbs travelled with assistance from visitcalifornia.com.au.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/travel/on-the-edge-of-a-dream-20130502-2iu9s.html#ixzz2SdWsqvqL