Many find it a chore, burying themselves in their phones in the back of the cab, but I love the transfer from the airport going downtown. The sense of anticipation, the first glance of a new destination. Of course, it helps when there’s a skyline to behold (that view across Manhattan never loses its appeal, does it). And there are few as beautiful as San Diego across the bay in the evening, from Harbour Drive looking across Waterfront Park and the historic Gaslamp quarter, the city lights rippling off the water like fairy lights.
But what I can see, the destination of most visitors, is not mine this time. Previous trips have taken me downtown, and to the trendy Bondi-like suburb of La Jolla, but this time I’m keen to stretch my wings, avoid the tourist spots, and get under its skin. I’ve got somewhere in mind that takes me to the real soul of the city.
I’m headed for North Park, one of the city’s trendier districts according to San Diegans, a place of inventive restaurants, beards and brewhouses. But if this suggests a hipster enclave, that would be selling it short. I couldn’t pass for a hipster if I tore my trousers and didn’t shave for a week.
North Park is, well, exactly that. North of the gargantuan Balboa Park, and below El Cajon boulevard, once the original route into the city, and sign-posted in vibrant neon, simply, as ‘The Boulevard’. And my first stop is, arguably, the cornerstone of the neighbourhood, The Lafayette Hotel.
Built in the style of a Palladian mansion, it opened in 1946 and immediately became a hub for Hollywood royalty. The first signature in the guest book is Bob Hope’s. John Wayne, Lana Turner and Frank Sinatra all frequented here. But, like any generational experience, its star began to wane, and the stars began to leave, seeking brighter firmaments. Now, recently re-opened following an extensive $31m renovation, the Lafayette hotel is, again, the talk of the town. Even my Uber driver was talking about it, “Do they still have the swimming pool?” he asked as we pull up.
Think Belle Epoque meets Hollywood heyday and you get the idea. You arrive, not in a lobby, but a Parisian lounge. I enquire at the coffee counter where to check in, “You can check in here,” I’m told. I move through the circular lobby bar with its glass atrium and statue of Atlas, past the Beginner’s Diner – a diner, inside, all shiny chrome and red leather – and through to the terrace where I’m met by the pool, framed by the cabanas’ balconies and retro sun umbrellas. This is California writ large.
And it’s absolutely fantastic. Within minutes, I’ve found my spiritual home. It feels like the whole place is shot in 8mm; in my head I’m walking around in a stuttering overexposed home movie, hanging out by the pool, in high-waisted shorts with a Beach Boys soundtrack. Turns out it’s unique, too. Planning regulations restrict the size (and depth) of pools in the city, but the Lafayette’s is preserved as part of the city’s heritage. But that’s not the unique part; it was designed by Olympian and the original Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, who also gave lessons to guests.
The new look has also resulted in a number of touches that build on its legacy. Recruiting hundreds of artists and craftsmen, the hotel has been reimagined back to its heyday – and then some. Picture a lot of elaborate wallpaper, Victoriana and checkerboard and animal hide motifs. And pink. Plenty of pink.
Amid this aesthetic there are some quirky touches in the room; have you ever seen a hand-painted toilet, inside and out? There features objets d’art and quirky furniture, embroidered linen, personalised letterhead on the desk, and a mini bar that is, quite simply, a bar in its own right. A mahogany drinks cabinet that has its own barback with an array of spirits, and minis cleverly arrange with cocktail recipe cards, and all the tools to mix your own. The Lafayette, truly, is not just a hotel, it’s an experience.
If I could, I’d happily play at the LaFayette all day, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore. And since I’m in North Park, I was curious to see more of the park itself. Balboa Park carves a huge verdant square in the middle of the city; indeed, at 1200 acres, it’s so vast, within minutes you feel like you’re in the countryside. To give a sense of perspective, as I walked down Park Boulevard, Florida Drive, cutting through the centre, looks like a distant freeway in the valley below.
It’s awash with museums, botanical gardens of every nature, the San Diego Zoo, amphitheatres and sports venues, much of it centred around the main thoroughfare and its Spanish colonial revival architecture. I’d need days here to properly explore, so I content myself taking in what I can on the Prado and wandering back through the Spanish artist village.
North Park holds claim to being “the best beer neighborhood in the nation,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. Numerous craft breweries huddle around its hub, the intersection of University Avenue and 30th Street, making bar-hopping an evening pastime, not to mention craft cocktails, with bars like Seven Grand and 619 Spirits, many with a warehouse-like industrial schtick.
When it comes to eating out, North Park has its fair share of offerings. Shank & Bone blows London pho bars out of the water, and a there’s a hearty California take on French cuisine at The Smoking Goat. But, of course, if there’s one thing you’re going to eat well in San Diego, it’s Mexican food. And for that, I head back to my homestead.
Quixote is one of the new additions to the Lafayette, located in the cellar, complete with low-lit Gothic interior; all stained glass, overflowing candles and ornate lamps, as if to emulate that monastic quality to the colonial revival architecture I encountered in the park. Not simply generic offerings you’d find in major cities, the Mexican restaurants in San Diego cater for regional variations. Quixote focuses on Oaxaca; it’s a departure from the heavy rice and cheese-laden offerings so often associated with Mexican food. Jacob, my waiter, proves very informative. Somewhat unusually, he advises me to pass on the guacamole, “it will change your palette for the dishes” – you’ve got to love an honest waiter.
Something catches my eye in the menu, moles. Again, Jacob weighs in. Who knew there were 127 regional variations? In an effort to try the range, I opt for duck carnitas and the lamb belly, with a light ceviche to start. The thick black unctuous concoction I was familiar with has been switched out with a range as broad as wine varietals; from rich chocolatey mole with the duck, cut by a pickled red onion, to a lighter, herbal version and a piquant tomato mole with the lamb. Presented with grilled cactus and pickles for the option to make tacos, and a minty Neta Mezcal cuts across, honestly, were it not for the resonance of American voices, I could be in a pueblo outside Tijuana just across the border.
With a morning remaining, I make for one last stop en route to the airport; and something I’ve been meaning to do since my first visit. The USS Midway is an absolutely massive aircraft carrier serving the US Navy from the 1950s until it was decommissioned after the first Gulf War, parked now as a permanent museum on the waterfront. But, more than a museum, it’s a taste of Top Gun.
A few corny mannequins aside, its kept pretty much as it came off its last tour, the fixtures and fittings are as they were and given tangible life by the insights of the ex-servicemen who serve as guides. From the flight deck, amid the various aircraft on display, I glance back across to the city, and consider what might next lie in store.
Like New York, San Diego is fast becoming a favourite, a place I like to return to and really get to know. There’s something comforting about getting familiar with a place that’s not your home town, you begin to feel a sense of place, that sense of familiarity, and it’s hugely rewarding.
And I’ve already got my eye on my next point of discovery…
Rooms at The Lafayette start from $201 per night, off-peak. For more information, including details of dining options, please visit www.lafayettehotelsd.com.
For more information about San Diego, including details of North Park, and recommendations for what to see and do, visit www.sandiego.org.