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San Diego - America's finest?

San Diego - America's finest? Why would anybody want to visit San Diego? Well, the locals will tell you this popular conference destination is America’s Finest City. Lesley Stones discovers there’s some substance to that bold claim.
The driver of the quaint old orange and green trolley bus is doing an excellent job of entertaining his passengers.
As we chug along he points out gaudy murals painted by Mexican immigrants on the once-bleak concrete pillars of a motorway bridge. Their graffiti has now sparked international art careers for some of the perpetrators, we learn.
The garrulous driver tells us San Diego’s largest industry is the military presence, beating biotechnology and tourism into second and third places. The last thing I hear is “hang on to your possessions” as he pulls onto a five-lane highway linking the mainland to tiny Coronado Island. I can still hear him talking, but the whoosh of the wind and flapping of the plastic windows flings his words away. I give up trying to lip-read and enjoy the great views of skyscrapers on one side and a vast, dour military harbour on the other.
This trolley bus isn’t the ancient bone-shaker it appears to be, but a feisty little racer cunningly disguised to appear almost as old as San Diego itself.
As we slow to the more sedentary pace of island life the driver’s words drift back into focus. He’s telling us how this scrap of land was a desert before its cash-flush owners laid a water pipe from the mainland. Now it’s a lush retreat of expensive old-style houses behind picket fences.
We stop to admire the Hotel Del Coronado where Marilyn Monroe filmed “Some Like It Hot.” The sultry tones of Marilyn Monroe ooze out over the speakers, and a passenger is awarded a souvenir penny for correctly naming the famous film. Yep, this is one kitsch tour, but I am loving it.
San Diego must be one of the nicest cities in the States. It is, in fact, self-proclaimed as “America’s Finest City.”
New York, San Francisco and everywhere in between might object to that, but based on its permanently sunny climate and modest rainfall it’s apparently an indisputable fact. I adopted the words as my catchphrase, and gushingly greeted every sight as “America’s finest.” I was initially taking the mickey, but after a few hours of intensive exploration I’m beginning to believe it.
This west coast city is no throbbing metropolis, but there’s plenty to do and a friendlier attitude than you find in some bigger cities.
The two-hour bus tour is a great way to orientate yourself as it covers the city centre and suburbia. The driver warns me this was the last run of the day, so if I hop off at any of the sights there won’t be another bus to collect me later. I sit on my hands to quell the urge to jump off and explore, and listen to stories of fires that destroyed Coronado’s wooden homes time and again, until the property developers finally got to grips with the concept of cement.
We snap pictures of the quaint old buildings, but he’s on a timetable and isn’t going to stop while somebody fiddles with their aperture. Back on the mainland we drive to Balboa Park, a sprawling oasis housing 17 or so museums in incongruously Hispanic-style buildings. They sprang up ahead of the 1915 and 1935 expositions and are a touch too flash for my liking. Definitely not America’s finest.
We drive through Little Italy, crammed with pizzerias and pavement cafes, then up to the old town where courtyards have been turned into a tacky-looking Mexican craft market. Some earlier travellers join the bus there, admiring each other’s newly acquired gaudy fabrics and bags of vicious chillies.
Then the driver’s words are drowned out again as an airplane flies so low above us I can practically watch the in-flight movie. The airport is almost part of the city centre, so there’s a height limit to the buildings around it. Yet it’s a bit disconcerting watching the underbelly of a plane just meters overhead.
We journey on, past the harbour where an aircraft carrier has been turned into the world’s largest floating naval museum. It’s walking distance from the city centre, and a few travellers jump off to sample San Diego’s finest seafood restaurants.
The next day I return to Balboa Park to view a collection of 20-odd houses from around the world run by the United Nations. Turns out it only opens on a Sunday, so to console myself I stroll to The Prado, one of the city’s finest restaurants.
San Diego is so close to Mexico that you can take a day trip to Tijuana, and Mexican influences over the food, art and language create a lovely cosmopolitan atmosphere. At The Prado I construct my own fish tacos by wrapping up vegetables I’ve never encountered before.
I’d started my whistle-stop sightseeing that morning at a Californian hippy meets Oriental guru Self-Realization Retreat, strolling around a Zen garden, a Koi pond and watching surfers practice in the ocean far below. A few years ago there was a temple on the cliff, apparently, but now there’s just a little less cliff. I cynically wonder why all this concentrated spiritual power couldn’t prevent that disastrous little landslide.
In the evening I end up wandering through the Gaslamp Quarter, a once-seedy district legendary for hookers and bar-room brawls. Now it’s been tarted up into a bohemian area of art and fashion boutiques, emporiums selling all sorts of eclectic items, and the oldest wooden house in San Diego.
Yet there’s still a Hooters Bar where rowdy revellers can ogle sexy waitresses wearing skimpy t-shirts and teeny-tiny shorts. Yep, I gawped at them too, but only because I was afraid they’d catch a cold from wearing so little. Good job this is indeed American’s finest city.