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Many sides of San Diego

California city much more than SeaWorld and the zoo

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Relaxing by the museums of Balboa Park.

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Relaxing by the museums of Balboa Park.

Imagine two weeks in San Diego without visiting the zoo or SeaWorld, the city's best-known attractions. No problem -- two weeks just scratches the surface of this weather-perfect, culturally rich city. Here are some highlights of a recent two-week stay:

North Park

FORBES ranks North Park as one of America's top hipster neighbourhoods. The designation is based on criteria such as walkability, locally owned coffee shops, bars and restaurants and, of course, the percentage of artists among the population.

A good time to visit is on a Thursday, when a farmers market sets up in a large parking lot. It's mostly organic produce, but artisans also have tables and there's exotic fast food. University Avenue is North Park's lively spine and home to several vintage clothing shops. The side streets house a range of artist storefronts and offbeat stores.

Among the distinctive drinking spots is Splash, a wine bar where customers can press a button to sample (for between $1 and $6) one-ounce "splashes" from more than 60 different wine bottles.

We had dinner nearby at The Linkery, which features a daily selection of about a half-dozen sausages taken from its five-dozen repertoire, all made on site. For non-meat eaters, there are versions of San Diego's ubiquitous fish taco, local cheeses and french fries. To accompany your meal, try one of the dozens of local craft beers. (There's an annual beer festival in September that draws tourists from around the world.)

Whale Watching

YOU don't have to sail far out of San Diego Bay to spot a whale or two, or more. In fact, the city skyline was in easy view when we came across a couple of bobbing 20-metre fin whales, second largest behind the blue whale. Both the Birch Aquarium in nearby La Jolla and the city's Natural History Museum sponsor whale-watching boats with naturalists as spotters on the bridge.

Balboa Park

THIS 485.6-hectare park is home to the San Diego Zoo, an 18-hole golf course and vast gardens, along with more than 100 kilometres of bicycle and hiking trails. But you can spend several days here without doing any of that. In the park's centre are 15 museums and other related attractions, ranging from the Air and Space Centre to the WorldBeat Cultural Center of African-American art. Whatever your interests, there's a museum for you, including the world's largest model railway museum.

La Jolla

A suburb for the well-heeled, it is aptly named "jewel" in Spanish. Its beaches, one of which is also a seal and pelican sanctuary, are among the best in California. High-end boutiques and art galleries line Prospect Street, but an affordable meal can be had overlooking the sea on the outdoor deck of George's at the Cove, a double winner in San Diego Magazine's 2012 list of best restaurants: It won top prizes for view and seafood.

On the bluffs above the commercial area, we find Torrey Pines Gliderport for paragliders and hang gliders. First-timers flyers can, for $140, "rent" an instructor to cling to for up to 30 minutes as you float over town and ocean.

It's hard to imagine a more child-friendly place than the nearby Birch Aquarium. Volunteers eagerly engage young -- and older -- visitors to talk about the fish in the tanks and handle the starfish and other creatures in the aquarium's tide pools. Birch houses one of the world's largest arrays of sea horses, some 36 colourful species.

USS Midway

YOU have to run to keep up with 86-year-old Joe Neves, one of the dozens of volunteers -- all vets anxious to share a story -- that pop up everywhere on this floating museum's five decks. Neves enlisted in the navy's air unit at 17 to fight in the Second World War. A year later, he saw his first action aboard an aircraft carrier considerably smaller than the 300-metre long Midway, the world's largest when it entered the water just days after the war's end. Now, Neves dashes around the flight deck, describing the terror of being under fire, directing visitors to where the crew slept and ate, and pointing to a blow-up on a wall of him in uniform as a teen.

Coronado Island

MARILYN Monroe stayed here. So did U.S. presidents, other global leaders and the lovestruck Prince of Wales who abdicated the British throne to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. Turns out Simpson, then married to the San Diego naval base commander, the first of her three husbands, lived here during the prince's visit. No one knows if they met at the time, but they all lodged at the Hotel del Coronado, the location for Monroe's Some Like it Hot and the world's largest resort hotel when it opened in 1888. Now, as it celebrates its 125th anniversary, it remains a luxury hotel but with options for the less well-off.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

FOR the best view of the city skyline and the Pacific, visit this serene final resting place for more than 100,000 former military personnel and their families. High up on a promontory, the cemetery's rows upon rows of white marble headstones are perfectly aligned on slopes that lead toward the ocean on one side and San Diego Bay on the other.

The beaches

SAN Diego is ultimately defined by its beaches. The city boasts more than 150 kilometres of white sand, from La Jolla to Coronado Beach. In between, the sea is a magnet for surfers, parasailors and swimmers. The contiguous Mission and Pacific beaches are popular with both city youth and tourists. The pier at Pacific Beach supports some two dozen cottages that comprise a unique hotel above the crashing waves.

One can walk for hours on the boardwalk separating the beach and the hundreds of low-rise, rental units for short- and long-term visitors. The city's extensive network of bicycle paths also hugs these shores.

We began every morning with a bicycle ride and found new areas to explore every day. Later, we strolled along the beach as the sun set. Maybe on our next visit, we'll have time to visit SeaWorld and the zoo.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 E3

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