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Beach, Please! Let's Explore Southern California!

Driving through SoCal: from San Diego to Los Angeles


Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into San Diego, pick up rental car at the airport, and explore the San Diego Zoo before watching sunset at Sunset Cliffs Park and eating dinner in Old Town
- Day 2: Drive (or bus) to Coronado Island and then Balboa Park (or vice versa), before watching sunset from the Embarcadero/Waterfront and eating dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego
- Day 3: Drive from San Diego to L.A. (or any surrounding town where you're staying, e.g. Irvine), stopping at La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Crystal Cove along the way
- Day 4: Check out Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and the Beverly Hills area before seeing a comedy show in Hollywood
- Day 5: Universal Studios, or any other theme park that your heart desires!

Where to Stay
- San Diego: Comfort Inn Gaslamp Convention Center (excellent breakfast, terrible soundproofing)

Where to Eat
- Panevino's Italian Restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego
- Guelaguetza (Oaxaca, Mexican) Restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown

My Travel Diary
After taking a solo roadtrip to Northern Ontario in September, I was happy to take the passenger seat while my boyfriend drove us through California. For our trip, we decided to rent a car at the airport and start our journey at the nearby San Diego Zoo. We didn't anticipate spending the whole day there, but the tickets were so expensive ($56 USD each!) and there was so much to see that we wanted to make it worth our while. The tickets included bus tours and air gondola tours, so we took full advantage of that (as well as the free parking!). The zoo, like most I've been to, is doing a lot of work on conservation. As such, they even sell recycled elephant poo paper to promote different ways of reusing resources. Our guide made a crappy joke about how the paper isn't really a #1 gift, but it certainly could be #2. His pun inventory was almost as big as the zoo itself. We started in Africa Rocks so we could learn about lemurs (they're matriarchal, and existed even before apes!), and also watch the 12:30 Animal Encounters show wherein a huge reptile slowly made its way across the stage for a bite to eat. Strangely enough, we also started feeling hungry after that - not for insects, but for salad. We ate at the Huamei Cafe, which I would definitely not recommend. In fact, if you can bring your own lunch, you're probably better off. The food may not have been a highlight, but we did have a spectacular view of San Diego from the Skyfari aerial tram. In fact, my boyfriend liked it so much that we rode it twice (back to back). The tram drops you off near a beautiful bridge, which you can take to see the Lost Forest area. Unfortunately, we got lost (mainly thanks to poor signage); fortunately, we made our way out before the zoo closed at 6pm. Although, I'm sure a slumber party there would have been wild...


Sunsets in San Diego are really beautiful, and they're that much better when you're sitting on the rocks at Sunset Cliffs National Park. It's always nice to sit peacefully and just appreciate the beauty around you. It's also nice to have a full belly. Suffice it to say, I kept my cool til the last glimmers of sunlight before announcing that I was desperate for dinner. There wasn't a lot of traffic, so our time between destinations was never more than 15-20 minutes all day long - even our final leg, from Sunset Cliffs to Old Town before returning to the Gaslamp Quarter. Old Town for dinner wasn't a bad idea, but our choice of restaurant was. We both had bland meals at Cafe Coyote, which had surprisingly good online reviews. I liked the atmosphere, but definitely wouldn't recommend the food. In fact, if I were to redo anything that day I would likely save Old Town for daylight so that we could explore the heritage sites within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and eat anywhere aside from Cafe Coyote.


For context, San Diego is considered the birthplace of modern-day California. Prior to the Spanish landing there in the 1500s, Indigenous peoples had already lived there for thousands of years. In fact, when the Spanish arrived there were five separate groups living in that area with a population of roughly 20 000 people. In 1769 the King of Spain ordered a permanent settlement of Europeans there, which became the first permanent European presence in the west coast of the U.S.A. In the 1800s the area known as California became part of Mexico, and in 1848 it became a territory of the U.S.A. Nowadays, it's still clearly a part of the U.S.A.; however, there are separatists who would rather it become independent. One of the most popular souvenirs you can buy in Old Town (or anywhere in SoCal, really) are items like mugs or t-shirts with a picture of a bear that say "California Republic". Apparently, it's a nod to the one month in the mid 1800s when California declared itself an independent nation. I'm no Nostradamus so I'm pretty unsure of what will happen even 20 years from now, but perhaps it will one day become independent again. Sadly, I can predict that terrible climate events won't relent though. In fact, we were in L.A. when wildfires began. It's scary to think about how many people, animals, and plants are affected by the ongoing damage we're doing to our environment. As a traveler, I'm well-aware that my flights and drives aren't helping matters. That's why I think it's really important to try to offset our footprints in other ways. When you're home, are you using public transit? Are you recycling goods? When you travel, are you staying at green facilities? Are you bringing reusable water bottles, etc.? There are loads of articles on sustainable travel, and even carbon offsetting, so I won't delve deeper; I just wanted to mention the topic because it's something all travelers should consider. We aren't ghosts: we leave cultural and environmental impacts wherever we go.


A much less harmful footprint was left while walking barefoot in the sand at Coronado Beach. The sand seems to stretch for miles, and it's a lot of fun strolling along the shoreline spotting the crabs scuttling by. It's even more fun to burst into the Little Mermaid song about Sebastian the "sweet, little succulent crab." I should clarify: what's fun for me, isn't necessarily fun for everyone around me. In any case, my boyfriend found a stray lei so that made his day. I also had to say that it seemed fitting in a way because we were going to Hawaii in a month and a day. Rhyme time over. That may also have been more fun for me than anyone around me. In any case, if you're heading to Coronado Beach you should check out Coronado Hotel which was built in 1888 and offers daily tours (for a fee). Be careful with the parking in that area: it's better to go early, and aim to park on side streets.


Our next (not-so-quick) stop was Balboa Park, which houses an Arts Village. The highlight was not the art, but rather a geology museum with an exhibit called "Paul's Glowing Balls". I have nothing but a glowing review for Paul's balls. In all honesty, if you want to really explore Balboa Park you'll need to set aside hours, if not days. The park is full of museums, exhibits, and gardens. The zoo is even housed within its bounds! As I'm more of a museum-buff than my boyfriend we had to compromise, so that he wouldn't be too bored and I wouldn't be too deprived. That meant that I had a fairly short visit to the San Diego History Museum and the Museum of Photographic Arts. If I had more time, I would have perused in more detail and also visited the Natural History Museum. It was a pleasant surprise that the museums' entry fees were actually by donation. I think it makes a lot of sense to open cultural sites up. I think it's phenomenal when a local museum (like the San Diego History Museum) actually educates its own inhabitants too. While I was exploring the exhibit on Japanese American Internment, I overheard two locals talking about how shocked they were that this had happened so close to home and that they had never learned about it in school. Dark chapters in history should never be erased, and it's important that museums can complement our other sources of education about these matters. At the time I went, I also visited their exhibit about LGBTQ+ history and rights in the region (and the broader U.S.A.). I learned that Massachusetts had legalized same sex marriage before California, and that California had actually legalized it briefly in 2008 before outlawing it again until 2013. I still can't believe how recently it was illegal there. In my mind, it should never have even been illegal in the first place.


Before watching sunset, we briefly stopped at another museum: the Maritime Museum. It has 7 ships, including the Star of India, the oldest active sailing ship in the world, and a Soviet-era submarine. Apparently the submarine had been purchased by a man in British Columbia after the fall of the USSR, but it made no money so he sold it down south. It was a pretty impressive feat of engineering, with a crew of 70 individuals. Even more astounding was the USS Midway Aircraft Museum Ship - it's gigantic. It dwarfs the "Unconditional Surrender" a.k.a. kissing statue, beside it. We found it frustrating trying to find parking near the Embarcadero/Waterfront area so by the time we were parked and ready to explore we had basically missed the sunset. We made up for it by eating our feelings in a delicious restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter: Panevino's Italian Restaurant. The food was superb, but the service was spectacular. My favourite part? Our waiter looked identical to Jon Hamm. I wasn't convinced that he wasn't Jon Hamm until I realized that his thick Italian accent and unique mannerisms were real, not just a clever act. Really, I was just trying to prepare for our drive to L.A. - celebrity central. I was practicing the sport of spotting the celebrity vs. the doppelganger. Round two was the next morning when we thought we saw Bill Nye cycling down the freeway. I guess we'll never know if the cyclist guy was actually the science guy.



To get from San Diego to L.A. I'd recommend alternating between highways 101 and 5 - take the scenic route, when possible. To start, La Jolla is an absolute must-see. The wild sea lions and seals will whet your appetite for more beach time, which is easy enough when the whole route is coastal. There were some small highway-side beaches along the way, and then we hit the big names like Laguna Beach. Suddenly it felt like we were truly in the O.C. - although I still didn't have the desire to get plastic surgery, and spend millions of dollars on crystal-studded dog collars. In fact, we even found the $15 parking for Crystal Cove steep since we wouldn't be staying long. It was a beautiful beach though, and as it's part of a conservation site they're doing a good job trying to maintain its cleanliness and biodiversity. It's funny to see how close this conservation site was to a shopping center. Then again, the whole coast is littered with shopping malls. We made a quick stop to one - aptly named Fashion Island - to purchase a gift from Nordstrom's. I name it to warn you: I've never seen such rude service in my life. We had to practically beg the woman working there to assist us. I started questioning whether she was practicing for an audition in The Exorcist as she kept huffing and puffing and rolling her eyes. I realized she was just condescending and rude when she finally graced us with the words: "This is good for Nordstrom Rack too." Beach, please. We were done with people and needed more beach so we grabbed some gross food from In-N-Out Burger and headed to Newport Beach for sunset. I may have casually thrown that in there, but truly I have no words for how disgusting I found the In-N-Out Burger to be; I'll stick with Five Guys for my burger chain fix, thank you very much.


As we were staying with family in Irvine, nothing was a quick trip. The traffic in L.A. was as bad as predicted, which meant that our early morning departure for more beach time was in vain. Yes, we made it to Huntington Beach, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica, but no, we did not keep our cool along the way. To make matters worse, parking can be a nightmare in certain parts of L.A. To be honest, I found most aspects of L.A. disappointing. Hollywood and Beverly Hills, in particular, just felt wrong - seeing such opulence and in-your-face wealth when California has such high rates of poverty and homelessness. I think it felt different than visiting castles in Ireland or Austria because I didn't see the same level of inequality there (although that's not to say that it doesn't exist). Every day of our trip we saw people sleeping on the streets, and tent cities taking over bridges. We saw the obvious faces of homelessness, but that doesn't even start to delve into how many thousands of people are probably among the hidden homeless population in California. These are people who may find a couch to sleep on from time to time, or a car where they can rest, but who don't have stable housing to meet their needs. It reminded me of British Columbia, Canada. I've read that homelessness is so high in both of these places because housing costs are exorbitant, and climate is mild (which is attractive if you'll be sleeping outdoors). As with sustainable travel, I'm not going to delve too deep into this topic, but it's important to note what you see and remember what you can do. If you can't give money or time, then try giving a smile. I briefly worked at a homeless shelter in Mexico, and I'll never forget the guys there telling me how dehumanizing it was to be on the street. The worst part often, for them, were the looks of disgust, and the abuse that they faced just for being homeless.


Suffice it to say, L.A. was not my favourite destination. Similarly, the comedy show we saw there was definitely not the best I've seen. The one exception was Bryan Callen - that man was hilarious. And, not to be too much of a Debbie Downer, but Universal Studios was also disappointing. I was actually surprised by how small the park was, given how high the price was ($315 CDN for two discounted tickets). We started off in Harry Potter World, which was definitely a highlight. I loved seeing the attention to detail in the village they had created! We then took our place in line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The lead-up to the ride was fun: listening to speeches by Dumbledore and watching paintings talk, but it soured fast. I get motion sick, but my boyfriend doesn't. So although he had taken the ride before, his encouraging advice about the ride being fine for someone like me was not the most accurate. As soon as we were strapped into our seats and jerked to the side, I knew it would be a bumpy ride. Before I could even share my displeasure with him, the ride broke. That's right: the ride stopped with us suspended in mid-air, tilted backwards staring straight at Aragog, the giant spider. To be clear, on top of having motion sickness, I have spider sickness, a.k.a. I am a huge arachnophobe. We were stuck for about 10 minutes, although it felt more like an eternity. Halfway through, they turned on the lights. The rest of the ride was experienced with the lights on, which probably lessened by motion sickness but definitely not my irritation. After that nightmare, I chose not to go on any other rides (mainly because my nausea and neck soreness didn't subside for days). I did manage to watch a special effects show, do the studio tour (incidentally, the man in front of me became motion sick and vomited off the bus), watch adorable animal actors, and see the greatest show of all: Waterworld. My boyfriend and I were both blown away by the pyrotechnics, and the extreme stunts. It was also made better by the fact that the actors hosted a meet-n-greet afterwards. We learned that many of them have reprising roles on TV shows, and yet somehow manage to slot this physically-demanding show into their busy schedules. I barely manage to cook and clean for myself, so I was impressed.




On the last night of our trip we stumbled upon the fabulous Guelaguetza restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown. I am not a huge fan of cooking (nor is my boyfriend), so it's no surprise that on our trips we tend to eat out. This can be hit or miss. The Cafe Coyote in San Diego was a miss, but Guelaguetza in L.A. was definitely a hit. They specialize in food from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, which I visited about 12 years ago now. To relive old memories, I ordered mole coloradito and tlayuda. The food was great, and the experience was enriched by the live cumbia music. Speaking of music, it turns out that the only actual celebrity sighting on this trip was on my flight back to Toronto where I shared the plane with the rappers from Migos. It just so happens that my boyfriend loves their music, unlike me, so it was bittersweet when I realized they were on my flight and not his. The best part of this celebrity sighting was that, in the most Canadian way possible, the other passengers were passive-aggressively complaining when they noticed these men boarding before even the first class passengers. So, once I boarded I asked the flight attendant whether those rappers were Migos. She came back to me about 10 minutes later and confirmed that they weren't Raptors (no kidding), but that one was married to Carly B (a.k.a. Cardi B): "whoever she may be". Overall, it was a fitting ending to a trip where fact and fiction weren't always so easy to disentangle.


Posted by madrugada 19:21 Archived in USA Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches food road_trip san_diego california zoo universal_studios venice_beach rollercoaster newport_beach harry_potter santa_monica coronado_beach fires socal l_a balboa_park

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