Trip Coach: June 10, 2008

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Ericka Chickowski, author of "Moon Handbooks San Diego," answered your questions about vacations in San Diego.

Ericka Chickowski: Hi folks. This is Ericka Chickowski, author of Moon San Diego and today's Trip Coach. I can't wait to answer your questions about San Diego, so let's get started!

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Logansport, Ind.: What is the temperature in San Diego in the first part of January?

Ericka Chickowski: According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January is usually San Diego's coldest month. But temperature is all relative and you are likely going to be in heaven coming from Logansport. The mean temperature here is 57.8 degrees, more than 30 degrees higher than Logansport's mean temperature that time of year. Best of all, the sun shines 72 percent of the time in January and there are often times where the thermometer brushes up into the 70s during the day.

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Onset, Mass.: We are meeting our son, a Marine who'll be on leave at the end of August in San Diego before shipping out to Iraq. What would be an inexpensive hotel with a good pool, hopefully close to the beach and some nightlife?

Thanks,
Liza

Ericka Chickowski: Hey, Liza. Glad to hear that you'll get some quality time with your son before he's deployed. I thank him and your entire family for his sacrifice!

I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but the Navy and the Marines run a number of nice lodges and inns in San Diego that are significantly cheaper than just about any hotel you'll find. It is one of the benefits of being Navy town. You just need to have your son book the room and have him present at check-in to qualify.

The trick is that you might have to compromise on one of your qualifications if you want to take advantage of this. On Coronado Island, the Navy Lodge North Island is right near the beach and within walking distance of Orange Avenue (including the Coronado Brewing company), but there is no pool. Up near Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, the Marines rent out some beach cottages plunked down right off the sand. There's no pool and it is little bit of a drive to Oceanside or San Clemente bars, but you will have a lot of privacy and you can't beat the beachside location. If you're dead-set on the pool, the Marines also run the Inn of the Corps Ward Lodging on Camp Pendleton. This does have a pool, but it isn't as close to the beach and you'll need to drive to get your groove on at night.

Finally, if you are a family of golfers don't forget to look up some of the military golf courses in town. San Diego is known to have some of the finest military links on the planet, so get out there and take advantage of them!

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Buffalo Grove, Ill.: Do I need a car if I am only visiting for about 3 days?

Ericka Chickowski: It depends on what you want to experience. If you want to see the best of San Diego in that short amount of time, then I would definitely recommend a car. If, however, you'd like to stick around one particular area for the entire trip, you might be able to get away without. This is especially true if you plan on staying downtown. From down there you can easily check out the Embarcadero, Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter by foot. You can also take a water taxi out to Coronado Island and walk to Orange Avenue from the ferry landing. Balboa Park is also close to the downtown hotels. It is a bit of a hike, but there are ample buses and taxis there if you get tired.

Similarly, if you plan to unroll a towel on the beach and stay out there the whole time, then just take a cab and rely on your own two feet or a rented beach cruiser. If you do stay in the beach areas without a car, try to stay right in Pacific Beach, La Jolla or Ocean Beach for maximum walkability. Some of the hotels in Mission Beach near Mission Bay are a bit out of the way for pedestrians.

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Libby, Mont.: We need a good kennel in the greater San Diego area for our 2 Siberians in November. Thanks in advance.

Ericka Chickowski: One of the most convenient and friendly kennels in town is in Pacific Beach. Called Camp Diego, this kennel only employs cages at night. During the day, staff supervises the dogs as they roam free and play in their indoor/outdoor facilities. I love the idea and my little Sandy seems to do well there when I go out of town.

Also, don't feel like you necessarily have to put them up overnight while you are in town. Many of San Diego's hotels are dog-friendly and you can always put them in doggie daycare at Camp Diego when you plan to go to attractions that don't allow pets. One of the coolest (albeit pricey) places is Hotel Solamar, which even takes big dogs like yours and will pet sit and walk your dog when you're away.

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Independence, Mo.: If you were to fly into San Diego a day or two early before a cruise, what would suggest as a place to stay? We were there last August and stayed at Hyatt Mission Bay, which was very nice, but you had to have a car to get around, as nothing was within walking distance. Thanks!

Ericka Chickowski: Right in Little Italy, La Pensione offers very affordable European-style digs central to all of downtown's activities. It is also very close to the trolley, which is great to get out to Mission Valley and down to the border. The only downside is the noise—if you are a light sleeper you might want to bring earplugs to drown out the trolley clatter.

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London, U.K.: I wish to visit San Diego and its zoo. Is it wheelchair accessible and are there wheelchair accessible hotels with adapted en suite bathrooms? —Stuart

Ericka Chickowski: Stuart, you are in luck, because San Diego is an extremely accessible town. Almost all of the major hotels have at least one adapted room and all of the major attractions will be able to accommodate you. This includes the Zoo and SeaWorld.

The city has also made significant efforts to make the beach accessible. Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and La Jolla shores all have motorized sand chairs available for free use—just go to the San Diego lifeguard information website and use the contact information to call in advance for reservations.

If you are adventurous, the Mission Bay Aquatic Center features accessible watersports. They've got adapted water skiing and sailing, so you'll have plenty of opportunity to have fun in the water.

For more information on San Diego accessibility, check out Accessible San Diego, which is one of the city's oldest travel service organizations and puts out an annual Accessible Travel Guide to the city.

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Sharpsville, Pa.: My wife and three daughters (ages 10, 14, and 16) are planning a post-cruise stay in San Diego in two weeks. One of the two days we'll be there we're planning on spending at Sea World, but we're wide open for the second day. We'll have a rental car so we can get around. We've been to the Zoo before and don't want to return this time; we need some ideas to end our vacation on a high note...Help!

Ericka Chickowski: If you want to win the coolest dad and husband of the year award, consider getting your girls set up with a morning surf lesson from Surf Diva in La Jolla. This is a fantastic surf program, taught primarily by women instructors, that will certainly end your trip with a bang. Once the lessons are over, you can hang on to the surfboards and wetsuits with a discounted rental rate for a little extra time in the water. Once you guys have worked up an appetite, there are lots of great places to eat right in that La Jolla Shores area or you can check out the local market for a picnic on the beach or the grassy area that abuts the beach.

If you aren't totally pooped by then, clean yourselves up and then motor on down to Balboa Park for a quiet afternoon wandering the gardens and museums there. I guarantee it will be a day that you won't forget!

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Weston, Conn.: Several years ago, we were on a fantastic trip to La Jolla at the Colonial Hotel where we joined the chef on a garden shopping tour and then came back to the kitchen and helped prepare the food. A fabulous dinner paired with wonderful wines was included. Do you know of any similar delights in the San Diego area?

Ericka Chickowski: How about a Thursday night dinner at A.R Valentin in the The Lodge at Torrey Pines? Once a week this fantastic restaurant seats what it calls "The Artisans Table." This culinary event places you with some like-minded strangers for a family-style meal featuring the freshest produce and specialty items from local farms. Dishes are introduced by the chef in a relaxed setting and the goal is to make friends with him and your table mates over the cornucopia of fine food served on the platters before you.

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Des Moines, Iowa: We are looking for a San Diego reasonably priced hotel (hopefully offering winter rates) in early November on or near the water. Prefer breakfast included, must be clean with staff that are responsive to customer needs. Could you recommend a few?

Ericka Chickowski: You should be able to strike a pretty good deal in November, as long as it isn't too close to the Thanksgiving holiday. How about Inn by the Sea in La Jolla? Some of the rooms have ocean views, it serves up a continental breakfast and is nice and clean. Some other alternatives include Beach Haven Inn or Surfer Beach Hotel in Pacific Beach. Both only have coffee service in the morning, but Beach Haven is less than a block from the beach and Surfer is right on the Mission Beach Boardwalk.

Depending on your budget, you might also want to check on the discounted winter rates at Pacific Terrace Hotel. This place is spendy, but the rooms are quite nice and the location is one of the best. It sits along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach, with a poolside view over the bluff of the beach and Crystal Pier. It also serves continental breakfast.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Is it a good idea to take a day trip to Disneyland from San Diego, or is too much trouble and expense?

Ericka Chickowski: If you are dead set on Disneyland, it really isn't so bad of a drive to Anaheim—less than two hours. But with so many attractions and activities right in the neighborhood, I'd suggest sticking around town and relaxing a bit. The money and time saved can be spent on something fun and completely natural like a hike in Torrey Pines State Reserve or a kayak tour of the La Jolla caves.

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Delanson, N.Y.: Ericka, my wife and I will be visiting San Diego in October. We want to include a tour of the Zoo. What are the "must-see" exhibits and in what order should they be seen?

Thank you,
Carl and Sandra

Ericka Chickowski: Carl, you and your wife are in for a treat. I am a big fan of the zoo, so much so that I'm a member. One of my favorite exhibits is Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, which is closest to the entrance and is a great way to kick off your Zoo wandering. You'll walk through a lush forest canopy and encounter a wide variety of monkeys, mammals and birds along the way.

My other favorite exhibits include the gorillas (I can stand and watch them interact for hours), the hippos (you can watch underwater from a window cutout) and the koalas (so cute!). Honestly, as long as you get to the zoo early you should be able to see most exhibits. Just take a moment with the map before you go rushing in and come up with a route that tracks to your taste. If you are afraid of getting tired, plan to take advantage of the sky tram or the guided tour bus, which gives you access to an express buss that allows you to get on and off at different stops scattered throughout the zoo.

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Belleville, N.J.: Ericka, I was out in San Diego ten years ago with my ex-girlfriend and fell in love with it. I can't wait to go back. One night, her parents took us to dinner at this amazing, "authentic" Mexican restaurant somewhere near what looked like a church in an "Old Town"-type district. I don't expect you to know the exact place, but where would you recommend going for really great Mexican? (Other than Tijuana, of course!)

Ericka Chickowski: Was it the place where you can watch the ladies pat down tortillas right in the sidwalk windows? If so, then you're thinking of the Old Town Mexican Cafe, a quintessential San Diego eatery right in San Diego's historic Old Town district. I particularly like the carnitas there. They are delicious!

Also, did you know that the old brick house across the street is rumored to be the most haunted house in America? Called the Whaley House, this historic building is definitely worth a walk through once you've stuffed yourself silly. If you eat at a window seat, keep on the lookout—I've heard reports of people spotting apparitions in the Whaley House windows from Old Town Mexican Cafe.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Is it safe to visit Tiajuana?

Thanks,
James

Ericka Chickowski: I'm going to have to give a qualified yes. While an undercurrent of violence does exist in Tijuana, the average tourist rarely sees it. The thing is, most of the episodes we hear about in the news are nasty disputes between warring drug lords down there and a lot of them happen in places you probably would never visit.

Having said that, I would definitely recommend keeping a decent command of your faculties while down there. At night, don't get falling-down drunk in the clubs, travel in groups of two or more and stick to well-lit and populated commercial areas. Be respectful of Mexican law—that means no drugs or guns. And, above all else, avoid the red-light district in Zona Norte. Of all the places that American tourists are likely to experience crime down there it is in the area your mother taught you better to visit, known as "La Coahilla" to the locals. But you weren't planning on going to the naughty parts of TJ, right?

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hi, Ericka. We're going to be in La Jolla the weekend of June 21 and 22 for our son's college graduation. It takes place the morning of Sunday, June 22nd. Would you have any ideas for nice Sunday brunch spots where we could take him for his post-graduation celebration (which won't break the bank)?

Thank you,
E & D

Ericka Chickowski: Congratulations to your son on his graduation! I give him bonus points for graduating from a university so close to the beach. I know I might not have been able to make it through if I lived here during college. There are more fun activities than there are days to skip class...

Anyway, there are lots of fun brunch spots in San Diego. One of my top picks is Brockton Villa, which sits in a beach bungalow on a cliff overlooking the gorgeous scenery of La Jolla Cove. Brunch is affordable and delicious here. If you are a fan of French toast, definitely go for the Coast Toast. It is legendary among the swimmers who frequent the Cove.

If you are more in the mood for a buffet, there is also the dazzling Sunday spread at La Valencia's Mediterranean Room. There are tables and tables of fine food placed between beautiful ice carvings and the view here is also fantastic. It is a big splurge, though, at $49 a head. But your son only graduates once—well, unless he's going to grad school, that is.

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Dallas, Tex.: Hi! I actually just booked a long weekend trip to San Diego for Oct. 10-13 (leaving from Dallas). I went to San Diego as a kid (to the zoo, etc.), but now am looking for a somewhat romantic weekend getaway itinerary for two (married) adults. Just so you know, we're both 30, active, enjoy wine-tasting and beach activities. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks,
Jennifer

Ericka Chickowski: Hey, Jennifer. I'm starting to run too low on time to give you a full itinerary, but I wanted to be sure and recommend a fun activity sure to spark the romance. Out on Coronado Island you can take a sunset gondola ride through the Coronado Cays. They'll have an appetizer tray waiting for you on the boat, along with wine glasses and corkscrew. You can even hire a violin or mandolin player to serenade you along the way. You'll need to supply the wine, so I'd recommend stopping by Wine Styles in Coronado on your way to the gondola. Enjoy!

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Ericka Chickowski: Sadly, I'm running out of time for our chat. I want to thank everyone for their great questions. In fact, I received so many that I was unable to get to them all.

If I didn't get to your question, please visit my Amazon page in the coming days and check out my author's blog. I plan on answering the extra questions over there. You can sign up for an RSS feed and can also purchase my new book while you're on the page. Thanks everyone!

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