Vail travel feature: Sand, surf, sun and sustenance in San Diego | VailDaily.com

Vail travel feature: Sand, surf, sun and sustenance in San Diego

SAN DIEGO — It's our last day in San Diego, and it's raining.

Lines of seabirds perch on railings along Pacific Beach, each with its head huddled between its shoulders, wings tucked to shed the drops that fall across its back. Servers at beachside restaurants stack chairs and close windows as if preparing for a deluge, but the light, steady rain fails to deter surfers as they paddle into the swells.

We're sequestered in the Pacific Beach Shore Club, and I'm pondering my beer and a mess of fish tacos while gazing out the huge windows to the edge of the pier and the endless ocean beyond. It's a strikingly different scene from the mountains, but after a week of warm days, cool nights and the roar of the sea, I'm not sure if I'm ready for the crisp air and morning frost we'll likely be returning to in a few short hours.

Old Town

We'd arrived in San Diego a week earlier, armed with a fistful of scribbled notes from friends listing not-to-miss restaurants, bars and experiences. The first night took us to Old Town, commonly considered the birthplace of the state, as it was the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in what's now California.

After a dinner of sushi rolls and shishito peppers, we wandered through Old Town Market, a collection of more than 40 specialty shops, carts and artisans selling everything from San Diego souvenirs to home furnishings to Calaveras and lucha libre masks. Historical markers and displays containing collections of artifacts discovered on the site occupied corners in retail spaces alongside handmade jewelry, pottery and a booth for old-time photos.

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There isn't much of a late-night scene in Old Town, but the Old Town Saloon, a cowboy-style joint with a long bar, pool tables and a local vibe, offered our first foray into San Diego craft beer. First choice was an Alesmith .394 Pale Ale, a brew that pays tribute to the late, great Padres right-fielder Tony Gwynn and the career-high batting average he achieved in 1994.

We cranked the jukebox full of money and shot a few games of pool while discussing our plan of attack for the coming week.

• Where to go: Miso Harney Sushi (harneysushi.com).

• What to get: Flaming Lip roll, a tempura-fried California roll with cream cheese, topped with spicy mayo, jalapeno and Sriracha, or Thai One On roll, with spicy rock shrimp, cucumber and yama gobo, topped with yellowtail, yellow curry, peanuts, basil and faux-nagi sauce.

La Jolla

Day 2 took us to La Jolla in search of our first ocean adventure. We rented a two-man sea kayak and a stand-up paddleboard from La Jolla Kayak, situated a few blocks from the beach (the shop also offers guided kayak tours and snorkel tours and rentals). We paddled over a swarm of harmless leopard sharks lurking beneath the break and, once past the foaming water, rode the undulating waves south toward the sea caves.

The seven caves are strung in a line just north of La Jolla Cove, where barking sea lions jockeyed for sunny spots on the surrounding rocks. Snorkelers dipped under the water to get a closer look at the bright-orange garibaldi fish flitting amongst the sea grass, and tour groups paddled up to the entrance of each cave, peering into the murky depths.

We kayaked through floating rafts of kelp, a breaching sea lion thumping his head on the underside of the paddleboard and nearly capsizing it, and then headed back to shore to trade our sea vessels for bar stools at the Shore Rider.

We sidled up to open-air bar, which opened its doors Memorial Day weekend, and chowed on chicken nachos washed down with local craft brews from Thorn Street Brewery. Shore Rider shares an owner with Thorn Street, which provides its namesake pale ale, a golden-hued beauty with a foamy head that mimicked the pounding surf a few steps down the street.

The campy decor was reminiscent of a scene from a '60s surf movie, and the bartender tossed us logoed Frisbees on our way out the door. We made our way back to the beach and settled into the sand for a sun-drenched nap.

• Where to go: Shore Rider.

• What to get: Shore Rider Chicken Nachos, with chicken tinga, black-bean sauce, chili verde cream, guacamole, pico de gallo and cotija cheese, paired with Thorn Street Shore Rider Pale Ale.

Ocean Beach

The water was calling again, so we made our way over to Ocean Beach and strode the pier, watching fishermen lazily cast for surfperch and calico bass. The Ocean Beach Pier stretches 1,971 feet into the sea, making it the longest pier on the West Coast and longest concrete pier in the world. Gulls and pigeons bobbed its length looking for stray bits of food, while below, cormorants dove beneath the water in pursuit of a morning catch.

After a quick lunch, we unpacked beach chairs and umbrella and set up camp near one of the large cement fire pits that dotted the sand above the high tide mark. A group of middle schoolers followed the birthday girl into the waves, toting a gigantic swan, amongst other not-quite-sea-worthy-looking inflatables.

As dusk approached, we packed up and headed down the beach to Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach's main drag of bars, restaurants and surf shops. The near-constant line of people in front of Hodad's had briefly disappeared, so we ducked into the sticker-covered restaurant to procure a few of their self-proclaimed "world's best burgers."

Food in hand, we made our way down the road to Helm's Brewing Co., where I created an unlikely pairing of a bacon cheeseburger with Helm's Peach Wheat beer. The burger was huge and messy and, if not the world's best, then the combination of salt and sand-spackled, sunburnt smiles and cool night air made it feel pretty damn close.

As we walked back to the car, lights glinted on the pier, their reflections cast back by the inky black ocean. Fires burned brightly up and down the beach, with conversations and laughter occasionally surfacing through the steady rush of the breaking waves.

• Where to go: Hodad's (hodadies. com), Helm's Brewing Co. (www.helms brewingco.com), Belching Beaver Brewery (belchinbeaver.com), Culture Brewing Co. (culturebrewingco.com).

• What to get: Helm's Peach Wheat or Samuin Harvest, Belching Beaver's Pink Peppercorn Saison and Culture's Sour Cherry; any burger from Hodad's.

Downtown

We'd been told that the Waterfront Grill in Little Italy, San Diego's oldest tavern, was a great place to watch football, but the well-worn wooden bar and every one of the high-top tables was packed with Chargers fans, so we pressed on to Seaport Village. From the boardwalk that ran alongside the little cluster of shops, we watched the ferry travel to and from Coronado Island, dwarfed by the massive Navy ships in the harbor.

A bicycle rickshaw carried us uptown to Karl Strauss Brewing Co., where we shared a plate of beer pretzels and collectively drank the circuit of beers on tap. The leisurely snack caused us to miss the last ferry to check out Coronado, so we drove over the bridge the next day to sip cans of Ballast Point Pineapple Sculpin IPA at the beachside bar at the Hotel del Coronado.

The Hotel del Coronado opened in 1888 and, at the time, was one of the largest hotel resorts in the world. According to The Del's literature, all of the materials to build the colossal structure had to be imported or manufactured on site. Architects were brought in from the Midwest; lumber and labor came from the Northwest; there was a lumber mill, foundry and electrical power plant on hotel property and early employees were wooed west from Chicago's finest hotels.

Despite the fascinating history, the $12 beers quickly drove us back to the mainland to the Gaslamp Quarter, the hub for shopping, dining and nightlife in downtown San Diego. We shouldered into the Elbow Bar at barleymash for some Hell Fire fries, topped with a mouth-scorching combination of peppers and San Diego's ubiquitous and delicious carne asada.

• Where to go: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. (www.karlstrauss.com) or barleymash (www.barleymash.com).

• What to get: At Karl Strauss in Little Italy, Karl Strauss Thai Chili Aurora Hoppyalis IPA, paired with a shared plate of beer-spritzed, spice-rubbed beer pretzels from San Diego Pretzel Co., with mango mustard and beer cheese dip. At barleymash in the Gaslamp Quarter, Modern Times Fortunate Islands American pale wheat, paired with Hell Fire fries, with prime carne asada, fresh jalapenos, fresh habaneros, roasted serranos, cream cheese, habanero jelly and pepper jack beer-cheese sauce.