San Diego - The Nation's Most Inviting Cruise Port

| OCTOBER 16, 2009

The convenience factor plus plenty of natural local attractions make San Diego a fantastic place to sail from.

Some cruise departure ports are more convenient for visitors than others. Miami and Los Angeles have "no-man's land" perimeter fences around their port facilities, so just reaching a ship requires a 10-minute drive.

But some cruise ports have docks almost in the heart of downtown, with smaller but equally effective security zones, allowing passengers to walk on and off the ships to enjoy shopping and dining minutes away by foot. And some port cities have airports within minutes of hotels and the port facilities, making taxi rides cheaper and less stressful, especially for people on a tight schedule.

San Diego has all this and more, making it one of the country's most convenient port cities. You can touch down at the San Diego airport, flag a taxi and check into your hotel or cruise ship within minutes. When a cruise ship docks in San Diego, it becomes part of the city skyline.

But convenience is just the icing on the cake. Cruises from San Diego to Mexico are an outstanding bargain this year, with three- to 12-day sailings available to the Mexican Riviera, the Sea of Cortes and all the way south to Acapulco. What's more, San Diego also has an abundance of great attractions for all types of visitors.

First of all, to get an idea of the close proximity of the airport, cruise port, museums in Balboa Park, downtown, oldtown, little Italy and the GasLamp district; everything we are going to discuss - click here to open up the Old Town Trolley Tour Map of San Diego.

The California Coast and Climate

If you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest and you normally cruise from Florida, I recommend you try San Diego. A friend from New York told me San Diego was one of the most fun vacations she ever had. East Coast residents find the West Coast to be a very different experience -- the Pacific Ocean has high rolling and crashing waves; the beaches are long and deep with fine crystalline sand -- and they're all open to the public.

The coastline just outside San Diego has dramatic sandstone cliffs soaring over the water. The scenic 101 Pacific Coast Highway cries out for driving in a convertible, much like Italy's Amalfi Coast. You'll find sea caves in La Jolla, coves where sea lions sunbathe within view of thousands of local residents, and nature preserves on Point Loma.

San Diego's weather is generally dry and mild year-round, with an average annual temperature of 64 degrees (24-hour average, nights cool of quickly). Summertime brings 80-degree days, while temperatures in mid-winter hover in the low 60s. Spring and fall are almost always perfect, especially with the low humidity. Vacations are rained out far less often in this desert coastal city than in tropical Florida.

The Attractions of San Diego - Downtown

As for world-class tourist attractions, San Diego is the home of the original SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo - one of the best in the world. The local charm includes areas like Balboa Park, Mission Beach (with Belmont Amusement Park), Little Italy, Old Town, Point Loma and Coronado Island. And those are just the places easily reached from downtown - an area rich in history of the Old West and our national maritime heritage.

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The line at Fillipi's Little Italy   Little Italy Street Scene

Cruise ships tie up next to the permanently moored sailing ship "Star of India," now part of the San Diego Maritime Museum -- a full-rigged iron windjammer built in 1863. Other museum vessels include a replica of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Surprise, used in the movie Master and Commander; a B-39 Soviet Foxtrot submarine; and the USS Dolphin - a U.S. Navy submarine.

If you'd like to see an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway Museum, separate from the Maritime Museum, is a 10-minute walk from the pier. The Midway is a 50-year-old U.S. Navy vessel with a self-guided tour and some 60 exhibits; admission is $17 (but active-duty and reservist personnel with ID are admitted free).

For shopping, tourists and locals alike head for Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. Even closer, Seaport Village offers great shopping for maritime keepsakes like maps, sailing gear and nautical fashions, as well as fine dining and fun food like frozen custard and pizza.

Restaurants in San Diego

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Horton Plaza   Gaslamp District   Seaport Village

For American history buffs, the Gaslamp Quarter is a gentrified neighborhood of several blocks offering restaurants and nightlife, art galleries, bookstores and antique shops. At night, the area comes alive with sidewalk cafés and jazz, blues and folk music nightclubs. This was the original heart of San Diego from 1850, with the town's first bank and public theater. Eventually it was home to several gambling halls -- including three managed by the infamous Wyatt Earp.

In the early 1900s, the Quarter degraded into a red-light district with 120 bordellos, 120 saloons and 350 prostitutes; the area was dubbed "The Stingaree" after a famous San Diego Bay stingray. Much of the "trade" included U.S. Navy personnel stationed on nearby Point Loma.

Around 1920, the neighborhood floundered after the temperance movement hit, and it was undistinguished until the 1970s when the historic significance of buildings left untouched for decades was noticed and restoration started. Now the Gaslamp Quarter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Getting Around

If you fly into San Diego for your cruise, there are plenty of ways you can see the sights without renting a car (unlike Los Angeles or Long Beach). Seaport Village, the Maritime museums and Horton Plaza are all within walking distance of the port. If you want to see the attractions farther away, including the Zoo, the Old Town Trolley Tours make it easy.

The Old Town Trolley costs $28.80 (online) per adult for one day or $50 for two days. Children are roughly half-price. Web site: Old Town Trolley Tour Tickets.

The colorful Trolley Map online is one of the best ways to see what San Diego has to offer. The Trolley visits all of Balboa Park, including the museums and the Zoo. For shopping there is Old Town, for dining Little Italy or the Gas Lamp Quarter. You can scale the mighty Coronado Bay Bridge to Coronado Island and check out the historic Hotel del Coronado.

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Panda at the Zoo   Balboa Park   Baymap shows bridge to Coronado Island

Old Town Trolley also offers a "Seal Tour," using one of those submersible trolley cars that drive right into the water to become a boat. First you circle the entire San Diego Bay to Shelter Island; after you enter the water you will see seals and possibly other sea life, depending on the season.

Seeing the Pacific Coast up through North San Diego County is easier than you might think. You can catch the wonderful "Coaster" Amtrak train from the Santa Fe Station downtown at Kettner and Broadway. The train coasts at a leisurely pace past some of the most beautiful and well-known beach and resort cities in the state - all the way to Oceanside. You might not even realize that La Jolla, Del Mar, La Costa and Cardiff-by-the-Sea are all part of the San Diego metropolitan area. Coaster Information

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Coaster train to North County   Sea lions in La Jolla   Belmont Park Amusement Park at Mission Beach

The Coaster train runs Monday through Saturday and costs just $6.50 per person, one way. It's a great way to see the beautiful Pacific coast even if you don't get off the train. If you do disembark, you can visit La Jolla for upscale shopping and spectacular ocean views, or Encinitas to rent a bicycle for a coastal ride through scenic Del Mar. If you're in Del Mar from mid-July through early September, you can catch the races at one of the classiest racetracks in the U.S. The Del Mar Raceway also hosts other events year-round, from county fairs to concerts. Get off the Coaster at the Solana beach exit for Del Mar.

More San Diego Sights: Balboa Park

The 1,400 acres of Balboa Park, one of the oldest city parks in California, were set aside by civic leaders in 1868. The park houses the San Diego Zoo and an amazing variety of world-class museums. You won't have time to see them all in one visit, but check this list to see which ones catch your fancy:

  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • San Diego Aerospace Museum,
  • San Diego Automotive Museum,
  • Mingei International Museum
  • Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • The Museum of San Diego
  • Hall of Champions Sports Museum
  • Marston House
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • San Diego Art Institute
  • San Diego Natural History MuseumWorldBeat Center

Admittance to the park itself is free, as are the Botanical Building and most of the gardens. Most of the museums are independent non-profit organizations, and admission prices vary. The Stay-for-the-Day pass allows you to visit any four of the 14 museums listed on the same day for $29. You also get a 10 percent shopping discount at the Balboa Park Visitors Center gift shop. The Zoo is not included. Web site:

For children, the park has a carousel built in 1910 where you can still "catch the brass ring." There's also a half-mile ride on a one-fifth-scale stream train that can carry up to 48 people.

The park's Globe Theater has three venues for live performances year-round, including the "Old Globe" theater - a replica of the original venue of William Shakespeare.

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The Trolley System   Old Town Bazaar del Mundo   The Seal Goes In the Water

San Diego Zoo

You probably already know that the renowned San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the U.S. if not the world. Home to more than 4,000 animals from 800 species, it is one of the few zoos with giant pandas. It also has the largest number of koalas in one place outside Australia.

Visitors can take a guided bus tour that covers 75 percent of the zoo, or an overhead cable-gondola car ride called the "Skyfari". General admission is $35 per person per day. Multi-use and family passes are also available.

You can ride an elephant or a camel at the Zoo. The great apes exhibits are first class, as are the aviaries, where giant wire mesh walk-through cages contain hundreds of plant and animal species. Special tours and shows include a Sea Lion Show, an Avian Adventure with trained birds and the Dr. Zoolittle Show.

If you want to see this zoo, plan at least three hours for a quick overview. You can easily spend an entire day here and it is more than worth the time - especially if you have kids and have not taken them to a world-class zoo lately.


San Diego's SeaWorld is the original. Opened in 1964, it attracted more than 400,000 visitors in its first year. This massive interactive amusement and research park offers thrill rides; awe-inspiring sea lion, dolphin, and killer whale shows; tanks where you can touch and see the animals up close; behind-the-scenes educational tours; and two wildlife interaction opportunities.

We visited SeaWorld just before I wrote this article; I have seen "interactive dolphin encounters" in several places in the Caribbean and Mexico, but I would rate SeaWorld's as the best.

Sea World San Diego is open 365 days a year. Hours vary depending on the season: Summer hours can be as long as 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; fall, winter and spring hours are usually 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. During the summer, especially on weekends and holidays, the park can get very crowded. It is least crowded before noon but it stays crowded through the evening hours since the park offers a nightly fireworks show.

Admission is $65 per adult and $55 for children age 3-9. Children under three are free. Discounts are offered regularly, e.g., adults for $55 and a second day free. Visit the web site regularly in advance of your trip as specials and park hours change often:

If you arrive early and plan to stay late, you can buy a food coupon for $29.95 per person per day that lets you eat at any of the nine restaurants as often as you want. Otherwise, a single meal will cost around $10.

Another pass called the Quick Queue, at $20 each, allows you to bypass waiting lines at three of the rides: Journey to Atlantis, Shipwreck Rapids, and Arctic Encounter. It also provides one free ride on the Skytower and the Bayside Skyride, normally $3 each. This pass can save you 45 minutes per ride on a busy day, but it does not apply to any shows or other attractions.

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Dolphin Squad Dancing in the Pool   Pilot Whale in dolphin show   Pilot whale revs up the "soak zone"

Note: There are plenty of ways to get soaked from head to toe at SeaWorld. The dolphin and whale shows have a "soak zone" -- usually the first 12 rows of amphitheater seating -- and the sea mammal "performers" will make sure anyone sitting there gets thoroughly doused; it's part of the show. The same is true for the two most action-packed rides, Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis: You WILL get soaked from head to toe! This is fine on hotter summer days, but can be very uncomfortable when the sun goes down and the temperature drops.

It takes at least one full day to see the best of SeaWorld and two days to see everything, including all 17 exhibits. Don't miss the Shark Encounter, the Penguin Encounter, the Wild Arctic, Forbidden Reef, Rocky Point Preserve, Pacific Point, and Shamu Up Close.

SeaWorld has seven shows, with four more coming in spring and summer 2010. Don't miss the Shamu show. If you visit in the summer, plan on seeing both the daytime show (Believe) and the night show (Shamu Rocks); they are very different, and both are spectacular. The Dolphin show is also a highlight, and the Sea Lion shows are clever and fun. There are eight rides, three of them designed just for kids, and seven tours are available. The only one I experienced is the Behind the Scenes tour -- a personal guide provides lots of interesting information and gives you access to many off-limits areas. I think it is well worth the $11 (child) to $13 (adult) price.

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Taking a stroll with a dolphin   interact with a white beluga whale   A Dolphin Teaches a Human now to Dance

If animal interaction is your thing, Sea World has two programs well worth the extra money. The $175 Dolphin Interaction Program (DIP) gets you into a wet suit and in the water with a trained dolphin. The program organizes 12 people at a time into three groups of four, each with a trainer and dolphin. The three groups all interact at the same time, doing different things. Participants can touch their dolphin, give it commands, feed it ice and fish, hear it "talk," and spend 20 minutes of quality time with one of these magnificent mammals.

Don't confuse this with the Dolphin Encounter Program, which is not as extensive but also good fun for only $45. Dolphin Encounter participants stand outside the dolphin pool with a trainer. Participants can touch the dolphins and feed them fish, but these dolphins do not perform in the shows or interact with humans as well as those in the DIP.

The Arctic Encounter brings you up close and personal with rare, white-skinned beluga whales. The whales swim up to you, open their mouths, roll over, accept fish from you, and allow you to feel their skin and pat their heads. On a personal note: We took a trip this year to the Arctic Circle hoping to see a polar bear in the wild; we only saw one, and it was on the shore so far away that we needed binoculars to tell it was a bear. But at Sea World, we saw two of them interacting with each other about six feet away from us (albeit through very thick glass).

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A live Polar Bear greats the tourists   a live walrus sniffs out tiny crustaceans   A Polar Bear gets Curious "There's something Fishy goin' on..."

If you want to spend the day at SeaWorld, you will need a taxi. Getting there from downtown takes about 15 minutes depending on traffic.

Old Town San Diego

Old Town is a sort of living museum with artisans, restaurants, gift shops and authentic buildings from the area's colonial Mission Age. For authentic Mexican and Southwest shopping, as well as classier, modern California souvenirs, this is the place to go. Historically, it is considered "the birthplace of California" and contains buildings dating back to 1827, and many from the 1850s. The San Diego Trolley has Old Town as a regular stop.

When to Cruise from San Diego

As for timing your San Diego cruise vacation, my recommendation is that you NOT visit the city in the summer. It may be a fantastic time for kids, but the city is choked with tourists, especially "Zonies" (as visitors from Arizona are affectionately known). Cruise fares go up significantly in summer because most ships are repositioned to Alaska for the season, and the remaining ships are filled with families with kids on summer vacation.

Fall and spring are ideal times to visit San Diego as far as weather is concerned, while winter (December through March) is a little cool and windy, but not bad. For cruise bargains, any time grade school is not is session from September through May, you will find bargain cruises and plenty of opportunities to see the best attractions of San Diego without the hordes of summer tourists. The very best cruise bargains are usually offered in the fall.

Cruises out of San Diego

Five-day cruises on Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas start at just $229 per person, while an eight-day voyage to Acapulco on Carnival Spirit can be had for as little as $439 per person. Holland America's Zaandam sails to Mexico's Sea of Cortes, where you might encounter whales and dolphins during the winter months.

Other great ships sailing out of San Diego include Celebrity Mercury, Celebrity Infinity, Holland America's Oosterdam and Statendam, and Carnival Elation. For more luxurious ships, you can sail on Azamara or Silversea Cruises.

A complete list of cruises sailing out of San Diego can be found here: San Diego Cruise Port

If you drive to San Diego and spend a few days, there are "park and cruise" hotels that will let you park your car for the length of your cruise if you stay at least one night. Examples include the Howard Johnson Hotel (14 nights) and the Handlery Hotel (seven nights). There are also several parking lots with shuttles to the port area where you can park for $10 to $20 per night.

Web Sites to know has an overview of almost everything you need to know about the interaction between cruise ships and San Diego. A very extensive site. includes a listing of every cruise leaving from San Diego, parking lots with prices, outlines of local attractions, and much more. has a listing of park-and-cruise hotels, which offer various packages if you stay at the hotel. Some offer free transportation between the airport and the cruise terminals. Other hotels allow you park your car in their lot for free if you stay at the hotel pre- or post-cruise.

San Diego Car Free: An entire web site devoted to seeing all of San Diego county without a car. Complete instructions on how to get anywhere using public transportation.

Transportation in San Diego, California: Airport, Amtrak, Car Rental, Trolleys and everything else you need to know about getting to and around San Diego.

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