San Diego full of class, surprise and sailors

by Troy Petenbrink

During my first visit to San Diego, I was attending a conference for work during the same week the 9/11 attacks occurred.  Needless to say, it was not the most enjoyable of trips as I was worried about my family and friends on the east coast and struggling with getting back home. So it was nice that I had the recent opportunity to return to San Diego and discover what this seaside southern California city is really all about.

San Diego has a reputation of being a conservative city.  It neighbors right-wing leaning Orange County and is home to a large portion of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet as well as one of the nation’s two Marine recruit training bases (mmmm . . . hot jarheads).  About one-fourth of total employment locally is due to the military. 

That said, it might come as a surprise – or maybe not (wink, wink) – to know that its annual gay pride festival ( is the city’s largest civic event.  This year’s celebration will be July 19 and 20.

Yes, the costal city of San Diego is a rough-and-tumble military town but I quickly discovered that it is also a thriving metropolis with a pink underbelly that has much to offer gay visitors.

Park Manor Suites is the grand dame of San Diego hotels. Built in 1926, she is showing her age but the friendly-staff and central location more than compensate.  I enjoyed my stay here and the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and deck, Top of the Park, which provides sweeping views of the city and hosts a popular gay happy hour every Friday.

Another gay-friendly property is the stylish Hotel Solamar, a Kimpton Hotel that is located in the historic Gaslamp District. In addition, the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines and San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina  are both large, amenity-packed properties, while Hillcrest Inn is a small property in the center of the Hillcrest neighborhood, San Diego’s unofficial gay district.

San Diego’s restaurants range from the casual to the refined. Local gays – as well as visitors such as myself – flock to Baja Betty’s on Sunday’s for the all-you-can-eat Mexican brunch and bottomless sangria and champagne. At Kemo Sabe, award-winning lesbian chef Deborah Scott offers a progressive Pacific Rim-influenced menu. For some tasty Italian, Arrivederci Restorante serves mouthwatering pizza and pasta dishes. The second-floor, Martinis Above Fourth  is a swank retro cabaret lounge that draws a large gay clientele to enjoy the people watching, live entertainment and contemporary American cuisine.

Daytime in San Diego is all about taking advantage of the pleasant year-round weather.  And there is no better place than Balboa Park, with 1,200 acres that is home to world-class museums, beautiful gardens and performing arts venues including the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre. The Park is also where visitors will find the famous San Diego Zoo, one of only three zoos in the U.S. with giant pandas.

For more animal fun, San Diego also has a SeaWorld Adventure Park. I became a big kid here, running between the various rides and sitting close to the tank at the Shamu show in hopes of getting splashed by one of the whales or maybe to get a better view of the trainer in his tight wet suit.  Speaking of the sea, San Diego has 70 miles of beaches. Black’s Beach is a two-mile strip at the base of the majestic cliffs that serve as a jump point for local gliders. Nudity is permitted and the location is very popular among gay sunbathers.  I felt like a big kid here too.

If shopping is on the agenda, the downtown Horton Plaza has nearly 200 stores including Macy’s and Nordstrom. At dueling ends of the spectrum is the upscale Fashion Valley Center with Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton, and the Carlsbad Premium Outlets that provides the upscale stores but at discount prices.

There is no shortage of gay bars and nightclubs in San Diego. I found plenty of gay men and women enjoying themselves at such popular spots as Flicks, Bourbon Street , Rich’s and Kickers/Urban Mo’s.

And for some gay-inspired culture, Diversionary Theatre  is one of the nation’s oldest gay community theaters, with a new building for the best in LGBT-themed productions.

Troy Petenbrink is a freelance writer out of Washington D.C. 

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