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Travel Review: Balboa Park, San Diego

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You know how it is. A few hours under the scorching California sun and your eyes start playing tricks. Even so, an enormous black rabbit in a pushchair was the last thing I expected to cross my line of vision. But then, this was San Diego's Balboa Park.

It's a place that offers surprises at every turn. And what a lot of turns there are. For this is the largest urban cultural park in the USA. I could give you some idea of its scale by prattling on about its 1200 acres, 85 cultural institutions, 15 museums, and so on. But let me put it this way: after entering the park at its northwestern frontier, by the time I reached its eastern exit I was back in Scotland.

Not only is Balboa Park big, it's old. Established in 1868, the park was given a dazzling makeover for the Panama-California Exhibition of 1915. When the elaborate Spanish Renaissance style structures were unveiled, one Spanish diplomat was heard to gasp: "You have out-Spained Spain!" Today, these lovely buildings house attractions that have made the park a magnet for visitors from around the corner and across the world.

Think of a subject and there's probably a museum devoted to it in Balboa Park. From science to sport, automobiles to aerospace, each one offers absorbing exhibits and interactive attractions. I spent a pleasant half hour in the San Diego Natural History Museum taking the world apart on a computer simulation of continental drift. A small boy then put the world back together in the space of a minute.

The park is also home to the San Diego Museum of Art, which has some very fine art indeed. Here, sculptures by Henry Moore and Niki de Saint Phalle rub what I think are shoulders with paintings by Monet, Magritte, and Munch. And if that's not dramatic enough for you, how about The Old Globe? Its three venues stage a variety of productions, from Stoppard and Sondheim to Shakespeare. The 2008 summer season at The Old Globe will include All's Well That Ends Well, so at least you can be sure of a happy ending.

Culture is all very well, but there comes a point when the inner child breaks free. And that point comes at Balboa Park's San Diego Model Railroad Museum. At 28,000 square feet, it's the biggest indoor model railway display in the world. I dare you not to be mesmerised as tiny locomotives rattle their way across the small, but perfectly formed, landscapes. Better yet is the toytown layout, where Thomas the Tank Engine and friends delight trainspotters of all ages.

The park is busy all year round, but some attractions – such as the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages – are open only on Sundays. The cottages – glorified garden sheds, really – represent thirty-one countries. Each has its own decor and most offer refreshments that are more than welcome on a sweltering afternoon. In Iran, I guzzled down some refreshing fruit juice, while in Sweden I gorged on pastries. "Welcome back to Italy!" my host gushed as I returned for a second helping of ice cream. Meanwhile, England was a shrine to the royal family, Denmark was being renovated and France was shut. And then I arrived in Scotland.

With bagpipes on the wall, an outbreak of tartan on a plastic tablecloth, and two sticks of shortbread on a plate, Scotland's cottage was a bit of a let-down. As I hovered hungrily by the shortbread, the kilted host continued explaining to his colleague how a caber should be tossed. I wandered back out, unacknowledged, unfed, unsatisfied. Maybe he was just trying to make me feel at home.

Each week, a different country takes over the open space in front of the cottages and makes merry on the central lawn. During my visit, burly Germans in lederhosen were busy building a maypole, while hearty maedschen dispensed cheer, beer, and sausages. But I had no time to tarry with the bratwursts. In the distance, the pipes, the pipes were calling.

When it comes to musical muscle, it's hard to beat the Spreckels Organ. Weighing in at over 100,000 pounds, it's a pipe-tastic colossus. The weekly performances attract thousands to hear the best of organ classics by such note worthies as Saint Saens and Franck. But you're just as likely to hear works by Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

Music may be the food of love, but Balboa Park also has plenty for those with a love of food. For a posh nosh head to the Sculpture Garden Café at the San Diego Museum of Art or tuck into Mediterranean fare at the uber-swanky Prado Restaurant. More modest fare may be found in snack bars dotted around the park. But for something different, try the Japanese Friendship Garden's Tea Pavilion. Here, you can tuck into sushi and down Darjeeling while observing Schwarzenegger-sized hornets dive-bomb wild flowers in the nearby canyon.

For green-fingered visitors, Balboa is blooming brilliant. Horticultural highlights include one of the world's premier rose gardens, an oasis containing over 250 palm trees and a desert garden with succulents from all over the world. A blaze of colour greets visitors to the Alcazar Gardens, while the striking Botanical Building houses over 2000 tropical plants. And if all that doesn't sate your passion for plants, don't forget the botanical pleasureland that is San Diego Zoo.

The world-famous zoo occupies 100 acres of Balboa Park and can easily occupy all of your time. Here you can marvel at the meerkats and peer at the pandas in startling replicas of their natural habitats. One moment you're in the Antarctic, the next it's a tropical rainforest. If it all gets too much for your feet, you can hop on to a double decker and watch the animal world go by. Alternatively, enjoy stunning views from the aerial cable car, hilariously named "the Skyfari." Nervous fliers know this better as "the sky-feary."

I never did uncover the mystery of the rabbit in the pram. But I do know I've never seen a more happy bunny. And why not? Balboa is a park for all seasons and a playground for all creatures, great and small. No matter how long their ears might be.

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  • Great article. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to San Diego. You have provided a nice overview of Balboa Park. I will point out two additional things for your readers – 1. If you are a golf lover, Balboa Park has a public course with nice views of downtown and Coronado Island. 2. If you love aviation, the Aerospace Museum is definitely worth a visit. San Diego was home to a lot of early aviation innovations because of its good weather and limited wind. Our airport is called Lindbergh Field because the Spirit of St. Louis was built here.

  • Great review. I haven’t been there in decades, but I’m going back in a few weeks. What amazed me the first visit was that it was so “California.” My daughter is going to school on the Left Coast, and so the visit. I’ll be sure to check it out again.

  • Definately will not go to Vilamoura anymore, 6 Hour rounds of Golf and 4.5 Euros for a beer, we will stay clear of the Vilamoura golf courses this year, and the so called free shuttle bus turns up if you are lucky.