We survived the first self-drive of our US leg with only a couple of the most minor of detours. Leaving LA at the crack, we avoided most of their monstrous rush hours and made it to San Diego by late morning.
With little time to spend, it was a blessing to find Balboa Park, the cultural heart of the city. Home to 15 major museums, performing arts venues, restaurants, gardens and artist studios – everything you could want for a day exploring was in walking distance! Starting off at the Visitor Centre, the guide gave us a park map circled with plenty of ideas of how to spend the day.
We spent most of our time in the Natural History Museum. After being NZ, it was interesting to consider the equal threat of natural disasters from the other side of the Pacific plate.
The major draw was the Real Pirates exhibition; the story of a captured slave ship that perished in a storm in 1717 and was only discovered in 1984, off the coast of Cape Cod.
The exhibition rightfully paid equal attention to the history of slavery and the conditions of ships travelling from African ports to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. It also gave an insight into the ethnic diversity and different roles within a Pirate crew, and the aim of maintaining a democracy on-board. The most impressive artefact was being able to touch treasure recovered from the ship. The silver coins were being transported back to England when the ship sank.
Back outside we wandered through the Desert Garden and it’s array of wonderful cactus. In the Californian afternoon sun, they looked characteristically parched.
Named after a Captain who tried to claim the entire Pacific Ocean for Spain(!), Balboa Park has a Mediterranean feel. Much of the grand architecture is in Spanish-Renaissance style and wouldn’t feel out of place in Barcelona. No more so than in the Art Centre; a lively hub of local artists studios were arranged around a mosaic floor.
Under influence from further East, we ate in the Tea Pavilion overlooking the Japanese friendship garden. In the early evening we caught the final summer concert in the historic Spreckels Organ Pavilion. A woodwind ensemble played an odd mix of patriotic anthems, ‘popular’ and Broadway tunes.
With only a day in San Diego, Balboa Park gave a great taste of the culture of the city – without much walking in between.