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San Diego offers more than just beaches, sunshine

If you’re seeking a winter break escape from the L.A. scene or the “Real OC,” consider the close-by weekend getaway to San Diego. Come discover why the city presumptuously dubs itself “America’s Finest City.”

San Diego is known nationwide for its great weather, but beyond its sunny skies visitors may be surprised to discover its more urban and metropolitan qualities alongside beautiful, untouched, even rural, natural settings.

San Diego County is one of the most geographically diverse counties in the United States, complete with an ocean, beaches, lakes, canyons, snowy mountains, forests and deserts. What’s best is that you can do it all in a day without ever crossing the county lines.

Take, for example, the “World Famous” San Diego Zoo. The zoo is located within the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the United States (in comparison, New York City’s Central Park is 843 acres).

Balboa Park calls itself a “cultural complex.” In addition to the zoo, within Balboa Park’s acreage are open areas, natural vegetation, gardens, performing arts venues and 15 museums, which makes San Diego one of the few cities to have all its major museums together in the same area and within walking distance.

A drive through the 14,000-acre San Pasqual Valley will make you forget you’re still in the San Diego city limits. Much of San Pasqual is a part of an agricultural preserve owned by the city, where wineries, orchards, pastures, field crops and open space parks dominate the valley floor.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, home of the rarest pine tree in the United States, is a breathtaking experience every time. The 2,000-acre reserve, also within the city limits, is one of the wildest unspoiled stretches on the Southern California coast and looks nearly the same as it did when Spanish explorers named it “Punto de Los Arboles” (Point of the Trees) more than 200 years ago.

The beaches below the state reserve are isolated and difficult to get to, but are home to what Surfline.com calls one of California’s world-class surf breaks: Black’s Beach. But Black’s isn’t just famous for its great surf. It’s infamous for being one of the largest nude beaches in America.

So, if surfing and nudity in a beautiful setting is your thing, hang-ten.

Another beautiful beach, but for different reasons, is Windansea. Aside from being a great reef break featured in “The Endless Summer,” Windansea is iconic for its simple palm-covered shack that was constructed in 1946 and still stands today as an official San Diego historic landmark.

Only eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego is the 5,800-acre Mission Trails Regional Park, the largest urban park in California, and one of the largest in the nation (in comparison, L.A.’s Griffith Park is 4,210 acres).

Yearning for solitude in the desert? On the other side of the mountains you can visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California and the second largest state park in the country. At 600,000 acres with 500 miles of dirt roads, there’s plenty of room to explore its desolate beauty.

Had enough of natural wonders? Looking for some fancy hotel? Then don’t miss Hotel del Coronado. Where you find people young and old ice skating on a makeshift rink, on the sand, alongside others enjoying the ocean breeze while walking the shoreline in shorts and sandals.

“The Del,” as the hotel is affectionately known, was built in 1888, has been named a National Historic Landmark and is one of the few remaining wooden Victorian beach resorts left in America. USA Today has rated it one of the top 10 resorts in the world and the Travel Channel has named The Del the No. 1 wedding destination in America.

Hungry for food?

But by most accounts, San Diego’s best food is found in the frequent hole-in-the-wall Mexican taco shops that are numerous throughout San Diego County.

If you ask locals which one of those little places is the best, they’ll all give you a different answer, depending on which part of the county they reside in. But no matter the place, be sure to indulge yourself in the carnivorous “California burrito” and “carne asada fries,” which are San Diego region’s Mexican food specialties that are rarely served anywhere else outside of the county lines.

If you’re looking to shop, dance and drink the night away in America’s Finest City, check out the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. The Victorian-era buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter contain more than 100 (yes, 100) restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops and coffeehouses within an 8-block-long, 2-block-wide area.

It’s like Long Beach’s Pine Avenue, only a whole lot bigger.

A Web site called 11thHour.com wrote of San Diego, “In a country of extremes, San Diego is a city of stimulating moderation; it’s exciting, but not overwhelming, adventurous, but not too exotic, and happening, but not too trendy: the perfect mix for vacationers seeking a little of everything.”

That said, come “moderate” yourself in San Diego. You won’t regret it.

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