When it comes to Thanksgiving — our favorite celebration of the year — we’re homebodies. We’re usually far from family, so give thanks for the kindness of friends who always invite us to join their family feast.
But one autumn, we decided to take a few days off school and work, and head south in search of sunshine. We hit I-5 and just kept driving until we decided on San Diego.
This is our preferred way of traveling — leave home with no particular destination in mind, and stay where the light suits us.
We weren’t certain at first about old San Diego, because we wouldn’t normally choose what appeared to be a living museum/false storefronts kind of place.
Must have been the price. Yes, definitely the price.
High style, low price
We parked in a dusty old parking lot, and after bumping through potholes, we wondered if lower prices in holiday season aren’t always the best idea. When we saw the multi-leveled, tile roofs and Mission-style architecture of our hotel, we knew our instincts were good.
The Hacienda Hotel looked quiet and elegant, which is exactly what we were seeking as an escape from work. There were palm trees everywhere (as northerners, we’re always impressed by anything still growing and green, late in the year).
Indoors, we discovered Mission furniture, Frank Lloyd Wright-style fixtures, dark wood and sun-washed tiles, heavy carpets, and a welcoming fire in the lobby fireplace.
The grounds were tropical, as if we had landed instead in old Mexico. Pretty bougainvillea cascaded from balconies; water spilled from tiled fountains; and we were welcomed by friendly staff and oversized palms at every corner.
Our room was huge, with a heavy door and wooden shutters, just like hotels we’ve enjoyed in Mexico City. Everything was white, and the AC was on — in November.
We stayed outdoors as much as possible, reading under umbrellas in the bright, late-November sun, and wandered along wide, verandah-style outdoor walkways. We bypassed the warm-water pool to climb stairs to the rooftop, to revel in the view of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.
There were few guests, except for a giddy bridal party. The women’s heels were so high that they couldn’t descend the tiled steps easily; Hadi was gallant enough to help them carry flowers and shoes and wraps and purses — and take their photos. It was a memorable moment.
We drifted off after sunset to the historic district, to meet Hispanic women making tortillas by hand, on sidewalks outside restaurants. We had a Thanksgiving feast at Cafe Coyote that was all Mexican — beans and salsa and guacamole and fried fish — with no turkey. A mariachi band stopped at our table long enough for us to get over being tourists.
The waiter, a college student from nearby La Jolla, laughed to hear how far we had driven just to catch the sun. He bought us margaritas to compensate for being away from our family on our favorite day of the year.
We left a good tip, and went back to the hotel with the romance of old San Diego clinging to our clothes, as surely as the fragrance of those corn tortillas, toasting on sidewalk grills.
STAY: Best Western Plus Hacienda Hotel, 4041 Harney St., Old Town San Diego; 800.780.7234; haciendahotel-oldtown.com. Current rates: $109 (AAA preferred rate)-$165, without breakfast. With American-style, hot buffet breakfast: $185.
EAT: Cafe Coyote has been an anchor of Old Town’s historic walking district for more than 20 years. It’s highly recommended for its fun quotient: Four levels of outdoor/indoor/courtyard seating, with seats for 700. (It began with 70 in 1993.). Noisy, as in margarita-happy volume. Ask one of the “tequila ambassadors” about 100 types of the stuff served here, like fine cognac.
Cafe Coyote, 2461 San Diego Ave.; 619.291.4695; cafecoyoteoldtown.com. Current specials look so good you’ll want to get on a plane to try them.
Recommended for breakfast: O’Hungry’s seemed straight out of an Old West movie set. When we walked in, it was as if we were carrying a neon sign that flashed ‘newbies.’ Everyone in the place seemed to have been sent by Central Casting — white hair, white beards, plaid shirts, work boots. Staff and diners were friendly and welcoming, which was a good thing because it took a long time to plow through our meal. Breakfast only $2.99; dinners, $5 at this historic eatery. And yes, those are yard beers. The locals will explain the concept, with delight.
Our favorite romantic restaurant in Old Town: You know a restaurant is memorable when you can remember, years later, the taste of the food and the waiter who served it — Mark Bihm, one of the owners of the intimate New Orleans Creole Cafe. Bihm explained that the crawfish etoufee was from a recipe handed down in his New Orleans family for 7 generations. (Gotta’ love American history — we wouldn’t have tried the crawfish without meeting Bihm first.) The jambalaya was equally authentic and wonderful, also dating back to the 1750s when Bihm’s family arrived in Louisiana. Compared to the high-volume crowds of the main street of the historic district, this tiny cafe is intimate and romantic, tucked into the garden of the 1890s Whaley House.
PLAY: Contrary to our initial suspicions, Old Town isn’t as touristy as we first suspected. Buy handmade leather from artisans in shops around the old square; watch tin being fashioned into lampshades, frames and art; try cactus margaritas and watch folk dancers in costume; sample wine from the Hacienda de las Rosas Winery. Learn about this “birthplace of California” from guides, or visit the museum.
WEST COAST WEEKENDS TIP: How did we find this Best Western gem? We bought a AAA membership when we moved to California in 2004 and have renewed it every year since. We depend on its guides for honest, un-hyped descriptions of places to eat and stay, all along the West Coast.