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BEST VACATIONS: SAN DIEGO

18 Nov

Recently, some of my favorite haunts in my hometown of San Diego have been mentioned by friends or in the news, so I am re-posting, (with a bit of editing) my article about The Hotel del Coronado and other fun activities in the San Diego area. The outside of the hotel, built in 1888, provided the background for the famous movie, Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. The movie looped, playing continuously in our hotel room when we were there. The Crown Room was considered an architectural achievement spanning 160 feet by 60 feet, without any pillars to interrupt the view. The 33 foot high ceiling is paneled in beautiful Oregon sugar pine. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum is credited for designing the famous crown chandeliers, which were installed c. 1911. In 1920, an enormous banquet was held here for England’s Prince of Wales, and in 1927 Charles Lindbergh was honored with his own celebration after his successful solo trans-Atlantic flight. Today, the Crown Room has a tradition of elegance and continues to play host to a spectacular Sunday Brunch, consistently rated as the best in the San Diego area.

Relaxing on the deck of your deck of my roomy villa, I sip my morning coffee while the cool mist clears, revealing the adjacent expansive sandy beach in Coronado, California. Then we proceed to the comfortable, beach side Windsor Cottage for complimentary continental-style breakfast. Concierge staff is available to help with restaurant and activity recommendations and reservations. Afterwards we either proceed to the reserved beach space for summer villa guests or the kids go to the children and teen activities. This is the way each day can start while staying at Beach Village at The Del. Staff at the beach will provide lounge chairs, towels, umbrellas, sand toys, food and beverages. This is pampering at its best. Coronado Beach is often rated as one of the best in the world, especially for families. It is a large un-crowded sandy beach with gentle waves good for kids or first time surfers.

Beach Village is among my top three favorite hotels in the world. The newer cottages and villas are adjacent to the historic Hotel Del Coronado, (called “The Del” by we San Diego natives), which dates back to 1888. Beach Village rooms have a casual, yet luxurious beach side vibe. Our family has stayed in the same corner room during our annual summer weekly visits, dating back to the first year it opened. We chose a two bedroom suite, which had one large bedroom with a king bed, and the other with two queens. Each of the bedrooms has its own fireplace and elegant bathroom. There is also a central living area with a gourmet kitchen, dining room and living room area; the couch in the living room has a fold out bed. All of the many activities, pools, dining and drink venues, and children/teen activities of the main hotel are available to those at the Beach Village, but not the reverse. Beach Village has many small private pools dotting the grounds, in addition to its community pool.  Beach Village is expensive, but less costly accommodations are available in the historic part of The Del, with many of the same perks.

Beach Village at The Del (Credit: Flickr)

Beach Village at The Del (Credit: Flickr)

Daytime fun is at hand with surfing, paddle boarding, boating, biking, and fitness classes. There are a variety of venues for drinks and music at The Del. Seasonal music, beverages and casual fare are available at the Sun Deck Bar and Grill which boasts a great view from its second story outdoor setting. Babcock & Story Bar, named after the founders of The Del, features a 46 foot hand-crafted Mahogany Bar which came to the hotel by way of Cape Horn in 1888. The Bar offers seasonal entertainment, snacks, light meals, beverages, and televisions for watching sporting events. I am still upset that they removed the grand piano where they had weekly jazz and R&B frequented by locals and guests; they replaced the area with a bakery case. At sunset, for a fee, Beach Village guests can get drinks and a snack at the Windsor Cottage while enjoying the table top built-in fire pits. S’mores on the beach after dark can be a memorable experience for families or couples. During the day, be prepared for the roar, and I do mean ear-piercing decibels, of the military jets coming into land over Coronado’s beach at the adjacent Naval Air Station. Some find it entertaining, and the rest of us annoying.

Allosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Allosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

During our week stay, we eventually tear ourselves away from The Del to enjoy San Diego’s many other offerings. I always take my kids to at least one fun and one educational activity, which sometimes are both. One of our favorite activities is to go to historic Balboa Park where the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition were held. The Park has numerous museums, with the San Diego Natural History Museum (great dinosaur exhibit when we have been there), San Diego Air and Space Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Museum of Art (small but quality 19th and 20th century art and interesting special exhibits), and the Sam Diego Model Railroad Museum. The park has many interesting plants and gardens, including the 1935 Old Cactus Garden, Botanical Garden (check for closed days), and California Native Plant Garden. There are five children’s play areas and three dog parks. Of course, there is the world famous San Diego Zoo, and for an experience with animals in a more natural environment, head a half hour north to the Wild Animal Park. Sea World is educational, interactive place for the kids to learn about sea life. They also offer a play structure in Sesame Street Bay of Play, in case the kids aren’t exhausted enough. Legoland, about 45 minutes north of Coronado, is great for younger kids. Wait to buy any of the Lego construction kits until you are ready to leave the park.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument is the place where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped onto the shore in 1542, becoming the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. In addition to information about Cabrillo, the area hiking trails, tide pools, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and the military history of Fort Roscrans. The area that is now Presidio Park and Old Town was home to the first European settlement on the West Coast which started in 1769. There are no original structures left. It was the first in a series of presidios and Catholic missions in California which were used in Spanish colonization. The first mission was later moved a few miles away on the aptly-named Friars Road. The Junipero Serra Museum is in the park and is dedicated to the history of San Diego.

Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter

Head back over the Coronado Bridge, or for more fun, take the ferry from Coronado Bay to the nearby historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego to sample the many restaurants and see historical buildings including the ornate former Oyster Bar run by Wyatt Earp after the shootout at the OK Corral. There are many great jazz and live music venues in the Gaslamp, but most do not allow kids. If you took the ferry to downtown, you can make the U.S.S. Midway Museum on the harbor your last stop before heading back to Coronado. Kids and military buffs enjoy touring the immense air craft carrier.

Del Mar Race Track

Del Mar Race Track

We love going to the Del Mar Race Track. I give each of my sons a set amount of money, an average of $2.00 for every race, and then let them decide how they want to bet it. When they were minors, I would place the bets for them. Our friend who previously owned race horses scoured the handicapping analyses to inform his bets, but my son who just went to look at the horses being paraded in the paddock just before they raced was far more successful. Last time all of the boys donned their 1940s suits and fedoras-they were a hit with the crowd. We like to sit trackside in one of the reserved dining areas which has table service. It can be quite sunny so sunscreen, and protective clothing and head attire are important. Afterwards, we stop for a snack or light dinner on the beach in Del Mar or La Jolla, and then back to our Coronado retreat.

Shells from the Del

Shells from Beach Village at the Del

If you want beach weather, the best time to visit the San Diego area is from the beginning of July, so you won’t be subject to the “May and June gloom,” to mid-October. This will be one of your most memorable, fun family vacations ever. Beach Village offers packages and seasonal discounts, or you can stay in the main building or one of the many other family-friendly San Diego hotels. If you can afford Beach Village, it is worth the splurge.   I love the assortment of shells they leave in the room each evening and have them displayed in my home so that I can be regularly reminded of those wonderful trips.

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Remembering a San Diego Music Icon: Ella Ruth Piggee

23 Jan

I  had recently been reminiscing about some of my talented musician friends in California, both from San Diego and on the Central Coast. I feel fortunate that I can go on YouTube or on my IPod to watch and listen to them perform. I was already planning on revisiting some of these musicians on my blog and Facebook, either with new articles or by reproducing prior articles from my blog or other sites where I have published. The recent deaths of a number of music icons have led me to expedite those plans. Over the next several months, I will be featuring musicians, both deceased and alive.

Ella Ruth Piggee was an incredibly popular, charismatic singer in San Diego for nearly ten years before her tragic passing due to cancer in 1988. I am always on a quest to find great live music, with my favorites being R&B, jazz, funk, standards, Latin, and classical. In my quest in that regard, in 1978, I was told about Ella Ruth Piggee, who was then performing at a bar in East San Diego, in an economically-challenged area. I first saw her perform at the Black Frog to a predominantly African-American crowd. I was blown away by her vocal talent, her ability to connect with the audience, and her great sense of humor. Anyone who ever regularly went to see Ella Ruth perform knew if you sat in one of the tables near the stage that you would be subject to her chiding, anything from the type of socks you were wearing to mentioning that in spite of having the best seat in the house you have hardly ordered any drinks. Then she would let out one of her loud, infectious laughs.

 

Over time, Ella Ruth and I became very good friends, and it was always a delight to hear her perform or to spend social time with her. Early on, she sang with Bruce Cameron (trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn) and Hollis Gentry III (saxophones and flute). Carl Evans, Jr. (keyboards) and Hollis (who were also friends of mine,), went on to be two of the founders of hugely internationally successful jazz-funk/fusion band with Latin influences, Fattburger. Unfortunately, they both suffered premature deaths due to health issues, as well. Ella Ruth sang, “Make That Dream Come True” on Fattburger’s Good News album, which I believe was released in 1987 shortly before her death. The song was also featured on the Best of Fattburger released in 1992.

 

Typically, Ella Ruth’s Talk of the Town band would play instrumentals for the first half the set and then she would finish the set with R&B, jazz and pop vocals. In my opinion, this form of music sets featuring both instrumentals and vocals gave those in the audience unfamiliar with jazz exposure to it, which helped to increase interest in instrumental and vocal jazz in San Diego. Ella Ruth finished every song with her signature spontaneous, creative scat. Over time, she became a very popular entertainer throughout San Diego, including the venerable Crossroads in downtown, The Triton in East San Diego and Cardiff, Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla, the Catamaran on Mission Bay, and many more.

 

While the world class instrumental musicians sometimes changed, Ella Ruth was the main draw for a diverse San Diego audience, which can be seen in her various YouTube videos. I thank all of the caring musicians who took time to upload some of her performances, including Cecil Mc Bee, Jr. (bassist) and Tony Barnwell (keyboard and vocals.)

 

Ella Ruth was originally from Des Moines Iowa and had also lived in Omaha Nebraska. As I had also lived in Nebraska, and did my undergraduate degree in Omaha, we also had that connection. I arrived back in San Diego in 1978, around the time she did. When I was a poor starving graduate student in San Diego, Ella Ruth would sometimes treat me to a traditional Nebraska, Italian-style steakhouse. In spite of her charismatic on-stage persona, Ella Ruth was a very private person. After performances, she frequently cooked spaghetti at her home for the band, and Midwestern-style fried chicken especially for me, the best ever. Whenever I asked her for the recipe, she told me it was just flour, salt and pepper, which I never believed. I was also pleased to have the opportunity to spend extra time with her during the time she stayed with me when she was looking for a new place to live.

 

Ella Ruth’s longtime friend, Mitch Manker plays trumpet, flugelhorn and pocket horn on the posted YouTube video. Like Ella Ruth, Mitch also came from Des Moines to San Diego, following his stint as first chair trumpet for Ray Charles. Also featured in the posted video is Michael Evans (drums), Jeff Snider (guitar), and Michael Thompson (keyboard.) Keep in mind these recordings are over 30 years old, and the technology for informally recording live music at clubs back then was limited.

Not long before she became ill, Ella Ruth recorded a “demo tape,” a copy of which she gave to me with her personal handwriting of the songs she recorded. Hollis is clearly the saxophonist. I have been unable to figure out who is the fantastic keyboard player, in spite of asking a number of her musical contemporaries, so if anyone out there thinks they may know, I can send you a digital copy of the recording. I have been in contact with the San Diego Museum of Jazz to whom I plan to donate the tape.