Need a cure from Syracuse winters: Try sunny San Diego

Syracuse, N.Y. — I love Syracuse winters in December. Even in January, the snow looks fresh and beautiful. But by mid-February, shoveling snow in freezing temperatures loses its appeal.

When I have trouble remembering what sunshine looks like, it’s time to consider taking a trip. San Diego is the perfect cure for Syracusans fed up with winter. In an average February, the sun shines on the streets of San Diego an average of 71 percent of the hours between sunrise and sunset, according to the National Climatic Data Center. In Syracuse, the average is 39 percent.

There are some sunnier cities in America. But there are not many of them. And none that offer as many attractions as San Diego. There’s the San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park is filled with great museums, a photogenic Botanical Hall, and a Desert Garden full of cactuses.

There are miles of beautiful Pacific Ocean shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument. Seals gather on the beach each evening in the village of La Jolla, just a short drive from San Diego. Eighteen miles north of the city, Torrey Pines State Park offers hiking trails with stunning ocean views.

San Diego is about 130 miles from Hollywood, close enough that you can take a side trip, tour a movie studio, get into the audience of one of your favorite TV shows and gawk at celebrities. I got free tickets from the “Conan O’Brien Show” and “Let’s Make a Deal” to join their studio audiences. Amtrak can get you to Los Angeles hassle-free. If you are driving there, avoid the L.A. rush hour. It’s more horrifying than a teen slasher movie.

A half dozen commercial airlines fly from Syracuse to San Diego. None of them offer non-stop flights. In February, fares can be had for about $450 roundtrip. Buy your tickets about six weeks in advance and you might find a better price.

A caution to travelers: California is very expensive, especially if you are used to Syracuse prices. I was charged $55 at a San Diego restaurant for breakfast for three. The pancakes were extraordinary, but not worth that kind of dough.

San Diego Zoo

CarolesBB-Zoo

The most famous attraction in San Diego is the San Diego Zoo. It is ranked the sixth-largest zoo in the world by many travel guides. Spread out over 100 acres in Balboa Park, there are more than 800 species of animals. The zoo has everything from slow-moving 300-pound Galapagos turtles to sleek black panthers. The zoo, one of the largest in the United States, has a collection of the endangered giant turtles from the Pacific island.

It is one of only four U.S. zoos that exhibit Giant Pandas. Unless you’re a marathon runner, you might find strolling the entire zoo a challenge. The zoo offers shuttle buses and an aerial tram to help visitors get around.

Be prepared for some sticker shock. The cost of Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park is usually $8 for adults, $4 for children older than 2. The San Diego Zoo admission is $42 for adults, $32 for children older than 3.

My advice: go early and pack a lunch in a backpack.

Seals in La Jolla

The zoo isn’t the only place to see exotic animals near San Diego. Thirteen miles north of the city, in the ritzy seaside village of La Jolla, dozens of harbor seals swim ashore daily in the late afternoon to sleep on Casa Beach. Beginning in early February, the mother seals give birth to pups. Visitors are asked to stay a little further away from mid-December until mid-May, but you can still get close enough to hear the seals barking and take cool photos and videos. This outing is free.

If you go to La Jolla to see the seals, double up and visit the nearby Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography ($14 for adults) or Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve ($10 per car). Torrey Pines has miles of beautiful hiking trails that go from cliffs overlooking the ocean to unspoiled beaches.

My advice: Arrive at 4 p.m. at Casa Beach to see seals. Stick around and take photos of the sun setting on the ocean.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National MonumentLocated across the San Diego Bay on the Point Loma peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean, this is a 160-acre park on the site where in 1542 Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States.

The park features a picturesque coastline, tidal pools that children and adults will enjoy exploring for hours, and self-guided tours of the restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which was used from 1855 to 1891.

In the winter, the national park is a good place to spot whales swimming in the ocean. From December through March, around 26,000 gray whales make a 10,000-mile migration from the Arctic Sea south to Baja California and back. Pack a pair of binoculars. There are also many whale-watching boat tours that can be booked in San Diego.

Admission to Cabrillo National Monument is $5 per carload.

My advice: Give yourself hours to walk the beach and explore the tidal pools.

Balboa Park

Balboa Park San DiegoBalboa Park is a gem in the middle of San Diego, just like Central Park is in New York City. But Balboa Park is even bigger.

It’s the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Created by civic leaders in 1868, Balboa Park is named after Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean.

It is 1,200 acres. By comparison, Central Park is 843 acres. Balboa Park has plenty of unique attractions that aren’t every-day sights for Syracusans. Like cactus. In fact, there are several special gardens in the park that are full of cacti. The Desert Garden contains more than 1,300 plants, including some of the oddest-looking cactus I’ve ever seen. The peak blooming period is January through March.

Speaking of plants, the view of the Balboa Park Botanical Building with a Koi-filled Lily Pond in the foreground is one of San Diego’s most-photographed scenes. The light that streams into the historic lath structure will make photographers in your party drool.

My advice: You can easily spend a relaxing day in this park.

The winter weather in San Diego is so nice, so different than Syracuse’s, that you might be tempted to visit only outdoor attractions.

But don’t miss the Balboa Park Museums. There are 15 major museums in the park. Among them are museums devoted to anthropology, art, automobiles, Latino culture, model railroads, natural history, photography, science, space and veterans.

The Tinken Museum of Art is free, but most of the others charge adult admissions that range from $8 to $17.50, for the Air & Space Museum.

You can buy a one-day adult pass for $35 that is good for any five of the park’s 14 participating attractions. So this winter, if you need to get away from it all, think of San Diego. With the exception of Seattle, the 2,740-mile trip to San Diego is as far as you can commercially fly and still land in the continental United States.

It’s the anti-dote to February in Syracuse.

Contact Mike McAndrew at mmcandrew@syracuse.com or 470-3016.

Trip tips
Post-Standard editor Mike McAndrew traveled Dec. 5 to sunny San Diego. He spent seven days visiting attractions in San Diego and in Burbank.

Biggest expenses: Airfare, dining out, Burbank hotel, rental car.
Best experience: Being in the audience for two tapings of “The Conan O’Brien Show” and one taping of “Let’s Make a Deal” was fun. But viewing the natural beauty of the San Diego coastline and Balboa Park was better.
Worst experience: Rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles.
Biggest regret: Didn’t swim in the Pacific Ocean.
Best souvenir: Carried home four little cactuses.
More information:
San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau: sandiego.org
San Diego hotels, attractions, restaurants: sandiego.com/
San Diego Zoo: sandiegozoo.org/
Balboa Park and museums: balboapark.org/
Cabrillo National Monument: nps.gov/cabr/index.htm
Seeing seals in La Jolla: lajollafriendsoftheseals.org/
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve: torreypine.org/