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Weekend Escape: San Diego : Searching for the Kitty Hawk, nuclear subs, margaritas and barbecue on a 'Top Gun' trip

June 18, 1995|PATRICK MOTT | Mott is a Santa Ana-based free-lance writer. and

SAN DIEGO — There are three ways to see the Navy up close on a weekend here. One of them involves a visit to the local recruiting office and a lot of saluting. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the accommodations tend to be a bit institutional, and jets keep landing on the roof.

I wanted something a bit more serene to come back to after a day at the docks. So I opted not to join the Navy and see the world, but to join the civilians and see the Navy. You can do that, in part on your own initiative and in part by joining an organized tour group.

My base of operations was the Best Western Hacienda Hotel, a rambling, comfortable hillside lodge in the heart of San Diego's historic Old Town neighborhood, just off Interstate 5. It turned out to be a good pick for two reasons: The Old Town area is serene and charming, a fine destination for the aimless stroller with an eye for history and Old California style; and the hotel was only a block away from the boarding point for the Old Town Trolley, which would take me south to the Navy's nuclear submarine base at Point Loma. Also, guests park free in the hotel garage.

The Hacienda is a modern place, with clean, efficient insides (all suites), and an outside that is a pleasant imitation of mission days architecture. Set into the side of a hill in a series of tiers and wings that are separated by little courtyards and fountains, it has many rooms overlooking the northern section of San Diego harbor. From my own balcony I had a panoramic view that included Point Loma to the south, and the northern part of Coronado Island, where the North Island Naval Air Station is located.

It was the station I planned to visit on Saturday to board the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and watch the festivities on the flight deck during its birthday open house. April 29 was the 34th anniversary of the ship's commissioning. (This was a gussied-up occasion, but the ship is open to tourists most weekends when it's in port, as is the carrier Constitution, currently in port for an extended stay.) First, however, I wanted to spend Friday night downtown in the former red-light district, now known as the Gaslamp District.

I arrived, dressed in a suit, about 5:30 p.m., ready to blend into the after-work crowd for a little chat with the locals and a nice metropolitan meal. I got half my wish. The Friday evening crowd didn't really show up until after dark, and I spent more than an hour browsing in specialty shops (hats, antiques and a classic car dealership, among others, and, for the dedicated mall-crawler, the intriguing, alfresco Horton Plaza just to the west). However, a lovely little Italian place in a small row of lovely little Italian places on 5th Avenue caught my eye, and I had a satisfying plate of grilled veal in the bustling Osteria Panevino.

But I was overdressed for most of the street, particularly the livelier addresses, the most lively of which was Dick's Last Resort, the atmosphere of which reminded me of a German beer hall during Oktoberfest, California version. I eventually took a break next door at the far more upscale Sfuzzi for an expensive glass of Chianti.

*

Following the recommendation of a local I met on 5th Avenue, I walked down Harbor Avenue to the Hyatt Regency and rode the elevator to the 40th floor bar for what must be the finest view in the city. And there, across the harbor, was a huge black shape blotting out the shore, surmounted by a three-story-tall block-lettered "63" in white lights: the Kitty Hawk.

Back at the hotel, I found the view from my room was more spectacular by night than by day, and I left the balcony door open to catch the night breezes.

Next morning, I drove over the bridge to Coronado Island and down to the base. The Kitty Hawk loomed gigantic at the dock, bunting stretched around its bridge. After boarding via a tall gangplank, I and several dozen other visitors were herded into the sprawling hangar bay, then onto one of the ship's four immense elevators for a quick ride up to the flight deck, where flags and dozens of folding chairs were set up for the birthday festivities.

However, I was told that no tours would be given that day, and I had neglected to bring a hat or put on sunscreen. It wasn't hot on the flight deck, but it was blazingly bright. I stayed for an hour and left, deciding to return Sunday for one of the afternoon tours.

Back in Old Town, I retreated under one of the umbrellas on the patio of the old Casa de Bandini restaurant for a late lunch and one of the best margaritas I can remember. Later, in a nod to naval aviation, I ate dinner at Kansas City Barbecue, across the street from the Hyatt Regency. The interior is cheerily shopworn, the bar crowd is friendly, the patio is cozy, the barbecue is inexpensive and first-rate, and the "Great Balls of Fire" bar scene in "Top Gun" was shot there (Anthony Edwards played the ratty upright that sits in the bar).

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