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Weekend Escape: San Diego : Park Places : Taking time to explore Balboa Park's eclectic mix of museums and the Old Globe

August 13, 1995|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff, a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer, writes the monthly Events column

SAN DIEGO — In the past, my trips to Balboa Park have been hurried and focused: to see a specific exhibit at the Museum of Photography or a play at the Old Globe Theatre. In and out with little time to dawdle--but time to imagine how nice it would be to do that.

So we did. My 16-year-old son Alex and I headed out on a Friday afternoon in early July to spend the entire weekend in the park seeing as much as possible (there are 11 museums plus other attractions).

I didn't do too much research before we left--beyond buying tickets for the Old Globe and finding a reasonably priced hotel within walking distance of the park. The Park Manor Suites, across the street from the west side of the park, is at the edge of the Hillcrest neighborhood and a block from a Balboa Park tram stop. This is an old-fashioned, seven-story brick hotel built in 1926 by the chief architect of the Balboa Park expositions. It has recently been renovated, giving it a split personality: European elegance meets Holiday Inn.

Our $79 suite was a bargain: a huge, airy corner room with two queen beds, full kitchen, dining room and dressing room. High ceilings and a ceiling fan kept it cool. Park Manor was a perfect choice for our itinerary, although we did not expect to be greeted on our arrival by a huge crush of TGIF revelers, mostly gay, attending Friday happy hour. (Hotel guests and visitors the rest of the weekend were pretty much your standard mix of singles, couples and families.)

Every trip I have taken to San Diego and/or Baja in the past 15 years has begun with a stop at Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town. It's corny, kitschy, WASP-y and Mexican at the same time; I love the margaritas (new wrinkle: mango margaritas) and chips on the patio.

Last year, on one of those quick trips to the Old Globe, we had eaten dinner at Celadon, a Thai restaurant near the park and a short walk from Park Manor. Celadon's broad rice noodles in brown sauce had been a great, slurpy success and we went back specifically for them.

On Saturday morning, we walked north through the Hillcrest area to breakfast, settling on the City Delicatessen and Bakery before heading back down to the tram stop for our first day of museum-going. The free Balboa Park Tram runs 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and makes a loop through the park and out onto Sixth Avenue.

One adult admission to 10 museums (the 11th, the Timken, is free) would have cost $44, but the $18 "Passport" is good for one week, one visit per museum. The clerk at the information counter discouraged me from buying one for Alex, saying that his admissions would only add up to a few dollars. So I didn't, and wound up spending $17 for him (the last would have put him over the top at $19). I liked the Passport idea because otherwise I would have debated over whether to go into some of the museums that didn't seem to be my cup of tea but turned out to be winners.

The Model Railroad Museum, for example. My interest in this field is close to nil but, Passport in hand, we checked it out and found the elaborate and huge train setups--and the old guys who sat there manning the controls--fascinating. In the middle of the museum is an intriguing work-in-progress: a construction of wood platforms and curves of Masonite--with train buffs busy laying track on them for a new exhibit.

On the other hand, I do have a long and deep interest in photography but found the current exhibit at the Museum of Photography--six contemporary French photographers--a bit of a snooze. We were in and out in six minutes tops. I suspected the Hall of Champions Sports Museum wouldn't interest me; it didn't (much of the space was devoted to local sports teams). I imagined that Museum of Man's bead exhibit would be just a lot of pretty jewelry, but it offered a rich look at the daily life of Native Americans.

The Museum of San Diego History held my attention more than I expected--at least the part about the Panama Exposition of 1915-1916, held right there in Balboa Park. In fact, many of the fancy Spanish buildings that house the museums were built then. I couldn't pull myself away from the vintage newsreels of the exposition. I hadn't realized what a big deal it was: thousands of people pouring down the park's central Prado.

The park has plenty of sidewalk vendors selling snacks but only one real restaurant. Make that semi-real. The Cafe del Rey Moro is closed for remodeling. The Sculpture Garden Cafe is not a bad substitute, even if the food is served from the gourmet version of a street cart. The nicest tables face a shady garden and there's live music. After lunch, we went to the Museum of Art and the Timken. Alex was in and out of both lickety-split (my time: one hour). As per our agreement, the first one done went outside and waited patiently under a shady tree (the inventor of the Walkman made this possible).

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