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WEEKEND ESCAPE: SAN DIEGO

Park and Shop

They went looking for holiday gifts in Old Town and Balboa Park, with its museum gift shops, and an interloper at the Old Globe

November 29, 1998|DIANA MARCUM | Marcum is a Palm Springs-based freelance writer

SAN DIEGO — My two nonnative-California friends were trotting out the annual season's complaints:

"It's so temperate here it's boooring," Tami said.

"The only way you can tell it's winter is by the colors in the Gap store window," Dave said.

But their ditherings were drowned out by the exuberance of Christmas in Southern California--San Diego to be exact.

We were seated at an outdoor table in Old Town's Casa de Pico restaurant. Christmas lights were bouncing off the mariachis' shiny buttons. This is the way Norman Rockwell would have painted a Christmas scene if he'd been fortunate enough to work in a place where people wore their sweaters tied around their waists.

Our weekend plan was to Christmas shop without once setting foot in a mall. Not for us a forced march though canned air and canned carols, lunching on shopping-mall teriyaki bowls and buying presents that could have been picked out of TV ads. We were going to scour Old Town's collection of import shops for special treasures--unexpected, possibly hand-crafted gifts.

Then we would go to Balboa Park, where, with 15 museums (all with gift shops), we figured we would find something perfect for everyone on our lists. (And even feel virtuous because the money would go to support the institutions, everything from the Model Railroad Museum to the Museum of Photographic Arts to the widely praised Mingei International Museum of Folk Art.)

The whole scheme dovetailed with my two Christmas traditions: one, that I always see my Kansas-based photographer friend Dave in December when he comes out to shoot the Kansas City Chiefs-San Diego Chargers game. The other, that I catch the Dr. Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" on television. Only this year, we had tickets to opening night of the Old Globe Theatre's new musical production of "The Grinch."

After finishing off the frosty margaritas Casa de Pico is famed for, we started through the surrounding shops of Old Town's international marketplace, Bazaar del Mundo. Each shop opens onto the courtyards and gardens, and one shop leads into the next like a maze. We wound past bolts of hand-woven Guatemalan fabrics striped in the most vibrant blues, yellows, oranges, reds and purples. A 6-foot table runner was $26.50. I cringed a bit, realizing how much cheaper it would be in central Mexico, but on the other hand, it wasn't as if I had a ticket to Guadalajara in my pocket. There were huge glazed bowls in some of the same colors. At Earth, Wind and Sea, an outdoor shop of unusual garden accessories, we played large bamboo wind chimes.

Our first buys were Christmas ornaments. There were brightly colored tin decorations from Mexico in the $3 to $8 range. I bought one in the form of a cactus with Christmas lights for an EastCoast friend who misses the desert. Tami bought a sun, moon and tree. Later at the Old Town Surrey Depot we would find banana-leaf angels, and hand-carved and painted gourd decorations in subtle greens and golds from Kenya. The next day at the folk art museum in Balboa Park we would discover glittering cloisonne balls from China, ornaments with intricate scenes hand-painted in mural style from India, and cards decorated with a Japanese artist's red origami birds that detached to hang on the Christmas tree. All were under $10.

After a break for fried ice cream with caramel and fudge sauce at Rancho El Nopal, we got serious about our shopping. Dave, who married last month, was under the most pressure. He needed to find an our-first-married-Christmas present. He found it, half-hiding under a skirted table in the shop Artes de Mexico--a perfect treetop angel, the many folds of her gown, her harp and wings sculpted out of galvanized metal, her serene face carved from wood and skillfully painted. She cost $49.

I have an artist friend who holds that whenever you put an object an artist created in your home you also bring in some of the spirit with which it was created. Looking at the loving detail in this angel's face, I believed it.

Tami and I dropped Dave and his angel off at his hotel near the football stadium, then went to our hotel, Park Manor, overlooking Balboa Park. An eight-floor Italianate building of red brick built in 1927, it has an air of faded glory, but in a nice way. Walking down the halls I felt like I should have been wearing a hat and a tailored suit from the '40s. Our room was huge, with a kitchen, dining room and more closet space than most apartments. It wasn't one of the Convention and Visitors Bureau's holiday-discount hotels, but the $89 room rate, close to the park, seemed reasonable.

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