Best attraction that says, "Meow"
In retaliation, perhaps, for being made a public spectacle, the San Diego Zoo's two fishing cats make full use of their primo location at the head of Tiger River by making themselves scarce. It's a rare day that these feline anomalies work it for the crowd, strutting across the tree trunks that span their habitat as if they were-sorry the pun-on the catwalk. The leopard-spotted cuties look rather domestic, except for their webbed claws and double layer of fur and they're willingness to dip their paws and heads into the water to catch their prey. (To see how your average feline domesticus responds to water, read the heart-wrenching Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes by Thomas Gray.)
Best beach to hang out with your dog Bow-wow-wow yippee""o yippee-eh! Ah, nothing like sand in your paws. But doggonit, almost all San Diego beaches ban dogs! For those who adore their canine buddies, that makes romping out onto the sand not only illegal, but subject to a juicy fine if caught. Luckily there's at least one dog-friendly beach where the furry and their human counterparts can indulge in a law-abiding game of Frisbee. At Del Mar's Dog Beach, you and your dog can frolic in the sun without breaking the law. Dog Beach is off Camino Del Mar opposite the racetrack and on the north side of the San Dieguito River mouth. From September through June, your dog may roam free (within earshot) and off a leash. During the summer months, June through September, Spot needs to be on a leash. Make sure you check signs for restrictions, and be prepared for your doggie getting to know lots of other surf-loving pups. Sniff sniff.
Best stretch of San Diego freeway
California's concrete jungle becomes old and stale with hundreds of miles of washed out asphalt and endless L.A. viaducts. While travelers nod their way through these thoroughfares, drivers can breathe deep through the passage of scenic Interstate 163 beneath the overhangs of Balboa Park. Most motorists slow down to take in the tropical palms and sprawling vines that line the roadway between Interstate 8 and downtown. The stretch of highway is a welcome reminder of the natural beauty of San Diego and the alluring call to learn the history of our city and its lush centerpiece of a park. Many drivers make a u-turn at the end-163 suddenly gives way to the towering skyscrapers of downtown and its fast food chains-just to take in the scenic view one more time.
Best place to feel like a giant
For anyone who's ever wanted a Godzilla's eye view of the world, there is no place better than the Model Railroad Museum, located in Balboa Park. Most visitors seem to be the very young or the very old, but it never seems crowded, even when admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month. The jewel of the museum is easily the 1/160-scale, 1,200-square-foot recreation of the Pacific Desert Line, complete with an exact duplicate of the downtown Santa Fe Depot, built from the original blueprints. The attention to detail is downright scary, with the particularly morbid amused by the miniature shark zeroing in on the miniature surfers and other sight gags inserted in the dioramas. Actual Godzilla-like destruction is heavily frowned upon, but anyone wanting to see how these miniature creations come together should stop by Tuesday and Friday evenings when the people behind the exhibits work on new projects.
Best boxing gym
Near the corner of 14th and C, down the street from the East Village Coffee Shop and around the corner from the Honey Bee Hive resides San Diego's best boxing gym. While City Boxing offers no-contact beginner classes for those seeking a solid cardio workout without hitting the pavement, they've also got the real thing. World recognized instructors like Dean Lister teach a wide array of martial arts. While Olympic trials hopeful Yukence Andino has pulled out of competition in this year's quest for America's top spot, up-and-coming, undefeated lightweight phenom Jovanne Jones is raising eyebrows and offering what may be San Diego's only other shot at a spot in Athens in 2004. "Nobody-nobody-in this town treats their boxers better than City Boxing," gym owner Mark Dion says. It's clear from the condition of the gym and equipment offered that the notion is extended to gym members, as well.
Best place to get shit on
The white ones are cuddlier than Michael Jackson at recess. So are the pink ones. The large blue ones are gorgeous, but just might nip a finger. The multi-colored fellas can talk a mean game. And Freeflight just might be the only place where getting pooped on during a first date is considered endearing. A small, tropical oasis adjacent to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Freeflight is an outdoor sanctuary for exotic birds-parrots, cockatoos, macaws, etc. Most of these feathery old dudes have outlived their owners or were abandoned when Buffy realized that her really pretty pet was a bit harder to take care of than a goldfish. Operated by volunteers and associated with the veterinarian next door, anyone's welcome to visit Freeflight for a $1 donation. The "bad bird" section is full o' biters, but the rest of the enclosure is full of very expensive Technicolor beauties you can hold and cuddle and talk to without having to clean Polly's cage or listen to her squawk for attention.
Best historical eyesore
Back in the fast and loose and unregulated day, University Avenue was a carnival of neon tackiness. Bureaucracy and mind-control has since regulated most of the character out of our lives, and Hillcrest is turning into a bunch of lame coffee shops and furniture stores. But Jimmy Wong's neon Golden Dragon remains stationed above the late-night Chinese restaurant, a survivor from that bygone era, and a constant reminder of why progress frequently sucks. The sign avoided the bureaucrat's ax with a petition signed by thousands of residents, and a subsequent historical site designation. Oh, and the restaurant itself is still going strong, too, staying open until 3 a.m. every night, serving old-school Chinese food that pre-dates bean sprouts, spring rolls or Asian-fusion cuisine.
Best beach volleyball courts
Back when the U.S. national volleyball teams lived and trained in San Diego, south Mission Beach was home to more than a few of the tall, tan and talented set. And the beach courts at the south end of Mission Beach-about six blocks south of the roller coaster, nestled next to a parking lot and the now-refurbished basketball courts-saw their heyday during that time. Players who would go on to dominate the men's international volleyball circuit in the 1980s shared the courts with novice wannabes and cagey sand veterans alike, on the widest strip of sand between Imperial Beach and Encinitas. If it sounds like a beach bum's paradise, it was. These days, high real estate prices and crowded conditions have worsened, if you can imagine that-but the courts at south Mission remain at the highest level of competitiveness. Keep center court here and you're sure to be spiking some cola or a frosty brew in a TV commercial soon after.
-Will K. Shilling
Best creative outlet on the youth tip
Writerzblok graffiti yard on Broadway in Southeast San Diego is dedicated to positive change in its community. Funded by the Jacobs Center for Nonprofit Innovation, the yard has an array of walls taller than 10 feet covered with incredible local talent. Writerzblok hosts classes in murals, as well as competitions for artists. Props to the blok for knowing when it's onto something good-adding a skate park to the grounds is in the works.