After a few years of knocking around with Hernán Cortés in Mexico, Spanish conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo hit the high seas. After months of traveling up the Baja, Cabrillo landed on the beach at Point Loma on Sept. 28, 1542. In the 450 years since the arrival of this first Westerner, the point and the surrounding area have been, well, almost completely transformed. To misquote David Byrne, what used to be covered with flowers is now a shopping mall; what was once a field is now covered with discount stores and 7-Elevens. Yet, like most neighborhoods, there's still a lot of curiosity and wonder if you can manage to slip between the luxury homes and massive strip malls.
In this glorious city of pavement and glass, the Cabrillo National Monument, at the tip of Point Loma, has managed to retain some of the wild that Cabrillo stumbled upon a few centuries ago. The park offers a view of San Diego's harbor and skyline unlike any other. At the peak of the park, where a 150-year-old lighthouse stands, you can see across the harbor, past Coronado island and all of downtown. In the winter, when the sun-seeking tourists are safely a thousand miles away, you can wander scrub and rocky coastline and, hopefully, in some serene Zen moment, see the spray of migrating gray whales. In a less Zen moment, grab a date, a bottle of wine and a picnic basket and explore low tide-you'll find flowery anemones, octopi and maybe even a secluded spot to make out (hey, it is a "point" after all).
A few quick tips: The park is pay-to-play and closes before sunset in the winter. To avoid subsidizing the National Park system, take the road right before the sign that reads "Tide Pool." Remember to check a tide chart so you don't end up swimming back to shore clutching your picnic basket.
Beyond the quiet majesty of Point Loma is Loma Portal. Crammed between Old Town, Ocean Beach and Point Loma, Loma Portal is the epicenter of all commerce in the galaxy. This is a place where there are actually both up and down escalators servicing the 24-hour Fitness so there's not much point discussing the high art and culture of the place. Other than one kick-ass music venue, Soma (3350 Sports Arena Blvd.), this place is all about our consumer culture-it's been statistically confirmed that every chain store in history has once found a home here. But don't be fooled by the glitter of Home Depot, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme-for every chain there is an equal or superior competitor.
The first great find is Baron's Supermarket (4001 W. Point Loma Blvd.). The place is clean, calm and crowded. Forget Trader Joe's, Baron's has all the same delicious snacks and cheap wine. The produce is also better and cheaper than competing supermarkets and organic, vegetarian and vegan options abound.
Further down the strip, just a stone's throw from Good Guys is Sound Company (3750 Sports Arena Blvd.). This is the kind of store that always creeped you out as a young audiophile (there's only, like, 14 things for sale), but will rock your world as an adult. It's the type of place where putting a stereo together is about tailoring the machine to your needs (read: there are no boom boxes). This means it's super-expensive, but even if you're not buying, it's nice to browse a place that still sells and services turntables because-well, turntables rule.
As for the all-you-can-eat culture, skip Souplantation and Soup 'n Salad Unlimited-if you're too lazy to spend three bucks cutting up some lettuce and tomatoes, then shame on you. Instead go to a place where you can't actually make the food yourself in five minutes. Both Café India (3760 Sports Arena Blvd.) and Fairouz Café (3166 Midway Drive) have all-you-can-eat buffets that are competitive in price, yet the cuisine is down right epicurean.
One thing the chain stores can't do is compete with old fashion niche marketing. That's why Comics "N Stuff and Kite Country can co-exist with Sears and Target. It reminds one of that single, tiny daisy that manages to push its way up between a crack in the oh-so-cruel pavement. But I digress. Comics "N Stuff (3166 Midway Drive) is an outcast's paradise. All the cool nerd accessories are here: Anime comics, D&D books and Magic cards. Kite Country (3350 Sports Arena Blvd.) also exudes an outsider's oasis feel. You really have to be into kites to get into some of this stuff like kites that pull off-road skateboards and hexagonal flying contraptions.
What you can't find in the chains or independents you'll find at Kobey's Swap Meet (Sports Arena). No ordinary dirty mall, this weekend tradition has everything from automobiles to Windex-yeah, that's right, you can actually buy bottles of Windex along with your produce, antiques and electronics. Cheap bastard? Go on Friday when the entrance fee is a half-priced 50 cents.
Being the true laissez faire wet dream, Loma Portal has a strip of strip clubs. If you don't care about beer or food and just want to see live woman with no clothes on, go to Déjà Vu (2720 Midway Drive). If you're a breast man who needs to be drunk and full of grease to muster the courage to slip dollar bills into G-strings, then Pacers (3334 Midway Drive) is your spot. Also not to miss for young go-getters is the Déjà Vu corporate office. Remember, nothing will make Mom prouder than to hear the words: "I landed that job as a junior marking executive with a chain of strip clubs."