This tourist-driven, boat-imbued gateway to the city is in need of a makeover—but is still a raw beauty

(“The Streets of San Diego” is an ongoing series and part of a road-by-road introduction to the downtown core.)

There’s a funny scene in the 1996 dark comedy Flirting With Disaster that showcases Harbor Drive—the main driving thoroughfare from the San Diego International Airport into downtown.

In the film, stars Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Téa Leoni land at the airport, rent a car and head south into the city.

The filmmakers take some liberties. Visual cuts to actual Harbor Drive signage are out of order. And the scene that shows the car navigating on and off the I-5 freeway on its way toward downtown? That’s impossible.

The best shot in the movie’s opening montage is a sweeping aerial view of Harbor Drive as it bends to the right along the San Diego Bay. You see the North Embarcadero walkway abutting a sparkling waterfront. The bay is lined with bobbing sailboats.

It’s a gorgeous introduction to Downtown San Diego. (If you want to see how things go slightly awry for Stiller and his co-starts on Harbor Drive, check out the clip from the movie, below.)

Lights, Camera, Inaction

If Stiller and his co-stars would have gotten out of the car just after the sweeping right turn onto Harbor Drive, they could have toured the many fascinating watercraft docked along the North Embarcadero.

A Maritime Museum includes the Star of India (built in 1863, it’s the world’s oldest active sailing vessel). Massive cruise ships dock along Harbor Drive. Active ferries chug in and out. Bay tour vessels of all shapes and sizes abound.

There’s an aircraft carrier museum with a deck covered by vintage planes and helicopters. And a speed boat takes passengers out to do doughnuts and 50-mph sprints in the bay.

It’s an inspired collection of nautical-themed attractions. It’s too bad all this isn’t organized with coherence or in an esthetically pleasing manner.

Sprucing up this area is a sore subject for San Diego natives and civic planners. The latest concerted effort came in 1998, when a coalition of political forces created the North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan.

Calling the region San Diego’s ‘front door,” the plan called for broad revitalization—ranging from the airport down Harbor Drive to Seaport Village (a quaint collection of retail and restaurants).

Needless to say, San Diegans are still waiting for the “visionary” part of the plan to emerge.

All The Pretty Boats

Despite a slapdash presentation, there are cool, floating sights along Harbor Drive’s North Embarcadero.

The Maritime Museum’s Berkeley steam ferry from 1898.

Maritime Museum. Along with the iconic and historic Star of India (which sets sail once or twice a year), there’s a recreation of the San Salvador (which came to San Diego under command of explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542), and the Berkeley, the first successful propeller-driven steam ferry on the West Coast (1898).

Portside Pier. This dining mecca is a recent sign of forward progress. Replacing beloved-but-aged Anthony’s Fish Grotto, Portside is built on an over-the-water platform. Always buzzing, it’s the site of multiple restaurants, including Brigantine Seafood and Oyster Bar, Miguel’s Cocina, Ketch Grill and Taps and Portside Coffee & Gelato.

The Disney Wonder cruise ship.

Cruise ship terminals. The Port of San Diego’s B-Street Pier & Cruise Ship Terminal, and the Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier, are where ocean-faring cruise ships dock. It’s been a rough two years for the cruise industry, but September brought the 965-foot, 2,400-capacity Disney Wonder (pictured, above) to Harbor Drive.

Coronado ferry. Flagship runs an idyllic, sun-splashed ferry boat back and forth between the Broadway Pier on Harbor Drive and the Coronado Ferry Landing. It’s a 15-minute trip that leaves San Diego on the hour and Coronado on the half hour (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.). Roundtrip is $12, and you can take your bicycle aboard.

The Patriot Speed Boat. You’ll get wet.

Patriot speed boat. Feel the need for speed? Flagship also operates a red-white-and-blue Patriot Jet Boat that will take you for a 30-minute joy ride filled with momentum-altering spins and a few other tricks. They supply you with a plastic poncho, but rest assured you’ll come back splashed by sea spray.

U.S.S. Midway Museum. The longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th Century has been a floating museum since 2004. The Midway just missed service in World War II, but was used extensively during the Vietnam War and subsequent U.S. military operations. Today, visitors can do extensive tours of the ship. A 20th anniversary memorialization of 9/11/11 is planned.

The Unconditional Surrender Statue, in front of the USS Midway.

Tuna Harbor Park. Decades ago, this area was a vibrant tuna fishing port. Today, only a few industrial working boats remain. Next to the harbor is a park with an eclectic trio of must-sees.

  • The Fish Market restaurant (which also sells fresh seafood to go) is a local staple.
  • The National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military is a sobering exhibit.
  • And call it kitschy, but folks love taking photos in front of the Unconditional Surrender Statue (pictured, above). It’s a 25-foot recreation of a famous 1945 photograph of a sailor celebrating the end of World War II with an unrequested kiss with a nurse.

The foyer at The Fish Market.

Further down Harbor Drive from Tuna Harbor is Seaport Village. The San Diego Sun will take a deeper dive at this retail work-in-progress in a future installment of the “Streets of San Diego.” SDSun



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