Sunday, September 16, 2012

Today was our relocation day: we moved from our vacation apartment in Solana Beach in San Diego to the chic Sofia Hotel in downtown San Diego. On another brilliant day we arrived at the hotel at about 10 am, but our room was not ready yet, so we decided to embark on some brief local explorations.
Seaport Village’s Victorian, Mexican and East Coast style architecture and its four miles of meandering cobble-stoned walkways create an inviting waterfront environment for shopping and dining. The assortment of merchandise includes souvenirs, clothing, kites, wind chimes and unique gift ideas. Galleries and art retailers round out the offering, and live music is offered frequently throughout the year. An original 1895 carousel with hand carved animals enchants adults and children. Culinary options include four fine dining restaurants and thirteen casual eateries.
An outdoor exhibit of oversized globes currently adds extra interest to Seaport Village. “Cool Globes – Hot ideas for a cooler planet” features 40 inspiring globes that depict simple solutions to global warming. The globes were designed by local, national and international artists and have been traveling on the road in places such as Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco and will be on display in Los Angeles and London in 2009.
Further north of Seaport Village is the Embarcadero which features the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was in operation between 1945 and 1992. It was donated as a museum ship and has been moored on San Diego’s Navy Pier since 2004. Visitors can tour the ship’s flight deck, mess hall, bridge, flight control area, officers’ quarters, sickbay and portions of the engine room. Evening events are frequently held on this massive ship and a café adorns the rear of the ship. A portion of the ship overlooking San Diego Harbor can be accessed free of charge while admission to the rest of the ship is $17.00.
San Diego has long been a centre for the US Navy and the area around the USS Midway features many reminders of military history including the Battle of Leyte Gulf Memorial, dedicated to a historic naval battle in 1944. The Bob Hope Tribute, also called the National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military, is an impressive collection of larger than life-size bronze figures that commemorate Bob Hope’s five decades of support in entertaining soldiers, airmen and sailors, starting in 1943.
The National Salute consists of 16 figures on a circular plaza that surround a sculpture of Bob Hope, entertaining the crowd in front of a microphone. The surrounding figures are authentic depictions of military personnel from different eras including World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War era and the first Persian Gulf War.
Among the many pieces of public art along this waterfront walk, one of the most stunning is “Unconditional Surrender”, a 25-foot sculpture of a sailor kissing a young nurse. The sculpture commemorates the moment when World War II was finally over, and joy and euphoria swept the world. Inspired by a famous photo of the V-J Day Celebrations on Times Square, this sculpture by Seward J. Johnson is on loan to the San Diego port until the end of February of 2009.
Further north along the waterfront is the Cruise Terminal, located at the B Street Pier along North Harbour Drive. San Diego is a port of call for many major cruise lines including Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Carribean and Princess Cruises. Almost 620,000 cruise passengers arrived in San Diego in 2006. Local harbour cruises can also be accessed in this area, and a central office of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau is located right across the street from the cruise terminal.
Now it was time to head back into the head hotel and finally check in. Within less than ten minutes I had arrived at the Sofia Hotel. The front office staff was very friendly, and our suitcases had already been brought up to Suite 602, a Deluxe Studio Suite. Our sleek modern bedroom was enhanced by a sitting room with a second flat screen television and an ergonomic desk. Our bathroom featured a full bath with a luxurious shower head, and a vanity area complete with fresh orchids in the bedroom area.
Always driven by my curiosity, I managed to convince two of the hotel’s employees to give me a tour of the entire hotel a few minutes later. Brian Wells from the front desk and Danny Miranda, a bellboy, graciously agreed and started by explaining the history of the Hotel Sofia to me. Two of the hotel’s towers were built in 1926 and opened a year later as the Pickwick Hotel. The property was part of the Pickwick Corporation, a company that provided 22 stage coach routes in California. The design was Neo Gothic and in 1928 two additional hotel towers were added.
From 1928 to 1944 the hotel even became the location of a broadcasting station called KGB (no association with the former Russian secret service agency). In 1929 Pickwick Stages merged with the Greyhound Corporation. During the 1940s and 1950s the Pickwick Hotel remained a popular tourist and entertainment location, and locals and guests alike enjoyed the Piccadilly Lounge. During the 1950s city council required the decorative architectural elements to be removed from the façade, to prevent potential injuries during an earthquake.
From the mid 1950s to the mid 1980s downtown San Diego experienced a protracted decline and lost its luster as a retail and entertainment destination. Now under new ownership, the Pickwick Hotel started to show its age as well.
New owners Ken Winslow and Harki Parekh purchased the property in 1986 and systematically started to repair the hotel over the next 20 years. With the opening of the immensely successful Horton Plaza retail mall, the rejuvenation of the historic Gaslamp District and the construction of Petco Park, downtown San Diego became a desirable destination again. The location of this hotel was absolutely ideal for us in our discoveries of downtown San Diego.
After this brief introduction of the hotel’s history, we stepped outside the hotel, which is located at the intersection of West Broadway and First Avenue. The statue of the businessman outside the entrance was dedicated to the Center City Development Corporation and City Council as a way of thanking the city for revitalizing this entire district. Brian pointed out that Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District are literally just a 10 minute walk away. The Sofia is also just seven blocks from the waterfront and the Port area.
Talking about history, the Sofia Hotel became a member of the Historic Hotels of America last year and is the only historic hotel in downtown San Diego. A photo in the entrance area shows the radio towers that used to adorn the hotel in 1934 where 50,000 Watts of airwaves were beamed out all over San Diego.
In a hallway to the left of the lobby we stopped to admire some pictures of the renovation. Brass pictures of the designer, the architects and the owners adorn the wall. One of the pictures shows the renovation, and the unique thing about the entire remodeling process was that the owners kept 12 housekeepers as well as Brian and Danny on staff to help with the demolition. The team removed carpets, ceiling fans, sinks and toilets from 242 hotel rooms, and 720 old doors were ripped out. Danny and Brian said it was great to keep their jobs during the renovation phase and to participate in the transformation of this hotel. Their sense of ownership and pride of the newly restored and glamorous Sofia Hotel was obvious.
Less than three weeks away from Christmas, the lobby was aglow with holiday decorations. Brian added that the hotel currently features a total of 14 Christmas trees, all decorated by the owners. Real orchids adorn the common areas as well as all the hotel rooms. At the back of the lobby facing the entrance is a painting of a young girl on the beaches of Coronado. This girl, Ken Winslow’s granddaughter, is named Sofia and was the inspiration for the new name of the completely remodeled hotel. A cozy sitting area invites guests to sit down and relax by the fireplace.
To the left of the lobby is the business centre which features three brand-new desktop computers, high-speed fibre-optic Internet, colour and black & white printers and fax capabilities. This business centre is available to the guests 24 hours a day.
Strolling back out into the lobby we turned right into “Currant”, the sleek modern 120-seat restaurant on the- main floor of the Hotel Sofia. Established in 2007, Currant offers upscale American-French cuisine and is open every day for hotel guests and the public. High ceilings, graphic tiles, elaborate chandeliers, uniquely-styled furniture and a private room secluded with sheer curtains, offer a sophisticated ambience.
Heading upstairs now we were on the mezzanine level where several of the Sofia’s awards are proudly on display. Within less than two years since its reopening, the Sofia Hotel has won two Best of Citysearch awards as well as an Expedia Insider’s Select Award. This distinction is only granted to the top 1% of hotels. The restaurant has also won some awards, and the Sofia has also garnered an ASID Design Excellence Award.
Around the corner Brian and Danny took me to two state-of-the-art conference rooms that are equipped for video conferencing and projection. The larger boardroom holds 32 people while the smaller 20-seat boardroom is anchored by a massive antique wooden table. Down the corridor we stepped into the Yoga and Fitness Centre, an amenity that is open 24 hours a day. The hotel even has its own yoga trainer and offers guests TVs, DVD players, fresh towels, bottled water, and infused orange water. The Sofia Hotel has even produced its own yoga DVD!
After the common facilities Brian and Danny took me to room 633, a corner room. A standard room with a queen bed, this room offers an excellent view towards the Port of San Diego. A smaller-size but well-designed room, it features high-quality beds, therapeutic queen pillow tops and luxurious down comforters. A flat-panel TV, digital safe, ironing board and iron, and blow dryer add to the amenities. A coffee maker and a microwave allow guests to look after their most basic needs. Ice machines on different floors provide the necessary cooling power for a private evening retreat with champagne.
The hallways are decorated in a sophisticated sage green colour scheme and the carpet is of upscale quality. After the renovation, the number of rooms was reduced to 211 guest rooms, down from the original 242 rooms. The extra space was taken up by the conference rooms and the yoga / fitness studio.
Steps away in suite 601, Brian illustrated the conveniences of a private bedroom featuring a queen size bed and a sofa pullout bed in the sitting room. A queen-size suite can therefore accommodate up to four people. High-tech reading lights can be angled in any direction, and the alarm clock radio comes with an Ipod / MP3 docking station. Flat panel TVs are available in the bedroom and the sitting room. All the vanity areas feature attractive dark wood cabinets, all adorned with real orchids. Upscale soaps and toiletries pamper the guests, and bottled water is complimentary.
To conclude the tour, Brian and Danny gave me a few tips for exploring San Diego: Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, Seaworld, Old Town, Seaport Village and Coronado are among the most popular local tourist attractions. The upscale area of La Jolla and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography are a little further afield. I was already looking forward to joining tomorrow morning’s tour through the Gaslamp District, offered free by the Sofia Hotel. A visit to Balboa Park would round out our adventures in San Diego.
Not only had we found a great central location in San Diego; by staying at the Sofia Hotel we had also connected with local history and discovered a unique place that has tastefully preserved a 1920s property and brought it into the new millennium with top-notch modern amenities.

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