San Diego Westin Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego Westin Gaslamp Quarter
Westin Gaslamp Quarter’s massive message. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

I began to let my mind wander across some of the destinations in which I’d experienced some situational sweetness.

 

As Good as it Gets

Considering Hollywood’s most memorable movie romances are ones in which the participants do not end up “happily ever after,” I began, in a series of columns, to let my mind wander across some of the destinations in which I’d experienced some situational sweetness. I’m not talking torrid times, but rather, relationships that weren’t going to get any better than they were during those golden moments at destinations designed to steal your heart:

A Tumbling Turn of Fate

She had literally stumbled into my path by barreling toward the coffee table just before taking the seminar stage in a Las Vegas breakout room at the annual Virtuoso Week Travel Conference. We were both wearing facemasks that morning, so our smiles weren’t visible but the humor of the clumsy collision of two tall professionals prompted a moment of comical commiseration.

As we steadied ourselves, she shrugged and joked, “I simply cannot make a presentation or speak without a coffee first.” 

Under my mask one corner of my mouth was lifted in a bemused, entertained grin. 

“Perfectly understandable,” I allowed. “That was some entrance. Break a leg up there.”

Her dress was colorful, and, on the dais, so was she. Compared to the other panelists, who were sharp and smooth with a smidgen of smarminess, I found her entirely authentic and genuine. The other professionals were buttoned-up and fine, but there is a difference between taking your work seriously…and taking yourself seriously. 

Her unvarnished enthusiasm made her cliched clunker line “travel is my life, and my life is travel” tolerable, especially in her slight Latin lilt. But her caffeinated contribution to the industry forum wasn’t facts and figures – it was honest, firsthand, beating heart storytelling about her recent “itinerary interruptus” in pandemic-pestered Portugal. I admired the way she described rolling with the necessary, creative adjustments. It made me trust her. And I felt certain clients who rely on her legendary travel advisor company appreciate her honest-to-goodness and on-the-ground experience.

 

Virtuoso’s Travel Week Las Vegas
Virtuoso’s Travel Week panels sparked my imagination. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

Travel Velocity

I enjoyed the presentation at Virtuoso Travel Week and learned a lot. But I had more to glean so I emailed the erstwhile, coffee-craving panelist and, from our homes six states away, we exchanged messages for a couple months. The exchanges were plucky, and like a game show that would test each other’s travel knowledge by sending photos we’d taken around the world while on the road: “Can you name this seafront European location?” 

I nearly fell off my chair when she was able to answer one of my challenge photos by identifying the doorman standing in front of the ornate, colonial, Oyster Box Hotel in Durban, South Africa. This worldly woman knew her stuff!

It wasn’t easy but I eventually stumped her by sending a curveball photo of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar. It was a trick of sorts because that magnificent resort property is in her hometown of San Diego!

Speaking of San Diego, other than our momentary coffee collision, we’d never even met or even spoken on the phone. My trails had taken me to Mackinac Island, and Utah’s Greater Zion Region, so we made plans to have dinner near her home on Coronado Island when I was then scheduled to be just 90 miles away in Los Angeles for a few days. 

“I know just the place to take you when you come down to San Diego,” she wrote with her typical, natural enthusiasm.  (Of course, with all of her travel expertise, she had a plan.)

 

Fairmont Grand Del Mar
At the Fairmont Grand Del Mar. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

Two People and Three Hotels

The night before we were to meet, while still in L.A., I texted over my last travel quiz challenge photo. I snapped it from my table at Spire 73, the rooftop bar at the InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles. I held a slender glass of golden champagne in the frame with the panoramic Pacific sunset and skyline view behind the bubby. She messaged back something sweet and while I was 73 stories up, we were 24 hours from meeting. 

A 120-mile drive south down I-5 the next placed me checking-in to San Diego’s Westin Gaslamp Quarter, where a $17-million in renovations helped create rooms like the WestinWorkout room I was given with a Peloton exercise bike in it. Westin’s re-investment in the well-located hotel adjacent to the Padres home baseball stadium and the nightlife of Gaslamp Quarter also created a welcoming lobby bar, which is where I was headed after showering, shaving and dressing for a drink before ducking out for dinner. 

I was sipping my solitary glass of red wine to cut my nerves when a couple chatted me up.

“You look like you’re going to a wedding?” the woman asked. 

“Well, not just quite yet.” I deadpanned back with my own private joke.

I was dressed my best, and however, headed to Serea, the seafront seafood restaurant on Coronado Island my dinner companion had chosen for us. Serea, with its organic, “ocean-friendly” menu is in the historic Hotel Del Coronado – circa 1888. As I approached the entrance door a group of three younger men passing me going the other way, looked me over and engaged me. 

“Man, you’re looking good,” one of them said, saluting me in a sing-song cadence. “Yeah, brother. Sharp!”

In a town that once hosted the America’s Cup races, that statement put more winds of confidence in my sails.

 

San Diego’s Westin Gaslamp Quarter Hotel
San Diego’s Westin Gaslamp Quarter Hotel. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

Gift Shop Lift

With my Prada loafers lifted by these random votes of encouragement, it seemed I was walking, or rather gliding, on the right path that night. Until, that is, I got inside “the Del” and found it to be a castle-like campus unto itself: an indoor rabbit warren of lobbies, hallways, pathways, and flowered courtyards. I followed my better angels (ignoring a cliched male stereotype of an aversion to asking for directions) and decided to duck into the Del’s Signature Shop to ask for directions. I didn’t want to be late.

“Serea is just down the hall, out to the back patio and to the right,” said the older woman behind the counter before her counterpart, a woman stocking inventory, chimed in.

“It is a special occasion?” she asked.

“Well…in a sense, yes. Yes, I’d say it is,” I answered – once again amusing myself privately. 

“I knew it,” she countered with a big smile. “It’s always a special occasion when someone goes to Serea.”

I thanked the ladies.

“Have a special night,” she said grinning as if she was now in on a secret. 

I started down the hallway very much liking the idea my new friend had chosen Serea for our dinner.

Bubbly Disposition

The entrance to Serea is on the back, western-facing ground-level side of the Hotel Del Coronado. It was very festive on the expansive back lawn as a mix of hotel guests, tourists and attendees at what appeared to be a balloon-festooned celebration in the softening golden California twilight. The restaurant appeared quiet, though, and the walkway was bathed in setting sunlight when I arrived at the white maître d stand. The 5:30 reservation she’d made was under her name but despite the fact she lived next to the hotel, she wasn’t there yet. Rather than meet her empty-handed, I stepped up to the adjacent tiki bar and quickly ordered two glasses of champagne. 

I tapped my toe with nervous impatience as the bartender dawdled a bit, opening the bottle and funneling the bubby into the flutes. Without a second to spare I was able to present the glasses as a greeting and provoke a sublime smile as she spotted me while strolling up the sidewalk. It was a champagne moment – followed by a toast – and a table overlooking the Pacific at a gentle, sophisticated restaurant we had virtually to ourselves.

 

The Hotel Del Coronado
The Hotel Del Coronado. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

Fine Dining and Gourmet Conversation 

Serea Coastal Cuisine describes itself as a “sea-to-table” dining experience serving sustainable from San Diego down the Baja Peninsula by Chef Jojo Ruiz, a Californian who includes a Mediterranean flair, and sources ingredients from purveyors such as Pacifico Aquaculture, known for its innovative, sustainability-first farming program for ocean-raised sea bass. 

Our lively, joyful dinner conversation and laughs flowed back and forth across the table without seams so eating seemed secondary, but we started with the Serea Mezze. It was perfect to pick at the marinated olives, marcona almonds, hummus tahini, salsa macha, whipped farmers cheese and grilled pita. We didn’t really need to order mains, since the conversation was so satiating, but we dutifully added Pacifico striped bass to the sips of sauvignon blanc that followed the champagne. 

The culinary presentations were as visually appealing as the white, blue and gray patterned skirt she wore and my somewhat sympatico white linen paisley jacket.

Sunset to Starlight

We strolled down the sidewalk for a margarita nightcap on the patio at the hotel’s Babcock & Story Bar, where a deejay played pop-hits. The only song I recall was a Beatles tune that provoked conversation about how she’d met Paul McCartney. I had once met Billy Joel. Given our intriguing lives in travel, never once did we try to trump each other. We shared stories and sentiments of countries and continents, resorts and retreats. 

She entertained with stories of her studies at The Sorbonne and life in London; her early years growing up in Mexico; her San Diego television work; her daughter’s school bus schedule and her brother’s participation in their wildly successful family travel advisor business founded by her mother – who she referred to as “Big Mama.” (Big Mama, by the way, has a ticket to space aboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic when her turn comes up.) 

After a margarita we walked under the stars along the Pacific to the parking lot where she put me in her personal, neighborhood golf cart – customized with doors – for a ride to my car. Since she loves Paris, we bid each other adieu. 

When I got back to the valet entrance of the Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter Hotel, the large wall bordering the entrance was lit up by a large projected mural. It was, like the couple in the bar; the fellows who complimented my appearance; and the gift shop ladies who felt something special was in the air; yet another fun coincidence. The light-up mural read “Tonight is a good night for a good night.”   

 

Pacific sunset
Pacific sunset. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

 

The Morning After the Night Before

The next morning, in keeping with my passion and profession, I was up early on my way back north to Anaheim to check out the latest additions to Disneyland. It was starting to get light in the Golden State at 6:30 when, as I steered my rental car north, I noticed the scenic Del Mar Race Track off to my left. The next landmark visible from the freeway would be the Mission at San Juan Capistrano – where the swallows return each year.

I was alone with my thoughts while my radio was blaring a bumping tune by 2Pac called “California Love.” As I streamed past the palm trees while I grooved to the song, I also heard the alert of an early morning text message hit my I-phone. 

“Ping!” 

The Bluetooth screen on my dashboard spelled the message out. It was from my worldly, charming dinner companion. The text read: 

“Thank you so very much. Last night was a perfect evening.”

Post-Mortem Postcards

My road life and profession then took me to the Dominican Republic, Germany, Mexico, Arizona, and Cuba and beyond since our sunset dinner. Instead of texting with her I now occasionally stick a stamp on a handwritten postcard and drop it in the old-fashioned mail from places like Leipzig, Mazatlan, or Miami. She’s since been to London, Scotland, and Napa Valley.

Given our globetrotting our paths will maybe cross again somewhere out there. But only maybe. But, to use a Casablanca cliche…we’ll always have Serea. “A perfect evening.” 

Hollywood Ending

Billy Crystal’s “City Slickers” was a comedic adventure but Jack Palance, playing Curly the cowboy, added an element of the sort of momentary road romance I speak of when he was asked if he’d ever been in love?

He explained that once, while on horseback, he’d spotted a young woman in the field working in the dirt. With a faraway look in his eye Curly described her as wearing a little cotton dress when she stood up to stretch her back with the setting sun behind her. 

“I turned around and rode away. “I figured it wasn’t going to get any better than that,” he explained.

When a chagrined Billy Crystal’s character Mitch protested and suggested the cowboy should have pursued the woman because she could have been the love of his life, Curly explained to him, “…She is.”

 

Read more on Michael Patrick Shiels’ travel blog, The Travel Tattler. Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]

Michael Patrick Shiels

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