In too many parts of this great country of ours, the weather's gone sour – goodbye sunny October days, hello damp and cold November. It's in times like these that our minds begin wandering, to places where the weather never, ever goes sour. Few places can boast as reliable a track record for sunshine and relative warmth than San Diego; luckily, weather isn't the only reason the city's a whole bunch of fun right now.
And with the economic downturn impacting some of its key markets, such as Arizona and the rest of Southern California, San Diego is shaping up to be one of the best travel bargains around right now, with some really low airfares and a lot of attractive hotel deals, great outlet shopping, a world-famous zoo, wonderful beaches, luxe spas, and some amazing wineries. So slap on the sunscreen and get moving – we've got a whole bunch of stuff for you to do, just as soon as your flight lands.
OUT OF AFRICA You've heard of the San Diego Zoo, but did you know about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? Located way up in the northern part of San Diego County, think of this 1,800-acre preserve as the closest thing to a real, live, African safari this side of Africa. Or, at the very least, that Kilimanjaro Safari Park ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. You'll find 3,500 animals from nearly 300 species, ranging from red-fronted gazelles to Sumatran tigers. Rowrr.
SAY SPAAAAAH! San Diego is world-renowned for its destination spas; something about that warm desert climate that promotes the idea of not being a total couch potato, we guess. But the best spa in the region isn't the flashiest; it's tucked away down on the other side of the border, just outside of the sleepy town of Tecate. The 70 year-old Rancho La Puerta – the world's first fitness spa -- offers some of the best value for money you'll find at a spa in this part of the world. Come for a week, stay as long as you like.
A BEACH OF ONE'S OWN Speaking of the border – not all Southern California beaches are crowded; in fact, there are some that are so beautiful and yet so quiet, it's almost freaky. That's what you'll find down at Border Fields State Park, otherwise known as our favorite beach in San Diego County. On a sunny Saturday, which is most Saturdays, it's not out of the question that you'll be the only one there. Getting there takes work, though; the government is continually making up new excuses to keep the park gate shut; we suspect it's to discourage visitors to the area completely. When you complete the one-plus mile hike out to the beach and down towards Tijuana, you get a pretty good idea as to why – once it gets down to the beach, the border wall kind of just stops, allowing just about anyone who wants to the chance to slip through. Not only is it a pretty beach (occasional empty water bottle pile-up aside), on weekends, you'll hear some pretty decent live music from the bars in Mexico.
ESCAPE FROM IT ALL As good as the spas are in San Diego, sometimes we just don't feel like lifting a finger. That's okay – there are plenty of resorts in the region, staffed by the sort of people who are just waiting for us to press a button and ask to have, say, another bottle of champagne sent up to the patio. This fall, you can get some great rates at some of the area's most exclusive properties – check out the Park Hyatt Aviara, for instance, with its great views from up on a hill overlooking the Batiquitos Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean; through Dec. 31, get your third night free, plus a $50 resort credit.
PRADO, PRADO, PRADO! Right at the heart of the city's gorgeous Balboa Park, you'll find El Prado, one of the most beautiful streets in the United States. Of course, it's not so much an actual street as it is a collection of ornate Spanish revival/baroque buildings dating back to nearly 100 years ago, when the park was the site of the Panama-California Exposition. Today, the buildings are largely occupied by museums; of all the high-profile choices here, though, our favorite is the less-known Mingei International Museum, dedicated to folk art and contemporary craft from around the world.
RAISE A GLASS Did you know that there are more than 50 wineries in San Diego County right now? Did you know that there are a couple dozen more near Ensenada, just south of the border, in the striking Valle de Guadelupe? You do now. When in this part of the world, there's no need to drink the vino from faraway places like Napa, or even Santa Barbara – stick with the local stuff, which can often be really, really good. We're fans of the rich reds at Fallbrook Winery  up in the very northern part of the county; ditto the elegant blends at Vinas Pijoan in the Valle de Guadelupe, all named after the women in the winemaker's life (we're into the Leonora, a perfect marriage of Cab/Merlot.)
CATCH A WAVE Ever want to learn how to surf, but don't know where to start? The laidback beach scene here is the perfect place for newbies to get on, er, board – seven days a week, the dudes at Surfari welcome beginners for two hour lesson that include both on-land and in-the-water practice. Classes are held in Mission Beach, starting at 9, 11, 1 and 3. Anyone's welcome, and you can even book private lessons if you're embarrassed to be seen by others. Bring your swimsuit and a towel, and you're ready to go.
FIND YOUR OUTLET As a popular destination for both vacationers and shoppers from just south of the border, San Diego is blessed with a whole heap of great outlet malls. Our advice? Don't choose just one, try them all, from the fancy-schmancy Carlsbad Premium Outlets  – think Barneys New York, think Ferragamo – to the striking Las Americas, a vast outdoor pedestrian village built directly on the border to attract well-heeled residents of Tijuana, who flock to an excellent selection of stores including Neiman Marcus Last Call and a superb (and relatively hard-to-find) Under Armour boutique. For a nice selection of more typical outlet brands in a pleasant atmosphere, visit the pretty Viejas Outlet Center, located inland – think Levi's, Eddie Bauer and Nautica.
And it's all quite inexpensive to fly to, as you can see from this current list of low airfares into San Diego.
with reporting by David Landsel