The author's recent visit to San Diego included staying at the Kona Kai near this tuna fishermen memorial on Shelter Island.
Matt Kettmann

I’ve become quite familiar with San Diego over the 20 years that my brother has lived there, from late-night college burrito joints (French fries inside!) and dingy dive bars (Pacific Shores!) to the more family-friendly places we now take our kids (cue pandas at San Diego Zoo). But it’s a big city with lots of eclectic ’hoods, leaving plenty new to discover on weekend visits.

That’s why we pulled into the Kona Kai on Shelter Island around 11 p.m. on a Friday night, after a strategic post-traffic Santa Barbara departure that let the kids sleep most of the way. The resort is one of the centerpiece properties on this skinny stretch of developed sandbar at the northern end of San Diego Bay, where many locals, like my bro, rarely go. It started as a yacht club of sorts in 1953, became an inn six years later, and was extensively renovated in 2015 by the Noble House hotel group, which upped the spa, pool, fitness, kayaking, and beach bonfire s’more game. They’re adding dozens more rooms and are proud of the on-site Vessel Restaurant, where we’d later dine on, among other highlights, the porcini-dusted sea bass in a smoked bacon-dijon sauce.

For our first morning, we walked the bay-side trail, past the dramatic sculpture dedicated to dead tuna anglers, and onto the fishing pier, where Fathom Bistro bills itself as the “only craft beer bar literally on the water.” Our next stop was meeting up with my brother’s family at the big playground at Liberty Station, a massive former naval facility that’s now home to parks, big-box stores, and lots of smaller businesses, as well.

Oysters from FishBone Kitchen and grüner veltliner from Grape Smuggler, both housed in San Diego's Liberty Public Market.
Matt Kettmann

Our real destination — indeed, a main reason for the whole trip — was Liberty Public Market, the food hall to end all food halls. Including the next day’s return visit, we enjoyed the following: rajas, beef, and lobster tacos; trio of empanadas; half-dozen oysters; beetroot Reuben; harissa fries; ceviche tostada; spicy tuna roll; four different kinds of chicken sausage; fresh pasta to cook at my bro’s house; ice cream; smoothies; rosé from Baja; grüner veltliner from the Wachau; a gose collab from Evil Twin/Two Roads; and a Kölsch from Thorn Street. We never made it to the Stone Brewing garden next door.

Aside from all that eating and the mandatory zoo visit, we ventured to the Cabrillo National Monument at the mouth of the bay. After burning some calories walking along the wave-wracked bluffs — the tide was up, so no tide pools for us — we hit the monument itself, a stark white statue of Juan Cabrillo. He’d later die somewhere around our Channel Islands, but his first taste of what became California was somewhere on the shoals below. As we looked back at the San Diego skyline and pirate-like tall ships cruised by below, I wondered which neighborhood we’d hit up next time.


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