Since World War I, the Navy has been big in San Diego -- so big, in fact, that locals and tourists alike tend to take it for granted. But the Navy’s footprint here is well worth examining.
Even without setting foot on Naval Base San Diego (the largest Navy base on the West Coast, with more than 50 ships and 20,000 military personnel), a visitor, whether hawk or dove, can spend hours or days looking at publicly accessible Navy spots.
Beyond the history lessons they tell, they include dramatic views, serious weaponry, historic hardware and architecture, bike paths, playgrounds and, yes, ballet lessons.
* USS Midway Museum, (619) 544-9600, www.midway.org, on the Embarcadero downtown, served as an aircraft carrier from 1945 to 1992. When commissioned, it was among the largest ships in the world, 1,001 feet long and 258 feet wide. (Mileage? 260 gallons per mile.) By the time it was retired, it had served longer than any other aircraft carrier, housing about 4,500 sailors at a time. Since 2004, it’s been open to the public as a museum. Its 4-acre flight deck -- a fine place to be at sunset -- holds about two dozen aircraft, some of which you can climb into. Three flight simulators and dozens of exhibits are arrayed in the below-decks space of the behemoth ship. At $18 per adult, it’s not cheap. But the audio tour allows welcome independence as you roam the vessel. And unless you enlist, how else are you going to get on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
* Liberty Station ( www.libertystation.com) in Point Loma housed 1.75 million sailors in its years as a naval training center from 1923 to 1997. At one point during World War II, 33,000 sailors lived on-site. But now it’s gone civilian. With its most significant Spanish Revival buildings preserved and adapted, the 361-acre complex has been redeveloped as a new neighborhood, with more than 20 restaurants and 125 acres of open space, including a grass-fringed esplanade for walkers and cyclists, two playgrounds, basketball courts and ball fields. There’s also the nine-hole public Sail Ho golf course.
Historic buildings now house retailers, offices and a clutch of arts organizations (including the San Diego Watercolor Society and the San Diego Ballet). New buildings include a residential area and two family-friendly hotels (Homewood Suites by Hilton and Courtyard by Marriott).
The complex stands just a mile or two from the airport, convenient to the waterfront, downtown and Point Loma. Meanwhile next door, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot remains in business. For info on the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Command Museum, call (619) 524-6038.
* Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, on Catalina Boulevard, www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/ftrosecrans.asp, must be among the most spectacularly sited graveyards in California. The 77.5-acre spot sits atop Point Loma, neighboring various mysterious contemporary Navy operations, looking down upon San Diego Bay and the runway of Naval Air Station North Island. Many cyclists include it on their rides, especially in the morning when traffic is thinner.
As of the end of fiscal 2008, 96,626 veterans and their loved ones were at rest here. Just south of the cemetery, you reach Cabrillo National Monument, 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, (619) 557-5450, www.nps.gov/cabr, which includes more spectacular views, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse (1855), and a visitor center where rangers can tell you how Juan Cabrillo found his way here in 1542.
This spot is good for watching gray whales in January and February. And any day of year, between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., you can follow the road down to the water’s edge to hike along surf-lashed bluffs and tide pools. Entry to the monument: $5 per car.
* OK, maybe doves and those with sensitive ears won’t be interested in this option. But the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar stages a yearly air show. In 2010, the MCAS Miramar Air Show ( www.miramarairshow.com) will run Oct. 1-3, and tickets go on sale in May. For info on the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at MCAS Miramar, call (858) 693-1723 or check www.flyingleathernecks.org.