If your sister, brother, aunt, uncle or favorite mother-in-law is coming to San Diego, and you don’t have the time or patience to show them around, for $5 to $10 per person local tour services offer a wide spectrum of tours and activities ranging from a narrated bus tour of the city to a tourmaline dig in an abandoned mine.
Since each touring service I looked into visits almost the identical areas, and since the individual guides differ in their experience and personality, it seems that the best way to choose a tour is by price and mode of transportation. All companies require reservations at least an hour in advance, and will make arrangements to pick up car-less tourists at their hotels. (I did basic comparisons between companies by taking a half-day tour of the city whenever possible.)
GROUP BUS TOURS
Narrated bus tours of the city do not differ much in the areas covered, but in how many passengers the company wants to squeeze into a bus. All the buses were comfortable, but the companies using larger buses tend to give a more impersonal tour.
Gray Line Tours, Harbor Drite at Broadway, has city tours daily. Adults $6. children $3 for a three-and a half hour tour. (233-7676).
According to a company spokeswoman. Gray Line entered the touring business in 1904 in Los Angeles, long before cars or buses were popular, but not before tourists. The company expanded to San Diego in the thirties, and their big. gray, air-conditioned buses with the red stripes and the inevitable American flag decals have been showing off San Diego ever since.
“During the winter months we carry about 1,200 people a month, and it can double over the summer." said the helpful reservation clerk.
Gray Line offers free pick up and delivery service at most hotels and motels. Customers are collected and loaded onto 44-seat buses at the corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive. The drivers serve as guides as you tour La Jolla, Cabrillo National Monument, Mission Bay Park, Shelter Island, Harbor Island, downtown. Balboa Park and Old Town. A lot of ground is covered, and the information is factual if not fascinating. This tour is not for active or more imaginative tourists. The bus only stops twice. 15 minutes at Cabrillo Monument on Point Loma, and for an hour of exploring the Bazaar Del Mundo at Old Town.
For a more intimate tour, the de Touring Co. (272-1900) has a four hour city tour for S6.50.
"We're a great mother-in-law sitter service," offered Christine Long, a de Touring employee.
The afternoon I tried de Tour around San Diego. I was picked up at a Mission Valley hotel, and spent four hours with four realtors from Louisville, five nurses from Iowa, two housewives from Oregon, a grandmother from Santa Barbara, and a girl from a small town in Ohio who said she played the electric guitar.
Sandy, our guide, a shaggy-haired drama major at State University, gives tours on his days off from school. (He spoke beautiful English, of course, but de Touring boasts having guides who speak all languages, including Swahili.)
Collecting all the women at various hotels took over an hour. Sandy didn’t say a word after his friendly welcome, until we dropped the girl from Ohio off at the Zoo.
When he did begin his casual palter about places of interest as we rolled past them, it was difficult to hear. But the women seemed to content themselves with talking to each other instead of listening to the guide. We drove through Balboa Park, learned of its interesting history, viewed the El Cortez Hotel’s glass elevator (which Sandy said was the first of its kind in the world and was built because there was no space inside for another elevator). He inched the van through downtown traffic, and finally made it to the fresh air of Point Loma.
"I swear the streets here are washed every night!" exclaimed one Louisville realtor, as she ran for the restroom at the Cabrillo Monument. This was the first stop, and all the ladies congregated in the restroom and then at the concession stand to discuss what they’d learned about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his fateful discovery of the San Diego harbor.
Sandy herded his harem back into the 14-passenger van, “I sometimes have men on my tours, but mostly women take our tours while their husbands are busy at meetings or conventions.”
The last stop was at the Bazaar Del Mundo again (I don’t know if tour companies are in cahoots with the shop owners in the Bazaar, but every tour brought customers there to shop.) The shops are pleasantly empty during the week. An hour later, the happy bunch of women climbed into the van with their straw flowers and ceramic burros for the trip back to their hotels.
Another service, Cush Tours (239-9711) picks up its customers in maxivans and disgorges them into big. double-decker buses at the Santa Fe-Amtrak station downtown. Cush began offering tours to individuals last February, and has a S6 for adults, $3 for children halfday tour of the city which begins at 9 a.m. daily.
Cush Tour drivers also serve as guides on this tour which explores La Jolla, Mission Bay Park, downtown. Balboa Park and Old Town, but "our drivers can be swayed by the majority if shutter bugs want to stop for pictures." said one of their young guides.
The tour is informative, but the guide on my tour was not as well-informed about current events as he could be. When questions were asked about all the construction and demolished buildings down-town, he didn’t have any facts about San Diego’s massive redevelopment project. A few anecdotes on local historical figures would have also spiced up the lour.
For a much more unique touring experience, the California Student Guide Service (582-3062) will create a specialized tour for even the wackiest tourist.
Andy Phemister, a 20-year-old public administration major at State University , started as a guide in the company, which is owned by two young partners. He was promoted to manager and is probably the youngest manager of a local tour company. The service started with buses, but they found it was more economical and interesting to create personalized tours and have the customer drive his own car.
"Our service is very personal, as opposed to some idiot in a bus rattling off a memorized speech." said Andy."If a customer has a special interest, we will provide a college student who is an expert on whatever it may be. who can arrange a private tour."Prices vary according to the tour and time spent, but Andy estimates the cost at about S5 an hour. (Since his students don’t have chauffeur licenses, the customer must drive, but he says the guides give excellent directions.)
Andy can set up rock hounds with a geology major, or history nuts with a "super-Western history buff." Rick the rock hound escorts customers up to the abandoned Tourmaline Queen Mine in Pala. Pala is about 30 miles north of Escondido, and prospectors cross through the Pala Indian Reservation (for a small fee) to reach the mine. Rick and his clients hike up to the mine and sift through the rubble for left-over gems.
"This tour is for outdoor-type people, and people who like to pack a picnic and spend a day exploring,” explained Rick. He can squeeze the tour into half a day, but prefers to stay up at the mine longer.
The history nuts are turned over to Max for a two hour California Heritage Tour. They tour the San Diego Mission, the Presidio and Old Town, with Max providing detailed information on the Spanish. Mexican, and American influences on San Diego's history.
"We love San Diego and want to show it off,” concludes Andy.
For the ultimate in personal tours, wealthy tourists can call the Carey Limousine Chauffeur and Guide Service, (232-3972). Cadillac "75" limousines are available for S12 an hour with a three hour minimum. (The drivers don’t claim to be tour guides but they are familiar with places of interest.) Each limousine can seat up to eight people and reservations must be made well in advance.
"We provide anything the customer wants." said Joyce White, the manager of Carey, "...sightseeing, service to funerals, weddings, or anywhere ”
If a Cadillac limousine is beyond your sightseeing budget, there are several low cost and free tours available. For the rock-bottom budget-minded tourist who doesn't mind being his own guide. San Diego Transit (239-8161) has a special excursion fare of $1 offered on Sundays and holidays. The ticket is good on any route, any bus. for the entire day. If a visitor plans to do a lot of sightseeing, it makes sense to drop him off at the Host Information Booth in Horton Plaza. There, visitors can pick up a free bus route map and map of the city , and can catch a bus to almost anywhere of interest, at almost any time of the day or night. The regular 25 cent bus fare is also a bargain for a trip to and from any one attraction.
If buses don't appeal to your aesthetic sense, several free walking tours are available to anyone who can get to the point of origin. At 2 p.m. every Saturday, a free guided walking tour of the Hotel Del Coronado leaves from the lobby. Also on Saturday, free tours of Old Town start from the Whaley House. 2482 San Diego Avenue at 1:30 p.m. At 2 p.m. daily, another walking tour of Old Town leaves from the Visitor's Center. 4016 Wallace Ave. Mission San Diego De Alcala and the Natural History Museum also offer daily walking tours.
San Diego has a 'lot of companies and guides ready to take those curious friends or relatives off your hands for a few hours for a reasonable charge. Whether your visitors' interests lie in geology, early history, or just in having a good time viewing the sights around town, there is a place for them on a bus. in a car, a van. or in a line of enthusiastic walkers.