Get away from winter in sunny San Diego

Tired of the snow and frigid winds? Nowhere to show off your beach body or catch some rays? Florida is not your only saving grace — sunny San Diego might be just the place. I’ve been to San Diego three or four times, and each time was more enjoyable than the last. Though frequently overshadowed by Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Diego still puts up a good fight for the LGBT favorite spot on the West Coast. The second-largest city in the state, San Diego still manages to give its visitors an intimate, small-town feel. With perfect weather year-round, you’re sure to have an enjoyable stay in this Southern California paradise.

The convenience starts when you get off the plane. San Diego Airport is about one mile from downtown. Taking a cab into the city is cheap, but you should probably rent a car for your daily activities — you are still in California, after all. Once in the city, the two best areas in which to stay are Downtown and Hillcrest: Each has unique perks sure to satisfy the gay traveler.

Downtown San Diego is rich with culture and things to do. If you choose to stay downtown, you will find that all the hotels are prime examples of luxury and comfort. One, set to open this month, is the Setai Hotel [1047 Fifth Ave., (619) 515-3000]. Hoping to be the first five-star hotel in San Diego, the Setai has been rigorously preparing to open its doors before the New Year. Sporting pristine views of the shoreline, a fabulous new restaurant, luxurious accommodations and an in-house spa, the Setai is sure to create a relaxing ambiance for you and your companions. With a pool on the top of the House of Blues next door, the cocktails and DJ are sure to get you in a California state of mind. By providing complimentary cocktails when you arrive for check-in, the Setai proves it knows how to start a vacation right.

However, the Setai is not the only unique hotel in Downtown San Diego. For classic luxury and upscale living, the U.S. Grant Hotel [326 Broadway, (866) 716-8149] provides the perfect setting. With everything grand, The Grant is sure to impress. (It was good enough for Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Orange County.”) If your style is more modern chic, The Keating Hotel [432 F St., (877) 7KEATING] is an absolute must. The designers at Ferrari were hired to create the interior motif of the Keating. With state-of-the-art amenities, the Keating Hotel creates a unique, intimate environment. With showers in the middle of the studio rooms and the Jacuzzi tubs in the living rooms of the suites, you should be comfortable with whomever you vacation (or meet there). The Keating is bound to be an unparalleled stay.

Broadway is the central artery to downtown San Diego. Running east from the water, it is lined with restaurants, hotels, gyms and shops. Two of my favorite restaurants in downtown are along this lively street: Currant American Brasserie [140 W. Broadway, (619) 702-6309] and Sushi Deli 2 [135 Broadway, (619) 233-3072]. Currant is an upscale brasserie with equally impressive ambiance and food. Outdoor seating is a must when available, but the interior décor evokes an authentic Paris café. The dessert is to die for and definitely large and rich enough to share. A step away is Sushi Deli 2, a great bargain for an incredible dinner. (Southern California has great sushi selections.) With great drink prices and rolls under $10, you’ll be shocked at how little you pay and how good it is. They seat on a first-come, first-served basis and don’t take reservations, so make sure you get there early.

There is a plethora of activities downtown as well. In Westfield Horton Plaza Shopping Center [324 Horton Plaza], tons of stores line the walkways of this outdoor shopping mall. It is the perfect place to pick up a new outfit or bathing suit. There is also a movie theater in case you happen to encounter an extremely rare rainy day. Along the water, The USS Midway Museum [910 N. Harbor Drive, (619) 544-9600] is a great time for any history buff. Finally, a little outside downtown in Balboa Park, visitors can find The Natural History Museum [1788 El Prado, Balboa Park, (619) 232-3821] and the most famous zoo in the country, the San Diego Zoo [Zoo Place, (619) 685-3200]. Both are relaxing activities very close to both downtown and Hillcrest.

Hillcrest is the “gay” area of San Diego. Greeting visitors with its famous neon sign above the intersection of University and Fifth avenues, Hillcrest sports stores, restaurants and hangouts unique to San Diego. Highly walkable, Hillcrest is fun both during the day and at night. With many unique boutiques, you are bound to find something to impress your friends back home. Or you can wear your new outfit to The Diversionary Theater [4545 Park Blvd., (619) 220-0097], the oldest LGBT theater in the country.

Urban Mo’s [308 University Ave., (619) 491-0400] is always a local favorite for dinner and happy-hour cocktails. The drag-queen waitresses are sure to make your dinner much more enjoyable. If you’re looking to stay in Hillcrest, the Park Manor Suites [525 Spruce St., (619) 291-0999] is the place. Large rooms and fabulous rooftop dining create a breathtaking stay. Steps from the heart of Hillcrest, the Park Manor is convenient to over 20 gay bars and clubs that are sure to make your nightlife anything but dull. Gorgeous men, great cocktails and hot music will demonstrate everything you expect from Southern California.

Universal Lounge [1202 University Ave., (619) 491-0400] is the new hot spot on University Avenue. Be sure to get there early — the line can get pretty long — but it is worth the wait. Neon-painted walls and hit sounds make the inside an interesting experience. Outside, you can find patios that create a more intimate experience under a perfect San Diego night. Rich’s San Diego [1051 University Ave., (619) 295-2195] is another local favorite. Great music and drinks are worth the small $5 cover. Cover charges are not uncommon in San Diego, so you might as well go somewhere that’s worth it. You might also find that many San Diegans are not from San Diego originally. The city boasts a collage of backgrounds that comprise its population. All, however, are as friendly as you would expect laidback Californians to be.

In February, Hillcrest also hosts Hillcrest Mardi Gras []. Slated for Feb. 24, get your masks and beads ready because it is everything Mardi Gras promises to be, with a San Diego twist.

Finally, how could you not go to the beach when you visit such a sunny paradise? Black’s Beach is one of San Diego’s most famous beaches. Voted one of the top 10 most gorgeous gay beaches, there is just one little detail: Black’s Beach is a nude beach. As it’s not strictly gay, you may encounter heterosexuals, but it’s a nude beach so I’m sure everyone is comfortable with all walks of life (or at least in their own skin). There are some guidelines to adhere to while visiting, so make sure you check out the Web site,

Whether you choose to go for the beach, the shopping or the club hopping, San Diego is a must-see city. Close to the Mexican boarder, San Diego boasts a diverse history intertwined with modern culture. And the perfect weather makes it impossible to be anything but happy while visiting the sunny paradise on the West Coast. Extremely gay-friendly, San Diego is bound to introduce you to new people and sights while lifting your spirits during the cold winter months. So be spontaneous, book your tickets and go tan, shop and see some famous tigers in January.