(Richard Carpenter for the Boston Globe)
Dutch dancers outside the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages in San Diego's Balboa Park.
Real Deals

San Diego's a day in the park

Dutch dancers outside the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages in San Diego's Balboa Park. Dutch dancers outside the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages in San Diego's Balboa Park. (RICHARD CARPENTER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Carpenter
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2007

As with many things, the amount of money you spend on travel isn't always proportional to the enjoyment you get. Case in point: San Diego's Balboa Park .

The 1,200-acre complex is pleasant, and free, any day of the week, but on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it is something special, thanks to two attractions.

The first is the world's largest pipe organ, containing 4,530 pipes that range from 32 feet long to the size of a pencil. A free hour long concert is given Sunday afternoons at 2 in the ornate Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the rich sound is a joy to hear.

The second is the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages , open Sundays from noon to 4, where 31 nations seek to make the world a friendlier place. Each cottage features artifacts and food samples from the sponsor country. Thus, you might try apple strudel at the German cottage, a vegetable roll at the Philippines cottage, and kielbasa on dark bread with a pickle at the Polish cottage. While admission is free, a donation is asked for each sampling, and most people drop a dollar into the jars. At 2 p.m. there is a musical performance, each week from a different country . Recently, two Dutch dancers performed in their wooden shoes, and in the spirit of internationalism, one number was danced to an Irish ditty.

Balboa Park, a National Historic Landmark , offers a lot more in addition, and much of it is free, including a tram that takes you from area to area. You can, for instance, surround yourself with flowers at the many gardens and in the massive Botanical Building at no charge. And it is a pleasure just to walk along El Prado, the central promenade, admiring the Spanish Revival architecture, much of it dating to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16, and perhaps dropping into some of more than a dozen museums on the grounds. These include the San Diego Air & Space Museum , Automotive Museum, Model Railroad Museum, and Natural History Museum . Most carry admissions of $4-$10 , but you can buy a 13-museum Passport to Balboa Park at $35 for adults and $19 for children ages 3-12.

Of course, you need not do it all. You could easily fill your afternoon with music and flowers, perhaps sampling a couple of the international dishes and visiting a museum of your choice -- a million-dollar afternoon for around $10. Visit .

You zoo lovers, the world-famous San Diego Zoo is part of the park but privately operated. Admission is $33 for adults, $22 for children 3-11.

Inexpensive or not, there is a lot in San Diego that is fun. Here are the latest attractions in a city that boasts more than 300 days of sunshine a year:

You can take an excursion aboard a 30-foot Navy SEAL rigid inflatable boat, or RIB. Two outings are currently available to individuals: an eco tour to Mexico's Coronado Islands Sundays 9-noon, adults $85, children 5-12 $65), and a Naval Heritage & Maritime History Tour Wednesdays 9:30-11:30 a.m. (adults $65, children $50). Visit or call 619-808-2822 .

The San Diego Wine & Culinary Center has tastings and tours, among them a behind-the-scenes look at Fallbrook Winery , from the vineyards to the cellars, during which groups can learn the process from growing grapes to blending wines. A picnic lunch and a private barrel tasting in the aging cellars are included ($40-$55 a person). Visit sdwineculina or call 619-231-6400 .

From late December to May, the San Diego Harbor Excursion 's new Nature cruises sail to the Coronados for a guided 5 1/2-hour tour that gives close-up views of kelp forests, dolphins, whales, sea lions, and other marine life. Tours are Thursday -Sunday from 10:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. (adults $50, seniors, military $45, children 4-12 $40). Visit or call 800-44-CRUISE (442-78473) .

If you're allergic to tour buses and don't want to rent a car, the new San Diego Tour Coupes has a fleet of tropical-colored, three-wheel minicars that seat two and provide a GPS-guided tour around downtown and other neighborhoods. Top speed is 38 miles per hour, and costs range from $42.02 for an hour to $167.01 for a day. Visit or call 877-494-RENT (7368).

Many visitors go to Tijuana, Mexico, some 20 miles south of San Diego, for an afternoon of shopping and a meal and a margarita or two. Nowadays this border city is safe and fun, if you don't mind cheerfully aggressive salespeople. But do not drive because, in addition to insurance issues, you might find yourself waiting two hours or so to get back into the States. Instead, park in San Ysidro or take a tour bus (there is a traffic lane just for them), public bus, or trolley to the border and walk across. From there it is a short taxi ride to Avenida Revolución , where the action is. As with most other things in Tijuana, you can haggle with the driver over the fare.

Go to and select Destinations, then Tijuana .

When not included, hotel taxes can add significantly to the price of a trip. Most prices quoted are for double occupancy . Offers are subject to availability and there may be blackout dates. Richard Carpenter can be reached at car .

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