San Diego by Nature

San Diego WhalewatchIt’s February in San Diego and Captain Bill Reese is navigating the 150-ft Adventure Hornblower in mid-60s sunshine out to open ocean past Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument. We’re on the lookout for migrating gray whales, and then all of the sudden we come upon a school of these majestic 36-ton mammals spouting and fluking everywhere. As a bonus, Pacific white-sided dolphins and California sea lions joined the spectacle.

“We’re really fortunate today,” says Reese. “We usually see our share, but this is special.”

From December through April, gray whales swim past this stretch of sundrenched SoCal coastline on their way south to Baja’s warm lagoons. It’s there where females give birth and spend a few months fattening up their little 1,000-lb bundles of joy.

Whale watching excursions for up to 350 pax are merely the tip of Hornblower Cruises’ iceberg. The company’s fleet also operates year-round harbor sightseeing tours, dinner cruises and private charters accommodating 1,000 for receptions.

“We use Hornblower especially for evening events,” says Geraldine Hayes, GM of the Kuoni Group DMC. “We’ll also do daytime teambuilding and scavenger hunts where teams get passports stamped at specific points. They really get into it.”

Hayes is also keen on the USS Midway porting adjacent to Adventure Hornblower along the Embarcadero harbor. The longest serving aircraft carrier in the US Navy hosts 3,500 for receptions and 2,000 for dinner aboard its massive 50,000-sf flight deck spackled with two dozen meticulously restored aircraft.

“We recently held a final dinner and awards ceremony here for Advisors Excel,” Hayes says. “They wanted to add a corporate responsibility component. So they chose The Warrior Foundation, a charity supporting wounded and disabled military heroes.”

The group also tapped into docent-led tours and flight simulators on the 25,000-sf hanger deck before heading up to the flight deck for dinner with 360° views of the harbor.

“We have built-in entertainment by nature,” says Margie Sitton, senior vp of sales for the San Diego CVB. “You don’t really have to create things to keep attendees busy. You can just turn them loose and let them have fun.”

MANCHESTER GRAND HYATT When “Papa” Doug Manchester opened the skyscraping 1,625-room Manchester Grand Hyatt right on San Diego’s bayfront in 2003, he reserved the top two floors for his Manchester Financial HQ. This year, the 32nd floor has been released for private group events with space for 60, including an outdoor terrace.

The decor throughout the Grand Hyatt is what you expect with chic chandeliers complementing exaggeratedly high ceilings, but the difference is how the design lets the outside stream in.

“As a 4-star property, it’s really a meeting planner’s dream,” says Kelly Commerford, director of marketing. “Our core space overlooks the bay and every single ballroom has outdoor terrace space. So attendees can go outside and take in what’s so great about San Diego—the weather.”

This is the largest waterfront hotel on the West Coast, with 125,000 sf of function space including the largest hotel ballroom in Southern California. My 1,120-sf Conference Suite (one of 45) has good elbow room too, as well as a conference table, large mingling area and a kitchenette with a full-size refrigerator. Especially nice, you’re able to crack open the floor-to-ceiling windows and soak in the fresh breezes blowing off the bay.

The mod KIN Spa offers an outdoor pool area for private functions, and there’s a marina for bay excursions. For private dinners, the refreshing Sally’s Seafood On The Water restaurant hosts 180 on the upper level with a bright breezy patio.