Column: National Geographic Channel series gives San Diego a flattering close-up


From my stand-up desk in the Union-Tribune’s downtown offices, I can see the dome of the Central Library and a slice of the Convention Center. I can gauge the traffic on the Coronado Bridge while also keeping tabs on the Donut Bar line.

There is an embarrassment of riches waiting just to the right of my computer screen, and it is embarrassing to admit how rarely I take the time to appreciate them.

Such is the curse of the longtime San Diegan. You devote so much of your energy to making sure you can live here, you aren’t really living. It’s all sweat and no beach.

This might make you an imperfect local, but it also makes you the ideal secondary audience for the four-part series on San Diego that is debuting on the National Geographic Channel this week.

This stunningly photographed series — which will be shown in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom — is aimed at national and international tourists, but if you want to renew your vows with the city you already love, you’ll want to tune in, too.

Depending on your cable provider, the four half-hour shows air at 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. PT on consecutive Thursdays starting this week. Check your cable guide for the correct time.

The series is part of a media partnership between the National Geographic Channel and the San Diego Tourism Authority. The Tourism Authority paid $3 million for a media blitz that also includes an editorial spread in National Geographic Traveler and a San Diego Travel Guide on the National Geographic website.

The miniseries kicks off with “City of Adventure,” which spotlights San Diego’s wealth of natural beauty and the many ways visitors and locals can take advantage of it. And like the installments that follow — “City of Discovery,” “City of Creativity” and “City of Diversity” — Thursday’s debut focuses on Balboa Park as the heart and soul of the city.

For tourists, the series serves as an introduction to a stunning San Diego resource that visitors often bypass on their way to Sea World, the Zoo and the beach. For locals, it is a reminder that almost everything you love about San Diego — Culture! Nature! Beer! — can be found in Balboa Park.

“If you go there any time of year, people are interacting with the park. They are biking, hiking, walking, going to the museums,” said Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, which has made raising Balboa Park’s profile a priority.

“The park is what I consider to be the cultural heart of San Diego, but the heart needs a little CPR. People need to know it’s there.”

In Thursday’s debut episode, host Robert Reid says San Diego is a city “that loves exceeding expectations.” And as “City of Adventure” points out, our we’ll-show-you spirit really started with Balboa Park and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Before the exposition, San Diego was an under-the-radar town with just 40,000 residents, and Balboa Park was 1,400 acres of mostly empty space. After the exposition, the park was home to the Cabrillo Bridge, the Botanical Building and many other distinctive structures that have come to represent San Diego on postcards, in family photos and on a million Instagram feeds.

The Panama-California Exposition put San Diego on the map, and Balboa Park made it all possible. And as Thursday’s installment reminds us, the city’s willingness to take a big chance and the park’s ability to translate chance into a photogenic, interactive reality were an early indicator of the kind of place San Diego would become.

“Los Angeles only wishes it had planned a Balboa Park, and that its forefathers and foremothers took care of building something permanent for the city that would protect its culture and heritage,” said Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic Partners.

Thursday’s episode shows off the staggering views from the Torrey Pines Gliderport and the sizzling plates that emerge from chef Fred Piehl’s kitchen at One Door North. It puts you on the deck of the Maritime Museum’s replica of the San Salvador (which Cabrillo sailed into San Diego in 1542) and on Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier at sunset.

But no matter where it goes, the documentary always finds its way back to Balboa Park. And as it ambles from the gardens to the near-top of the California Tower, it gives visitors a good idea about what they need to see and reminds San Diegans of all the beauty we can’t afford to miss.

The San Diego Tourism Authority didn’t pay $3 million for our wake-up call, but if it works, it will be priceless.

Twitter: @karla_peterson


This column was updated to reflect that some cable providers will be airing this series at 4 p.m. on Thursdays. Please check your cable guide for the correct time.