Hey, did you hear? San Diego is a great family vacation town. And Phoenix, evidently, can get a little warm in the summer.
Sorry to belabor the obvious, but then, obviousness is pretty much a given when discussing the virtues of San Diego as a family getaway. After all, SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo are just a Frisbee throw from downtown, and Legoland is a short drive up the coast in Carlsbad. Based on those well-known destinations alone, the sunny seaside metropolis tops countless lists of family-friendly cities.
But the full measure of San Diego’s fam-tastic hospitality might not hit you squarely until you sit down for lunch at one of the city’s many excellent taphouses. Settling into our own booth at Slater’s 50/50 in Point Loma, we find the expected silverware, menus, a glossary of beers... and a coloring book for our 1-year-old.
Yup. In San Diego, even the beer joints have coloring books.
“Pretty much every restaurant in San Diego is a family restaurant,” a manager tells us later at another restaurant-pub, handing over another set of crayons. “You just don’t have the separation here that you do in other big cities, the distinctions of this-being-for-adults or that-being-for-kids. Anyplace you go, you can bring your kids.” San Diego’s come-one, come-all philosophy extends to all corners of its cultural landscape, making the 4,525 square miles of greater San Diego County one of the most brood-oriented summer destinations in America.
But you knew that. Read on, and maybe you’ll find some San Diego family fun-facts you didn’t know.
San Diego is a military town – home to the largest naval fleet in the world, in fact – so a military metaphor seems like an apt family-vacation starting point: To maximize the effectiveness of your campaign, you need to be tactical about selecting your base of operations.
Cost and location are always factors, but if you’re willing to splurge a little, the Paradise Point Resort and Spa (1404 Vacation Rd., 858-274-4630, paradisepoint.com) is nay unbeatable as a staging ground for your little invasion force. Located within San Diego’s spectacular Mission Bay, on a more or less private island populated by lush tropical plants and smiling bicyclists, Paradise Point is ideally situated for convenient San Diego vacationing: It’s located about 10 minutes from the city center and San Diego’s popular Gaslamp Quarter, and a mere five-minute walk over the water to SeaWorld.
Set in a well-tended biome of hibiscus, birds of paradise and some 600 types of tropical plants, Paradise Point’s bungalow-style rooms all have water views, but the units in the property’s fabled North Cove warrant special mention, with serene patios that open onto a white sand beach, affording supreme views of the bay beyond. There are also fire pits for nighttime chitchat and s’more noshing – all the better to restore the kids’ blood-sugar levels after tiring them out on the Points’ fleet of rental bikes and rickshaw-style four-wheeled surreys.
Another popular destination for savvy San Diego visitors is Coronado – that prosperous isthmus-head of a resort town located on the windward side of downtown, across Coronado Bay. Coronado’s famed Hotel del Coronado and irresistibly quaint Glorietta Bay Inn are always great options for travelers, with easy access to the town’s iconic beach, but families looking to detach themselves from the hubbub should drive down the peninsula to Loews Coronado Bay Resort (4000 Coronado Bay Rd., 619-424-4000, loewshotels.com). Intriguingly perched on a private peninsula, the resort boasts the laid-back rhythms of a bona fide island getaway, with three onsite swimming pools and over-the-highway access to Silver Strand State Beach. Bonus: The Loews Coronado Bay essentially doubles as a large daycare center, with both a supervised Kids’ Club (ages 4-12) and a “teen lounge” with Playstations, iPod-friendly loungers and other accoutrements to keep your millennials occupied while you grab a massage, read a book or generally take a break from round-the-clock parenthood.
But then, who says family togetherness requires a hotel room? San Diego also happens to have the best beach camping in California south of San Luis Obispo – namely, at South Carlsbad State Beach in the north county, where crashing waves and long, languorous afternoons of wind-swept sun exposure will surely mint some fine family memories. And it’s just around the corner from Legoland (1 Carlsbad Dr., 760-918-5346, california.legoland.com). The downside: Securing a three-vehicle camping spot ($35-$50) can be trickier than getting one of those cove rooms at the Paradise Point. Reserve one well in advance of your trip (7201 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad, 760-438-3143, parks.ca/gov).
San Diego has as many TGI Fridays and Red Robins as the next major metropolitan sprawl, but you’ll never have to dine in one of those quote-unquote “family” restaurant chains – even if you’re a breeder with noisy whelp in tow. “I bring my kids here all the time,” chef Christian Graves tells us at Jsix (616 J St., 619-531-8744, jsixrestaurant.com), his upscale farm-to-table eatery near Petco Park downtown. “We’re pretty laid-back here.”
Though girded with gastropub favorites like fried sweetbreads and chilled, pâté-like beet terrines, the Jsix menu also has a folksy, unhurried quality that feels like the locavorian version of family dining. Local strawberries in the mixed greens. California-milled polenta grits with the brown-butter basted pork chop. Grilled broccoli topped with an egg. It’s like FnB back home, but with more hipster beards – Graves and his bar staff all look like ZZ Top understudies.
Your kids will probably dig Jsix, but if they shrink at the suggestion of devouring poor little Thumper by ordering Graves’ delightful, Marrakeshian braised-rabbit-and-fennel entrée, there’s always the kids’ menu. And a coloring book, naturally.
For Mexican fare, but with haute flair, the hottest joint in San Diego is Puesto (789 W. Harbor Blvd., 619-233-8880, eatpuesto.com), near the San Diego Convention Center. Sleek but comfortable, this is the SoCal answer to Doug Robson’s Gallo Blanco in Phoenix: damnably good street tacos, nestled like ornate petit fours in their own eye-pleasing presentation tray. (Try the spicy-sweet chicken al pastor and mushroomy rajas veg. Both are awesome.) Puesto also has one of the best Latin cocktail menus I’ve laid eyes on, featuring a paloma anchored with housemade grapefruit soda, and a devil of a sipper called the Mexican Firing Squad – sort of the tequila enthusiast’s answer to a Manhattan.
Also downtown, Spike Africa’s (411 Broadway Ave., 619-795-3800, spikeafricas.com) is a guaranteed family-pleaser, with classic seafood dishes like beer-battered fish and chips, and mango-topped blackened mahi tacos. Named after the legendary schooner captain immortalized in actor Sterling Hayden’s memoir The Wanderer and founded by the same fellows who started the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, this is the kind of scaleable family dining concept that one might expect to find its way to the Valley in the next couple of years.
For a lively, Zipps-esque sports-eatery scene – but with much, much better brew – Slater’s 50/50 (2750 Dewey Rd., 619-398-2600, slaters5050.com) is a strike down the middle. Located in Point Loma near the airport, Slater’s calling card is its eponymous, made-your-way hamburger: a half-beef, half-pork number that has something like a million different iterations, if you factor in all the different cheeses, bun choices and topping options available. It’s the kind of hot, delicious mess that usually ends up all over the table when delivered to young hands, but it’s not like anyone cares – rotating exotic beer tap aside, this is plainly a family restaurant. Get as grubby as you want.
Time to rally the troops. This is a family-togetherness bonding mission, not R&R. Actually, it is R&R, but how silly will you feel when the folks back home ask what you did on vacation and all you can say is “visited the Kid’s Club and ate pork burgers”?
Foregoing the obvious big-ticket attractions for the time being, let’s focus on some lesser-known San Diego pastimes, like the San Diego Harbor Excursion – an hour-long ferry tour of the west coast’s most spectacular harbor and maritime arsenal (1050 N. Harbor Dr., 619-234-4111, sdhe.com). Beginning near the mothballed U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier, the voyage offers a beauteous panorama of the harbor and nearby Coronado Bay, and enough eyefuls of U.S. Navy fire power to satisfy the staunchest Tom Clancy groupie. It’s breezy and educational and worth every penny of the $11.95 it’ll cost you per kid ($23.95 for adults).
Sometimes referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West,” Balboa Park – located just east of downtown, on a bluff overlooking the city – is home to 85 cultural attractions, including 15 museums, eight gardens and the esteemed San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr., 619-231-1515, zoo.sandiegozoo.org). It’s hard to trumpet the zoo in ways not already trumpeted through the decades – suffice to say, the zoo has an especially impressive residency of giraffes (they have the highest blood pressure of any mammal in the world, didn’t you know?) and the country’s only captive pangolin, an armadillo-like creature illegally hunted and trafficked in Asia for the supposedly libido-boosting benefits of its scales. Try explaining that one to your three-year-old.
Just across the way in Balboa Park: The San Diego Air & Space Museum, a repository of aviation and aerospace history that offers week-long, half-day Aerosummer camps for kids (model- and rocket-building, flying simulators, etc.) from mid-July through August. If you’ve got an airplane-lover in your midst, and a week in San Diego, it might be just the respite you’re looking for (2001 Pan American Plaza, 619-234-8291, sandiegoairandspace.org).
For active, water-oriented families, San Diego boasts enough parasailing, kayaking and diving options for a whole army of Cousteaus. A kayaking excursion is a great opportunity for fun and bonding – at least, that’s my impression while watching a dad and his teenage daughter happily paddle their way through rolling swells off the beach in La Jolla, about 20 minutes north of downtown. Organized by Bike and Kayak Tours, Inc. (2158 Avenida De La Playa, 858-454-1010, bikeandkayaktours.com), the group excursion leads us within shouting distance of ultra-high-dollar cliffside mansions overlooking the Pacific, where our young trip leader points out Sunny Jim Cave – an interior stairwell though the cliff rocks that was once used to smuggle illicit alcohol into San Diego during Prohibition. Coast Guard, shmoast guard, when you’ve got a row boat and a cave.
SeaWorld is always in the San Diego family vacation conversation, particularly this year, when the aquatic theme park celebrates its 50th anniversary with special vacation packages and giveaways (500 Sea World Dr., 619-226-3901, seaworld.org). Of course, SeaWorld is a hot topic among San Diegans for another reason, too, following the release of the orca-show documentary Blackfish. Bucking an orca-breeding-ban pending in the California legislature, park officials recently announced that one of SeaWorld’s female orcas, Kalia, is pregnant, and due in December. Seeing one of these magnificent mammals up close through the park’s walk-through aquarium is certainly a special experience for the young’ins, and – who knows? – perhaps one that will inspire a thoughtful conversation.
After all, San Diego isn’t just the sum of its brewpubs and coloring books.
Summer Family Events in “America’s Finest City”
>> San Diego County Fair (June 7-July 6): Rides, fried junk food and a generous serving of world-class arts & crafts exhibits. Sdfair.com
>> Big Bay Boom (July 4): San Diego’s Independence Day fireworks display, launched from off-shore barges, is like no other. Bigbayboom.com
>> San Diego Comicon (July 24-27): Superheroes, movie stars, costumed geeks. A perfect summer present for your little stormtrooper. Comic-con.org
>> Julian Apple Harvest (September): Planning a late-summer trip? Head out to San Diego cow country for this historic harvest festival. Julianca.com
Looking to grab a rub at The Spa at Paradise Point with the missus or mister, but are loath to leave the kids alone? Try short-term childcare service Destination Sitters, which will gladly dispatch a rent-a-nanny to your room. Then enjoy your customized 50-minute his-and-hers couples massage in sweet, childless peace. $20/hr. destinationsitters.com