By Lena Katz
San Diego County is so California, it makes the other counties jealous. Its weather is the 80-degree-year-’round gold standard; its beaches are miles upon miles of golden sand and perfect waves; its parks and zoos are bigger than anywhere else; its golf courses and spas are better; downtown San Diego hotels are hipper…. See where I’m going with this? For an annual family getaway, a San Diego vacation is way at the top of my list — and I think the holidays are a great time to visit.
Santa Claus and Sunbathing
What a great combination, right? And let’s be honest, the picture-perfect beaches are what 90 percent of people come here to enjoy. Whether you join the splashing masses at Coronado Beach, stroll the boardwalk at Pacific Beach Park, breakfast with Shamu (and Santa!) at SeaWorld San Diego, take the family for a day of boating activities and picnics on Mission Bay, or try boogie boarding at picturesque La Jolla Shores, you’re not going to be disappointed by San Diego’s multifaceted beachside scene. It looks just like on the postcards, and lives up to the hype.
San Diego hotels run the gamut from resort-style to funky motels. The Hotel del Coronado is a landmark, but detractors warn that it can be too crowded/lively/touristy during high-season. Oddly, though, even they concede that spending at least half a day here — possibly for lunch or cocktails — is a mandatory San Diego vacation activity. Paradise Point at Mission Bay is an ever-popular choice, now more than ever, since it just completed an extensive renovation. Other San Diego hotels that top my pick list include Pacific Terrace Hotel, Surfer Beach Hotel and hipster-friendly Tower 23.
North County Explorations
So what does San Diego have left when you’re done with the beach attractions? Not much, just … golf courses, spas, world-class shopping, theme parks, a race track … Seriously. Don’t even think you’re going to hit all the high points on one San Diego vacation. Just pick your top five, and leave the other 5,000 for next time.
If you’re on a San Diego vacation with kids, allocate at least a day to LEGOLAND and a day to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. LEGOLAND is a one of a kind in North America, with rides and interactive attractions and an ever-changing array of life-size LEGO sculptures. Special for the holidays, the park has built an interactive moving marching band, and a life-sized LEGO Santa Claus with attendant reindeer.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but don’t join the masses who confuse the San Diego Wild Animal Park with its southerly older sister, the San Diego Zoo. The Wild Animal Park is actually located slightly east of the beaten path, just east of Escondido. It’s a vast compound originally used as a breeding facility by the San Diego Zoo, and while there are some exhibits you can reach on foot, the best activities are the special small-group activities like the Segway tours, the brand-new mule rides, and the Flightline (longest zipline in the continental United States).
Grownups should set aside some “me time” to take advantage of North County’s intensive shopping/spa/golf scene. Go label hunting in La Jolla, at Prospect or Girard streets; look for last-season discounts at Carlsbad Premium Outlets; or scout for one-of-a-kind finds at Cedros Design District in Solana Beach.
Spa ranges from super-posh Grand Del Mar (the men’s side is outfitted with leather armchairs and robes that resemble smoking jackets) to medi-spa specialized Four Seasons Aviara to famous wellness retreats Golden Door and Cal-A-Vie. L’Auberge del Mar has the newest spa in San Diego County. As far as golf goes, world-famous Torrey Pines is by far the standout (and inexpensive, too, because it’s a public course).
Though you wouldn’t necessarily see this coming, Sheraton Carlsbad is actually one of the friendliest San Diego hotels for kids — it has its own private “VIP” entrance to LEGOLAND. The property runs a variety of children’s programs, including a candy-centric kiddie spa menu. If you want something sophisticated and ornate, the new Grand Del Mar is a stunner with award-winning restaurants and golf. On the other side of the scale, the Del Mar Motel offers simple, inexpensive digs on the beach, walking distance away from Del Mar village.
The Rancho Bernardo Inn is often at the top of people’s lists, for its accommodating service and fun, buzz-garnering promotions as much as its picturesque grounds. And for s San Diego vacation where small-group bonding is a priority — girlfriend getaway, spa weekend with sisters, honeymoon or babymoon, etc. — sister properties L’Auberge del Mar and Estancia La Jolla give the perfect vibe. Sunny, friendly, San Diego sweet life …you’ll seriously never want to leave.
Action for All Ages
Though most of San Diego County is laid-back and outdoorsy, the downtown, waterfront and Balboa Park areas are built out and buzzing with people. From world-famous attractions like the San Diego Zoo to unexpected and quirky little attractions like the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and “Frisbee-golfing” at Morley Field, Balboa Park never ceases to surprise and entertain. Insiders remind you: check out the antique carousel, ride the “little train” through the park, and visit the landmark Prado. Parents are loving the New Children’s Museum located right across from the harbor, although the savvier ones warn you: bring the youngsters, not ‘tweens, and prepare for long lines.
In the past five years downtown San Diego’s become known for its hipster hotels — and the lineup keeps getting better. At Hard Rock Hotel and the Ivy Hotel, bikini models, rock stars, poker players and gamblers congregate by the pool wearing as little as possible. In the newly opened Se and the renovated landmark The US GRANT, the scene’s more sophisticated, the guests decidedly more buttoned-up (in attitude and clothing), and the surroundings more highly polished. There are tons (scientific quantifier) of other San Diego hotels here, ranging from the new Hilton Bayfront to insider fave Little Italy Hotel, located in the up-and-coming neighborhood of the same name.
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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.