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Top Five Cities For You and Your Kids: San Diego
Boredom is not an option for families visiting San Diego. With two theme parks, a self-styled “world-famous” zoo and a city park that’s bigger than many small towns, the options are plentiful. Sounds too structured to the kids? Well, there’s also 70 miles of beachfront for them to get their ya-ya’s out. What, junior is still squawking? Take him to a baseball game at brand-new Petco Park and pop a hot dog in his mouth – should keep him quiet till at least the third inning.
The Big Three? Better Make That Two. Trying to fit in San Diego’s big three attractions – the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Legoland – on one trip could test both your stamina and your pocketbook. If you’ve already been to a zoo, choose the other two, secure in the knowledge that you’ll be back.
At Sea World, it’s show time all the time and the undisputed star of the show is a whale named Shamu. The big guy with a glint in his eye jumps and splashes his way through twenty minutes of fun. His trainers are having a ball, too, using him as a surfboard one minute and a high-dive board the next. Intrepid families can watch the show from the “Soak Zone,” the first sixteen rows of ballpark-like Shamu Stadium. And wet you’ll get here, since Shamu can really send a wall of water out of the park. Both kids and adults (wet or dry) will be smitten by the performance. The nearby dolphin show is also engaging and assorted watery rides will fill in the gaps of a fun-filled day. There’s no leaving without a Shamu souvenir – consider a kid’s meal in a takeaway Shamu case. (800) 25-SHAMU; seaworld.com.
The engineer in you may feel a bit outclassed at Legoland, where some real talents have taken a mountain of colorful little bricks and turned them into whimsical works of art. Little ones will be entranced by the Lego-laden Thomas the Train near the front entrance and can try their hand at Lego-building straightaway at the nearby Lego wall (plenty of bricks available). There are Lego boats for cruising and Lego cars for driving, a mini-golf course for competing and a Coastersaurus for full-out shrieking. Best of all, however, is your child’s joy in discovering the next great Lego creation right around the bend. (760) 918-5346; lego.com.
A Day By The Bay. San Diego Bay, dubbed “The Big Bay” by locals, is an arc of placid water ringed by seaside attractions. Begin your day aboard the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that saw duty in Korea, Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm. Kids will marvel at gigantic chains that wrestle 40,000 lb. anchors and squeal with delight once dad straps them into an authentic flight seat. A Navy jet simulator is next, where you can fly alongside the Blue Angels. The real action, however, is on the flight deck, where a slew of planes (check out an F-14 like the one in “Top Gun”), helicopters and one very big catapult make it easy to imagine what a tour of duty must have been like. A tiny MP3 player (pick up a splitter cable to share with a small child) makes the audio tour a breeze. (619) 544-9600; midway.org. Stepping further back into time is the idea at San Diego’s Maritime Museum, where six historic vessels comprise one of the world’s finest collections of historic ships. The 1898 steam ferryboat Berkeley, with its endless rows of gleaming wood benches, is the perfect place for a spirited game of hide and seek with your kids. Once on board the H.M.S. Surprise, a replica of an 18 th century Royal Navy frigate, it’ll be all you can do to keep your kids untangled from the massive rigging. Things won’t get any easier on board an actual B-39 Russian submarine, the most enticing vessel in the bunch. Countless sailors spent their days nearly crawling through the sub’s narrow confines and you’ll be doing pretty much the same, save for some upright time at the periscope. (619) 234-9153; sdmaritime.org. Stretch your legs back outdoors and hail one of the many pedicabs plying the waterfront for a ride over to The Fish Market. The kid’s pizza is in the shape of a fish and the shrimp Louis is terrific. (619) 232-3474; thefishmarket.com. A leisurely post-lunch stroll will bring you to the Hornblower Cruises dock, where the hour-long Harbor Cruise and Sea Lion Adventure is last on the day’s list. While the narration is appealing and the sea lions are cute enough, it’s the Bay itself that captivates. Sit back and watch the water dance in the afternoon sunlight, a soft breeze tickling your face. Peer into the occasional sailboat, its crew lazier than you. Once your kids have done a circuit of the top and bottom decks oh, say, twenty times, they’ll start to wonder if they’re leaving San Diego. Not at all – there’s much more in the days ahead. (888) HORNBLOWER; hornblower.com.
A Walk In The Park. Balboa Park is an indoor/outdoor urban park that boasts no less than fifteen major museums, assorted performing arts venues, formal gardens, recreational attractions and one world-famous zoo. The ornate Spanish-Renaissance buildings along the El Prado pedestrian thoroughfare are an eyeful and will lead you to some of the park’s better museums. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is the place for hands-on, Science 101-style exhibits and an IMAX Dome Theater with a double bill of thrilling films (hold on to your seat!). The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is filled with scale model train layouts, although junior engineers will make a beeline (or is that a switch?) to the Thomas the Train room with four, count ‘em, four interactive train tables. At the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, resident puppeteers perform with marionettes, hand, rod and shadow puppets throughout the year. Flip a coin to see if Mom or Dad gets some alone time here – winner visits the Mingei International Museum (rotating exhibits of folk art, crafts and design) or the Timken Museum of Art (Old Master paintings). A visit to the Alcazar Garden, awash with flora and fountains, is the perfect afternoon refresher. (619) 239-0512; balboapark.org. Over at Petco Park, you get to sit while the Padres, San Diego’s major league baseball team, do the running around. This cozy, 42,000-seat ballpark, one of the newest in the majors, has excellent sight lines and brings you close to the action, especially from the mid-level Toyota Terrace that seemingly hangs over home plate. Stick to the dogs and peanuts and if your kid isn’t chanting “Let’s go, Padres!” by the fourth inning, he just isn’t paying attention. Pre-game, the adjacent Park at the Park is a great place for young sluggers to practice their swing or generally goof around. (619) 795-5000;Padres.com.
Island Living. On Coronado Island, life is a breeze and no one seems to care that the island is really a narrow peninsula jutting into San Diego Bay. Play along and make the Hotel Del Coronado, an iconic, red-turreted fantasy, home base for the day. Rent a bike or surrey (kid-friendly Burley carriages also available) at PeDels and head for the flat eight-mile bike path that fronts shimmering Silver Strand beach. An alternative route would have you circle the small island, taking in the many quaint cottages along the way. Your just reward for a morning of peDeling is lunch at Sheerwater, the Hotel Del’s waterfront restaurant. Palm trees sway as you enjoy sinfully good sea bass and plump crab cakes. The kid’s menu counts pesto grilled chicken and a petite filet mignon among its many selections (there’s pizza, too). While away the afternoon on one of Coronado’s family-friendly beaches, regularly voted among America’s best. (800) HOTELDEL; hoteldel.com.
Where To Stay. Send your kids over the moon by booking the Kids Fantasy Suite at the Omni San Diego Hotel. Cute bunk beds and beanbag chairs will soon be filled with the many board games, stuffed animals and toys on hand. Mom and Dad can decamp to their own private quarters, on the other side of an opaque sliding glass door. Here, buttery walls serve as the backdrop for a splendid king bed, mega-channel TV with DVD and fast-as-can-be WiFi connection. The Fantasy Suite is a nifty reworking of the hotel’s junior suites, which should serve as Plan B if the fantastical one is booked. The hotel’s sixth-floor pool affords a bird’s-eye view of the San Diego skyline while Petco Park can be reached via a fourth-floor sky bridge. Most impressive, however, is the service – a staff so gracious they all seem to know you by name and never lack for a smile or a prompt response to your every need. 675 L Street (619) 231-6664; omnihotels.com. Package and weekend rates available.
Where to Eat. At the Corvette Diner, bubble-gum-colored booths are filled with kids slurping foot-tall milkshakes. A DJ sits inside the glass booth at KVET and spins tunes. After a waitress named Lily (or was that Sunny?) delivers your Philly cheese steak with unbeatable fries, she’ll coax you and your crew into doing the chicken dance – and you’ll oblige! Yep, it’s that silly and a ton o’fun. Corvette Diner & Gamers’ Garage at Liberty Station; cohnrestaurants.com. Think grazing and grooving at the House of Blues, where the low lighting and brooding primitives lining the walls channel B.B. King at his sweaty best. A pan of cornbread primes the palate for the catfish with sweet potato fries, each dish oozing Southern charm. Parents should get a Kid’s Pizza of their own (it’s that good) and may also have to double up on the white chocolate-banana bread pudding, since it’s too good to share. 1055 Fifth Avenue (619) 299-BLUE; hob.com. Watch the sun set from a semicircle banquette on the waterfront patio at the C Level Lounge. Sure, it’s romantic but the kids won’t mind – they get to eat Chef Deborah Scott’s stellar mac and cheese while Mom and Dad revel in the nut-crusted brie and steak frites. Terrific red wines by the glass and no one will get seasick. 880 Harbor Island Drive (619) 298-6802; cohnrestaurants.com.
What Else? The red trolleys crisscrossing downtown San Diego’s streets may not be going anywhere you want to go (Tijuana, anyone?) but that won’t stop the kids from pestering you for a ride. Go for it, since the ticket to ride will give your feet a much-needed break…If your kids can’t return home without a souvenir or two (or three, if they’re teenage girls), pay a visit to Horton Plaza, an open-air, multi-story, pastel-hued shopping mall in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Nordstrom and everyone else pay the rent here; the ground floor Jamba Juice is the place for fresh-squeezed o.j. so sweet you’ll polish it off before hitting the top-floor megaplex.
Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and three-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.