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San Diego is renowned for its laid-back beach vibe, vibrant arts, culture, and dining scenes, and near-perfect weather. Families like mine flock to the coastal oasis to soak up the sun, play in the surf, and exhaust our travel savings on the Southern California attractions at the top of our kids’ wish list. After spending four days exploring the most sought-after sites in the area, we came back rested, recharged and ready to recap all of our highlights.

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Fun by the sea

San Diego’s Belmont Park is a dazzling kaleidoscope of sights, smells and sounds. Every weekend, Mission Beach’s bustling outdoor carnival is buzzing with amped-up cotton candy-faced kids followed by their parents, laden with halfway play loot, bouncing balloons, and trash. the day of half-eaten snacks, and sweatshirts rendered superfluous by the hot SoCal afternoon sun. My husband Curt and our daughter Brooklyn are in their element. Unfazed by the surrounding chaos, they go from game to game, spending five dollars for the thrill of a win. Forty US dollars for three garishly colored stuffed mice? I try not to think about the exchange rate. Though small in size, Belmont Park is fun and rakes in the dough at $56 per person for an unlimited pass. Of the 22 rides and attractions, Brooklyn preferred the freefall Mic Drop, Go-Karts races and Belmont’s iconic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Post-game recovery takes place on San Diego’s largest oceanfront rooftop terrace, Cannonball. The Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant, perched on Mission Beach, is well known for its sushi, sunsets and refreshing craft cocktails – all welcome treats after corn dogs and carnival games.

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Writer Brooklyn's daughter posing with a mommy hippo at the San Diego Zoo.  Courtesy, Curt Woodhall
Writer Brooklyn’s daughter posing with a mommy hippo at the San Diego Zoo. Courtesy, Curt Woodhall .jpg

Animal Adventures

The legendary San Diego Zoo is arguably the city’s top family attraction. At 100 acres, it’s a botanical monster, offering animal enthusiasts the chance to catch a fleeting glimpse of a staggering number of over 12,000 rare and endangered creatures. Fuzzy, fierce and friendly, we’ve seen them all. Looking at huge hippos – and puny pygmies – lanky giraffes, cuddly koalas, king cobras, California condors, lions, tigers and bears, Brooklyn’s David Attenborough-accented narration created a more authentic safari experience and kept a light mind while navigating the seemingly endless exhibits. To power up the 10,000 steps required to see the zoo, we first had brunch at Café 21. epicureans and on Instagram. Our meal was breathtaking in taste and presentation – from the homemade crumpets and banana caramel Dutch pancake to the hash brown and short rib omelet. And the drinks from the barista, including the Vegan Rose Syrup Dressed Dragon I ordered, are works of art.

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Coastal Carlsbad

After San Deigo, we drove 40 minutes north to the quaint village of Carlsbad. North County’s charming, pedestrian-friendly center is packed with boutiques, bistros, and the waterfront. Humble Olive Oils family business. Back to Cali’s surf trinkets totally captivate Brooklyn, as does roaming the scenic shores of Carlsbad State Beach in search of seashells and buried treasure. The five-kilometre stretch of sandy beachfront, known as Tamarack to locals, is a popular surf spot perfect for picnicking. We had taken-out salads, bowls and sandwiches at the health-conscious Parakeet Café in Del Mar en route to Carlsbad, which we enjoyed while watching California surfers ride the waves. Handmade banana cream ice cream cones from Handels in the village capped off our afternoon.

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LEGOLAND is heaven for LEGO-loving families.  Courtesy, Curt Woodhall
LEGOLAND is heaven for LEGO-loving families. Courtesy, Curt Woodhall .jpg

LEGO Mania

Beyond the beaches, LEGOLAND California Resort is the biggest draw for families visiting Carlsbad. Our last trip here was when Brooklyn was two, and we spent most of our time at Duplo Village Playtown and Swabbie’s Deck water park. More than seven years later, it’s all about the thrill rides and the gift shop. We enjoyed seeing the incredible LEGO models and monuments brought to life via the Coastal Cruise through Miniland USA, Unikitty’s Disco Drop and Emmet’s Flying Adventure Ride, a full-dome virtual LEGO movie experience as well. LEGOLAND’s lunch options are surprisingly robust, ranging from a smokehouse barbecue to a ramen joint, aptly named Everything Ramen. I even found healthy, high-protein, on-the-go snacks that helped keep our energy up. We had to make our theme park reservations well in advance, and although the weather wasn’t water park-worthy, it looks like fun (at an additional cost) if you’re visiting late spring until in early fall. You are also advised to check legoland.com prior to your arrival for an up-to-date list of maintenance-related ride closures.

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The Park Hyatt Aviara pool promises rest and relaxation in Carlsbad.  Courtesy, Curt Woodhall
The Park Hyatt Aviara pool promises rest and relaxation in Carlsbad. Courtesy, Curt Woodhall .jpg

Relaxing Resorts

Exploring San Diego’s theme parks and attractions is as exhilarating as it is exhausting. As parents, we accept the highs and lows of a busy itinerary for our children – creating lasting memories to inspire future journeys for their children. Thus, I always opt for accommodations that encourage relaxation, ideally with poolside service, to balance our daily adventures full of adrenaline and fun. We found refuge at the San Diego Mission Bay Resort for part of our trip. Brooklyn loved the large pool, larger-than-life lawn games, live music, and roasting marshmallows. And, with spring rates starting at $207 (USD) per night, my husband was also smitten. Our crazy stay was in Carlsbad, at the heavenly Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa. Room rates are considerably higher for the completely redesigned five-diamond property (starting at $592 per night in March); however, the exquisite experience far outweighs the price. During our glorious 24 hours here, Brooklyn spent half its time underwater, dancing to poolside music, while Curt and I alternated between lifeguard duty and relaxing in the adults-only pool. . Dinner at the resort’s new Ember & Rye vintage steak and seafood restaurant was also a treat, including the oysters and pearls, corn creme brulee, Willy’s famous pork chops and the club sandwich with cheesecake. carrots with coconut cream and pecan crisp.

Before heading home, we booked our required pre-arrival COVID test at the COVID Clinic (covidclinic.org), which has over 100 drive-thru locations across California and was easy to book online. I then completed our family’s health questionnaire on the ArriveCAN travel app.

For more information on the destination, visit www.arrivalstravel.com.

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