San Diego rates high in family fun

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San Diego is renowned for its laid-back beach vibe, vibrant art, 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 drain our travel savings on the southern California attractions topping our children’s wish list. Having spent four days exploring the area’s most sought-after sights, we’ve returned rested, recharged and ready to recap all of our highlights.

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Oceanfront Amusement

San Diego’s Belmont Park is a dazzling kaleidoscope of sights, scents and sounds. On any given weekend, the lively outdoor carnival on Mission Beach is abuzz with amped-up candy-floss-faced kids trailed by parents, laden with midway game loot, bopping balloons and the day’s refuse of half-eaten snacks, and sweatshirts made redundant by SoCal’s warm afternoon sun. My husband Curt and our daughter Brooklyn are in their element. Unfazed by the surrounding chaos, they flit from game to game, shelling out fivers for the thrill of a win. Forty American dollars for three garishly coloured plush mice? I try not to think about the exchange rate. While small in stature, Belmont Park packs in the fun and rakes in the dough at $56 per person for an unlimited ride pass. Of the 22 rides and attractions, Brooklyn favoured the free-falling Mic Drop, racing Go-Karts and Belmont’s iconic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Post-play recovery is on San Diego’s largest oceanfront rooftop patio, Cannonball. The Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant, perched over Mission Beach, is well known for its sushi, sunsets and refreshing craft cocktails — all welcome delights after corn dogs and carnival games.

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

Animal Adventures

The legendary San Diego Zoo is arguably the city’s top family-friendly attraction. At 100 acres, it’s a botanical behemoth, offering animal enthusiasts the chance for a fleeting glimpse of a staggering 12,000-plus rare and endangered creatures. Fuzzy, fierce and friendly, we saw them all. Viewing huge hippopotamuses – and puny pygmies – gangly 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 spirits light while navigating the seemingly-endless exhibits. To fuel the 10,000 steps needed to view the zoo, we first brunched at Café 21. Touted as one of San Diego’s most innovative restaurants, the small-plate, farm-to-fork Gaslamp eatery is a sumptuous staple for epicures and on Instagram. Our meal was breathtaking in taste and presentation — from the scratch-made crumpets and banana caramel Dutch pancake to the potato galette and short rib omelette. And the barista beverages, including the vegan rose-syrup Trained Dragon that I ordered, are works of art.

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Coastal Carlsbad

After San Deigo, we drove 40 minutes north to picturesque Carlsbad Village. The charming, pedestrian-friendly North County hub is a swath of boutiques, bistros and beachfront. I gravitate to the street-front shops, like Blues and Shoes, Olde Ivy Antiques, Salt and Sea home decor and the delicious family-owned Humble Olive Oils. The surfside trinkets at Back to Cali’s wholly captivate Brooklyn, as does scouring Carlsbad State Beach’s scenic shores for seashells and buried treasure. The five-kilometre stretch of sandy beachfront, known as Tamarack to locals, is a popular surf spot that’s perfect for picnicking. We had grabbed takeaway salads, bowls and sandwiches from the health-conscious Parakeet Café in Del Mar en route to Carlsbad, which we enjoyed while watching California surfers riding the waves. Handmade banana-cream-pie ice cream cones from Handels in the village capped off our afternoon.

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LEGOLAND is paradise for LEGO-loving families. Courtesy, Curt Woodhall
LEGOLAND is paradise 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 the Duplo Village Playtown playground and Swabbie’s Deck splash park. Seven-plus years later, it’s all about thrill rides and the gift shop. We did enjoy viewing the incredible animated LEGO models and landmarks 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 smokehouse BBQ to a ramen joint, aptly named Everything Ramen. I even found some healthy, protein-packed, grab-and-go snacks, which helped sustain our energy. We had to make our theme park reservation well in advance, and while the weather wasn’t water park worthy, it looks like fun (for an extra cost) if you’re visiting late spring through early fall. It’s also advisable to check before arrival for an updated list of maintenance-related ride closures.

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

Relaxing Resorts

Exploring San Diego’s theme parks and attractions is equally exhilarating and exhausting. As parents, we embrace the highs and lows of a packed itinerary for our children – creating lasting memories to inspire future trips for their children. As such, I always opt for accommodation that encourages relaxation, ideally with poolside service, to counterbalance our daily adrenalin-inducing, fun-filled adventures. We found refuge at the San Diego Mission Bay Resort for a portion of our trip. Brooklyn loved the large swimming pool, larger-than-life lawn games, live music and marshmallow roasting. And, with spring rates starting from $207 (USD) per night, my husband was smitten as well. Our splurge-stay was in Carlsbad, at the heavenly Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa. Room rates are considerably higher for the completely reimagined, five-diamond property (from $592 per night in March); however, the exquisite experience far surpasses the price point. During our glorious 24 hours here, Brooklyn spent half her time underwater, dancing to the in-pool music, while Curt and I swapped between lifeguard duty and lounging at the adults-only pool. Dinner at the resort’s new Ember & Rye’s vintage steak and seafood restaurant was also a treat, most notably the oyster and pearls, corn Crème Brûlée, Willy’s famous pork ribs, and carrot cake club sandwich with coconut cream and pecan crisp.

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

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