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Discovering San Diego’s Low-Key Spots for Family Fun

WestJet Magazine, February 2018


The ground rushes toward me in a kaleidoscope of green palm fronds, blue sea and white breakers. I squeeze my eyes shut, white-knuckle the bar in front of me and scream. Seated next to me, my 12-year-old daughter, Avery, raises her arms over her head and laughs. When the Giant Dipper pulls in to the platform signalling the end of the ride, she’s effusive.

“That’s one of the scariest roller coasters I’ve ever been on!” she says.

Built in 1925 for a mere $150,000 (it was restored in 1988 at a cost of $2 million), this wooden marvel is a classic fixture at Belmont Park, a Coney-Island-like amusement park on Mission Beach in San Diego. It’s not my first time on the Giant Dipper, but it’s my first time riding it with Avery, and I’d forgotten how terrifying it is.

I was a Belmont Park regular in the early 1990s, when I lived at Mission Beach and attended the University of San Diego. During that time, I was also a summer camp counsellor for the local YMCA, and Mission Beach—with its thrill rides, three-kilometre-long paved boardwalk and gritty surf culture—was a favourite place to bring the campers, who ranged in age from 10 to 13. Because Southern California can be so busy during peak times (spring break, summer vacation), we often sought out the city’s lesser-known, kid-friendly attractions.

Now a parent, I’ve brought my own tween charges and their dad to this sun-drenched slice of Southern California to stray off the tourist trail and visit some of those haunts. In past trips to SoCal, we’ve focused on its star attractions—Disneyland, Legoland and the San Diego Zoo have all been on the itinerary over the years—but on this trip, we’re purposely veering from the madding crowds to experience San Diego and its surrounding areas more like locals. And, like that electrifying roller coaster ride, it’s a thrill to walk down memory lane, peering through the double lens of my own nostalgic knowledge, and my kids’ expectations.

San Diego has changed immensely in 25 years. In addition to its citywide craft beer revolution, the downtown has undergone an extensive revitalization with a new baseball stadium and the redevelopment of East Village, with its upscale hotels and restaurants. The food scene has moved beyond Mexican, and cocktail bars line trendy, new-to-me neighbourhoods like North Park.

Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach (OB), my favourite area back in university for watching the sun say a dramatic goodbye, has also morphed from a quiet date spot into a bona fide attraction for couples and families. People come to visit OB’s famous Dog Beach (where locals’ pups frolic in the surf), browse the boutiques on historic Newport Ave. and, more recently, to eat and shop at nearby Liberty Public Market, part of Liberty Station, a former naval training centre that’s been transformed into a thriving neighbourhood I don’t recognize.

Other classic parts of the city, though, have stayed reassuringly the same.

Mission Beach and Belmont Park are still as salt-sprayed and sun-faded as I remember. While we’re there, my son Bennett, 9, rides his first solo bumper car, and we all take a spin on the old-timey carousel. There still aren’t many lineups, and my kids seem just as happy to ride on repeat as my camp charges did 20-plus years ago, doing laps on the roller coaster. Later, on the adjacent beach, Avery and Bennett play a game along the surf line called “line in the sand” that invariably ends with wet shorts as they edge farther out into the ocean.

The length of Mission Beach is like one long, skinny peninsula protecting Mission Bay, with vacation homes lining each side. We wander up the bayside path past tidy houses with surfboards and children’s sand toys stacked in the front yards. Back at our base, the Catamaran Resort, we take small, electric catamarans called FunCats out onto the bay to motor around and watch the Flyboarders show off.

The next day, we go get our marine biology kicks in La Jolla, a posh seaside community 20 km north of downtown. For my long-ago campers, the big attraction had been La Jolla Cove, a small arc of beach wedged between two rocky headlands, perfect for swimming and critter stalking. There, sea lions bask on the seaside rocks, and thick ropes of seaweed snake along portions of the shore. The combination of animal and vegetal matter has long imbued the strip of sand with a funky marine smell, but the campers didn’t mind a bit—and my kids don’t complain, either.

Bennett immediately dips into the water while Avery heads for the rocks. This—along with La Jolla Children’s Pool—is one of the area’s best tide-pooling spots, and my budding naturalist soon finds tiny shore crabs to capture and sea anemones to touch.

Fittingly, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a leading marine biology centre, is located on a hillside just up the road. The outdoor tide pools there teem with sea cucumbers, sea stars and sea urchins. Avery and Bennett are so captivated, pointing out hermit crabs and tiny fish, that I have to set a time limit at the touch pools so we can see the indoor exhibits.

Inside, the impressive Hall of Fishes displays species found in the local coastal waters, from the giant Pacific octopus to California moray eels. There’s a sea horse exhibit on during our visit and we ogle tiny creatures the size of my fingernail.

With its focus on research and education, Birch Aquarium offers a very different experience from SeaWorld. What’s more, we have the facility almost entirely to ourselves—I’m glad it’s still one of the city’s secrets.

A few days later, we’re sitting at Clayton’s Coffee Shop on Coronado Island, drinking rich milkshakes and plugging quarters into the mini jukebox at our table. There’s a quaint feel to the island community, with its delis and coffee shops and art deco architecture.

In my camp counselling days, we crossed the iconic Coronado Bay Bridge a few times with the campers to visit the parks and the beach, and now I marvel that we didn’t come more often. With its tidy homes and streets, and the impressive red turrets of the Hotel del Coronado beckoning beachside, it’s like a town from another time. The grand resort hearkens to the days when the whole clan would “summer” away from home, and that family-camp feeling—à la Dirty Dancing—is captured by night during campfire marshmallow roasts, and by day out on the sand.

Coronado Central Beach is arguably San Diego’s loveliest stretch of beach. It runs for more than two kilometres, a dot-to-dot of families sunning and picnicking. We break out the Frisbee and toss it around, like I did with the campers years ago.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine my life a generation into the future—what mattered was the moment: entertaining kids on a beach, keeping them safe from the waves and discovering the city’s secrets in the process.

It occurs to me that not that much has changed. I’m still playing with children in the sand, making sure they don’t go out too far in the water. Sharing San Diego with my own kids is more fulfilling, however. It’s like letting them have a peek at my past, while I get small glimpses of the independent people they may one day become.

Discovering San Diego’s Low-Key Spots for Family Fun, WestJet Magazine, February 2018

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