When I was a kid, growing up in the sweltering hot Arizona desert, summer meant temps over 100 degrees Fahrenheit — and so, everyone would flee for for the summer. The destination? Stunning San Diego, California. Living in Hong Kong was no different — when the last day of school arrived, my kids and I dashed for the plane to this idyllic destination, where it’s dry and sunny every day, and offers loads of activities to please all. It’s the closest thing you can get to surefire holiday success. The hardest part was always leaving at the end of the summer — so, we decided to stay, for good! And while living full time in a vacation-town does not have quite the same vibe has popping in and out for a holiday, San Diego is pretty amazing just about any time of the year. If you’re looking for your next family destination, sunny California lives up to the hype.
It can be hard to know where to start because California is really big – 840 miles long (about the same size as Spain). Unless you have several weeks, it’s best to pick one part of the state or you will spend most of your trip driving. San Francisco might as well be another country it’s so different from Southern California. Los Angeles, with its sprawling traffic, is overrated so head 130 miles south to golden San Diego where you will find something for everyone and are almost guaranteed good weather. San Diego has more nice days than any other city in America – in fact, it’s beautiful more than 75% of the year. The odds are in your favor that it will be dry, sunny and warm.
Where to Stay:
Base yourself on the charming island of Coronado – just a bridge or ferry ride away from downtown San Diego.
The iconic Hotel Del Coronado is a beachfront legend (you may recognize it from the movie Some Like it Hot). It’s quaint and historic with an ideal location right on Coronado main beach. Next to the main hotel (but right on the beach) is the ‘Beach Village’ that offers exclusive perks like private pool access, fireplaces, terraces and ocean views. The hotel hosts (for an additional fee) private bonfires, movies, and yoga/spin classes on the beach. In the winter, there is even an ice skating rink with ocean views.
If you have the time to stay for more than a few days, then you may want more space and a kitchen. Unfortunately due to local ordinances on short-term rentals, you cannot VRBO or AirBnb on Coronado for less than 26 day stays. But, this 3-bedroom gem is able to skirt the rule due to its zoning as a hotel. It’s ideally located across the street from the Hotel Del and a short walk to the beach. There is a downstairs suite (sleeps 7) and an upstairs suite (sleeps 6). The two apartments share a garden, barbecue grill, and 6 beach cruisers too!
What to Do:
Rent bikes – cycle under the bridge and along the waterfront to the ferry landing. Bikes are available for rent at Holland’s Bicycles on the main Street (Orange Ave), the ferry landing, and at the Hotel Del. You can rent tandems, trailers and even “surreys”. But be warned that the surreys (excellent photo-op) are a highly inefficient form of transportation that are challenging to steer! If you are feeling more adventurous, take the bike path down the Silver Strand (aka ‘The Strand’) seven miles to Imperial Beach with ocean breezes and views of the San Diego bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Don’t worry, you can turn around at anytime if the littles start to complain.
Walk the beach – There is no better way to shake off the jet lag and start your day than walking along the wide, golden sands of Coronado beach (often picked as one of the top ten beaches in America). The 1.75 mile beach is bookended by the US Naval Station beaches on each end. Look out for shells, sand dollars, dolphins, Navy Seals on training runs and the occasional fighter jet coming in for a landing. Explore the rocks in front of the Hotel Del, known locally as “Crab City”, at high tide to see hermit crabs and starfish in the tide pools.
Rent a Paddleboard – Start the day off on the glassy water with a paddle under the Coronado bridge. There are several places to rent boards including the Coronado Boathouse, Seaforth, Ray’s Rentals and the Hotel Del.
Wakeboard on the Bay – Rent a speedboat from Seaforth Boat Rentals for waterskiing, wake boarding and/or tubing on the bay. No captain’s license needed! Or for something more low key, hire a sailboat with a captain and relax. They also offer jet ski rentals!
Learn to Surf: The (relatively) gentle waves on Coronado beach make it an ideal place to learn to surf. You are never too old or young to learn – but you will want to wear a wetsuit to stay warm! There are a number of options for surfing lessons on the island including Coronado Surfing Academy, Gnarly Neal’s, and the Hotel Del.
Take the ferry to the USS Midway: The scenic 15 minute ferry ride leaves from the Coronado ferry landing every 30 minutes. It’s a short walk to the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum. The Midway was the longest serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century. Admission includes climb-aboard aircraft and cockpits, videos, flight simulators, and a narrated audio tour especially for kids.
Take a tour: It’s hard to leave Coronado, but there is so much to see over the bridge too! Jump on board a Trolley Tour to take in all of the San Diego sights including Old Town, Seaport Village, Balboa Park and Little Italy.
Play a round: The Coronado Golf Course is an affordable course with spectacular views of the ocean, yachts, and homes. It’s only $35 to walk the course ($50 with a cart). Call 14 days ahead of time to put your name on the tee sheet or try the waiting list.
Build a sandcastle and boogie board: Although the local attractions are compelling, sometimes it’s just the simple fun of a day at the beach boogie boarding and building sand castles on the expansive beach that are the most fun and memorable vacation memories.
Dive in: If you need a break from the beach, head to the *heated* pool at the Coronado Community Center where (for a small fee) you can swim laps or let the littles play in a shallow pool – they even provide buckets, rings and watering pails.
Spend a day at the zoo: The world famous San Diego Zoo is just over the bridge (15 min drive) from Coronado and boasts 4,500 animals from 900 species. There is a small petting zoo but the favorites are the polar bears and the cable car ride over the zoo with sweeping San Diego views.
Pet a sting ray: Just a 15 minute drive from Coronado is the famous Sea World San Diego with animal shows (fan favorite: Pets Rule!), exhibits (feed sting rays and sea lions) and rides. For your thrill seekers, the new electric eel ride is the tallest and fastest in San Diego.
It’s hard to leave Coronado but farther afield there is also Legoland (45 minute drive north in Carlsbad), the Aquatica Water Park (25 min drive) and the Zoo Safari Park (45 minute drive). The tony, cliff-side town of La Jolla (pronounced La Hoy-yuh) is also a fun excursion to see the seals and sea lions in the cove, explore the tide pools and shop the boutiques. For serious shoppers, head to University Town Center (known as UTC) for fashion and a thriving restaurant scene. Balboa Park (near the zoo) includes a whopping 17 museums to explore if everyone needs a break from the sun or you are caught in one of the rare rainy days. The Air & Space museum is one of the favorites. In between museum visits, be sure to book lunch at The Prado and request a table outside.
Where to Eat:
After a long day at the beach, everyone might be ready for room service but there are a few local spots on Coronado you should try. For seafood with a view head to the “bay” side (just across from the Hotel Del), to the historic Bluewater Boathouse Grill for solid (if slightly uninspired) seafood favorites. The kids menu is first class with fish, shrimp and standard options too. Locals flock to Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge on Orange Ave for the seasonal menu (delicious kids menu too). If you need to bribe the kids to go out to eat, be sure to mention it is next door to MooTime Creamery (easily discernible by the large cow out front and/or the long line in the summer months). If you are looking for something quick and casual, your best bet is Burger Lounge for made-to-order, grass-fed burgers, organic ingredients and creamy milkshakes. It’s also worth noting it is next door to Gelato Paradiso where you will find a plethora of gelato flavors made daily using fresh ingredients.
Head OTB (local slang for over-the-bridge), for a sunset margarita with views of the San Diego skyline at Coasterra. Order the guacamole made table-side. Another upscale Mexican favorite is Puesto at the Headquarters. Try the avocado margarita and the filet mignon tacos.
The dining scene has exploded recently in Little Italy (near downtown). For a fancy night out (sans kids), Juniper & Ivy, Herb & Wood and Born & Raised (steakhouse) have both dominated the use of ampersands in their names as well as the restaurant “it” lists. If it’s more of a family affair, then try Davanti Enoteca (don’t leave without tasting the Focaccia di Recco) and the Crack Shack. Parking is a nightmare so it’s better to Uber/Lyft your way there and back.
How to Get There:
Flying into San Diego airport is the best way to arrive to avoid traffic snarls in Los Angeles. There is a Japan Airlines flight that stops in Tokyo and lands at San Diego (SAN) airport. If you fly into Los Angeles airport (LAX), try to avoid landing mid-afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic (2-6 pm) that can add an hour or more to the travel time to San Diego. If you land early morning or late at night, it should only take about two hours to drive. Be sure to plan a stop at In-n-Out for burgers and shakes to stretch your legs and stymie the are-we-there-yets. About halfway into the drive from LAX you will be greeted by ocean views to remind you why you came and keep you awake for the rest of the drive.
Need to Know:
- July and August are exceptionally busy on Coronado. You may want to avoid the 4th of July as the island is jam-packed for the festivities. Hotels are full and tourist traffic makes it challenging to get over the bridge and find parking. That being said, the 4th of July parade, run and fireworks are spectacular!
- While the weather is still pleasant, the month of June is known locally as “June Gloom” because the coastal fog tends to stick around most of the day.
- The naval bases on the island of Coronado significantly contribute to local traffic conditions with commuters driving to/from Coronado at peak times of the day. If possible, try to avoid leaving the island around 2:30-4:30 pm as the cars inch slowly over the bridge towards San Diego.
- The city of Coronado prohibits smoking outdoors on all public property.
- Fun fact: the sand dunes on Coronado beach are fun to run up and down but also spell “Coronado” when viewed from above.