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Stay & Play: Safe Summer Fun in San Diego

With air travel at an all-time low due to COVID-19, it’s time to make the most of the tourist destination that is our own backyard

Views of downtown San Diego in the summertime from Shelter Island
Image Credits Header photo, David Swanson, Katie Dillon, Julie Coker: Photography by Vincent Knakal     Torrey Pines Golf Course: Image courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority     Cabrillo, Gliderport: Photography courtesy of Adams/Hansen Stock Photo     Chicano Park: Photo by David Swanson     Rancho Valencia: Photo by Bob Stefanko     Kettner Exchange: Photo by Jeff Corrigan     Jeune et Jolie: Photo by Devin Castaneda    Japanese Friendship Garden Inamori Pavilion: Photo by Dominic Nepomuceno     Japanese Friendship Garden atmosphere: Photography by Scott Hallock     Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden: Photo by K.C. Alfred   Halcyon, Crystal Pier, Fairmont Grand Del Mar, Cassara Carlsbad, L'Auberge Del Mar, La Valencia, Grand Colonial: Courtesy Photography

It’s time to make the most of the tourist destination that is our own backyard. Elizabeth Hansen shares her guide to the best places to play in and around our beautiful county, Andrea Naversen highlights staycation offers, Jackie Bryant dishes on outdoor dining options around town, and Bill Abrams tours Balboa Park’s many outdoor gardens. Plus, local travel experts David Swanson and Katie Dillon, along with San Diego Tourism Authority’s new president and CEO, Julie Coker, weigh in with their own tips for enjoying our beautiful city — now and always. Ready, set, explore!

I find myself counting my blessings  a lot these days. Good health, of course, is at the top of the list, but I’m also more grateful than ever that I live in San Diego. Until March, my summer travel plans were a toss-up between Spain and Iceland. Today, I’m deliberating between a day trip to Point Loma or revisiting some of my favorite spots in La Jolla. Both are very appealing options.

I recently attended a Zoom travel conference where industry experts agreed that international travel “isn’t happening,” and commercial flight bookings are 85 percent lower than last year. However, that doesn’t have to be a drama for San Diegans, because we live in the middle of a tourism gold mine. We have the option of taking fresh stock of our surroundings and using “the pause” to have fun close to home.

At the conference, this point was best addressed by Paul Melhus, founder and CEO of Tours By Locals. “Out-of-state and overseas visitors will Google ‘San Diego’ and figure out what they can do here, but locals think they already know everything,” he said.

Guilty as charged.

Until I was commissioned to write my first San Diego travel guidebook, I didn’t realize how much fun was waiting in the communities that comprise our city. I took my out-of-town visitors to the Zoo, SeaWorld, the Safari Park, and Legoland, and then back to the airport.

Point Loma

I’d also driven some guests out to the Cabrillo National Monument at the end of Point Loma to enjoy the breathtaking view, but I didn’t know about the beautiful Bayside Trail along the water below the visitor center. I also wasn’t savvy enough to wow them with lunch at Point Loma Seafood’s, a fish market and casual eatery right on San Diego Bay.

Cabrillo National Monument daytime with ocean views
Cabrillo National Monument

I soon learned that Point Loma’s Shelter Island is a great base for kayaking and home to the only fishing pier in San Diego where no fees or permits are required. It’s also a good spot for socially-distanced walking. If you decide to stay there, Humphreys Half Moon Inn has a BOGO offer: Buy one night, get the second night at 50 percent off now through December 31, 2020. halfmooninn.com

Sailing With Your Bubble

Of course, San Diego Bay is also a great spot for sailing, and San Diego Sailing Tours can take up to six passengers on two-hour private charter tours. Guests can enjoy San Diego’s calm waters during the daytime or opt to watch as the skyline starts to light up. sandiegosailingtours.com

For a longer, exclusive experience on the water, Halcyon Seas offers one-day, overnight, or three-day getaways aboard their 70-foot luxury motor yacht. Available for up to 12 guests, the all-inclusive expeditions include whale watching, harbor to harbor sailing, and an escape to Santa Catalina Island. halcyonseas.com

Deep ocean views from the stern of the Halcyon Seas luxury yacht
Halcyon Seas
The sunroom at Mt. Ada

Catalina By Copter

Here’s another way to visit Catalina with your household bubble: Island Express Helicopters normally depart from the Queen Mary Terminal in Long Beach, but you can arrange to leave from John Wayne or Palomar airports. Once on the island, I recommend staying at the lovely Mt. Ada and maybe even doing a buyout of all six rooms. Guests are provided complimentary golf carts to explore Avalon during their stay. iexhelicopters.com

Arial view of Catalina Island, California
Catalina Island

Private Wildlife Encounters

Considering our circumstances, it isn’t surprising that the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park are offering guided buyout tours for guests who prefer a private experience. Available for up to six household members, the “Inside Look” tour can be booked before the park opens and takes visitors to two unique animal exhibits for a special educational experience. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park also offers private tours, such as the “Behind-the-Scenes Safari,” where guests can choose to view elephants or rhinos and learn about the care they receive. zoo.sandiegozoo.org/upgraded-experiences/inside-look-tours, sdzsafaripark.org/safari/behind-scenes-safari

La Jolla

Closer to home, I never tire of watching hang gliders take off from the Torrey Pines Gliderport and float out over the sea. Adventure-seekers can try a tandem flight, but I simply love stopping in for the view, the breeze, and lunch at the Cliffhanger Café. flytorrey.com

Hang gliders take off from the Torrey Pines Gliderport
Gliderport at Torrey Pines

Nearby, you can also see hang gliders from the stunning Lodge at Torrey Pines, which overlooks the Torrey Pines Golf Course. Right now, The Lodge is offering some very attractive golf packages. “Tee Up at Torrey” includes a one-night stay and a tee time for two at either the North or South course. “Play Where the Pros Play” includes three nights and a tee time on either course. The Lodge also offers outdoor dining at both the award-winning A.R. Valentien and The Grill at Torrey Pines. lodgetorreypines.com

Panoramic of Torrey Pines Golf Course
Torrey Pines Golf Course

For beachfront lodging, nothing compares to the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club on La Jolla Shores Beach. Primarily known as an exclusive private club, the property is also a hotel offering 12 championship tennis courts and spacious suites with a kitchen or kitchenette and up to three bedrooms. ljbtc.com

Warm orange Pacific Sunset from La Jolla Shores
Sunset from La Jolla Shores

Pacific Beach

Popular with young-and-restless sunbathers and surfers, PB is home to the only truly overwater lodging in California. When the Crystal Pier Hotel beckons guests to “sleep over the ocean,” they aren’t exaggerating. Some two dozen charming cottages line the pier, providing knockout views and the sound of breaking waves. Each studio, one-, or two-bedroom unit comes with a kitchenette, living room, private deck, and space to park one car. crystalpier.com

A row of over-ocean bungalows at Pacific Beach's Crystal Pier
Crystal Pier

Rancho Bernardo

Golf, three pools, dive-in movies, falconry, colorful gardens, and great food make the Rancho Bernardo Inn a popular summer destination. Current deals include “Fourth Night Free + Kids Eat Free,” “Stay & Play Plus” (accommodation and unlimited golf), and “Stay 2 Nights and Save 20%.” ranchobernardoinn.com Elizabeth Hansen

Cody interior view of the Palacio Parlor at Rancho Bernardo Inn
Rancho Bernardo Inn

[su_box title=”Privacy for Your Pod” box_color=”#003e4f”]Like hotels all over the world, San Diego properties are focused on cleanliness, social distancing, outdoor activities, and bargains. Helen McCabe-Young from Rancho Bernardo Inn spoke at the travel conference and described open-air dining (much safer than indoors) and private dinner options at the RB Inn as well as a takeover option (28 rooms and a pool for your “peer pod” in a private area of the resort).

Live Like a Local

David Swanson outside with downtown San Diego behind him
David Swanson

David Swanson is a third-generation San Diegan and veteran travel writer. His new book, 100 Things to Do in San Diego Before You Die, includes a local’s perspective on experiences from Tijuana to Oceanside and Ocean Beach to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

After reading his book, I can’t wait to re-visit Barrio Logan, San Diego’s “hub of Latin pride and culture.” It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the colorful murals in Chicano Park beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Swanson recommends the Tijuana-style street tacos at ¡Salud! and I also want to try Las Quatro Milpas, an “old-school Mexican joint earning fans with its homemade tortillas and picnic-table decor since 1933.”

Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park

I’m also grateful to Swanson for including info on the Palomar Observatory, home of the Hale Telescope. They offer weekend guided tours April through November. Now that I know, I’ll be visiting there soon. 100sandiego.com   Elizabeth Hansen

The Palomar Hale Telescope Dome At Sunset With Moon
Palomar’s Hale Telescope

Mother Knows Best

Katie Dillon outside with the cliffs of La Jolla in the background
Katie Dillon

Her name is Katie Dillon, but she’s better known as “La Jolla Mom.” Through her popular San Diego family travel blog and social media network, Dillon shares insider tips on luxury travel and traveling with kids.

“One way to feel like you’re on vacation in San Diego without spending the night is through ResortPass,” explains Dillon. “You can purchase day passes, cabanas, and even rooms for the day through this site so that you can enjoy local hotel pools. Families tend to daycation like this at Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina due to its three water slides or at Omni La Costa because kids love the Splash Landing water play area and poolside sandy beach. Rancho Bernardo Inn, Paradise Point Resort, the new San Diego Mission Bay Resort, and several others participate. Availability is subject to hotel occupancy so if they’re busy on the weekend, you might only be able to purchase a weekday pass. You’ll want to also check the hotel’s COVID policies before booking to see what’s operational and what health and safety requirements are in place when you visit.” resortpass.com, lajollamom.com/best-things-to-do-in-san-diego-with-kids   Elizabeth Hansen

Changing of the Guard

Julie Coker outside in downtown Little Italy
Julie Coker

Amid a global pandemic that is impacting tourism worldwide, Julie Coker has recently taken over as the new president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority. A hospitality industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience, Coker comes to San Diego after serving as the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“There is no question that this is a challenging time for our country, our region, and our tourism industry, but I do believe that San Diego is well positioned to emerge from this current crisis stronger and more resilient than before,” says Coker. Through various campaigns, the SDTA is encouraging locals to rediscover what makes our hometown so special. “A hotel night stay, a dinner out, a shopping splurge at a local store, getting a growler to go — all these small acts can have a big impact on helping your friends and neighbors get back to work and putting San Diego on the road to recovery,” she says.

As a newcomer to the area, Coker says she continues to be in awe of not only how beautiful it is in San Diego, but by how warm and welcoming the people are and by the diversity of experiences we offer. “San Diego is a premier destination for a reason — and what sets us apart will only be more appealing to would-be travelers as we emerge from the pandemic,” says Coker. sandiego.org   Mia S. Park

Home Suite Home

San Diego County has a range of getaway options, from expansive resorts to boutique hotels. Many are offering special deals, whether you are looking for an intimate couple’s retreat or traveling with a tribe.

Life is Grand!

Enjoy starry nights and sunny days at the Mediterranean-style, triple Forbes Five-Star Fairmont Grand Del Mar. Book a night’s stay and receive a second night free. Guests can enjoy the resort’s pools, gorgeous grounds, hiking trails, and championship golf. Al fresco dining is being offered at Amaya, The Clubhouse Grill, and Addison. 855.314.2030, thegranddelmar.com

Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort Pool Splashing Family
Fairmont Grand Del Mar

Family Fare

The Cassara Carlsbad (formerly the Grand Pacific Palisades) is a newly renovated, modern Mediterranean-style hotel high above the Flower Fields and close to Carlsbad Premium Outlets, the Crossings Golf Course, beaches, and more. The hotel recently debuted 29 two-room family suites perfect for parents with kids in tow. There are two pools including a family pool with a “splash pad,” a sort of mini water park. Although the resort’s restaurant is currently closed, guests can order takeout from local eateries or enjoy outside dining at the nearby Karl Strauss Brewing Company or 7 Mile Kitchen at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa.Cassara is offering a “Long Weekender” package through September. Book a Friday and Saturday visit and stay Sunday night for 50 percent off. Cassara and the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort are both also partnering with the Carlsbad Lagoon to offer an action-packed package that includes an overnight stay and a $50 voucher toward watercraft rentals. Mention code “Lagoon” when you book at Cassara Carlsbad (833.447.9195) or the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort (800.444.3515).

Firepits at sunset at the Cassara Carlsbad
The Cassara Carlsbad

Pony Up

The Pony Room at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa has long been popular with locals for outdoor dining. But it is especially festive on Thursday-Saturday nights, expanding onto the Croquet Lawn with firepits, lanterns, and live music. Sample rustic American fare and signature cocktails including the “Sassy Sangrita” (tequila, Cointreau Noir, and spicy fruit juice with a touch of chili powder for heat). Or, dine in your own casita with a private patio. Valencia suites also include a personal plunge pool and outdoor fireplace. The resort is offering an adults-only “Summer Splash” package, which includes a room upgrade, late checkout, and a full-day reservation in a cabana at the spa pool. All fitness classes are now held outside, as are spa treatments. 858.756.1123, ranchovalencia.com

Private dining casitas on the lawn at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa
Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

In the Pink

La Jolla’s famed “Pink Lady,” La Valencia Hotel, is offering an outdoor “Bubbly Brunch” with Veuve Clicquot and live music every Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 2pm on the Patio Sol and Ocean View Terrace. (If you don’t have “Champagne tastes,” toast with the Pink Lady cocktail: vodka, watermelon juice, Cointreau and lemon.) Dogs are welcome in the outdoor spaces and even have their own menu, “Bone Appetit,” that includes steak and eggs, veggies, and rice. All menu items have been taste-tested by La V’s new mascot, Lady Pepper, a Boston Terrier pup.

The hotel’s Vintage King rooms have been renovated to meld the hotel’s history with modern comforts. Rooms are decorated with photos of La Valencia’s famous guests, including Gregory Peck, the Hollywood star who co-founded the La Jolla Playhouse. Popular packages include “How Suite It Is,” offering up to 30 percent off spacious suites for stays of three nights or more. 855.360.6591, lavalencia.com

La Valencia Ocean View Terrace Wide Shot_1080
La Valencia

Sun & Surf

L’Auberge Del Mar is marking its 31st anniversary this year. The upscale inn is offering several promotional packages to welcome guests ranging from 15 percent off for first responders and their families to a mid-week “Sneakaway” that includes complimentary parking and waived resort fees. The “Hello Summer” package offers a $20 breakfast credit and valet parking, or choose “Beach & Breakfast” for a decadent breakfast in bed or on Coastline Restaurant’s ocean view deck. Pop into the pool, stroll Del Mar beach, or browse village boutiques. Across the street at Del Mar Plaza, restaurants are open for outdoor dining. You can also enjoy takeout and cocktails on the plaza’s expansive deck with its dazzling coastal vistas. 858.259.1515, laubergedelmar.com

L'Auberge Del Mar Oceanview Patio at Sunset
L’Auberge Del Mar

Grande Getaway

The elegant and intimate Grande Colonial hotel in La Jolla is offering flexible cancellation policies, outdoor dining options, and special offers. Get $50 off ocean view rooms or a “suite” deal, a free upgrade to a roomy garden or village view suite with kitchenettes. Guests also can save 25 percent by paying in advance for stays through April 30, 2021. Reservations must be pre-paid by September 30. The hotel’s Nine-Ten Restaurant has added more tables along the sidewalk for dining and people watching, as well as additional seating on the back terrace overlooking the pool, where guests can get a peek at the ocean and take in the sunset. 858.454.2181, thegrandecolonial.com   Andrea Naversen

Grande Colonial Ocean View King Room
Grande Colonial

Opt Outside

Blessed with a little more personal space and better weather than people in other metropolitan areas throughout the country, San Diegans are poised to ride out COVID-19 with key advantages. The ability to shift from mainly indoor-only restaurants to fully outdoor-seated outfits is one of them. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer agrees. He signed an executive order on July 7 allowing restaurants to take seating outside without needing additional permitting. Other munici-palities in the greater San Diego area have since followed suit.

As of press time, La Jolla Shores, Kearny Mesa, Downtown San Diego, Carlsbad, Encinitas, and Little Italy have designated city streets that have been shut down to car traffic, allowing for restaurants to extend their seating into the street.

In La Jolla Shores, the measure was finally approved after months of lobbying and organizing by the La Jolla Shores Association. The streets between El Paseo Grande and Calle de la Plata will be closed so Osteria Romantica, Shore Rider, Piatti, Cheese Shop, Galaxy Taco, El Charro, Scoops Ice Cream, Brick & Bell, Shore House Kitchen, The Corner Mercantile, NeighborSaver Market, and House of Pizza can expand outdoors.

Encinitas has transformed car parking spaces on Coast Highway 101 into areas for outdoor dining, providing added room not just for restaurants, but for other retail stores to operate, as well.

The model follows the two earliest adopters, which were the Gaslamp Quarter’s 5th Avenue and Little Italy’s India Street. Other restaurants in those areas that don’t benefit from the street closures for geographical reasons, like Kettner Exchange on Kettner Boulevard, have transformed their parking lots (when available) into outdoor dining experiences.

Kettner Exchange's new grassy outdoor dining
Kettner Exchange

Carlsbad’s Jeune et Jolie has completely revamped its restaurant to be entirely outdoors, with distanced seating for 50 people in its expansive parking lot on State Street. They are also operating on a reservation-only system, which includes a pre-paid five-course prix fixe menu.

Jeune at Jolie's outdoor dining
Jeune at Jolie

In the village of Del Mar, Americana Restaurant, Jake’s Del Mar, Pacifica Del Mar, Sbicca Del Mar, Viewpoint Brewing, and several others all have ample outdoor seating, making for a relatively seamless transition for both diners and restaurateurs. Up the road in Carmel Valley, Addison has transformed its rooftop into arguably the region’s finest outdoor dining situation imaginable, bucking the trend of traditional fine dining throughout history, which is rooted in enclosed dining rooms.

With so many outdoor dining options springing to life, I have renewed hope for the gloom COVID-19 has brought to the world, including San Diego County’s restaurant scene. It doesn’t surprise me that so many excellent solutions have come to life so quickly — it fits a pattern I’ve come to expect from the hardworking and creative folks that make up its ranks.   Jackie Bryant

The Many Gardens of Balboa Park

Because of the Governor’s recent restrictions on indoor activities, museums that were open or scheduled to open were forced to close. What is open, however, is Balboa Park’s vast array of gardens, nearly 20 in all, ranging from The San Diego Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden to the Old Cactus Garden, planted in 1935.

“We must be optimists,” says Roxana Velásquez, Executive Director of SDMA. “I thought we would be reopening the entire museum, but at least we opened our sculpture garden. And it is a wonderful place for contemplation.”

The Sculpture Garden is part of SDMA’s Art of the Open Air, an exceptional exhibit of 15 sculptures that begins in front of the museum and culminates in the garden itself. Along the way, there are sculptures by Joan Miró, Auguste Rodin, and Louise Nevelson, while the garden features works by Alexander Calder, Barbara Hepworth, and the largest Henry Moore sculpture ever created — not to mention a spectacular view of the California Tower.

Like The San Diego Museum of Art, the indoor exhibits at the Japanese Friendship Garden are closed, but its magnificent garden can still be enjoyed. The 12-acre property dates to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and is an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama. The next-door teahouse was a popular rest spot during San Diego’s first world’s fair, and the adjacent Japanese garden was the foundation for the extraordinary garden that now exists.

Guided by shibui, elegant simplicity and quiet beauty, the garden also incorporates elements of the local landscape. A garden is always in a state of change, but the basic elements of trees, shrubs, rocks, and water in natural balance create a peaceful, harmonious environment that make it a place conducive to contemplation and meditation. balboapark.org/explore/gardens    Bill Abrams

So Many Gardens

Many of Balboa Park’s gardens are well known, but some I had never heard of. Here is a list:

  • Alcazar Garden
  • Australian Garden
  • California Native Plant Garden
  • Casa del Rey Moro Garden
  • Desert Garden
  • EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden
  • Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve
  • Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
  • Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Marston House Garden
  • Old Cactus Garden
  • Palm Canyon
  • The San Diego Museum of Art Sculpture Garden
  • Trees for Health Garden
  • Veterans Memorial Garden
  • Zoro Garden

Zoro Garden

A sunken stone grotto designed as a nudist colony during the 1935 Exposition, Zoro Garden is now home to a butterfly garden, with residents equally as colorful, though less controversial. Containing both the larvae and nectar plants needed for the complete life cycle of butterflies, the rocks of the garden have indentations to collect small pools of water for the monarch, sulfur, and swallowtail butterflies that now fly among the colorful perennials and majestic Ficus trees that surround the garden.

Balboa Park's Zoro Garden
Zoro Garden

Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Named an “Outstanding Rose Garden” by All-America Rose Selections in 1978, recipient of a 2003 Award of Excellence from the World Federation of Rose Societies, and inducted into the Great Rosarians of the World Hall of Fame in 2014, the stunning Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden displays more than 130 varieties of roses on a three-acre site across the street from the Fleet Science Center and next to the Desert Garden.

Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden

Dedicated in 2015, the EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden is dedicated to teaching the role of plants in society today and among the indigenous cultures of the past. This unique organic herb, fruit, and vegetable garden honors the memory of George Washington Carver and is the first sustainable, edible garden in Balboa Park. It is also a Certified Earth-Friendly Garden, a registered Urban Plant and Flower Pollinator Habitat, a certified Monarch Waystation, and Wildlife Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation.

San Diego Museum of Art Sculpture Garden
San Diego Museum of Art Sculpture Garden


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