San Diego area offers whale watching, hiking, water sports and more

With the Pacific Ocean, tons of sun, mild temperatures and an unlimited amount of outdoor activities in which to take part, San Diego makes an ideal destination for a short family trip. Or perhaps a romantic one.

Driving less than 5 1/2 hours will bring you to beaches, surfing, kayaking or scenic motor routes along the coast. There, you can embark on a whale-watching cruise, visit the famous San Diego Zoo or take in some culture at the art museums of Balboa Park.

My family and I visit the San Diego area at least once a year, usually starting with the coastal town of Carlsbad, home to Legoland and the 50-acre Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, which are at their best from March to early May. From there, we travel down the coast, taking in the ocean views along historic Highway 101, stopping at small towns, beaches and favorite hiking trails.

A favorite stop is the historic district of Del Mar, which has a walking tour, galleries, restaurants and a superb beach. Heading south from there, we stop and hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park, a rare treasure of seaside habitat maintained as it must have looked before colonists arrived. Then we drive down through ritzy La Jolla, visit the Birch Aquarium, and kayak out to the sea caves. When conditions are right, you can paddle into them, which is adventuresome but worth it. Anytime, though, you’ll enjoy seeing the harbor seals, leopard sharks and sea lions.

We often spend the night at Mission Bay, which is home to Sea World. And from there, it’s a hop, skip or jump to the main attractions of San Diego proper — its harbor and whale-watching tours, Balboa Park, the Victorian neighborhood now called the Gaslamp Quarter and the even earlier Old Town San Diego, settled in the 18th century.

The bucket-list experience in these parts is whale watching, and now through the end of March is the perfect time to do it. More than 20,000 gray whales will swim past San Diego on their annual migration. Their 10,000-mile round trip begins off Alaska, and they travel down to Baja California, where they birth calves. A couple of weeks ago, whale watchers just a few miles off Mission Bay were treated to a rare sight: nearly 100 false killer whales. And from mid-June through September, you can hope to see the biggest behemoths of all: blue whales.

There are few places this side of Paris with more concentrated culture than Balboa Park. This complex of nearly 1,200 acres includes 17 museums, expansive gardens and the San Diego Zoo. Human history, photography, science, botany and fine arts are all represented here. This year marks the park’s centennial, and plenty of special events will celebrate it. Check for details at balboapark.org or 619-239-0512.

Because the park is so spread out, it pays to research ahead of your visit, pick your museums or exhibits, and map out a good walking/free shuttle strategy to see them without backtracking.

San Diego offers hundreds of lodging opportunities, from small-budget motels to some of the highest-priced properties in the country. Setting up your “camp” near one of your less-central destinations might be cheaper than in downtown San Diego. A top-notch room in the north region may cost only $160 a night, a bargain for what you are getting.

To the north, in Carlsbad, the West Inn and Suites is kid-friendly and lies only five minutes from Legoland, yet is also close to the beach, shops and restaurants. The hotel recently won the 2015 Travelers Choice award. It also offers free shuttles to and from anywhere in town, a great convenience, for parking is at a premium. Call 866-431-9378 or visit westinnandsuites.com.

Del Mar is especially suitable for romantic getaways, and its Hotel Indigo is an upscale property at a reasonable price. Most of its rooms have ocean views, many with private balconies. And it’s only minutes from the beach, galleries and shops — close enough to leave behind your annoyingly constant companion, the auto, and go there as a carefree pedestrian. Call 877-270-1392 or visit hotelindigo.com.

For families or other groups, Paradise Point cannot be beat. There, if you choose, you’d find plenty to do without leaving the property. It offers on-premises facilities for sailing, paddle boarding, jet skiing, surf lessons, a full-service spa and several swimming pools and restaurants, including the noteworthy Tidal, a casual yet upscale place with stellar views. You can also rent a bike or a surrey. All rooms have an outdoor patio, and the bungalows are on the water. Call 877-995-7714 or visit paradisepoint.com.

Directions:

From Las Vegas, take Interstate 15 south for about 200 miles. Keep left to take Interstate 215 south via exit 123 toward San Bernardino/Riverside. After about 55 miles, where I-215 becomes I-15 S/Escondido Freeway, continue on it about 15 more miles. Take Exit 46, California state Route 76, toward Oceanside. Merge onto I-5 south/San Diego Freeway, follow for about 6 miles, and exit to Carlsbad.

Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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