Remember when I mentioned that I wanted to go back to San Diego with my husband and daughter? I know I was just there in June with my dad, but while I was there I constantly thought about all the fun things I would do with my husband and daughter if they were there.
We'd gone to Utah in the fall so I didn't think another trip in January would happen, but when I mentioned to Jesse that I wanted to go to San Diego for my birthday, he agreed. He mostly left the planning to me since I'd been there before, but once we were there I think he realized there were a ton of other things that he'd like to do. While we probably won't get a trip back to San Diego soon, Jesse already has a list of things we'll check out the next time we visit.
I have to admit, a lot of what we did revolved around what I thought my kid would like. That's how you plan trips with a 7 year old. It just makes it a better experience for everyone. But, honestly, I loved it all too... the zoo, SeaWorld, the beaches, the food... we were all entertained and satisfied with this trip. Unfortunately, I've waited more than a month to write this all down so hopefully, I'm not forgetting anything.
This was our travel day, but as far as travel days go it was a decent one. We were able to get all of our belongings into 2 carry on suitcases and 3 backpacks. Plus, we were able to check Riley's car seat at the gate which made a huge difference. I can't wait until we no longer need to haul that thing around.
My biggest struggle was that I didn't sleep well the night before and it caught up to me by the time we were picking up the rental car. It was by far the fastest rental car pick up we've had in years, but apparently I couldn't figure out what the lady was asking me. Jesse had to step in because I was totally out of it, but all was well in the end and he got us safely to our hotel for the week.
We stayed at the Best Western in Mission Bay. We've had good luck with Best Westerns so I didn't look at any other hotel options. I can easily overwhelm myself with options so this was my attempt at self care. Last time I was here, my dad and I stayed at the Best Western Lamplighter Inn which was great, but was 20 minutes inland and we wanted to be closer to the beach this time. I debated between a couple options, but selected the one in Mission Bay because I got a good deal on Groupon and it was centrally located. We loved it for it's location, but it was on a busy road which could get a bit loud in the evening hours (but quiet down at bedtime). The continental breakfast provided a lot of options and was a little different each day which was a win. I'd stay there again, but would also be open to finding a different place.
Since we arrived late in the afternoon, we didn't do a lot this day except eat and settle in. Since we were right across the highway from Mission Bay, we headed over there for a walk as the sun set. Mission Bay has a fairly long walking path so there is plenty to explore, but it's really great if you have a kid as there are quite a number of playgrounds along the path. We had to pull Riley away from this area since the sun was setting, but I think she could hang out by the water all day long.
For our first meal in San Diego, I relied on the hotel suggestion list which, to be honest, I don't always trust. We were hungry and needed food close by so this seemed like the fastest thing to do to get food in our bellies. I selected the Offshore Tavern and Grill which was just a few blocks away and the gamble worked out. Jesse had a salad, I had the sliders, Riley had her first of many quesadillas on this trip (see: picky eater), and we started out with ceviche. Jesse and I LOVE ceviche, which isn't something you see offered on Minnesota menus very often, so it's hard to pass up. Everything we had at this meal was tasty and I'd order it again if I had the opportunity. Bonus that our waitress was great and the food seemed to set my head straight again.
Later, after visiting Mission Bay, we headed off to a local grocery store to pick up sandwich stuff and other food for the week. We figured we could bring food with us many days to cut down on eating out all the time. Side note (mostly for me): on the way to the grocery store, we passed the Silver Fox Lounge, a bar I went to with my friend, Karen, multiple times over 15 years ago. I was thinking of moving to San Diego at the time and it reminded me a bit of the dive bars I used to hang out at in Minneapolis. I was a nice drive down nostalgia road when I saw it.
Going into this trip I had a pretty clear vision of this day. I'd heard great things about the San Diego zoo and wanted to see Balboa Park again so I made these 'must sees' for our first full day and since they are right next to each other it made sense to visit them on the same day. Everything else on our list of things to do fell in where ever they seemed to fit in the following days.
San Diego Zoo
We arrived at the zoo as soon as they opened and proceeded to spend the next 5 hours there. We didn't get to see everything, but I feel like we got a fairly full San Diego Zoo experience. When we first arrived and bought our tickets there was an issue with the printer that caused us some delay, but everyone was so nice as they tried to resolve the issue. I said this the last time I visited San Diego, but it proved true on this trip as well - the people of San Diego are so nice. It was actually Jesse who first pointed it out the day before, but it was just confirmed when we ran into this brief obstacle... and with pretty much every interaction we had on this trip.
A few tidbits about this zoo... it's hilly so plan for some inclines and declines. They provide you with a great map as you enter so you can plan out your path. We started with a double decker bus tour which really helped us get a lay of the land and provided additional content as the driver shared stories about all the animals. I'd recommend it, and yet, I sort of wish we skipped it and just jumped into exploring on our own. There are smaller buses that you can get on and off to help you get around the zoo. We didn't use those, but might have if Jesse wasn't navigating us around so well.
Also, they have a lot of staff that take pictures of you. You can buy the package for less onsite at the zoo, or they will give you a card to look them up online later (and pay more). We didn't get them, but I admit it would have been fun to have the picture of us with elephants (they took your picture in front of a green screen).
Oh, and the parking at the zoo was free which was a bonus - plus we could walk over to Balboa Park afterwards and not have to worry about finding additional parking.
After five hours at the zoo, I have to admit I was beat. Just outside the gates, we wandered over to some picnic tables to rest and get our bearings, and I wasn't sure if we'd get back up after being on our feet for so long. I was especially worried that we'd be pushing Riley too much on this trip, but she was up for the adventure, perhaps even more than us at times. Once we'd had our brief rest, we walked over to Balboa Park under cloudy skies that looked like they were threatening us with rain. Luckily, it held out until we stopped for dinner and even then it was a brief rain.
I had tried to explain this area to Jesse before we arrived, but I'm not sure that he really got it until we were there. Previously know as 'City Park', much of the buildings in this area are from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition which is when it was renamed Balboa Park in honor of Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who was the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean while on exploration in Panama. There are museums, gardens, restaurants, theaters, street entertainers (Riley had a cat balloon made for her) and more. While we wandered around Jesse made a note to research the museums and come back before our trip was over.
You'll want to go ahead and assume that we had the continental breakfast each morning on our trip. Each day it was well stocked with many options and they changed up the egg, and meat offerings daily for variety. This all went off without a hitch, although there was one morning that staff was scrambling to get things stocked well after the 'kitchen' was open.
For lunch, we ate our packed sandwiches and snacks, but did purchased an overpriced frozen treat for Riley which made me glad we brought our own lunch.
For dinner, we went to El Indio which was recommended by my friend, Karen, who lives in San Diego. Since San Diego is so close to the Mexican border, we knew that we wanted to eat lots of good Mexican food and this place did not disappoint. We loved it so much that we came back later on our trip. Riley got rice and a quesadilla, I got a carnitas taco and a fish taco and Jesse got a carnitas burrito, I think. Jesse proclaimed it to be the best carnitas he's ever had and I raved about the fish taco. Oh, and we got chips and salsa verde which we brought back to our hotel with us and snacked on for the rest of the week.
For months before this trip, we debated about driving almost 2 hours to go to Disney Land. I felt like this was probably our one chance to give Riley this experience because I can't imagine planning a trip around Disney. I even bought her Minnie Mouse shirt I was going to surprise her with, but at the last minute we decided against making the trek. San Diego really has so much to offer that we decided we didn't want to spend so much of our day in the car when we could be doing other things - especially since this was my birthday. By the way, I would totally recommend going on vacation on your birthday.
Mission Bay (again)
SeaWorld didn't open until 10:00 am so we decided to hop over to Mission Bay again and walk the opposite way of our walk on day 1. We stopped at a playground, an outdoor gym, and a beach. Turns out the outdoor gym was the place that it was hardest to pull Riley away from.
When I was 7 years old my dad, stepmom, stepbrother, and I road tripped from Minnesota to California for my parent's unofficial honeymoon. We stopped many places along the way, but our final destination before turning around was to see my aunt in San Diego. I have memories of hanging out at my aunt's house, but the one site-seeing event that I vaguely remember was visiting SeaWorld. I sometimes wonder if I remember my aunt's house the most because the only pictures I have of this stop are at her house. There is something special knowing that I was here at the same age that my daughter is now and I wonder how much of this trip she will carry with her moving forward.
One of the reasons we came to San Diego in January is that my San Diego friend suggested it is a good time to visit. The weather is still nice, but there aren't as many tourists and this was quite evident at SeaWorld. Granted, we went there during a weekday, but it wasn't remotely busy. We even went to multiple shows (dolphins, pets rule, and orcas) which I usually avoid at places this like because they are so crowded.
Our first stop was going up in the Skytower. I'm not a fan of heights so I was really reluctant of this, but I had nothing to worry about. It wasn't remotely scary and I think I could have spent far longer lingering high in the sky. Overall, we spent about five hours at SeaWorld, but I think I could have stuck around for a little longer and snuck in some more rides. Not me, of course. I'm not really a ride person, but I look back and wish Riley could have experienced a little more of that here.
While at SeaWorld, we saw many animals, Riley and Jesse rode the super fast Manta ride, and as I mentioned before, we saw a few shows. SeaWorld is smaller than the zoo and a little easier to navigate in some ways. We were a little all over the place, but that was no big deal as everything was fairly close.
While the dolphin and orca shows were amazing, our favorite was possibly the Pets Rule show which is sort of an odd show for a place called SeaWorld. Basically, animal trainers brought together cats, dogs, ducks, a pig, an ostrich and more to complete a number of tricks and put on a show. We all know that it was a winner for Riley since there were about 65 cats in this show, but even us adults were incredibly impressed and we all agree that the pig was pretty awesome.
Something to keep in mind when you see these shows is that they have a 'soak zone' for about the first 12 rows. For each show we sat near the top of the soak zone, except for the pet show where we were a little too confident that we wouldn't get wet. In a bit of foreshadowing, I made a joke before the Pets Rule show started that there were probably sprinkler jets that sprayed out of the ground (since we couldn't figure out why else there would be a soak zone). Turns out I nailed that idea and we totally got wet sitting in the 4th row.
Jesse has a friend who has been to Old Town and suggested we should go. I'd never been before, but wish I'd taken my dad here as I think he would have gotten a kick out of it. Old Town is as it's name implies - the oldest settled area in San Diego. A number of the buildings were preserved and some were brought in from other areas. Most of these buildings have been turned into stores so there is certainly a touristy feel to it, but I loved it and wished we explored it even more. Like true tourists we picked up some t-shirts, and Riley picked up an interesting book at a store that had so many cool books it was hard to choose.
It was another day of continental breakfast, and sandwiches we made. For dinner, we visited Old Town Mexican Cafe which was recommended by Jesse's friend and Jesse's friends' friend... We were seated in the indoor/outdoor area. I'm sure it has a special name, but it has roof grates that open and close. I just thought I was cold because we were by a door that wasn't entirely covered. The first few days of our trip topped out around 63 degrees and as evening kicked in the temperature started to drop. Even Jesse was cold. I asked about moving, but the waiter offered to close the roof and turn on the space heater (which was way across the room). Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. I had big plans of getting a drink and a desert for my birthday, but we were all so chilly that we just wanted to eat and go back to the hotel. I can't remember exactly what we ate, but Riley had a quesadilla again, and of course, we had ceviche. The meal was decent, but it wasn't as good as El Indio and the cold took away from our experience.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
After checking off some of the big sightseeing activities, I knew that I wanted to go hiking. My motivation for hiking usually stems from wanting to get outside and move, but that's all we'd been doing since we got here. Still, there's something about walking out in nature vs walking around an amusement park. I had multiple people suggest exploring Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. We started off at the beach where Riley happily threw rocks into the water and probably could have all day long. We finally pulled her away and headed up the hillside to walk the trails on top of the cliff. I thought we might have to turn around as it can be an exhausting hike up the hill for a 7 year old (and maybe for a 46 year old as well), but we made it to the top and started wandering the trails, some of which are short, but all provide a beautiful view. We eventually found a map and realized that we could make our way back down to far end of the beach on one of the trails. For those that don't want to walk up to the top, you can drive and park as well.
For our first few days here, the temperature topped out around 63, but this day ended up a toasty 80 degrees and we were starting to feel it even in the morning. I was glad to have layered so I could strip down as I started to overheat. Even with the heat, I wish we could have spent more time here. It did get a little busy as the morning wore on, but it was a beautiful area and I feel like there was a lot more left to explore.
The La Jolla Seals
This was also a great day to do free things. The zoo and SeaWorld can add up fast so it was nice that our biggest expenditure today was food. The last time I'd been to La Jolla was about 15 years ago and I knew Riley would love this area. We went to the Children's Pool where seals and their pups are known to gather. In 1932 a sea wall was built to create a protected area for kids to swim. Turns out the seals liked it too and it's now shared between the two. While we were there the beach protected by the wall was closed off due to it being the pupping season, but we could view the seals from the wall. Plus, there was a beach on the other side that was open to the public. The tide was out, but starting to come back in so we spent our time watching Riley chase the waves... or I should say we watched the waves chase Riley inland. One larger wave sent us all running and in a parenting fail moment, Jesse and I looked at each other and realized we both lost site of our child. Luckily, she was fine, but I don't recommend you do this. Just take off your shoes and enjoy the waves with your kid.
From this beach you could still see seals out on a rock, search the tide pools (one kid picked up a sea slug the size of my head), and lounge in the sand.
We pretty much went through all our grocery food by this time so we brought a few snacks, and stopped in La Jolla at Puesto, an artisianal Mexican restaurant for lunch. You may see a theme here, but Riley once again had a quesadilla, Jesse and I had tacos and ceviche. Jesse loved the ceviche, but it had an artisianal flair of sage or something, and in this case I would say there is no reason to mess with the original recipe. I would highly recommend the filet mignon taco as it made everything else pale in comparison.
For dinner we met my cousins, Ed, LeAnn, and Ed's wife Alison at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. Part of the plan for this trip was to visit my aunt at her nursing home, but she had a bad fall that included broken ribs and internal bleeding about a week before our vacation so the plan changed to visiting her at hospice care. I wanted to see her for my dad, but I also wanted to see her, hold her hand and let her know she wasn't alone. She'd been struggling with dementia for some time and wasn't always easy to be around, to be honest, but she was my aunt and I had a lot of fond memories of her. Unfortunately, she died hours before we boarded the plan so I never got to see her. Growing up, I hadn't been particularly close to my cousins due to our vast distance from each other, but the last handful of years have allowed us to connect more (often under unfortunate events), and I am grateful for that. I was good to see them and to be introduce to the pizookie which I would highly recommend if you haven't eaten this delectable dessert.
Balboa Park offers 17 museums to visit and we'd finally narrowed down our selection to the Museum of Man. Before our vacation, I research a number of deals and the Go Card seemed like the best bet. In the end, we didn't go for it as I wasn't sure what sites we would take advantage of, but I would highly recommend it if you think you'll want to check out the museums in this area as they are included. I didn't think we would, but I was mistaken. Within the Museum of Man, our favorite exhibits were Monsters and Living with Animals. There were a lot of engaging activities which kept all of us interested - I'll admit it was far more engaging that I thought it would be.
Checking off yet another thing on a long list of places I wanted to show my family brought us to Coronado. The first time I was here was in June with my friend Karen and her son. We stopped by a pizza place that I would totally recommend if I could remember the name (I think this one) - just know that when you order the family size salad, it means a family of 12. We'd already eaten so instead we headed to the beach. The water was cold, but it was a warm day so the chilly water was inviting, at least for my feet. Again, we could have planned our entire vacation around this as Riley loves to be chased by the waves and could do this all day long. Jesse, on the other hand, is miserable being out in the hot sun so beach time isn't nearly as fun for him. Eventually, we pulled Riley away and got some fantastic, super creamy ice cream at MooTime Creamery and then we wandered around the Hotel Del Coronado.
I was so happy to be able to meet up with my friend, Karen, and her son while we were here. She, yet again, introduced me to an area of San Diego I wasn't familiar with. Liberty Station is located in the Point Loma area. It's a former navel base that has been converted to stores, restaurants, museums and more. The museums were closed when we were there so Jesse has marked this as a must see the next time we visit. Liberty Station has less of a touristy feel to it and more of a small community place to gather which was appealing.
While at Balboa Park, we got a bite to eat at the Tea Pavilion. It was mostly a stopping place for us to decide how to plan out the rest of the day. It wasn't anything special, but it did the trick of filling our bellies.
For dinner we ate Mediterranean food at a food stand at the Liberty Public Market. I'm intrigued by places like this because there are so many options, but also so overwhelmed because of all the options.
Today was our last day and our travel day so we didn't really plan anything. I did want to show Jesse and Riley Mission Beach so this seemed like a good time to do so. We walked a bit, hung out on the beach a bit, and bought another t-shirt or two.
Our last meal was spent back at El Indio, partly because it was so awesome and because it was near the car rental return building. You can totally guess what Riley ate by now and Jesse and I had tacos. I think I could have eaten here all week long.
And that was our trip. I got to see friends and family. I got to try out my new camera (I picked up a smaller camera for traveling). I got to spend a winter week in the warmth and the sun. I got to bring joy to my kid. I got to introduce my husband to one of my favorite places. And I got to do it all while celebrating my birthday. It was pretty fantastic.