Adventure November 30, 2012

Great Escapes

This winter season: San Diego

Looking for a break from layering and bundling this winter? Had your fill of shoveling through another powder day (can anybody really ever get enough powder)? Or maybe the siren song of warmer days filled with sand and surf are calling. To help, here are a few winter escapes that offer everything from the exotic retreat to family fun in the sun—so kick off those midwinter blues and plan your next escape!

The Perfect Family Vacation

The sky is always blue in sunny San Diego, the place of endless summer. And with family attractions like Sea World, Legoland, Birch Aquarium, the museums at Balboa Park and the world-famous San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park), it’s not a question of “what to do?” but of “what are we going to do today?”

Last spring, with the ski mountain closed for the season, our family of four was in desperate need of a warm-weather escape, but we wanted one with some activity and diversions.

San Diego fit our list of vacation requirements perfectly. Top five on the list: warm weather, sunshine, family-friendly accommodations, lots of activities and some cultural exposure (this was mom’s requirement, just something to open their eyes, inspire or educate). The other crucial component was that, with all these requirements, it needed to be within driving distance.

San Diego fit the bill perfectly. It is warmer than closer springtime destinations like Moab or the Oregon coast, and less crowded than other Southern California destinations, still serving up some of that sleepy surf town vibe, especially in North County San Diego, where we spent most of our time.

Looking across the third fairway  at the Grand Del Mar Hotel.

The drive is not bad—about 13 hours, which can be split into two days with a quick stopover in Las Vegas to break it up and to treat the family to a classic Vegas show—either a magic show or one of the stunning Cirque Du Soleil acrobatic productions (tip: hit the earlier times to avoid any of the late-night antics on the strip). The drive to San Diego from here is a little over four hours depending on traffic, which is manageable.


Our arrival at the Grand Del Mar, a sprawling resort tucked into Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, made it all worthwhile. We pulled up to a smiled greeting from Randy in guest services, who promptly offered us fresh waters (was it that obvious we had just completed a long drive from Idaho?) and then, while mom and dad checked in, whisked the kids aside to choose their flavor of gelato as a welcome gift. After check-in, the kids were handed a scavenger hunt map and led to a huge treasure chest to select a gift. Dripping gelato cone in hand, treasure map and treasure chest … they thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Kids waterpark at LEGOLANDĀ®This was just a taste of what was to come over the next few days. From the moment you step onto the grounds, you feel as if you have been pampered with the warm generosity and old world charm of a long-established Mediterranean family estate. The service is attentive without being intrusive, and you genuinely feel as if each and every member of the considerable and perfectly-trained staff is welcoming you into “the family,” without any of the threatening Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo undertones.

San Diego Zoo Safari ParkThe rooms at the Grand Del Mar are spacious, bordering on opulent, with my favorite touch: personal espresso machines, with all the trimmings, in each room. The spa is incredible, and with an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Tom Fazio, numerous pools, fitness activites, equestrian center and miles of trails, there is no shortage of stuff to do. And the incredible Explorer’s Club for Kids offers an engaging visual media, creative and environmental outlet for kids of all ages (there is a floor-to-ceiling plasma mural illuminating underwater sea life, and even foosball and air hockey tables). The Explorer’s Club allows for guilt-free adult programming on the golf course or at the award-winning spa, one of only 30 Forbes five-star spas in the country and one of the more pampering experiences imaginable. Our kids, literally, did not want to come back with us, they were having so much fun with art projects and a property-wide scavenger hunt and treasure map game led by a trio of camp counselors. The Grand Del Mar is also a great location to explore the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and its new exhibit, Shiley’s Cheetah Run, a 330-foot-long grass track with cheetah thundering by at 70 miles per hour.

Shark Encounter at Sea WorldWe wanted a few days on the beach, though, so we shot down to my old stomping grounds and checked into L’Auberge Del Mar for the weekend. (Author full disclosure: I graduated from Torrey Pines High School in Del Mar … although this was my first-ever visit back to San Diego as a complete tourist, and I loved it.)

L’Auberge Del Mar features a cosmopolitan set of clientele that enjoy the breathtaking beach views from the Waterfall Terrace—which is one of the best spots to take in a stunning San Diego sunset. The fact that the beautiful and unique shops of the Del Mar Plaza are out one door of the hotel and the white sands of Del Mar beach are out the other door, creates a great spot for exploring this classic San Diego beach town.

We could have been happy building sand castles on the beach, searching for sea shells and sea-polished rocks and frolicking in the waves, then watching the sun slide into the sea from the deck of a local fish taco stand. But we went exploring and filled our days with more museums, aquariums, games, adventures and interactive animal experiences than could be imagined (see our list of San Diego To-Do’s for our top favorites). And we arrived back home in Sun Valley, a happy, sun-kissed and slightly exhausted family who is still telling stories of our San Diego adventures.


PUNTA MITA Four Seasons Resort
• South of the Border

Mexico offers the exotic . . . but close to home. Punta Mita, a charming beachfront village on the north end of Banderas Bay just 40 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, is surrounded on three sides by 9.5 miles of Pacific Ocean beaches. And with luxury spa and golf resorts like the St. Regis and Four Seasons, Punta Mita offers everything from world-class golf and deep sea fishing to classic surf breaks, swimming with dolphins and zip-line jungle canopy tours. Punta Mita is at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, but without the disruptive time change or cross-Pacific flights—a perfect pick for family travel.

• Active Adventure

Playa Blanca in Espiritiu Santo Bay, located south of Cancun on Mexico’s Caribbean side, is a fly fishing adventure resort surrounded by white sand beaches, Mayan ruins and waters loaded with bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon. It is located within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a Mayan name meaning “Origin of the Sky”—a fitting name, as the sky seems to rise directly from the cerulean blue of the Caribbean sea. Accommodations are relaxed and expansive seaside thatched-roof cabanas with hammocks beneath the palms. Additional activities include kayaking ancient Mayan canals, snorkeling or beachcombing.

• Romantic Splurge

Head to the real-life site of the famous “Blue Lagoon”of 1980’s Hollywood fame. The very real paradise of Turtle Island Fiji, a private, exotic island home to only 14 couples at a time, beckons with tropical flowers and warm, azure waters, along with gourmet cuisine, loads of activities (such as snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, horseback riding and mountain biking) and an authentic immersion into the traditional Yasawan culture of Fiji­­. Truly a romantic paradise, Turtle Island is worthy of the World Travel Awards and Certificates of Excellence bestowed upon it year after year.



This article appears in the Winter 2012-2013 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.