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San Diego ideal for families, couples

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

Driving less than five and one-half hours will bring you to beaches, surfing, kayaking or scenic motor routes along the coast. Here 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 historical 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, 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, of course, 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 an extremely 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 www.balboapark.org/ or 619-239-0512.

Since 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 itself. 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 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 www.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 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 www.hotelindigo.com.

For families or other groups, Paradise Point cannot be beat. Here, if you chose, 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 even a surrey. All rooms have an outdoor patio and the bungalows are on the water. Call 877-995-7714 or visit www.paradisepoint.com.

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled in the book “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States.” She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the newly released book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

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