The last time I was in San Diego, my husband Jeremy and I were celebrating the ninth year of our first date. We rarely “go all out,” but nine is sort of our lucky number, so we treated ourselves to sushi, champagne and other delights. We had no idea what was brewing beneath the spirits we sipped.
I was pregnant.
When, a few weeks later, I learned I was going to have a baby, I fretted over the alcohol I’d consumed. I worried, too, about what we might lose: Will my husband and I ever have fancy dinners and relaxing oceanside vacations again? Fortunately, the answer was yes — and sooner than we thought.
On a recent Friday, with our toddler Naomi in tow, we returned to the place where we last indulged in kid-free bliss. The best part of the trip was learning that enjoying gourmet meals, ocean views and everything else San Diego has to offer with our daughter is another kind of bliss. As new parents, we had no idea that our SoCal neighbor was such a great option for family-friendly vacationing. When the wonderful team at Discover Mission Bay put together an itinerary for my family, I was skeptical of our welcome meal at the upscale Oceana Coastal Kitchen or live music night at Barefoot Bar & Grill. In my mind, you couldn’t have a fun night out with a beer and band…and kid.
After checking in at the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, we walked down the tiki torch-lit path to Oceana Coastal Kitchen, Catamaran’s signature seafood restaurant with a view. At 8:30 p.m., a children’s birthday party was underway and we passed three other tables full of young children giggling and wiggling in their seats. My husband and I looked at each other with relief. To top it off, our server came to our table with crayons in hand. When we ordered our dinner, he asked us if we wanted our daughter’s meal to come out first, a simple detail that curbed any potential meltdowns.
Jeremy and I dined on sushi, perfectly cooked striped bass and sweet fennel sausage flatbread. “Mmm, this is good,” my daughter said, nodding her head as she ate her battered fish, French fries and ketchup. When she reached her limit, as toddlers are quick to do, Jeremy took her on a short stroll down to the beach on the bay. Freeway traffic, upcoming appointments and other everyday stresses slipped away as I watched the silhouettes of my husband and daughter holding hands against the sparkling bay water while I sipped on my sparkling rosé. And we hadn’t even unpacked our bags yet.
The next morning, we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise right outside our hotel room door. “Is so beautiful, mama,” Naomi observed, sitting between the drapes and the sliding glass door. “Look at the colors!” she squealed, face pressed against the glass.
After a hearty room service breakfast, we were ready to tackle what else Mission Bay had to offer. The truth is, we could’ve spent our whole vacation without leaving The Catamaran. The Polynesian-inspired hotel, opened in 1958, has tropical touches such as tiki totems, towering palm trees and friendly parrots that make you forget you’re in California. Other features — the massive indoor waterfall, koi pond with turtles and wandering ducks, a full-service beachfront spa, pool, old-school arcade, an outdoor lounge and sunset luaus in the summer — will entertain kids and adults all weekend long. After dragging ourselves from the hotel, we set out for Belmont Park, just a mile-and-a-half down Mission Boulevard.
You could spend all day at the beachfront amusement park with its many food options, shopping, activities and, of course, rides. Families with older kids will love the bumper cars, swinging gondola ride Beach Blaster and Mission Beach’s historical wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. Little ones (and the no-thrills types like me) will appreciate the classic carousel, a leisurely train ride on Belmont Express, mini golf and mini bowling, which was a big hit for our 3 year old. By noon, it was time for lunch and a rest on the giant hammock in our private bay view patio. Once recharged, we made our way to De Anza Cove Park to try our hand at kite-flying. Our daughter preferred to run free in the large grassy field, occasionally finding an abandoned volleyball or soccer ball she could throw around, while my husband and I playfully fought over who could get the kite the highest. We had forgotten how fun simple childhood pleasures could be.
On the short drive back to the hotel, Naomi fell asleep, which I always take as an opportunity to get a mid-afternoon treat. We grabbed an iced coffee for me and an iced matcha latte for Jeremy from one of my favorite San Diego coffee shops, Better Buzz Coffee, and made a little detour to Pacific Beach. My sweet husband waited in the car so that I could sneak in a solo walk down Crystal Pier, a historic wooden pier dotted with quaint 1930s-era cottages with sweeping coastal views.
Located across the bay from The Catamaran, the man-made Vacation Isle is home to a grassy park, sandy beaches and Paradise Point Resort and Spa. We had dinner reservations at Barefoot Bar & Grill, one of the resort’s waterfront restaurants. Our pro server, Jason, handed our daughter an activity sheet, crayons and water cup with a lid and straw, while giving my husband and me his beer recommendations. Decadently lit boats sailed by, part of an annual boat parade of lights, while a couple of musicians set up their equipment on stage in front of us. Our food arrived as local folk duo Nathan & Jessie performed. I watched Naomi groove to the music while seated on Jeremy’s lap.
After dinner, we returned to the Catamaran and walked down to the beach. As we came upon three beach chairs, a basket of blankets and cozy bonfire framed by a set of twinkling string lights, I think all three of us exclaimed, “Wow!” The evening’s enchantments were not over yet. Our host from Bayside Bonfires, available at both the Catamaran and sister property Bahia Resort Hotel, greeted us and explained all the goodies inside our individually wrapped s’mores boxes. We roasted marshmallows and snuggled by the fire, bellies warm from toasted s’mores. It was the perfect way to end an already perfect day.
On our last day in Mission Bay, we made our way to Action Sport Rentals, just a few yards away. With Naomi sandwiched between us on a surrey bike (a four-wheeled pedal powered bicycle), we cruised along the bayside path past families, joggers and other bikers all taking in the quintessential San Diego weather. About a half mile into our ride, we spotted a picturesque little park with a playground overlooking Mission Bay. Jeremy and I sat on a bench while Naomi made new friends, climbed the dolphin statues and searched for treasures in the sand.
We had one more meal to enjoy before heading back to reality, and we knew just the place. Oscars Mexican Seafood in Pacific Beach is one of those worth-the-wait local joints. Last visit, when I was unknowingly pregnant, we got the smoked fish tacos, and we’ve been talking about them ever since. Oscars expanded their small outdoor eating area, so we were able to grab a seat at the makeshift counter to enjoy our final meal.
No one wanted to go home, of course, but now that we know San Diego can be just as fun (and delicious) as it was pre-kid, we have no excuse not to return. And sharing Mission Bay together as a family “is so beautiful.”
Nina Harada is Digital Editor for L.A. Parent.