Travel

San Diego: Any time is a good time to visit

SAN DIEGO -- Something kept postponing the annual family vacation. First it was work responsibilities, then family obligations, followed by the downward economic spiral.

Before we knew it, autumn had arrived. The end of the year was rapidly approaching and a lot of those vacation spots we had considered -- Denver, St. Louis, Buffalo -- seemed less appealing. We weren't relishing the idea of driving in snow or bundling up in parkas.

Which is how San Diego immediately jumped to the top of our list. Here's a city designed for year-round vacations. The average temperature is 70 degrees, it's mostly sunny with minimal humidity and has an annual rainfall of less than 10 inches.

The city's also a quintessential playground for any age group or interest -- a good thing considering my travel party consisted of my husband, 12-year-old stepdaughter and 18-year-old niece.

Attractions include a world-renowned zoo, wildlife animal park, two aquariums, Sea World, Legoland and dozens of museums, including the USS Midway; shopping in Old Town and Seaport Village; and 70 miles of beaches.

Restaurants number in the hundreds, from the Gaslamp Quarter to Little Italy and beyond. The airport is centrally located; three interstates make driving a breeze; and a trolley system takes you virtually anywhere you want to go, including the Mexican border.

About the only thing San Diego doesn"t have are enough hours in the day to see and do everything.

We wanted a trip that deviated from the usual sights, but at the last minute we were talked into adding the San Diego Zoo. Consider that one of our best moves of the week.

This is not your typical see-the-animals zoo. For starters, it sits on 100 acres of park land. The size and scope quickly become obvious from a skyfari aerial tram, which sweeps you over treetops across the zoo and offers panoramic views of the city.

The zoo stretches mostly uphill, so I recommend taking the tram from the bottom to the top and then walking back down. Or consider taking the 35-minute guided bus tour, which covers 75 percent of the grounds.

The zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals, mostly rare and endangered, and has a division devoted to conservation and research of the species.

Within five minutes, I was staring eye-to-eye with animals I had never even heard of: Calamian deer, Nubian Soemmerring Gazelle (humorous with their wagging tails) and Chacoan Peccary.

"It's a pig," a delighted 2-year-old told her mom.

To me, it looked more like a cross between a boar and a porcupine, but what did I know? In truth, not as much as I once assumed.

Usually at zoos, I read the name of the animal and move on. Here, I found myself entranced by the nuggets of information provided, like how zebra species are distinguished by the size and placement of their stripes or how a female panda looking for a mate will make scent marks 50 times an hour.

Ah yes, the giant pandas. Let's face it; they are the real reason why the zoo ended up on our trip itinerary.

San Diego Zoo has the largest number of giant pandas in the United States. Its research station can hold up to six at a time.

The pandas are so popular a long line forms just for the chance to take a 30-second walk past their exhibit. When we visited, 17-year-old Bai Yun -- on loan from China -- sat chewing bamboo while her newest cub, 16-month-old Zhen Zhen, lounged in a nearby tree.

The black-and-white bears are adorable, but I was more taken with the meerkats. A sizable crowd quickly gathered around their enclosure as two meerkats tussled in a bucket, a few more dug aimlessly in the dirt and a trio sat up on hind legs, as if preening for the cameras.

But a rhinoceros delivered the day's big laugh when, while chewing on a plastic bucket, he let loose in machine-gun fashion. We laughed so hysterically that other visitors stopped to gawk at us.

In the spring, there will be even more to see when the zoo opens the Elephant Odyssey, a $44-million, seven-acre habitat with Asian elephants, a California condor, sloths, snakes and rodents. The exhibit also will feature a tar pit replication, fossil dig, children's play area and a tunneled walkway through the herd of elephants.

We headed to Sea World for one reason: Sesame Street.

When a theme park charges $55 for children 3 to 9 years old, it should offer those kids a little bang for their buck. Sesame Street Bay of Play was designed with that intent.

Open since May, the two-acre interactive play area has three kid-appropriate rides -- Elmo's Flying Fish, Abby's Sea Star Spin and Oscar's Rocking Eel -- a large sandbox, bouncy house, giant obstacle course, musical production with Big Bird and much more. "Lights, Camera, Imagination!" is a 4-D movie with all the Sesame Street favorites. Plus, there are meet-and-greets with the characters and a Breakfast with Elmo and Friends eatery that was packed during our visit.

I admit, 15 minutes in the Sesame Street play area had me wishing I was a kid again.

Not that Sea World doesn't have plenty for big kids, too.

Somehow, my stepdaughter conned me into taking her on Journey to Atlantis, a water-coaster ride that lasts six minutes. (My eternal gratitude to the visitors who gave us their ponchos and warned us to stay out of the front row.) A word of caution: Getting wet isn't the worst part of this ride -- absolute darkness is.

Wild Arctic has a simulated jet helicopter trip to the Arctic, but even more impressive is the in-pool encounter with beluga whales, where visitors can touch and feed them. (Participants must be at least 13.)

The animal shows are predictable but still appealing in a nostalgic way. Plus, I have a soft spot for otters and dolphins, so those shows were worth a peek. The Penguin Encounter is also one of the coolest exhibits -- they actually crank up the air conditioning. We were fascinated watching one of the keepers lift up penguin tails to check for eggs.

One caution about Sea World: In addition to the hefty admission fees, there is a $12 parking fee with no discounts available for late-afternoon arrivals.

If museums are your thing, plan ahead. Balboa Park, the 1,200-acre expanse near downtown, has 15 major museums all by itself. That doesn't even include the USS Midway Museum, a 1,001-foot-long aircraft carrier open for tours, or the New Children's Museum, which opened in May.

And early next year, the USS Dolphin submarine will open to the public at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

For families of all ages, the New Children's Museum is a must-see. All of the galleries feature hands-on activities, ranging from tire pillow fights and a bubble fountain to making hand puppets and building a tent city. There's even a teen studio for older artists.

Appealing to families with older children, the Air and Space Museum is much more than a time capsule of aircraft and space memorabilia.

The center of the museum houses the "Star Trek" exhibit, with costumes, props and re-created sets from the television shows and movies. Up close, props such as the phaser pistol and T'Pol's Vulcan scanner look like plastic toys. On a replica of the USS Enterprise bridge, visitors can sit in the captain's chair (and, naturally, have a souvenir picture taken).

The exhibit might come off as cliched if not for its wealth of intriguing insights, such as how NASA gave one of its International Space Station research astronauts the title "science officer" based on the Spock character.

In the special exhibit "Gangsters, Glamour and Glory," the museum has the bullet-riddled car (167 holes) from the real Bonnie and Clyde on display. The exhibit runs through mid-January.

If you go:

WHERE TO STAY: New hotels include the Setai San Diego (1047 Fifth Ave.) in the Gaslamp Quarter, a luxury hotel with Asian-inspired design and introductory rates starting at $300 (619) 702-6666, www.setaisandiego.com) and Hilton San Diego Bayfront (1 Park Blvd.), downtown's newest waterfront hotel with rates starting around $250.

WHERE TO EAT: Crescent Heights Kitchen & Lounge (655 West Broadway, (619) 450-6450, www.crescentheightssd.com) opened two months ago in downtown with former Wolfgang Puck chef David McIntyre manning the kitchen. Entrees mainly in the $30 range.

Sammy's Woodfired Pizza (several locations, www.sammyspizza.com) was a family hit with innovative pizza, huge salads and plenty of options for my vegetarian niece. Meals in the $20 range.

Casa de Pico (5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa, (619) 463-3267) offers heaping plates of food and huge glasses of margaritas. It was named best Mexican restaurant of 2008 by San Diego Magazine.

To test-drive San Diego's restaurants, visit Monday through Jan. 16 for the fifth annual San Diego Restaurant Week, when hundreds of top restaurants offer prix-fixe, three-course dinners for $20-$40. Details: www.sandiegorestaurantweek.com or (760) 943-2333.

What to do:

San Diego Zoo -- 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park; (619) 231-1515; www.sandiegozoo.org.

Wildlife Animal Park -- 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido; (760) 747-8702.

Sea World -- 500 Sea World Drive; (619) 226-3901; www.seaworld.com/sandiego.

USS Midway -- 910 N. Harbor Drive; (619) 544-9600; www.midway.org.

San Diego Museum of Arts -- 1450 El Prado; (619) 232-7931; www.sdmart.org.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center -- 1875 El Prado; (619) 238-1233; www.rhfleet.org.

New Children's Museum -- 200 West Island Ave.; (619) 233-8792; www.thinkplaycreate.org.

Air & Space Museum -- 2001 Pan American Plaza; (619) 234-8291; www.aerospacemuseum.org.

Legoland and Sea Life Legoland -- 1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad; (760) 918-5346; www.legoland.com/california. and www.legoland.com/sealife.

Seaport Village -- on San Diego Bay at Kettner Boulevard and West Harbor Drive, www.seaportvillage.com.

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