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Exploring San Diego with my son, I learned why I prefer travelling with just one of my kids

Bam! Our little speedboat slammed into the wake at full throttle. Why, I thought, did I let my 10-year-old behind the wheel of a two-seater, 30-horsepower sea flea? Smack! The boat slowed briefly and we were weightless, hovering, until – smash! – gravity pulled us down, hard.

I cursed the passing Navy ships that had stirred up San Diego harbour – waves were in front of us, then under us, then surrounding us. Jack, however, was wildly happy: “Mom, does this go any faster?”

Speeding past the military ships in San Diego harbour. (Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail)

The boat was not out of control, but I was not in control – my son was. “Just don’t hit the aircraft carrier,” I shouted – only half kidding. I was a little nervous but even more proud. He had been crabby and overwrought when we started this self-drive boat tour, struggling with the steering and careering through the marina (at low speed, thank goodness). And now? He shook the salt spray out of his eyes and weaved the boat through concrete moorings and passing vessels. I could not remember the last time I’d seen him this confident. And it reminded me of why I love travelling with just one of my two children: It gives me a rare glimpse of the adult within.

Travelling just mom and son I knew, eventually, we’d be put into unfamiliar, even tense, situations; how we coped would give us a chance to learn about each other.

Not only would I get to see another side of my child, but he’d see that I’m not always that stressed-out, micro-managing mom. (Or at least that’s what I hoped.) Family vacations, while fun, also pack along the family dynamics – both good and bad. Sometimes you need to leave all that behind.

La Jolla coast, San Diego. ( Joanne DiBona/Visit San Diego)

On this long weekend getaway, we’d flown to San Diego, where temperatures never stray far from 21 degrees – weather that Canadians long for in spring, and (when we travelled last fall) that gave us one last stab at summer. The city of 1.3 million is not just famous for its good weather, but as the birthplace of California. Yet I had a feeling we would not be admiring the view at the Cabrillo monument (erected on the scenic cliffs where Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo landed in 1542) or exploring the historic Old Town state park, or even wandering the infamous Gas Lamp quarter. Our focus was less on history, more on fun.

We started at the city’s famous zoo – hiking up and down the hilly exhibits, home to more than 650 species in 40 hectares. But any savings on Jack’s entry fee were blown by booking the Early Morning with Pandas experience, which got us into the panda exhibit before the zoo opened, just as they woke up for a bamboo breakfast. The pandas were, of course, adorable, but just as fun was the included backstage tour: poking around the elephant spa, feeding drooly giraffes by hand and watching zoo chefs at work (the tigers’ blood Popsicles were truly disgusting).

The Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island, just across the bay from downtown San Diego.

Playing in the ocean was our next priority, and I’d booked the Hotel del Coronado for exactly that reason. Built in 1888 on Coronado Island, it’s the grande dame of a resort community that’s just over the bay from downtown. Next to the historic hotel (Some Like it Hot was just one of many movies filmed here), the 36-square- kilometre island is famous for its long, white-sand beach at one end and the military training centre on the other. (Which gave us the unexpected thrill of military choppers and fighter jets flying low over our beach lounger.) The sun and the sand acted like a drug, numbing all travel fatigue. We swam in the surf and invented games with the waves until our fingers were pruney, then ambled along the 2.4-kilometre-long shoreline looking for beach treasure and chasing seagulls. Eventually, reluctantly, we returned to the Hotel Del.

Like most first timers, our eyes widened and jaws dropped when we stepped into the lobby. It was like stepping back in time. Dark, glossy wood, high, intricate ceilings: it’s rare to see this kind of grandeur in North America any more. Even the brass elevator is run by hand, often by Andrew, its charismatic, disabled operator. The old technology and the cheerful man caught Jack’s attention and we rode between two storeys more than necessary to chat with him. I was taken by the sweetness of their connection, and a little surprised at my son’s respectful patience and maturity.

When we left the beach for the city, we stopped in at the USS Midway Museum – the floating aircraft carrier I was worried he’d hit the day before. The 70,000-ton decommissioned ship is an awesome entry-level introduction to U.S. military might. We poked around the 29 aircraft up on the flight deck, while below we wandered long, cramped corridors through sailors’ quarters, the admiral’s digs, the engine room and – coolest of all – the command centre. This ship was built long before digital technology, so kids can fiddle with tons of buttons and knobs and pretend they too are about to launch a fighter jet. A small TV replays Gulf War news footage from Jan. 16, 1990, when the U.S. began bombing Iraq. It was eerie – this is the room that launched the planes that dropped those bombs – and I was fascinated to hear different parents explain that history to their kids. Then a Muslim couple walked in, and my own oversimplified version of events died on my lips. Stuck between an awkward and a teachable moment, I just let him play.

On board the U.S.S. Midway museum, kids get a lot of hands-on experiences. (Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail)

To shake off that intensity, it seemed like a good idea to head over to Belmont Park, home of San Diego’s other famous midway. This old-fashioned amusement park sits right beside the ocean in Mission Beach and, since there’s no entry fee, you can wander between the two, letting the sound of the surf drown out the thrill-ride screams. Here, Jack surprised me again by eagerly signing up for the zipline and riding the roller coaster (a 90-year-old wooden classic) – both activities he had never wanted to do before. We stayed out way past bedtime and ate way too much ice cream, but on this trip we didn’t have to play by the family rules.

In fact, the amount of ice cream we ate on this trip was outrageous. One night, we stuffed ourselves on wood-fired pizza, lobster mac and cheese and duck tacos at Sammy’s, an institution in this part of California. And for dessert? The Messy Sundae. When it arrived – in a wine glass with chocolate sauce flowing over the sides, pooling on the serving plate, which was covered in nuts and more whipped cream – I laughed out loud. If only my husband and daughter could see us now. We couldn’t finish it, but that wasn’t the point. It was deliciously naughty just to try.

Can you finish the Messy Sundae at Sammy’s? (Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail)

In San Diego, our spreading waistlines seemed to coincide with spreading our wings. During another meal, Jack found himself surrounded by adults going on about the merits of local craft beer and the exquisiteness of artisanal appetizers at Tidal, one of the city’s top restaurants, in Mission Bay’s Paradise Point resort. None of that meant anything to him. Instead of whining, though, he asked permission to explore. Apparently, there was a pond of leopard sharks at the bar next door – way more interesting! – and he wondered whether another boy nearby could join him.

His mother and I shared a look. Should we let them go? It was getting dark. We were thousands of miles from home. We didn’t know exactly where they were going – neither did they. But I’d seen enough of my son’s maturity to trust him, and so off they went in search of adventure. I knew he’d be back in time for ice cream.


Air Canada rouge flies direct from Toronto.


Kids Free San Diego takes place each October, when many San Diego attractions, restaurants and hotels let kids under 12 play, eat and sleep for free with a paying adult. Last fall, about 100 attractions, restaurants, hotels and tours took part. This year’s participants will be announced in August.

San Diego Speed Boat Adventures guarantees an unforgettable ride around the harbour – watch out for military watercraft! Tours start at $57 (U.S.). 1450 Harbor Island Dr.,

The USS Midway Museum is a great way to spend an afternoon, with lots of tactile experiences and cool aircraft to explore. Make sure you chat with the docents (many are military and some served on the Midway) for a greater understanding of life on the ship. Tickets $20 adults, $10 youth. 910 North Harbor Dr.,

Looking up at the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier-turned-museum. (Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail)

Early Morning Panda Experience at the San Diego Zoo lets you enter before the zoo opens and watch them adorably eat breakfast. If they’re snoozing, no worries: The two-hour tour also gives you a hands-on backstage zoo tour. $89, plus admission. Balboa Park,


The historic Hotel Del Coronado is the kind of place you should stay in at least once in your life. It is grandeur on a jaw-dropping scale, built next to more than two kilometres of soft, white sandy beach. Rooms from $425 (U.S). 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado,

The protected beaches at Paradise Point in Mission Beach are perfect for little ones. Tidal, one of the city’s top restaurants, a spa, pro-landscaped mini-golf and tons of watersports make this island resort a hit with families, just watch out for ducks (and their droppings) in the pools. Rooms from $225 (U.S.). 1404 Vacation Rd., San Diego,


Tidal: Take a table on the waterfront patio of this former beachhouse-turned-fine-dining-restaurant. It’s fine dining when it comes to freshness of the seafood and quality of the flavour pairings, but still casual in a relaxed, friendly, San Diego way. 1404 Vacation Rd.,

Cafe 222: Long line-ups at brunch are always a good sign. The wait here is well worth it for the peanut butter-and-banana-stuffed French toast. 222 Island Ave.,

Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill: It’s a local institution for a reason: organic, family-friendly and sooo tasty. Don’t leave without ordering the Messy Sundae. Various locations,

The writer was a guest of San Diego Tourism. It did not review or approve the story.

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