Mission Bay, San Diego: a right-sized, complete, and utterly fulfilling family escape

We had experienced one of those summers strategically designed to be vacation-free, so we could really, truly “relax.” It was exhausting. By the end of August, my husband and I determined a short vacation was much in order. We booked a trip over the Labor Day weekend to San Diego’s Mission Bay, a well rounded community of laid-back, family friendly resorts and activities, all within walking or boating distance. It was a slice of heaven and exactly what we needed to perk us up for the demands of fall.

By Sara G. Stephens

I ’ve made notes about our weekend, including mentions of specials that various attractions are offering for “Kids Free San Diego” during the month of October.

The Bahia Resort Hotel

Like my husband said, “The Bahia is a pretty hotel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” And that’s what we love about it.

I was sold the instant I entered the hotel lobby. No marble floors or pretentious chandeliers here. Instead, a comfy, earth-tone seating area that could have been plucked out of my Aunt Fran’s cozy, living room. The focal point, to my delight, was a retrofitted 1950’s television console, on which was playing episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I was in heaven.

The Bahia’s retro, motor lodge motif is neither contrived nor accidental. It’s 100 percent authentic. Built in 1953, the hotel’s owner thought it would be fun to retain as much of the resort’s original swagger as possible. The effect is wildly appealing, not only for me, a freak for all things vintage, but also for any traveling family who appreciates the “play together, stay together” aspects of yesteryear.

And that’s precisely what we did.

We splashed around in the generously sized pool (2 ½ ft – 10 ft deep); warmed up in the unbelievably sized hot tub (absolutely no chance of accidentally knocking knees with other guests); and filled our bellies at the poolside grill (which also serves up cocktails). My overly disciplined husband even sneaked in a workout at the poolside fitness center, whose french doors open to the pool, giving him a close-up view of the kids as he ran on the treadmill.

We enjoyed several good meals in the Bahia Cafe, including breakfast and dinner buffets, always choosing to sit in  the charming, outdoor patio area–San Diego weather makes that a no-brainer. On Friday, the buffet was bbq–ribs, chicken, brisket, sausage, corn on the cob, salad, and even a baked potato bar.  The cafe also hosts live entertainment on the patio. On this particular night, we enjoyed the friendly, folksy music of a neat little trio, whom my 10 year-old daughter insisted was “the best band ever” (she walked right up and told them so as we left the restaurant).

We took some time heading back to the room to explore some of the other amenities the Bahia had to offer, including tennis courts and shuffleboard. But what really charmed us were the the Bahia’s multiple homages to nature.

A seal pond serves as home to two rescued seals, Gracie and Billy. Due to vision problems, neither seal could be released back into the ocean, and they have found a loving home at The Bahia.

Given her druthers, my 6-year-old daughter would have strung up a hammock in the lush, tropical mini jungle that sits in the heart of the resort, and stayed there for the duration of our visit. Exotic flowers and vibrant trees and plants captivated her as she ran through the twisty paths that wound over and around a lovely, mysterious pond. The pond is home to an adorable flock of ducks–ducks that love crackers, as my daughter quickly discovered. Those cute, feathered creatures followed her everywhere.

Of course, the main natural attraction at The Bahia is Mission Bay, whose beaches wrap around the resort like a sandy glove. From our suite balcony, we looked out on the public beach. On two nights we were delighted to watch magnificent fireworks being set off across the bay. The opposite end of the resort features the resort’s private beach (see it via a live webcam at http://www.bahiahotel.com/), complete with retro, tented cabanas and views of the marina.

The Bahia Belle

On Friday night, we walked to the Bahia Resort Pier for a Family Hour Cruise on the Bahia Belle, a turn-of-the-century, Mississippi-style sternwheeler that cruises Mission Bay between the Bahia and its sister property, the Catamaran Resort Hotel.  A boogie band played music for a dancing crowd on the main deck, where cocktails were being served at the bar. We divided our time between the upper deck where guests sat in the open air to enjoy the soothing views. When the air got too chilly for us, we headed down the stairs to the lower deck, where we sat inside and looked out the open windows, mesmerized by the parting waters below us. The cruise is complimentary to all Bahia and Catamaran guests.

Belmont Park

Saturday morning we walked down the street to Belmont Park, San diego’s iconic beachfront amusement park on Mission Beach. I typically shy away from roller coasters, but my yesteryear-loving self was able to be coaxed to ride the giant Dipper, a National Historic Landmark and one of the only two remaining wooden rollercoasters on the U.S. West Coast. We adored our time at Belmont. It’s not so big it’s overwhelming, but there are more than enough rides, shops and activities to delight visitors of any age. We especially enjoyed playing miniature golf  in Tiki Town, an indoor/outdoor golf course.

Kids Free San Diego Month offers (valid Oct. 1 – 31, 2015):  One free child (age 12 and under) Unlimited Ride Wristband per full priced adult Unlimited Ride Wristband; One free child’s unlimited laser tag wristband with purchase of adults unlimited laser tag wristband; One free cotton candy with purchase of an Ice Cream Cone at The Sweet Shoppe; One free child rental at Mission Bay Rentals with each adult rental of equal or greater value

Cannonball Restaurant

After hours of fun and sun in Belmont Park, we all agreed it was time for lunch. I led my ravenous family up an outdoor, glass  elevator and onto a rooftop designed to look like a giant swimming pool. This was the Cannonball Restaurant, specializing in California cuisine with Pacific Rim influences, and recently opened in April 2015. Our table, like most tables that lined the walls of the “swimming pool,” offered breathtaking beach views and nourishing breezes. We ordered a spicy lobster roll with yamagobo, tempura panko, jalapeno rings and eel sauce. It was simply the best roll I’ve ever had.  We also enjoyed salmon sashimi that was so beautifully presented, I was reluctant to take it off the serving plate–but I’m so glad I did. It was fresh and delicious, like eating the essence of nature. Of course, I couldn’t resist the spicy tuna roll, and it did not disappoint. What did surprise me was that the kids’ meals, though burgers and fries, were not dumbed down or “McDonalized” to cater to a child’s less discerning tastes. The whole family loved Cannonball. In my husband’s words: “This restaurant alone would be worth the trip out here.”

Action Sports Rentals

A short walk back to the resort and a quick change into our swimsuits, and moments later we were relaxing from the day’s activities aboard Action Sports’ Funcats, motorized canopied floats that we steered around the cove (well, some of us steered, and others just floated…ahhhhhhhh). Action Sports also offers other water activities, like kayaking, aquacycling and paddle boarding.

Oceana Coastal Kitchen

For dinner, we boarded the Bahia Belle again and headed to the Catamaran resort across the bay to enjoy some al fresco dining at the resort’s new Oceana Coastal Kitchen. The restaurant features California cuisine and a modern, ocean-inspired design. Executive Chef Steven Riemer’s served up classic dishes highlighted with the flavors of local California produce. The kids enjoyed playing on the lawn that backs up to the bay, while my husband and I took in the sights of an outdoor wedding that was being held at the resort.

Kids Free San Diego Month offer (valid Oct. 1 – 31, 2015):  One free kid’s meal with each adult purchase. Valid for kids ages 12 and under.


Sunday’s agenda consisted of spending the late morning and early afternoon at SeaWorld. Taking in the majesty and perfection of the killer whales and dolphins, our older daughter left committed to pursue an education in marine biology. SeaWorld offers something for everyone, including the adventurous guests who lined up for thrill rides like the Manta roller coaster, which whips around the park to the sound of gleeful shrieks, and the Journey to Atlantis giant water slide. For us, the Riptide Rescue and the Shipwreck Rapids served up plenty of family fun. A stop at the cafe for some bbq and yummy chocolate cake rounded off our afternoon nicely.

Kids Free San Diego Month offers (valid Oct. 1 – 31, 2015): One free child (ages 3 to 9) admission with one full-paid adult admission; The same offer is valid at Dine with Shamu, and kids, ages 10 to 13, can participate for free in SeaWorld’s Dolphin Encounter and Dolphin and Beluga Interaction Programs with one paid adult participation (kids must be at least 48” tall to participate).

Tidal Restaurant at Paradise Point Resort

For our last dinner in Mission Bay, we hopped in our rental car and took a short drive to Paradise Point Resort. The destination’s new restaurant, Tidal, is an inviting mid-century modern establishment set in a former 1960s beach house. Many guests sat outside in a laid-back bayside dining area. We stayed indoors and were honored to be seated at the restaurant’s ultra-cool Aviator table, where my kids–and husband–tickled themselves with starship captain alter egos.  While the decor was fascinating, the food was even better. The menu tempted us with wood-roasted entrees, like Mexican prawns, river scallops, and natural beef rib eyes. The sides did not take a back seat: My roasted fingerling potatoes were delightful, and my husband’s corn on the cob stole the show, delectably seasoned with paprika, cotija and lime. Despite the exquisite nature of our meal, I must confess I would return even if only to enjoy the French press coffee served at the end of our meal. It was called Low Tide, and it was divine.

Kids Free San Diego Month offers (valid Oct. 1 – 31, 2015):  Kids eat free.

With San Diego’s weather and the accessibility and range of family activities, Mission Bay is a perfect place to take the family, any time of year.  If you can scratch out a weekend of free time in October, it makes absolute sense to take advantage of the “Kids Free San Diego” program. You’ll get a lot of memories for your money.


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