California tropics
Mission Bay brings Hawaii to San Diego

If you're finding that you can't quite afford that Hawaiian vacation this year, take heart: there's another destination that will be easier and less expensive for California residents.. And if you're already in Southern California, it's just a few hours' drive.

San Diego's Mission Bay, along with Pacific Beach, may not have the 80-degree water, or the hula girls, but there is plenty of water, swaying palm trees and consistent weather that practically guarantees you'll get all the time you need to bake in the sun. You'll have no trouble leaving your everyday work life behind and getting completely into vacation mode.

The comparison with Hawaii is particularly apt at a hotel like the Hilton San Diego Resort, a sprawling campus of both high and low-rise accommodations, many with views of Mission Bay. Location and landscaping are what make this resort special. With its own docks on Mission Bay and a fleet of various water craft available for rent, water activities are never far away. And with the lush gardens, ubiquitous palm trees, mega swimming pool and island music, the resort takes on the feel of a true Hawaiian resort.

The resort also is nearly surrounded by Mission Bay Park, a popular playground for San Diego County residents who flock to the acres and acres of green lawns, waterfront and recreational areas. The Mission Bay area was developed several decades ago from a tidal marsh where the San Diego River drained into the Pacific Ocean. About 25 million cubic yards of sand and silt were dredged to create the land forms in the park, which are almost entirely manmade. The area has restrictions on development that ensure that it will remain available for the public to use.

And use it they do. Whether it's day camping on Fiesta Island, or walking or riding along the many miles of bike paths skirting the bay, or simply picnicking on park property with dramatic views of the bay, San Diego residents and visitors alike have taken a liking to Mission Bay.

We spent considerable time poolside at the Hilton San Diego Resort — remember, this was our "Hawaiian" vacation this year — and when we felt we were being too lazy, we hiked along several of the bay's bike paths. People-watching is one of the main resort activities and one prime spot is the Bayside Terrace Grille, which features both inside and outside dining overlooking the bay and one of the most heavily traveled bike paths. It's a great place for afternoon or early-evening refreshments while watching the sun go down over the bay. We also enjoyed dinner there, where we chose from a creative selection of entrees.

Mission Bay is adjacent to Pacific Beach where, in fact, we once lived. Known to locals as "PB," this area is especially popular with young people who love the easy access to a vibrant nightlife, trendy shops and numerous restaurants. Of course the main attraction is the beach, which stretches all the way from La Jolla on the north to the southern border of Mission Bay Park. The beach walk is the place in San Diego to watch the young, the beautiful, the odd and the extreme.

One of our favorite bike rides is to take the beach path all the way along Mission Beach, then along Pacific Beach and up the gradual incline into the luxury enclave of La Jolla. Your ride will take you along spectacular bluffs with walking trails down to gorgeous coves and rock formations where you can rest and soak in the views of the Pacific Ocean. Bike rentals are available in Pacific Beach as well as at most hotels including the Hilton.

As you start exploring Mission Bay and nearby Pacific Beach, a note of caution: bring the GPS, or at least a good map of the area. The roads in this part of San Diego are some of the most confusing you'll find, and it's not unlikely you'll end up heading to Mission Valley instead of Pacific Beach, or get sidetracked in some nearby shopping and industrial areas that may take you a little while to escape. It all has to do with the islands, peninsulas, hills and valleys that make the topography in this part of San Diego so interesting.

Mission Bay is an especially good destination if you have kids because you will be next door to SeaWorld, the famous park that attracts many visitors to San Diego. Each night we were at the Hilton, we could step out on our lanai and watch the fireworks emanating from the park. Hop in your car and it's a quick five-minute drive — if you don't get lost — and you're ready to spend the day watching whales, dolphins and many other sea creatures put on a show you won't soon forget.

In fact, Mission Bay is close to several San Diego area attractions. Old Town also is no more than a five-minute drive and it's there that you'll find the flavor of Mexico more than any other place in San Diego. Historic buildings and museums help tell the story of early settlers to the region and some of San Diego's best Mexican restaurants help you get a true taste of the culture. Some parts of Old Town are a little "touristy," but then many visitors love the opportunity to find knick-knacks and tee-shirts they can take back home as a reminder of their trip.

About six miles south of Mission Bay is the San Diego waterfront, where you can enjoy such attractions as Seaport Village, with its fascinating shops and excellent selection of restaurants. You'll stroll along the waterfront stopping to watch the occasional street performer, and there's always plenty to watch in San Diego Bay. After all, it is here that the U.S. military concentrates many of its biggest and newest warships, and you'll also enjoy watching a parade of smaller craft ranging from historic sailing ships to private yachts to sleek racing boats such as the Stars and Stripes, winner of the America's Cup..

Be sure to take in one of our favorite points of interest in all of San Diego ' the USS Midway, a floating museum and tribute to the people who have fought our wars on board this huge vessel. Guests are allowed almost free run of the ship and you'll see every nook and cranny as you climb up and down the decks. Adding a special touch to the experience is the personal contact you'll have with the many docents who give their own recollections of what it was like to live on this ship while it was at sea. Nearby is the Maritime Museum, also a treasure trove for anyone interested in things nautical.

The San Diego waterfront isn't Pearl Harbor, and Mission Bay isn't Waikiki — but they'll do quite nicely and will be much easier on a Californian's pocketbook.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: San Diego's Mission Bay is smack in the middle of the action for any San Diego visit. Go one direction and you are quickly in downtown, go another and you're quickly at Pacific Beach, go still another and you're quickly in La Jolla. SeaWorld's right next door..

WHAT: Mission Bay is a paradise for visitors who love water recreation of all types. Water skiing, jetskis, sailing, powerboats — all are for rent at the Hilton San Diego boat dock.

WHEN: Any time of the year. San Diego is famous for having the best and most consistent weather in the country — and it really does.

WHY: To take in San Diego's many historic and cultural attractions as well as to enjoy the sun and surf.

HOW: For more information on the Hilton San Diego Resort, phone 619-276-4010, or visit www.hilton.com. Click here for a list of other recommended San Diego lodgings.

Photos: (from top) Poolside at Hilton San Diego Resort; bike and walking path extends along Mission Bay shoreline; Joggers enjoy path in park adjacent to Hilton; Pacific Beach is People-watching Central.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS:  If you're planning a California getaway or vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

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