rhinoWhen I was a kid, weekends spent barefoot with a cotton candy were OK by me. Thirty years later, my two sons says a holiday isn’t a holiday unless we take in a rhino and a rollercoaster.

Thankfully, in a south-western corner of California, laid-back San Diego answers this demand. Its near-idyllic climate, 70 miles of pristine Pacific Ocean beaches and award-winning, child-friendly attractions promise something for every type of family.

San Diego is California’s second-largest city and little sister to glitzy Los Angeles. Naturally beautiful, but unaware of it, San Diego hasn’t lost its perspective or its humility. So the locals are friendlier, the food fresher, the beaches emptier. And the rhinos more plentiful.

In the wild

The whales are unmistakable, their backs shining like vast, upended surfboards as they arch effortlessly and tantalisingly close to shore. From mid-December to April, you can take a boat trip that traces part of the 7,000-mile migration route of these graceful California Gray Whales with San Diego Harbor Excursions, 850 Coast Boulevard (00 1 619 221 8884; sandiego.gov).

San Diego Zoo (00 1 619 234 3153; sandiegozoo.org) has not one, but two parks in the San Diego area. The zoo in Balboa Park is considered one of the best in the world, mainly for its commitment to animal conservation.

North of the city, in Escondido, the Wild Animal Park (00 1 760 747 8702) covers 1,800 acres, allowing animals room to mingle and roam. The Cheetah Run Safari puts you just feet away from a cheetah as it races after a mechanical lure.

Everyone should visit Sea World (00 1 800 380 3203; seaworld.com) at least once, if only to see the amazing feats dished out by Shamu the killer whale. Entering the six million gallon tank, the colossal killer whales soar, twirl, plunge and crash like modern-day gladiators.

starfishOn the beach

Surfers ride the turbulent waters here with enviable flair. Crystal Pier marks the centre of the very popular Pacific Beach. A boardwalk parallels the entire beach, perfect for cycling, scootering or in-line skating.

Tourmaline Surfing Park, the northernmost beach, has parking, year-round lifeguard, and shower facilities but no boardwalk. It is less crowded and so ideal for younger families.

Thrills and spills

For old-fashioned amusement park entertainment, try Belmont Park (00 1 858 228 9283; belmontpark.com) at the Mission Beach boardwalk. It features two restored landmarks: the Plunge and the Giant Dipper.

The Plunge, which opened in 1925, is the largest indoor swimming pool in Southern California. The Giant Dipper, a vintage wooden rollercoaster, has been restored, offering a new generation of white-knuckle devotees the ride of their lives over its 2,600 feet of tracks.

Get cultured

The hub of the city is the 1,200-acre Balboa Park (001 619 239 0512; balboapark.org). It was created in the latter half of the 19th century to upgrade the city’s dusty saloon and outlaw image. Nowadays its traffic-free promenades are stuffed with strollers, cyclists and street artists. Of its 18 museums, chief draws include the Fleet Science Center (00 1 619 238 1233; rhfleet.org), the Natural History Museum (001 619 232 3821; sdnhm.org) and San Diego Automotive Museum (00 1 619 297 3258; sandiegohistory.org).

Just north of Downtown and Mission Valley lies Old Town. It boasts great eateries, antique stores, and the striking, mission-style Junipero Serra Museum (00 1 619 297 3258; sandiegohistory.org).