A fearless seagull holds its post on the pier at Oceanside, California. Credit: Eric Jay Toll.
Carlsbad, California is a quiet beach resort town located north of San Diego and away from the crowds. Home to Legoland, it offers much more as a base for a family trip to the golden California Coast.
The waves are lapping quietly against the beach as we ready to push our kayaks into a salt water lagoon. The water is mirror smooth, and it reflects the clouds building against a blue California sky.
It’s mid-morning and a paddle past the buoys away from host Carlsbad Lagoon, and the only sound is the rhythm of paddles dipping into Agua Hedionda Lagoon, Carlsbad, California, and a distant buzz from water skiers on the far side. Power and paddle boats are widely separated on the lagoon.
Cape Rey Carlsbad as the base resort
Carlsbad is a quiet town that grew up and down the coast from its quaint downtown area. The closely-packed homes bely the spacious resorts nestled along the coast. Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort, hosted our stay on the San Diego-close south side of Carlsbad fronting the Pacific Ocean.
The newly remodeled rooms were spacious and comfortable. Our room looked past the South Carlsbad Beach State Park, an ocean-front campground, and into the pounding surf. Facing into the salted air on the comfortable deck chairs, we let the hours of travel melt away and took in the music from the waves and the freshness in the air.
Carlsbad is a lesser-known California coastal destination. Although other small coastal cities have more recognizable names, many don’t realize the resort town is home to Legoland California, the original U.S. amusement park. Although not on our itinerary this trip, it’s a central focus for families heading to the area.
The Cape Rey Carlsbad is located just 45 minutes north of San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, a short drive from Interstate 5, but far from the highway noise and bustle. Its central location makes it easy to hop to the many activities located in Carlsbad and the city of Oceanside to the north. Oceanside is the civilian gateway to the Camp Pendleton Marines military base on its north boundary.
Good eating is a good part of any trip
We were hitting some of the family surprises in two coastal towns. For example, we started the day at breakfast in the revamped Chandler’s restaurant at the Cape Rey. Our hosted breakfast was delightfully tasty from a menu of healthy and filling choices.
I’m a Belgian waffle fan, and most restaurants consider any deep pocket waffle to be “Belgian.” The difference is crispness, which comes from making Belgian waffles from yeast and butter rather than baking soda and shortening or oil. Although not as crisp as made-at-home, Chandler’s had the best Belgian waffle I’ve eaten outside the originals in New York City and the ones from my kitchen. If I were a true food critic, this waffle would rate 4 stars out of five. I’ll be back for more.
How to spend one day in Carlsbad and Oceanside
Next for our day was Museum of Making Music (5790 Armada Dr., Carlsbad), so close to Legoland, it’s worth the stop before heading to the theme park. Co-located with sponsor National Association of Music Merchants, the free admission museum features a progression of modern music and recording advances. There is some interactivity to play instruments, but the most fun is in seeing the full stage equipment used by many top names in music, including The Beatles, The Doors and many others.
Next on the list was the California Surf Museum (312 Pier View Way, Oceanside), just 20 minutes away from the music museum. Although compact in size, it is chock filled with surf boards representing the history of southern California and the world of wave riding. The photographer of some of the waves had me standing in disbelief as to how the shots inside 40-foot curling waves could have been captured. I could hear the Beach Boys singing “Surfer Girl” in my mind.
An Oceanside afternoon
Getting the endless summer experience in the surf museum is about an hour’s diversion and the sound of Oceanside’s nearby pound surf drew us to the pier to watch wetsuit-clad surfers waiting for the next big wave off the beach. The draw that day was that the live surf-monitoring system in the Surf Museum showed big breakers heading for the beach. By the time we made the ten-minute walk, the swell we had seen alerted on the monitor in the museum was beginning to build into surfer-quality waves.
All that walking worked up an appetite, and from its name alone, we were drawn into Hello Betty Fish House (211 Mission Ave., Oceanside) for lunch. The wide variety of fresh fish tacos captured my taste buds from the moment I started reading the menu, I went for the smoked fish tacos and my companion picked the mahi-mahi. Both were extraordinary. The restaurant has an ocean-view rooftop deck, but wind and cold kept us in the main eatery downstairs.
After lunch, we were heading on to the high seas. Oceanside Adventures powered 50-foot catamaran was taking us to the whale-watching lanes off the Carlsbad coast. Schedules and tours vary depending on weather and likelihood of spotting the various whale pods off the coast. The San Diego sea lanes are filled with north- and south-bound whales migrating with the seasons between northern California and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. There is something magnetic about sharing close proximity and the connection with the largest mammals on earth.
Elegant dinner dinning
Dinner was at 333 Pacific restaurant (333 Pacific St., Oceanside). Our hosted meal was elegant and excellent. We sat on the street-side enclosed porch, which was blessedly heated on what turned into a rather chilly evening. The menu changes seasonally, so the dishes we ordered may not be on the menu at other times of the year. I had a seared tuna on a Thai-pepper-spiced setting of a miso vinaigrette, noodles, sprouts and mushrooms. My friend ordered a vegetarian special that was heavily endowed with firm, tasty mushrooms, asparagus and a cream sauce. Desserts were rich, a delightful capper to the meal and the reason for a post-dinner walk to the end of Oceanside’s pier.
Cape Rey poolside
Back at the Cape Rey, the cool nighttime air and long day walking meant only one item was left on the day’s agenda, a soak in the hot tub adjoining the resort’s deck and pool. We talked with a group of young men in town for a sporting event, but soaking off a day at Legoland. The hot tub was spacious for the seven of us without leaving a feeling of being crowded in personal space.
The Cape’s pool deck is a summer-afternoon center of excellence. The pool has a gentle walk-in beach-like incline to the shallow area, but enough size and depth for adult swimming. On the deck, lounge chairs circle the pool, and cabanas can be rented to set off a more private family space. The resort has a full bar and barbecue at its pool.
More food and more fun
Before the weekend was over, we also enjoyed some other amazing meals. Another breakfast was at Café Topes (3091 Roosevelt St., Carlsbad), which several locals said was the best place in town for breakfast. It was extraordinary. A small, locally-owned business, Café Topes had the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever tasted. I’m sure you can gain a pound looking at them, so you may as well eat. Them my companion said the Benedict she ordered was one of the best she had eaten. I hit the griddle for the croissant French toast. Delicious.
Afterwards, we walked through the downtown area of Carlsbad, which is lined with shops enticing the visitor – galleries, collectables and the inevitable t-shirt shop – it is a thriving small town downtown filled with shops for local residents as well. There is a wide variety of places to eat.
Chandler’s hosted us for another dinner at Cape Rey, and it was a meal of independent restaurant quality. There is a tendency for hotel restaurants to try being all-things, but Chandler’s was in a class with 333 Pacific and other fine-dining eateries. Everything on its seasonal menu looked delicious, but on the coast, I’m eating seafood. The Alaskan salmon was unique prepared with a glaze that added brightly to its flavors. My companion had the crab legs, and enjoyed every bite. The meal was filling, and we did not have dessert that night.
The resort also prepared a picnic for us, complete with a collectible hamper that we carried across the street from Cape Rey to the state park for a beach picnic. We had vegetarian and ham sandwiches, salads, and with a long drive ahead, passed on the offered bottle of chilled wine.
Mission at San Juan Capistrano
While we spent most of our time in the Carlsbad and Oceanside areas, we did take an afternoon to drive north to San Juan Capistrano to look at the historic mission, one of the oldest in California, and part of El Camino Real, the gold road from Mexico north to San Francisco. The mission is famous to its flock of swallows that return on the same day, March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, every year. They depart on October 23, Day of San Juan. The birds nest in the ruins of the original mission church, destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.
Family fun in Carlsbad, CA
Carlsbad serves up beach fun
Portions of the trip to Carlsbad, identified as “hosted,” were prepaid by the identified business. Reviews by this writer are not influenced by the hosting company and there is no pre-review by those businesses hosting a trip. My policy is to report the experience as it occurred in real time.