Carlsbad: San Diego Fun Without the Crowds

By: Cary Ordway

While Carlsbad will never be a bigger destination than San Diego -- quite possibly the most popular beach city in California -- it can be a great place to stay while you're visiting the area.

It's a trade-off, of course. Come to Carlsbad and you eliminate the traffic and congestion of the city, the freeways, the constant "be-on-alert" driving and hassle you always experience in a big city. Of course you do eliminate the Gaslamp District, the Zoo, Oldtown and all the sites San Diego is known for.

The answer for many people now is to enjoy the best of both. Base your operations in Carlsbad ' which all by itself offers a host of activities -- and then take the short drive down Interstate 5 when you're ready to spend the day and/or evening enjoying the city.

About 4,000 hotel rooms have been built in Carlsbad ' second only to San Diego in San Diego County ' and a tourism infrastructure has sprouted right along with the accommodations. In recent years, the city has added the Legoland theme park, major-league upscale shopping at Carlsbad Company Stores, the Museum of Making Music and top resorts such as the Four Seasons Aviara and the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel.

Oh, and let's not forget the water: "We've got a great little North Coast up here," says Frankie Laney, public relations director for the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The San Diego North Coast is probably the premiere destination in San Diego County."

An endless blue horizon awaits the visitor to Carlsbad ' a stretch of beach that allows you to walk unobstructed from Oceanside to well south of Carlsbad. It's not the heavy-duty surfing scene of Orange County, but there are plenty of surfers, families and young people enjoying the Carlsbad sunshine on just about any given day.

Years ago when we lived in Seattle, our realtor gave us our first clue that Carlsbad was up-and-coming. When she learned we were moving to California she happily recounted the previous month she had spent in a beach house in Carlsbad ' a place we had never even heard about. She told us to be on the lookout for a good buy on a beach house because, she said, she was planning on coming to Carlsbad to stay.

Well, as most real estate buyers would suspect, that "good buy" proved pretty hard to find in the real estate run-up of the past few years, and our realtor friend now must be content just to visit Carlsbad. But content she is ' which also describes the feeling most people get when they plan a weekend or vacation in Carlsbad.

Our recent stay began with a check-in at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel, a combination hotel and timeshare property that is situated on a bluff overlooking the city of Carlsbad and its coastline. During spring months there are massive flower fields on the hillside just below the resort, and the palette of colors are simply awe-inspiring.

But the hotel's setting is gorgeous any time of the year and when it was built, the architects perched the Olympic-sized pool on a ledge with views far down the coastline. Many rooms and condo units at the hotel offer spectacular views because the hotel's property is a higher elevation than most in the Carlsbad area.

Our room was spacious, airy and decorated in pastels to complement the semi-tropical weather that is almost always sunny with moderate temperatures and breezes. Those familiar with Southern California's coastal weather will not be surprised to see some morning overcast during spring months ' the dreaded marine layer ' but the weather almost always clears in the afternoon.

If you have kids, they'll no doubt notice that the Grand Palisades has Legoland right next door. This major theme park ' all designed around the lego theme ' includes 50 rides and attractions and was developed about the same time as the Palisades. While not quite on the grand scale of Disneyland, the park is just as much of a hit with its target audience of 3-to-13 year-olds.

The hotel's waterpark activity center also is a draw for kids, making the Grand Pacific Palisades a good choice for families. The hotel is about a mile from the beach but the hotel's free shuttle service will take you to and from the beach or downtown Carlsbad anytime you want to go.

It is, in fact, the quaint downtown area and the nearby beach that make Carlsbad what it is. Along State Street you'll find numerous one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, and proprietors who know that tourists are their bread and butter. Everything in this area is within walking distance, including a wide beach that offers good swimming and even better people-watching. Expensive vacation homes are set back from the beach and, further down the coast you come upon a scenic walkways that are well used by locals and tourists whose exercise routines become almost spiritual when performed in this incredibly scenic environment.

Late in the day, State Street and downtown come alive as visitors stroll through the area in search of a restaurant or outdoor caf?A vibrant music scene has emerged in recent years, with outdoor bands at the Coyote Caf?nd several other bars offering live music. On any given night downtown Carlsbad attracts many of the young people who might otherwise go to San Diego's Gaslamp District except for the distance.

Up for something unusual? At Carlsbad's McClelland-Palomar Airport there is a company that offers rides in various types of vintage aircraft, including a 1927 Travel Air biplane that was once used to deliver mail.

Jeff Grelson is among several ex-military pilots flying the company's vintage aircraft, which included our barnstorming biplane. The airplane is configured to allow two people to ride in the front seat with the pilot in the rear seat.

While we didn't get the goggles you always see on the Red Baron, we did get soft leather helmets that covered our hair and ears, and we were in communication with the Colonel through headphones. Soon we were taxiing to the runway, then taking off just behind one of the many corporate jets that fly into Carlsbad.

Up, up and away we went ' slightly bumpy at first as we climbed out above the air pockets close to the ground. A few seconds later we were in smooth air, maybe 1,500 feet above the Carlsbad beach cruising a smooth and steady 80 knots toward the south. The views up and down the coastline were spectacular, yet we felt we could swoop down and land very quickly on the beach at anytime. In a few minutes we were turning inland to view the opulent estates of Rancho Santa Fe.

Taking a ride in a biplane is a little like riding a motorcycle -- just a little higher off the ground. The windshield keeps most of the air off your face, yet the wind noise reminds you how fast you are going. The ride can be as thrilling as you choose ' ours was smooth and level, but Jeff couldn't resist throwing us a quick turn or sudden drop every once in awhile just for fun. And it really was fun ' next time we think we'll opt for the thrill ride version.

Just like the biplane adventure, Carlsbad offers something for everyone. It can be active, or just as quiet as you want. It's plain to see that San Diego's little sister is all grown up.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Carlsbad is a half-hour drive north of San Diego on Interstate 5 and is one of several beach communities in North San Diego County.

WHAT: Carlsbad is a San Diego "bedroom community" that has grown up to be a tourist destination in its own right. It has several attractions including great beaches, Legoland, upscale shopping, outdoor restaurants and unusual treats like the Museum of Making Music, where you can learn how musical instruments were developed and how they create the sounds they do.

WHEN: Any time of the year. Spring and fall shoulder seasons are a little quieter, with fewer visitors.

WHY: Downtown Carlsbad and the nearby beachfront have a character all their own. And, of course, it's very close to those famous attractions in San Diego.

HOW: The Carlsbad Convention and Visitor Bureau can be reached at 800-227-5722 or www.visitcarlsbad.com.

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