A Three-Generation Vacation in Carlsbad, California

The author's father, daughter and son on the pier at Oceanside - photos by Cathie Arquilla
The author’s father, daughter and son on the pier at Oceanside – photos by Cathie Arquilla

By Cathie Arquilla

Since I’m a New York transplant with roots in California, my kids have spent several summers visiting their grandparents in Orange County. For midwinter break I wanted my kids to have a vacation with my parents that would be easy for my parents and fun for my kids.

To suit everyone’s tastes, and still be close to my parent’s home in Irvine, we chose a beach town in North San Diego County – Carlsbad. A week together exploring Carlsbad would give my parents and my kids some shared memories.

After contacting Frankie Laney of the Carlsbad Visitors Bureau, I had a good idea of what we all might enjoy in the home of Legoland, and most recently, the Flying Tomato (Shaun White, the 2006 Olympic snowboarding gold medalist).

As an RCI timeshare owner, my mother had arranged for us to stay at Grand Pacific Palisades. This hotel and timeshare resort with “Wow” views of the Pacific Ocean is situated just above the The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch.

The resort covers more than 12 acres and has an Olympic size pool, a family pool with adjoining children’s waterpark, and a fitness center. There are 161 vacation villas (timeshares) in addition to a 90-room hotel.

The Flower Fields, (760-431-0352) just below the resort, create a spectacular display of red, yellow, orange and pink flowers stretching toward the Pacific Ocean. The display covers about a mile of hillside and has trumpeted the arrival of spring for the past sixty years.

Carlsbad Village

A charming beachside village, Carlsbad is an excellent place to stop, sit, stroll and relax. We walked by several surf shops, cafés, and boutiques. We passed a Star Bucks, a yoga studio, and some pizza places and we visited a small winery.

Below is a list of places we explored. There are also additional suggestions in the comprehensive Carlsbad California Visitors Guide that I referenced frequently. Go to visitcarlsbad.com to request a guide.

The author with her mother and son
The author with her mother and son at the Carrillo

Jay’s Gourmet Carlsbad by The Sea
(760) 720-9688

Pizza Port
571 Carlsbad Village Drive
(760) 720-7007)
Coyote Bar & Grill
(760) 729-4695, 300 Carlsbad Village Drive Perusing the menu made my mouth water. This southwestern spot deserves a try. Boasting the ‘largest selection of tequilas in the Western Hemisphere’ and with reference to Duds & Doodads on the menu, this restaurant with its snappy decor looked like a lot of fun.

Witch Creek Winery
(760) 720-7499, 2906 Carlsbad Boulevard

We witnessed one couple taking their time tasting several of the wines available. My son James was beginning to whine in this winery, however, so I quickly tasted and purchased a 2004 Chardonnay. Interesting, because I don’t usually like chardonnay. Besides tasting, the winery hosts events and has weekend trips. Check it out.

Isabella is swallowed by a Lego lion.
Isabella is swallowed by a Lego lion.

Fidel’s Norte
(760) 729-0903 3003, Carlsbad Boulevard

This restaurant is owned and operated by a family whose patriarch, Fidel, started the business in 1960 as a barber. While he cut hair his wife Martha served up tacos, enchiladas, beans and beer! The popularity of Fidel’s grew and eventually Fidel, with his wife, six sons and two daughters, converted their home into a flourishing and excellent Mexican restaurant (now with two locations).

As a teenager I had been to Fidel’s Little Mexico in Solana Beach several times and it was a special treat to take my children to Fidel’s Norte during this vacation. The mission style decor, and regional cuisine make dining here an authentic experience of old (and new) Southern California.

Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort
(760) 434-7020

The Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort is situated in the heart of Carlsbad Village with the Pacific Ocean at its back door. This intimate hotel has 62 rooms and 132 two-bedroom condominiums many with private spas. An easy walk to boutiques, cafes and the beach, this resort would be an excellent pick for adults who may not want to get back in their cars once they’ve arrived in Carlsbad.


A ten-minute drive on Highway 101 brought us from Carlsbad to Oceanside. Neighboring Camp Pendleton Marine Base, once a honky-tonk beach town, Oceanside, also boasts the longest wooden pier on the West Coast. The Pier represented a lengthy walk for my 83-year-old Dad and my 6-year-old son, so they embarked on a seek-and-explore mission of the fisherman’s catch that lined the edge of the pier in big white containers. The surfers, paddling, riding, falling, paddling, riding, falling, also mesmerized my son, James.

Surfers at Oceanside
Surfers at Oceanside

The girls, my mother, 79, my daughter, 9 and me, 45, headed out to the pier’s end. The wind and chill was accompanied by some complaining from us, but we did make it to the end. Here, my daughter, Isabella and I felt a little like the heroine of the movie “Titanic” when she leans out over the bow of that great ship arms spread – with the wind in our face, the big blue choppy waters below, the great horizon beyond. We didn’t even miss the swelling background music. Returning to the shore, with the wind at our backs was more pleasant, offering a nice view of the coastline both north and south.

The Dairy Queen was certainly not the adult’s first choice for a lunchtime venue, but the Pier wasn’t the kid’s first choice of an activity, soooo we adults acquiesced and ended up sitting down for corn dogs and hot fudge sundaes, which seemed fitting for beachside dining.

While enjoying her sundae, my Mom commented that she remembered Dairy Queen (now the DQ) as a teen, but that back then they did not have soft ice-cream, an invention, she estimates, of the last 30 years or so. She also told us of her own mother working in an ice cream parlor to fund my mother’s college tuition. I knew this story, but my kids didn’t, and I was happy for them hear it firsthand. This type of spontaneous story telling makes a “generational” holiday priceless.

A Legoland elephant
A Legoland elephant

Legoland, California

When it comes to managing a day at an amusement park, my sister Amy is a natural. I’ve witnessed her negotiate Disneyland with stealth like prowess, so I was more than happy to have her join our party at Legoland. However, surprisingly, her skills weren’t necessary at this park. Legoland is easy to manage, beautifully manicured and if it can be said about an amusement park, relaxing. The noisy piped-in music, garish graphics and arcade type backdrop was, thankfully, missing.

Our seniors were able to sit down plenty. They marveled at Lego sculptures, miniature cities, monuments and “wonders of the world.” Situated on a hillside, the park is designed in a big loop with “Miniland USA” at its center. In my opinion, the park is ideal for children ages 3 to 10, offering all kinds of play areas, The Hideaways, Water Works and DUPLO play, to name a few.

Situated in Knight’s Kingdom, The Dragon Ride was our favorite. The (passenger) Dragon meanders thought a medieval castle full of lego sculptures along that theme, exits beneath a fire-breathing dragon, and finishes with a wonderfully smooth, tame, rollercoaster ride.

For lunch we chose the Fun Town Market, which is billed as a “market-style restaurant where your meal is prepared fresh in front of your eyes.” Here, there was something for everybody. The Knight’s Table Barbecue also seemed like a good pick and looking back I wish I had tried the Granny’s Apple Fries, Legoland’s signature treat.

Legoland zebras

After lunch my parents headed back to the timeshare conveniently located across the street. We made our way though the rest of the park in the remaining four hours, experiencing most of the attractions along the way. You really can do this park in one day. However a two-day pass will enable you to revisit some favorite play areas and rides and will also leave you time to see some shows. On our second day a very talented ventriloquist with talking birds blew us away.

Lego stores are scattered throughout the park, but they are so seamlessly incorporated into the overall park experience that it is in no way obnoxious.

I was actually excited to make my Lego purchases at the end of the day. James was delighted. But as a nine-year-old girl, Isabella’s consumer niche was not satisfied. She declared Clickets as well as the Bellville Lego toys too babyish. Later she chose a Carlsbad “Life Guard” sweatshirt, which we purchased in Carlsbad Village. As of this writing, she wears it daily.
Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic State Park

Outfitted in denim, we were headed for Leo Carrillo ranch. I sold the outing as a nature walk with warnings of rattlers and cacti. James was sufficiently inspired and I was looking forward to exploring an authentic California hacienda. I had pictured myself in a Western movie in the middle of nowhere, but the ranch was encroached upon by housing developments in every direction. Yet, once we started walking around, the spirit of old California was palpable.

The author with her mother and son at the Camillo Ranch
The author with her mother and son at the
Carrillo Ranch

Leo Carrillo was known for playing the role of Pancho in the 1950’s television series, The Cisco Kid. He purchased the ranch in 1937 and embarked on a significant renovation with the help of Mexican artisan Cruz Mendoza. Complete with cabana, pool and cantina Leo hosted many fabulous fiestas for his Hollywood friends.

Guided tours of the ranch are Saturdays and Sundays and it is during these tours that visitors have access to the historic buildings. Walking the immediate trails takes about an hour and a half. The trails, while even and solid, are dirt, and represent some hazard for seniors.

I was particularly taken with the varied plant life. The juxtaposition of the old hacienda architecture with its surrounding environs, gave one a very solid impression of the old versus the new in Southern California. The many peacocks that roam the place amused my kids and as usual the California weather cooperated. It was a nice outing and easily done.

Poolside at Grand Pacific Palisades

It was time for some serious pool action. This proved somewhat challenging for us adults, who where monitoring offspring willing to brave the 60-degree weather. The pool temperature was 80 degrees. Most managed by bundling up in chaise lounges. I headed straight for the jacuzzi, which offered a decent vantage point for observing my kids in the pool.

Eventually my mom joined Isabella and me by the jacuzzi where she told us another childhood story. It was 1933 and my mother, then 7 and with her coat tagged, boarded a train that went from Cleveland to Chicago to meet her aunt and uncle for the first time. She made the journey alone.

Peacocks at the Camillo Ranch
Peacocks at the Carrillo Ranch

We asked her if she was scared or lonely and she said she was mostly excited–there was a steward checking on her and the whole experience seemed a great adventure. Isabella soon after asked me when she could fly to Grandma’s house alone… We’ll see.
Scalini’s for My Dad, Karl Strauss for My Son

My Dad wanted to revisit Scalini’s an Italian restaurant he used to frequent in Solona Beach days. We asked James if he could behave himself at a fancy restaurant, and he assured us he could not! Enter plan B. Instead of all dining together as I had hoped, we split up.

During a vacation like this, it’s important to have the flexibility to switch gears and create a new scenario where more personalities are satisfied. My parents took their granddaughter out for a lovely dinner. She tasted her first crème brulee and my Dad relished a specially prepared pasta dish he had been craving for days.

The hacienda gate at the Camillo Ranch
The hacienda gate at the Carrillo Ranch

Scalini Restaurant
3790 Via De La Valle, Del Mar (858) 259-1494

James and I ended up at Karl Strauss Brewing Company. Any mother knows that kids crave one-on-one time. James was pysched! We tried several delicious appetizers and, if I do say so myself, my six-year-old date was very engaging! Our waiter graciously returned James’s Firecracker Sirloin Strips to recreate the dish with, “No green stuff” (cilantro). I had the Ahi Poke starter and the Chicken Mango salad, both outstanding.

Karl Strauss Brewing Company
5801 Armada Drive (760) 431-2739

Museum of Making Music

The Museum of Making Music is worthy of applause. Popular music from the late 1800 to the present day is the museum’s focus. Interactive panels let you hear the music of a particular era while the accompanying gallery displays the instruments of the time. The exhibits are tastefully done and the museum’s subject matter is executed with aplomb.

Our guide, B. J. Morgan, was a rich source of quirky information that I found captivating. Did you know the saying, “pulling out all the stops” refers to pulling open all the stops on a pipe organ? Organs of the early 1900’s were only sold to customers deemed worthy of taking care of them. Ukuleles, originally a Spanish instrument, achieved their popularity in the US through Hawaiian music.

During World War II companies such as Baldwin Pianos diversified to make wooden airplane wings, toasters and waffle irons. With advent of television the music products industries blossomed in every direction. Fans could now own the same instruments as their favorite folk singer or rock star.

Appropriately, the Museum of Making Music has a room for making music (or noise, depending on your perspective). My children especially enjoyed the DJ station and the electric drum set and guitars.

The Old and the Young

Sandwiched between generations, vacationing with parents and kids can be hair-raising. Scenarios like worrying about your Dad falling while your son is running into traffic aren’t exactly stress-free. But it is worth it. Traveling together creates priceless memories that build lasting ties. Both generations share their culture and their stories. It’s important that plans stay flexible, and that kids and parents alike know what is expected of them. Expectations shouldn’t be too high. It is really just about spending time together and sharing experiences.

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