Twelve-year-old Elliot craves rainy days, but that's because sunshine and balmy breezes are the year-round norm in San Diego.
Fran Gealer
| Credit: Fran Gealer

When he's not out Boogie boarding just south of Tourmaline Surfing Park, Elliot's biking along the Mission Beach boardwalk, or hiking and camping in the Laguna Mountains (he's a Tenderfoot scout). He has a 16-year-old brother, Michael, who is his computer-game guru, and two Labrador retrievers, Pearl and Tootsie. They can get pretty wild—but then, wild animals are a San Diego specialty. Just ask Elliot.

My favorite place around here is the San Diego Zoo [2920 Zoo Dr.; 619/231-1515]. The pandas and their baby, Hua Mei, are what everyone wants to see, but I think the spotted otters are even cuter. The zoo also runs the San Diego Wild Animal Park [15500 San Pasqual Rd., Escondido; 760/747-8702], about 45 minutes north of downtown. When you're there it really feels like you're on safari in Africa. It's open till 10 most nights in summer, and after dark is the most thrilling time to go. If you love whales and dolphins, you have to go to SeaWorld [500 SeaWorld Dr.; 619/226-3901]. Shamu, the killer whale, is the star of the park. Warning: Sit in the front row and you'll get soaked. The newest theme park around here is Legoland California [Legoland Dr., Carlsbad; 760/918-5346]. A lot of the rides are aimed at kids under 10, but in the Mindstorms area you can program Lego robots. And even my grandmother was blown away by Miniland, where American cities have been re-created out of millions and millions of Lego blocks.

San Diego has two big bodies of water, San Diego Bay and Mission Bay—both worth checking out. The best way to see the first is to take the 15-minute ferry ride to Coronado [1050 N. Harbor Dr.; 619/234-4111], the peninsula across from downtown. Rent wheels from Bikes & Beyond [1201 First St.; 619/435-7180] at the Coronado ferry landing, and hit the coolest bike path in San Diego County, which runs south along the bay. When the path ends, continue on the street to the Hotel del Coronado [1500 Orange Ave.; 800/468-3533 or 619/435-6611; family of four from $235], a famous old resort with a huge beach and two pools—I'd love to stay there. Back at the ferry landing, eat on the patio at Peohe's [1201 First St.; 619/437-4474], which is known for its seafood (I like the fries); downtown San Diego looks awesome across the water. After you take the ferry back, grab a bicycle cab to Seaport Village [849 W. Harbor Dr.; 619/235-4014], an outdoor waterside shopping center with a merry-go-round. Key Seaport Village stops: Company of Nuts & Candy [619/234-7688], the Seaport Cookie Co. [619/231-8787], and the Southpaw Shoppe [in the back of the Magic Shop; 619/239-1731], for lefties like me.

Mission Bay, between La Jolla and downtown San Diego, is in the middle of a gigantic park where you can water-ski, kayak, sail, swim, roller-blade, and bike. On an island in the center of the bay is the giant Paradise Point Resort & Spa [1404 Vacation Rd.; 800/344-2626 or 858/274-4630; rentals from $250], where families can stay in bungalows. Back on the mainland, a good place to rent bikes, skates, and Boogie boards is the Mission Beach Club [704 Ventura Place; 858/488-5050], in a funky oceanfront building that looks like a castle. Across the street is Belmont Park [3190 Mission Blvd.; 858/488-1549], an amusement park where the Giant Dipper roller coaster will jolt your bones. When I was younger I was crazy about Pirate's Cove [3106 Mission Blvd.; 858/539-7474], an indoor climbing and sliding and tunneling (and noisy) place.

La Jolla Cove, about 25 minutes north of downtown, is great for swimming and snorkeling. At low tide, you can find anemones, hermit crabs, and other creatures in rocky pools right along the shore. And from there, you can walk to the Children's Pool [at the southwestern end of Ellen Browning Scripps Park], a beach that's been taken over by a colony of harbor seals. A few blocks away is the White Rabbit [7755 Girard Ave.; 858/454-3518], a really nice children's bookstore where I've heard readings by authors like Bill Nye the Science Guy, James Howe, and Brian Jacques. In La Jolla, you have to try the fish tacos at Wahoo's [639 Pearl St.; 858/459-0027]. They're considered the ultimate San Diego food; me, I stick to the fries.

Another huge park you shouldn't miss is Balboa Park, about two miles north of downtown. It's a great picnic spot—get your supplies at Bread & Cie [350 University Ave.; 619/683-9322], which makes the best bread in all of southern California. The Prado, the walkway that runs through the park, has nine museums lined up along it, including the Natural History Museum [1788 El Prado; 619/232-3821], which recently more than doubled in size. Glowing minerals, model trains, a moon rock, old skateboards, the world's biggest outdoor organ—you can find them all in Balboa Park. And the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center [1875 El Prado; 619/238-1233] has an Omnimax theater. So head there if you get lucky and find yourself in San Diego on a rainy day.