By Jody Robinson
We recently planned a long weekend in San Diego – it doesn’t get much easier than loading everyone into the minivan for a road trip that literally lasts less than an hour. This eclectic, infinitely interesting coastal city is home to scores of museums and art galleries, restaurants, retail and world-renowned attractions.
With a 6 and 7-year-old in tow and only three days to pack in the fun, we decided to forgo arts and culture this time around and focus instead on relaxation and recreation so we were hoping it wasn’t too tall an order to arrange for accommodation that was on the water, amenity-rich with family-friendly recreational opportunities (boat, bike and watercraft rentals and a – preferably heated – swimming pool were on our wish list) and centrally located to the two top attractions on the kids’ lists – SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo.
In searching hotel options online, we selected the Kona Kai Resort & Spa (resortkonakai.com) and couldn’t have been more pleased to find that this welcoming waterfront property more than delivered on its promise of spectacular views and easy access to the local sights. Situated at the tip of Shelter Island, the Kona Kai Resort & Spa edges out into the azure waters of the San Diego Bay and boasts the only marina in the bay that can accommodate megayachts and other specialty marine vehicles (we didn’t have a need for that perk, but when we rented a small boat to tool around the bay, it made for some pretty amazing sights).
The boutique-style property – which enjoys a storied past dating back to the early 1950s when Hollywood celebrities put Shelter Island on the map as a popular retreat – recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation and emerged with an ambiance of casual island luxury defined by colorful, bright, island-themed rooms, a heated pool surrounded by private cabanas and a full bar, a private beach with fire pits (visit the lobby to pick up a s’mores package for a sweet treat under the stars) and access to an on-site facility called Action Sports Rentals that offers per hour rentals of powerboats, WaveRunners, kayaks, paddleboards, bicycles and pedal boats.
We rented a 19’ Boston Whaler and leisurely cruised the coastline before renting bicycles to propel ourselves around the picturesque environs. Our son had only recently mastered the two-wheeler sans training wheels so he was particularly thrilled to sport up and down Shelter Island Drive.
The 7,020-foot full-service luxury Spa Terre features six treatment rooms, two manicure stations and a “Zen Den” relaxation room. I left the little ones with Daddy one morning to “escape to the islands” via a Javanese Royal Treatment – which encompasses a lavish Balinese massage ritual that concludes in a relaxing soaking tub strewn with rose petals. I have been lucky enough to have had quite a few therapeutic massages in my life and was particularly impressed with massage therapist Moein Pishuryan. He was extremely personable, knowledgeable and happy to impart detailed information about the various techniques and benefits of massage therapy for this traveling journalist.
There’s so much to do and see at Kona Kai that we would have been perfectly content to stay on property but for the promise to visit SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, which, let’s face it, are must-see destinations for locals and visitors alike.
Wet and Wild
SeaWorld is literally a five-minute drive from the resort. Our kids were awestruck by the killer whales and dolphins. While the animal shows are what SeaWorld is most famous for, they are not all that the theme park has to offer: hop on the Manta roller coaster ride to dive, twist, and turn like a manta ray to get your adrenaline fix, and on a hot day, the Journey to Atlantis or Shipwreck Rapids water rides are a perfect way to cool down.
For animal enthusiasts, SeaWorld provides a number of interactive programs where you can meet, touch, and feed dolphins, penguins or beluga whales. Another face-to-face animal experience is the “Dine with Shamu” event: enjoy a delicious meal of sustainable seafood such as shrimp, salmon or cod, while sitting next to Shamu on the poolside patio. SeaWorld is a great place to take the kids, but be sure to bring hats and sunscreen, especially in summer weather. We found that the park was very clean, and the trainers there are knowledgeable and friendly – an all-round ideal educational attraction that is entertaining and fun. Check the SeaWorld website for the date you plan to visit, to check that the park is open that the shows you want to attend are available.
From the Kona Kai Resort & Spa, it’s also short drive to the San Diego Zoo. Strolling through this expansive attraction feels like walking through a large botanical garden. The famous giant panda exhibit is one of only four panda exhibits in the United States, and the San Diego Zoo is unique in its success at encouraging the pandas to breed. We were lucky the day we went in that all three pandas were out and active, but if you don’t manage to catch them in person, you can also find them online on the live Panda Cam.
The zoo has over 3,700 animals, and more than 600 species, including several endangered creatures like the California Condor. The California Condor is a critically endangered bird of prey, and is the largest land bird in the United States. These birds are rarely seen in the wild, and after condor numbers rapidly declined over the last 100 years, conservation efforts from organizations such as the San Diego Zoo helped to revitalize the condor population, and there are now over 400 birds living in the wild and captivity. The condor and panda are not the only unique animals at the zoo: check out the bonobo, African penguin, jaguar, clouded leopard, and the naked mole rat for an introduction to the animal kingdom.
Guided tours are available and for those who want to get up close and personal there are interactive exhibits and behind-the-scenes tours with the pandas, koalas, polar bears and elephants. Many of the exhibits are open-air, cage-less exhibits: a pioneering step that was taken by San Diego Zoo in 1922 to better facilitate the good treatment of zoo animals. The San Diego Zoo is open every day of the year (including holidays) from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.
San Diego has a huge variety of restaurants to choose from: Thai, Lebanese, Indian, Mexican, and even Eritrean. If you don’t feel like venturing off property, Kona Kai Resort’s Vessel Restaurant is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the bar open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant offers live music on the weekends, and on our first night there they were playing some wonderful blues tunes. With a beautiful view over the marina, you can enjoy their delicious food and take advantage of the restaurant cocktail bar in style.
For a funky rock n’ roll dining experience, the Corvette Diner was entirely too much fun – with a classic diner ambiance and servers resplendent in 1950s style, it felt like a true slice of Americana as we ate burgers and salads. The retro atmosphere and music is upbeat and energetic – the theme is carried over to their menu, with food items named after celebrity icons and pop culture from the 50s and 60s. It’s not just the theme that is fun, however: when we walked in the door we were greeted by an outgoing and welcoming server, and the staff really care about making the experience enjoyable for kids. And if there’s a wait for a table, not a problem. An adjacent arcade complete with from modern era touchscreen video games and classic favorites (pinball, skee ball) keep the kiddos (and their parents) plenty entertained.
With world-famous attractions, so many family-friendly dining options and the option of an all-inclusive accommodation such as what we experienced at the Kona Kai Resort & Spa, what started out as a weekend getaway ended up fun-filled trip we hope to turn into an annual tradition.