This holiday season, San Diego shines as one of the most festive destinations in the country. With a packed schedule of free festivals and events, this urban oasis offers up a grab bag of gifts for the entire family. Benign weather and abundant sunshine only add to the allure. Here are some highlights of the season:
Whale watching: Without a doubt, my favorite seasonal activity in San Diego combines whale watching with a hiking expedition at Torrey Pines State Reserve where the trails offer bird’s eye views of the Pacific Ocean. San Diego’s 70 mile coastline lies directly in the migration path of these gentle giants as they cruise south seeking warm waters before heading back north in the Spring. www.torreypine.org
Coronado: Packing his Christmas stocking full of gifts, Santa kicks off more festivities with an arrival via ferry at Coronado. With Santa’s arrival, the island hosts its annual festival parade and Open House. Revelers follow Santa to the island’s plaza where the jolly Mr. Claus lights the Coronado Christmas tree. From Coronado, celebrants can look across the water for a picture perfect view of the San Diego skyline; shop the local boutiques and toast the season at the historical Hotel Del Coronado. www.coronadovisitorcenter.com
Balboa Park: A walk in the park takes on a festive air with a myriad of walking trails; eye popping gardens and distinct architecture. Should a light shower kick up, you’ll find equally enjoyable alternatives indoors. Plan ahead for the two-day celebration “December Nights” where the park’s museums and cultural institutions open their doors free of charge. Carolers, light displays, theater and dance performances highlight the celebration. Music lovers will want to plan around the Spreckels Organ Pavilion’s free concerts every Sunday afternoon. Through December, Balboa Park’s famed Old Globe Theatre will host the theatre’s annual holiday production of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” www.balboapark.org
Family Fun: The California Center for the Arts in nearby Escondido brings the North Pole south with a Holiday Tree Lighting and Winter Wonderland Festival. Children can frolic in real snow, decorate their own Christmas cookies and create hand-made gifts for their friends. Come dusk, holiday lights will illuminate the festivities. www.artcenter.org. Choices are difficult but energetic families can also take in the North Park Toyland Parade scheduled for the same day in early December. There will be marching bands, vintage cars, floats and of course, a beauty queen or two. www.toylandparade.com
No seaside Christmas celebration would be complete without a lighted boat parade. The light reflecting waters of San Diego Bay will twinkle once again this year as more than 100 private boats bedecked with holiday lights form a moving and timeless tableau over two weekends in December www.sdparadeoflights.org.
New Years Eve: Kiss the new year in with another trek across the Coronado Bay Bridge to that Victorian masterpiece, the welcoming Hotel del Coronado. Since 1888, Coronado’s grand dame has garnered praise and renown for its festive holiday celebrations. All through the season, the hotel’s oceanfront Windsor Lawn will be transformed into a spectacular ice rink. At the end of an adventurous day, warm your toes and hearts with a glass of egg nog in “the Del’s” lofty lobby with its magnificent Christmas tree decorated to match this year’s theme, “Making Seasides Bright.” www.hoteldel.com.
From the migration of California gray whales to traditional holiday festivals and parades, this Southern California beach town packs a Christmas stocking stuffed with cheer and good will. For specific dates and travel information, visit www.sandiego.org.